the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Flickr

THE SNARE OF CHEAP REWARD

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOCIAL NETWORKS HAVE PRODUCED TWO PROFOUND EFFECTS in the world of photography, one essentially beneficial, one essentially harmful. Certainly the ease with which photographs are instantly publishable on every conceivable distribution platform is a boon to communication and art. In one sense, every photographer has the potential to have his/her work seen: the world is now a gallery. However, that very same effortless global forum has the potential to flood the world with images that are ill-conceived, trite, lazy, or just plain banal. The world’s shooters are fully woke, for sure, but the world’s editors have joined the ranks of Rip Van Winkle.

Photographers before the web era were hemmed in by more stringent parameters of quality than is typical of the digital age. In professional circles, editors rejected 90% of a shooter’s work to select the small number of shots that would pass through the narrow neck of available publication platforms. At the same time, cost and technical barriers kept the total number of people who could even be photographers artificially low. The result was an exclusive club limited to only the best people and their best work.

As for the amateur market, people’s good and bad personal pictures had no practical publication platform beyond albums, slide trays and shoeboxes. Good and bad pictures alike seldom traveled beyond one’s own inner circle. Now consider the present landscape: no picture needs remain private or unpublished. Taking pictures is cheap, fast, and technically effortless, as is the kick of instant gratification as we click to make our images the world’s instantaneous and universal property. Equally fast counter-clicks deliver the drug of instant approval through reflexive “likes”, keeping us addicted to the entire feedback loop.

However, just making pictures available does not guarantee that anyone will actually see them. In fact, much of what we’e done on social media is create a vast dumping ground for nearly everything we shoot, a belt of data bits girding the earth like an orbiting loop of space garbage. Art is not improved merely through the generation of tonnage. More is usually less, and even our best work may be hidden in plain sight.

The lifelong perfecting of our own seeing eye, along with a fiercely developed and objective editor’s sensibility, is the only thing that can produce great photographs in an age where excellence and mediocrity are rewarded exactly the same. Social media will continue to snare us with the promise of cheap reward regardless of the quality of our work. The only cure for this slouching toward sloppiness is in ourselves. We need to love ourselves a lot less and love true excellence a lot more.

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THE GREAT RIDDLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S FORTUNATE THAT NONE OF US HAS ANY IDEA WHAT APPEALS TO OUR VIEWERS, or else everything we do would revert to a dull formula. If it was possible to predict which of our creations would establish a connection with other hearts and minds, wouldn’t our human nature tempt us to churn out clumsy duplicates of that creation again and again? You see this at craft shows where “artists” hawk dozens of copies of the same image to anyone who passes by, customizing only the frames and enlargement sizes. The first version of the idea was “art”;  the cannily repackaged remakes are merely marketing.

With this in mind, the act of putting photographs on the web via various sharing sites is often a puzzling process, since I have no way of knowing whether anything I regard as “successful” will total even one view, and since the pictures I regard as merely “all right” may resonate in a fashion that I never foresaw. Again, I have no control over any of this, which makes it both gratifying and, well, stupefying.

Dream Gardens, Los Angeles (2013). 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Dream Gardens, Los Angeles (2013). 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

You’re looking at the runaway champ photo for total views in my entire Flickr photostream. To me, it’s a bit of whimsy at best, and, if I am totally truthful, an attempt at a partial “save” on what started out to be a rejected image. Backstory: the massive and visually busy central gardens at Los Angeles’ Getty art campus are wonderful to walk through, irresistible to shoot, and a nightmare to capture. If you do the cliché overhead “master shot” of the entire area from, say, two stories in the air, you get something which generally work. However, trying to get a sense of the densely landscaped details at ground level is a fool’s errand. This shot represents a kind of surrender, as it was an attempt to create a quiet composition along one of the more sparse sections of one footpath. Even so, what you’re seeing here is a paring-away of more than half the original frame. There was just too much visual information to work with.

The psychedelic rework on the color is yet another sign that I am not truly comfortable with what I am doing, but it at least represents an attempt to create an “otherness” with the image, to take it out of the normal world. This strategy gave me a picture I could live with, but hardly one I would point to with pride. The verdict from every one else? 5,000 % more eye traffic than the next most popular picture I’ve ever posted on the web, and no sign of slowing. And yet, I know that if I intentionally take another picture like this, it won’t become part of a “series” or a “school of thought”, merely me trying to cash in on a great riddle.

We use our photography to make a case for our various visions to an unknown jury, but, in most cases, we sort of “get” what worked about a picture. But when mysteries like these occur, we can merely

a) be grateful

b) say goodnight, Gracie.

I am reminded about an old bit where Billy Crystal “imitated” famous people by cutting out the mouths of big posters of various icons, then sticking his own lips where theirs should be and “speaking” for them. I fell on the floor as he took his place behind a huge image of  Albert Einstein, and in his best Catskills accent, kept repeating, “WHO KNEW? WHAT DID WE KNOW??”

What, indeed.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


THE OTHER 50%

By MICHAEL PERKINS

The American Dream, Pacific Grove, California, 2012.

The American Dream, Pacific Grove, California, 2012. A three-exposure HDR with shutter speeds ranging from 1/100 to 1/160, all three shots at f/8, ISO 100, 32mm.

Small stories

Serene On Green, near Yosemite National Park, 2012. 1/640 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 300mm.

THE LAST SUNDAY EDITION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FOR 2012 features its annual review of the year’s most essential news images, a parade of glory, challenge, misery and deliverance that in some ways shows all the colors of the human struggle. Plenty of material to choose from, given the planet’s proud display of fury in Hurricane Sandy, the full scope of evil on display in Syria, and the mad marathon of American politics in an electoral year. But photography is only half about recording, or framing, history. The other half of the equation is always about creating worlds as well as commenting on them, on generating something true that doesn’t originate in a battlefield or legislative chamber. That deserves a year-end tribute of its own, and we all have images in our own files that fulfill the other 50% of photography’s promise.

This year, for example, we saw a certain soulfulness, even artistry, breathed into Instagram and, by extension, all mobile app imaging. Time ran a front cover image of Sandy’s ravages taken from a pool of Instagramers, in what was both a great reportorial photo and an interpretive shot whose impact goes far beyond the limits of a news event. Time and again this year, I saw still lifes, candids, whimsical dreams and general wonderments of the most personal type flooding the social media with shots that, suddenly, weren’t just snaps of the sandwich you had for lunch today saturated with fun filters. It was a very strong year for something personal, for the generation of complete other worlds within a frame.

Dragonfly Globes, Tempe, Arizona, 2012

Dragonfly Globes, Tempe, Arizona, 2012. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 55mm.

I love broad vistas and sweeping visual themes so much that I have to struggle constantly to re-anchor myself to smaller things, closer things, things that aren’t just scenic postcards on steroids, although that will always be a strong draw for me. Perhaps you have experienced the same pull on yourself…that feeling that, whatever you are shooting, you need to remember to also shoot…..something else. It is that reminder that, in addition to recording, we are also re-ordering our spaces, assembling a custom selection of visual elements within the frame. Our vision. Our version. Our “other 50%.”

My wife and I crammed an unusual amount of travel into 2012, providing me with no dearth of “big game” to capture…from bridges and skyscrapers to the breathlessly vast arrays of nature. But always I need to snap back to center….to learn to address the beauty of detail, the allure of little composed universes. Those are the images I agonize over the most at years’ end, as if I am poring over thumbnails to see a little piece of myself , not just in the mountains and broad vistas, but also in the grains of sand, the drops of dew, the minutes within the hours.

Year-end reviews are, truly, about the big stories. But in photography, we are uniquely able to tell the little ones as well. And how well we tell them is how well we mark that we were here, not just as observers, but as participants.

It’s not so much how well you play the game, but that you play.

Happy New Year, and many thanks for your attention, commentary, and courtesy in 2012.