By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAN’S FIRST MAJOR QUEST WAS THE SIMPLE EFFORT TO EMERGE FROM THE DARK; the darkness of his own ignorance; the shadows of isolation, the dimness of despair. Looking back, the discovery of fire was perhaps the single greatest forward leap in our early evolution. Once we could make light, we could channel many other of our other energies, with the idea of illumination governing every one of our creative urges, literally and metaphorically. Photography is but one very direct example of what happens when you learn to, as George Eastman termed it, “harness” light.
This year, in many deeply profound ways, we have all had to make almost daily choices between light and darkness, certainly in the dire life decisions fate has placed before us, but also in the things we choose to create. Making images of the holidays that are cheery and bright used to be the most instinctual thing for us; after all, we have had a lifetime of practice. But when the light from which we craft those pictures becomes endangered, when it comes horribly close to being extinguished altogether, that’s when our artistry must double down, digging deeper to extract as much brightness as we can. Many of us have managed it in unprecedented new ways; many more would be well to practice it a lot more in the tough months to come.
Some of that effort will come from inside our cameras.
I don’t consider this image to be negative, or pessimistic. I have made, and will continue to make, those wonderful postcard creations we all strive for in normal times. But art can instruct or lead, as well as charm, and as a consequence, this is the Christmas photograph I most want to sign my name to in this season. Making others safe is the best way to make ourselves safe, and delaying our immediate gratification is the best way to ensure that we’ll be around to, humanly, ask for even more of life, later on.
And so a Merry Christmas to all. We have spent nearly a year trying to get off Nature’s “naughty” list, and now we must do much better at getting off each other’s. If there’s anything to all that storied “good will toward men” stuff, we need to make it more manifest. And make pictures of it that not only document, but illuminate.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TRUSTEES OF MEMORY, AND, AS SUCH, can recall either clear testimony about the past as it actually appeared, or emotional echoes of how it felt. How you choose to depict something in the moment, whether real or abstract, will color the reliving of that event or thing in the future. In which case, will the photograph match your inner record of the experience? And is that experience sharp, as in a super-precise lens, or soft, as in the gauzy reverie of a dream?
Some photographs are made with a certain “emotional filter” in mind. Take the most personal, memory-driven events within our lives, such as the holidays. Can we really see clearly into the past as it exists in our mind? Does it seem softened or blurred by time? And if that’s how our memory renders things, is it accurate to depict such events, in the moment, in that hazy fashion?
I tend to interpret things that have a lot of sentimental heft in a way that resembles the look of memory to me…that is, softened, velvetized if you will. The hard edges and strong contrasts assigned to more reportorial photography seem too harsh when I’m cruising Christmas shop windows, and so my eye/mind/heart trusts a more diffuse approach. This is not revolutionary, of course, as many seasonal entertainments, from greeting cards to television favorites, are often rendered in a fairy-tale light and resolution. Can it become a cliche? Certainly. For me, however, such outward creations of holiday spirit comport perfectly with the movies that play inside my head, and so I really do dial back the “real” aspect on such occasions. The image seen here has plenty of definition, and so diminishing its sharpness can add to the picture even as something is “subtracted.”
This is part of the intention you set for photographs. I hate the word “capture”, because it implies that you merely froze what was in front of you without interpretation or comment, and what fun is that? Reality is often insufficient in the way it plays to our feelings, and art of any kind can sand away its rougher edges to create a custom feel for the heart. Some messages should be shouted, while others are more hearable in a whisper. Photographs only begin with the mere recording of light, but, if we’re lucky, they end with something truly personal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JACOB MARLEY, THE RUEFUL GHOST of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, refers to the manacles and links that trail behind him as “the chain I forged in life”, and indeed, as the years wear on, one can certainly feel the accumulated weight of one’s own “ponderous” train, its clanking amplified to even greater force during the holiday season.
Certain cycles of the year speak louder to our memories than others, whether they mark anniversaries of loss, joy, sacrifice, devotion, or any other emotional life trophies. And the visual arts, including photography, tap into and amplify these feelings in everything from the pages of the calendar to snapshots of dear ones both present and absent.
Both present and absent. Living and dead. Still here and almost gone. Ghosts and survivors. Marley and Scrooge. The photographer can sometimes almost feel the collision of past and present within a single image, as if each force is grappling for control of the picture’s message.
In the above photograph, I was initially looking to steal a candid of my father as he watched some television. It should have been a simple task, but, when your father is still here at 88, the faces of those no longer here echo in his every feature. To add to the density of emotion, you have the fact that he’s seated beneath a mantle fairly buckling under the weight of a third of a century’s worth of well-curated nutcrackers. Thus, even though she’s dodged having her picture taken at this particular moment (a well-honed skill), my mother is present here as well.
And so, decisions, decisions: I could have made my father look over in my direction, maybe even coaxing a smile from him, but I liked his weary look of detachment, as if the years were a kind of Marley chain dragging him earthward. I also could have cropped out the nutcrackers, simplifying the overall frame. But the “ponderous” tonnage of memory the figures symbolize would have been wasted, so they stay.
Photographs can only rarely be snapped in their most complete form, and certain times of year prove too layered with history to make for so-called “simple” pictures. Maybe it’s the different way we see on certain days. And just maybe it’s a ghostly presence, a glimpse of the chain we forged in life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAYS PROVIDE A REMARKABLE VARIETY OF VISUAL RESPONSES IN PHOTOGRAPHERS, so subjective are each person’s memories and experiences. This ensures that the subject is well nigh inexhaustible, although I seem to see images falling into one of two broad categories.
One class includes the snapshot-oriented, direct-experience images, which record one’s treasured good times……such as the family tree, the winner of the neighborhood’s exterior lights extravaganza, Bobby’s first moments with his new bike, etc. The other main class seems to center on a kind of abstract interpretation of pattern, color, and shape, and may be more subtle or understated in approach. Of these two basic groupings, one is specific, rooted in personal impressions, while the other is design or concept based. Both produce great photographs, but the aim, for each, is very distinct.
As my own Christmases have become more abbreviated and less populated (family and friends far away), my observance of the holidays is, accordingly, much more muted, less decorous than in years past. The merry little Christmas referred to in the song becomes the dominant theme, and I find my seasonal photos try to say more and more with less and less. The images are simpler, quieter. Whether I have chosen this or it’s chosen me is hard to say for sure. I only know that, as the million elements that define a busy family Christmas fade into memory, I create pictures that suggest the essence, rather than the exhaustive detail, of the holiday’s themes.
Of course, whether this time of year means anything at all to you is a matter of taste, especially as you age up. One of the most interesting places to spend the holidays, for example, is Las Vegas, simply because the town does not sport any decorations of any kind. In deference to many who want to flee rather than celebrate the hustle, the entire city becomes a strange sort of haven, filtering out both the profane and the holy. So, if I snap a picture at Caesar’s Palace on December 25, does that fact alone make the result a “Christmas” photo?
You get the idea: even in less extreme cases, the holidays are in the eye of the beholder. Eventually, what makes a day special is what makes it special for you. Whatever your own circumstances, enjoy the world as you would prefer to compose it. Make the season your personal treasure, whether loud, soft, lush or laid back. No image is a bridge too fa (la la la).
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THANKSGIVING WEEK USUALLY DEPUTIZES WRITERS OF EVERY VARIETY to generate lists of things the author is thankful for, everything from baby puppies to the designated-hitter rule, all enveloped in the gold glow of gratitude. Photographers are usually not enlisted for these rosters of wonderfulness, but, if you make pictures long enough, you will, no doubt, have a list of very specific items that warm your heart.
Over a lifetime, I have generally been grateful for photography’s consistent ability to excite my senses, challenge my thinking, and create the addictive sensation known as surprise. I’m grateful that George Eastman introduced the first practical roll film, taking photography from the hands of the few and giving it to the world at large. I’m glad that images have found languages with which to speak to people, languages that surpass the power of speech. I’m glad that photographs stitch together links across every gulf of human experience. And I’m thankful for the pictures that enraged me to action, that gladdened me to tears, that encouraged me to make more pictures of my own.
I’m grateful for the men and women who have created the greatest visual art form the world has ever known. You can sub your own gallery of gods, but mine includes Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Edward Steichen, Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Walker Evans, Julia Margaret Cameron, W.Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebowitz, and, most importantly, the millions of invisible eyes and hands out there cranking, out there living by one unshakable credo: Always be shooting.
I thank the photo gods for images of my parents, first as sweethearts in the aftermath of World War II, then as newlyweds in the ’50’s, then as Mommy and Daddy in the Space Age, and presently as the great long-distance runners of romance, still mad for each other at 66 years and counting. I thank fortune for the bunny ears and hamming and mugging and bright toothy giggles of my own children, frozen now in their newness and their hunger for life. And I incidentally thank luck for Kodachrome, quick-charging batteries, fast lenses and a few moments in which I swung around, just in time, and got the shot.
The camera is many things…charmer, chronicler, narrator, witness, liar, magic wand. It gains all these special powers in the hands of people. Photographs are measures of who we are, what we care about, and what we want time to say about us after we’re gone.
Lots to do, lots left to attempt.
Lots to be thankful for.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO COMPILE LISTS OF LAWS that must be obeyed to ensure the capture of great images. Bookshelves are jammed to fracturing with the collected works of wizards large and small who contend that all of this art stuff is really about craft, or adherence to techniques that are the equivalent of Einstein’s law. And, of course, with every fresh generation, a new slew of shooters come sneering along to deride this starched and stuffy discipline. All that matters, these young turks snigger, is my grand vision.
Let me again re-state the obvious, which is that both viewpoints are correct and/or totally wrong. And since Mr. Weston has introduced the subject of composition, let us consider the special task of seasonal photos, specifically, arrangements of yuletide objects. The classic rule on still-life shots is that less is more, that it’s better to perfectly light and expose three pieces of fruit than whole baskets of the stuff. Meanwhile the festive, instinctual artist concedes that many holiday scenes are mad with detail and crammed with more, more, more…..and that’s okay.
The unique thing about Christmas decor is that in many cases, you not creating the compositions, but merely reacting to someone else’s creations…in nativity scenes, churches, and especially in retail environments. Obviously your local department store doesn’t adhere to the admonition “keep it simple”; quite the opposite. Seasonal trim in most stores is served up not by the spoonful but by the truckload. Anything less than overkill seems skimpy to many yuletide decorators, and so, if you favor basic subject matter, you’re either going to have to mount your own arrangements or selectively zoom and crop the more congested scenes. If, however, you already subscribe to the idea that more is better, then life gets easy fast.
Holidays come layered in much that is intensely personal, and that makes clean compositional judgements about “how much” or “how little” tricky at best. Just get the feelings right and let your regular rules relax into guidelines.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU LONG TO HEAR IT. The audible gasp, the sustained, breathless, collective “oooooh” from the crowd when the house lights are doused and the holiday tree glows into life in the darkened room. It’s a sonic sample of the extra dimension of emotional engagement that occurs at this time of year, imbuing your photographs with additional firepower. Call it wonder, magic, enchantment, or what you will, but it is there, in greater supply during the season, a tangible thing amidst the bustle and the endless lists of errands.
Children are the best barometers of this heightened awareness, since so many of their experiences are first-time experiences. Regular routines become magically unpredictable. Ordinary things take on the golden warmth of tradition. People that are normally on looser orbits circle closer to them for a time. Time expands and contracts. And their faces register it all, from confusion to anticipation. Reading the wonder in a child’s face is truly easy pickings at times like this, but I’m a big believer in catching them while they live their lives, not queueing up for rehearsed smiles or official sittings. Those are important, but the real Santa stuff, the magic fairy dust, gets into the camera when you eavesdrop on something organic.
The wonderful thing is, it’s not big feat to keep a kid distracted during the holidays. They are in a constant state of sensory overload, and so extremely unaware of you that all you have to do is keep it that way. Get reactions to, not re-creations of, their joy. Be a witness, not a choreographer. Stealth is your best friend for seasonal images, and it’s never easier to pull off, so bask a bit in your anonymity.
And, to further feed your own wonder, stay aware of how fleeting all of it is. You are chronicling things that can never, in this exact way, be again. That is, you’re at the very core of why you took photography up in the first place, a way to reboot your enthusiasm.
And it that’s not magic, then I will never know what is…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON MAY OFTEN SEEM TO HAVE “OFFICIAL” COLORS, (red, green, etc.) but its unofficial colors reside primarily, and gloriously, in memory. Given how many iterations of photography span most of our lives, our minds tend to twist and tweak colors into highly individualized chromatic channels. Are your most treasured moments in ’50’s Black and White? ’60’s Kodachrome? In the time-tinted magentas of snaps from the 70’s? In blue-green Super 8 Ektachrome or expired Lomo film? Or do you dream in Photoshop?
This is personal stuff, very personal. It seems like we ought to agree universally on the “correct” colors of the season, but, given that our most precious holiday moments are preserved on various archival media, it might be our memory of seeing these events “played back” that is stronger than our actual remembrance of them. As Paul Simon says, everything looks worse in black and white, or in this case, what really happened pales in comparison to our print, Polaroid, movie and slide souvenirs.
This means that there are a million subliminal color “cues” that trigger memory, and not all of them come from “correctly” exposed images. Color is mood, and seasonal pictures can benefit greatly from the astounding range of processing tools suddenly available to everyone. Not all photographs benefit from apps and digital darkroom massages, for sure, but their use is perhaps more seductive, in this mental mid-point between reality and memory than at other times of the year. Fantasy is in play here, after all, and fantasy has no “right” hue. Dreams are too vast a realm to be confined to the basics, so ’tis the season to dip into a wider paintbox.
Memory needs room to breathe, and the photographs that help them fully fill their lungs become the gifts that keep on giving.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS A SEASON OF LIGHT AND COLOR, perhaps one of the key times of the year for all things illuminated, burning, blazing and glowing. It is a time when opportunities for vivid and brilliant images explode from every corner.
And one way to unleash all that light is to manage darkness.
One example: your family Christmas tree involves more delicate detail, tradition and miniature charm than any other part of your home’s holiday decor, but it often loses impact in many snapshots, either blown out in on-camera flash or underlit with a few colored twinkles surrounded by a blob of piny silhouette.
How about a third approach: go ahead and turn off all the lights in the room except those on the tree, but set up a tripod and take a short time exposure.
It’s amazing how easy this simple trick will enhance the overall atmosphere. With the slightly slow exposure, the powerful tree LEDs have more than enough oomph to add a soft glow to the entire room, while acting as a multitude of tiny fill lights for the shaded crannies within the texture of the tree. Ornaments will be softly and partially lit, highlighting their design details and giving them a slightly dimensional pop.
In fact, the LED’s emit such strong light that you only want to make the exposure slow enough to register them. The above image was taken at 1/16 of a second, no longer, so the lights don’t have time to “burn in” and smear. And yes, some of you highly developed humanoids can hand-hold a shot steadily at that exposure, so see what works for you. You could also, of course, shoot wide open to f/1.8 if you have a prime lens, making things even easier, but you might run into focus problems at close range. You could also just jack up your ISO and shoot at a more manageable shutter speed, but in a darkened room you’re trading off for a lot of noise in the areas beyond the tree. Dealer’s choice.
Lights are a big part of the holidays, and mastery of light is the magic that delivers the mystery. Have fun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU HAVE BEEN ON THE PLANET FOR MORE THAN FIFTY CHRISTMASES, your holiday memories (at least those frozen in family snapshots) will include more than a few black and white images. Some families made the switch to color photography earlier than others, but, at least until the mid-1960’s, for millions of us, more than a few “our best tree ever” photos were shot in monochrome. A little web research or family album-browsing can illustrate just how well beloved memories were captured by millions of us, long before Kodachrome became the visual currency of family folklore.
It’s interesting to note that, with the universal availability of not only simple cameras but post-processing apps, there’s been a sort of retro-fed love of b&w that’s refreshing, given that we are, once again, admitting that some subjects can be wonderfully rendered in a series of greyscale tones. Certainly the general marketing and depiction of the season is a color-drenched one, but many new photographers are re-discovering the art of doing more with less, or, more properly, seeing black and white as an interpretation of reality rather, as in the case of color, as a recording of it.
Observing the season out in the American West, thousands of miles from loved ones, I find that my holiday shots are increasingly journalistic or “street” in nature, since I am viewing and interpreting other people’s Christmases. The contours and designs of retail become a vibrant source of stories for me, and black and white allows me to shoot at an emotionally safe distance while calling special attention to texture and detail.
Depending on whether you’re showing the splendor of food and presents or evoking some Dickens-era urban grit, some subjects will come up flat or drab in black and white, given our very specific memory cues as to what Christmas should “look like”, so getting the desired result may be elusive. But, of course, if photography was easy, everyone would do it.
Oh, wait, everybody does do it.
Thing is, you always add another voice to the creative conversation. That’s the best part of both photography and the holidays.
No way is best but your way.
- Photography 101: Shooting in Black and White (dailypost.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHRISTMAS IS SO BIG THAT IT CAN AFFORD TO GO SMALL. Photographers can, of course, tackle the huge themes….cavernous rooms bursting with gifts, sprawling trees crowning massive plazas, the lengthy curve and contour of snowy lanes and rustic rinks…..there are plenty of vistas of, well, plenty. However, to get to human scale on this most superhuman of experiences, you have to shrink the frame, tighten the focus to intimate details, go to the tiny core of emotion and memory. Those things are measured in inches, in the minute wonder of things that bear the names little, miniature, precious.
And, as in every other aspect of holiday photography, light, and its successful manipulation, seals the deal.
In recent years I have turned away from big rooms and large tableaux for the small stories that emanate from close examination of corners and crannies. The special ornament. The tiny keepsake. The magic that reveals itself only after we slow down, quiet down, and zoom in. In effect, you have to get close enough to read the “Rosebud” on the sled.
Through one life path and another, I have not been “home” (that is, my parents’ home) for Christmas for many years now. This year, I broke the pattern to visit early in December, where the airfare was affordable, the overall scene was less hectic and the look of the season was visually quiet, if no less personal. It became, for me, a way to ease back into the holidays as an experience that I’d laid aside for a long time.
A measured re-entry.
I wanted to eschew big rooms and super-sized layouts to concentrate on things within things, parts of the scene. That also went for the light, which needed to be simpler, smaller, just enough. Two things in my parents’ house drew me in: several select branches of the family tree, and one small part of my mother’s amazing collection of nutcrackers. In both cases, I had tried to shoot in both daylight and general night-time room light. In both cases, I needed some elusive tool for enhancement of detail, some way to highlight texture on a very muted scale.
Call it turning up the magic.
As it turned out, both subjects were flanked by white mini-lights, the tree lit exclusively by white, the nutcrackers assembled on a bed of green with the lights woven into the greenery. The short-throw range of these lights was going to be all I would need, or want. All that was required was to set up on a tripod so that exposures of anywhere from one to three seconds would coax color bounces and delicate shadows out of the darkness, as well as keeping ISO to an absolute minimum. In the case of the nutcrackers, the varnished finish of many of the figures, in this process, would shine like porcelain. For many of the tree ornaments, the looks of wood, foil, glitter, and fabric were magnified by the close-at-hand, mild light. Controlled exposures also kept the lights from “burning in” and washing out as well, so there was really no down side to using them exclusively.
Best thing? Whole project, from start to finish, took mere minutes, with dozens of shots and editing choices yielded before anyone else in the room could miss me.
And, since I’d been away for a while, that, along with starting a new tradition of seeing, was a good thing.
- How to Take a Picture of Your Christmas Tree (purdueavenue.com)