By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MIRACLES OF CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY is how wonderfully oblivious we can afford to be to many of the mechanics of taking a picture. Whereas, in an earlier era, technical steps 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5, and 6 had to be completed before we could even hit the shutter button, we now routinely hop from “1” to “snap” with no thought of the process in between.
In short, we don’t have to sweat the small stuff, a truth that I was reminded of this week when imitating one of photographer’s earliest masters of night photography, Gyula Halasz, or “Brassai”, a nickname which refers to his hometown in Romania. Starting around 1924, Brassai visually made love to the streets of Paris after dark with the primitive cameras of the early 20th century, sculpting shape from shadow with a patiently laborious process of time exposures and creating ghostly, wonderful chronicles of a vanished world. He evolved over decades into one of the most strikingly romantic street artists of all time, and was one of the first photographers to have a show of his work mounted at New York’s MOMA.
Recently, the amazing photo website UTATA (www.utata.org), a workshop exchange for what it calls “tribal photography”, gave its visitors a chance to take their shot at an homage to half a dozen legendary visual stylists. The assignment asked Utata members to take images in the style of their favorite on the list, Brassai being mine.
In an age of limited lenses and horrifically slow films, Brassai’s exposure times were long and hard to calculate. One of his best tricks was lighting up a cigarette as he opened his lens, then timing the exposure by how long it took for the cig to burn down. He even used butts of different lengths and widths to vary his effect. Denizens of the city’s nightlife, walking through his long shots, often registered as ghosts or blurs, adding to the eerie result in photos of fogbound, rain-soaked cobblestone streets. I set out on my “homage” with a tripod in tow, ready to likewise go for a long exposure. Had my subject been less well-lit, I would have needed to do just that, but, as it turned out, a prime 35mm lens open to f/1.8 and set to an ISO of 500 allowed me to shoot handheld in 1/60 of a second, cranking off ten frames in a fraction of the time Brassai would have needed to make one. I felt grateful and guilty at the same time, until I realized that a purely technical advantage was all I had on the old wizard.
Brassai has shot so many of the iconic images that we have all inherited over the gulf of time that one small list from one small writer cannot contain half of them. I ask you instead to click the video link at the end of this post, and learn of, and from, this man.
Many technical land mines have been removed from our paths over photography’s lifetime, but the principal obstacle remains…the distance between head, hand, and heart. We still need to feel more than record, to interpret, more than just capture.
All other refinements are just tools toward that end.
THANKS TO OUR NEW FOLLOWERS! LOOK FOR THEM AT:
- Wonderful Photos of New York in 1957 by Brassaï (vintag.es)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IMAGES SIT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BRAIN, LIKE STONE PILLARS IN THE FOUNDATION OF AN IMMENSE TOWER.The structures erected on top of them, those images we ourselves have fashioned in memory of these foundations, dictate the height and breadth of our own creative edifices. Between these elemental pictures and what we build on top of them, we derive a visual style of our own.
In my own case,many of the pillars that hold up my own house of photography come from a single man.
Edward Steichen is arguably the greatest photographer in history. If that seems like hyperbole, I would humbly suggest that you take a reasonable period of time, say, oh, twenty years or so, just to lightly skim the breadth of his amazing career….from revealing portraits to iconic product shots to nature photography to street journalism and half a dozen other key areas that comprise our collective craft of light writing. His work spans the distance from wet glass plates to color film, from the Edwardian era to the 1960’s, from photography as an insecure imitation of painting to its arrival as a distinct and unique art form in its own right.
At the start of the 20th century, Steichen co-sponsored many of the world’s first formal photographic galleries, and was a major contributor to Camera Work, the first serious magazine dedicated wholly to photography. He ended his career as the creator of the legendary Family Of Man, created in the early 1950’s and still the most celebrated collection of global images ever mounted anywhere on earth. He is, simply, the Moses of photography, towering above many lesser giants whose best work amounts to only a fraction of his own prodigious output.
Which is why I sometimes see fragments of what he saw when I view a subject. I can’t see with his clarity, but through the milky lens of my own vision I sometime detect a flashing speck of what he knew on a much larger scale, decades before. The image at left recently rocketed to my mind’s eye several weeks ago, as I was framing shots inside a large government building in Ohio.In 1921, Steichen journeyed to Greece to use the world’s oldest civilization basically as a prop for portraits of Isadora Duncan, then in the forefront of American avant-garde dance. Framing her at the bottom of an immense arch in the ruins of the Parthenon, he made her appear majestic and minute at the same time, both minimized and deified by the huge proportions in the frame. It is one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever seen, and I urge you to click the Flickr link at the end of this post for a slightly larger view of it. (Also note the link to a great overview of Steichen’s life on Wikipedia.)
In framing a similarly tall arch leading into the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, I didn’t have a human figure to work with, but I wanted to show the building as a series of major and minor access cavities, in, around, under and through one of its arched entrance to the central lobby. I kept having to back up and step down to get at least a partial view of the rotunda and the arch at the opposite end of the open space included in the frame, which created a kind of left and right bracket for the shot, now flanked by a pair of staircases. Given the overcast sky meekly leaking grey light into the rotunda’s glass cupola, most of the building was shrouded in shadow, so a handheld shot with sufficient depth of field was going to call for jacked-up ISO, and the attendant grungy texture that remains in the darker parts of the shot. But at least I walked away with something.
What kind of something? There is no”object” to the image, no story being told, and sadly, no dancing muse to immortalize. Just an arrangement of color and shape that hit me in some kind of emotional way. That and Steichen, that foundational pillar, calling up to me from the basement:
“Just take the shot.”
- The Photograph as a Social Statement (halsmith.wordpress.com)
- Picture Imperfect (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
by MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I READ SINCERE ARGUMENTS FOR THE SUPERIORITY OF FILM OVER DIGITAL, the debate seems a little more lopsided on the side of sentiment than on the side of reason. The whole thing can make me a little….tired. As I write this, Arizona Highways has just released its annual collection of the fifty best images ever published in that august standard of print photography, and, yep, you guessed it, only about the last three images are digital. It’s an aesthetic bias which AH will only abandon once the entire rest of the world regards film as a quaint artifact of The Good Ole Days, but, God bless ’em, they are true believers. As for myself, I am in no huge hurry to see film go the way of the Hostess Twinkie. However, I do readily admit that it’s my heart casting that vote, and not my head.
Emulsions or pixels? Your preference still comes down to what you need to do and how you need to do it. That means that many of us will choose one medium or the other because it either enables or constricts our art…..in other words, a simply practical judgement, not one based on our fondness for what we are used to. Earlier this year, I applauded National Public Radio’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam (one of the first Civil War skirmishes to be photographically documented), by commissioning their own photog to shoot some of the same battle sites as Alexander Gardner had done in 1862, using the same kind of coated glass plate process. Were the results fascinating? Certainly. Are they likely to create a run on camera stores for collodion? Don’t hold your breath.
Photography is a constant process of knocking down more obstacles between what you are shooting at and the imagination you are shooting with. You need to keep the camera from fighting you, due to its inability to react, think, discriminate or judge the way that only you can. To that end, you have to be in a constant flow of improvement, simply because your mind is always traveling on a faster track than even the best camera, and that instrument must be corralled into helping, and not hindering, the task of getting your vision into that box.
One of the most helpful such advances for me has been the accelerated performance of DSLRs in low-light situations and the improvement in picture quality at increasingly higher ISO settings. In the film world of “ago”, if you wanted to shoot at 800 speed ASA, you had to have a camera loaded with 800 speed film. If you then, five minutes later, wanted to shoot at 100 speed ASA you would need to reload your camera with that speed of film, or have a whole separate camera that was loaded with it. And so on.
Not the best for flexibility. Or spontaneity.
This rocketing forward of the technology that gives us sharp, nearly noise-free pictures, handheld and at fast exposure times, in all but the most hopeless lighting scenarios, is now filtering down to even the most rudimentary camera phones.It’s not alarmist or false to declare that the days of the compact point-and-shoot are officially numbered. With ISO now delivering better results in so many shooting situations, I can now go nearly anywhere and have a shot at getting a shot. That puts me at a distinct advantage over the most proficient shooters and the best cameras of barely a generation ago.
Does that guarantee I’ll bring back a winner? Nope. But the point is, more and more, if I don’t get the shot, it’s on me. I can’t blame my failure on balky technology, at least not in this particular case.
And it means I can spend more time shooting, dreaming, doing, instead of crossing my fingers and hoping.
- Camera+ 3.6 is here: “It’s a camera, not a flight simulator!” (taptaptap.com)
- Is a DSLR right for you? (fatwallet.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WILL DO ANYTHING TO PHOTOGRAPH BOOKSTORES. Not the generic Costco and Wal-Mart bargain slabs laden with discounted bestsellers. Not the starched and sterile faux-library air of Barnes & Noble. I’m talking musty, dusty, crammed, chaotic collections of mismatched, timeless tomes…. “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” as Poe labeled them. I’m looking for places run by dotty old men with their glasses high on their forehead, cultural salvage yards layered in multiple stories of seemingly unrelated offerings in random stacks and precarious piles. Something doomed by progress, and beautiful in its fragility.
I almost missed this one.
In my last post, I commented that, even when your photography is rules-based….i.e., always do this, never do that, there are times when you have to shoot on impulse alone and get what you can get. It sometimes begins when you’re presented with something you’re not, but should be, looking for. A few weeks ago, I was spending the afternoon at one of Monterey, California‘s most time-honored weekly rituals..the marvelous, multi-block farmers’ market along Alvarado Street. The sheer number of vendors dictates that some of the booths spill over onto the side streets, and that’s where I found The Book Haven. The interior of the store afforded an all-in-one view of its entire sprawling inventory, but the crush of tourists bustling in and out of its teeny front door meant that any image was going to look like the casting call for The Ten Commandments.
I had to come back, when both the store and I were alone.
With the limited amount of time I had in town, that meant that I would have to stroll by just hours ahead of my plane for home. Heading out at 8:30 in the morning, I had obviously solved the problem of “too many people in the picture”, but I had traded that hassle for a new one: the store would not be open for another three hours.
For the second time in a week (see “Look Through Any Window, Part One”) I was forced to shoot through a window, but at least there was enough light inside to illuminate nearly all of the store’s interior. To avoid a reflection, I would have to cram my lens right up against the glass. Once my autofocus stopped fidgeting, I could only obtain the framing I wanted by shooting through a narrow open place on the center of the front door, standing on tiptoe to hold the composition. I also had to keep the ISO dialed low enough to not create extra noise, but high enough so I could take a fairly fast handheld exposure and get as much detail from the dark corners as possible. Balancing act.
Let’s see what happens.
In viewing the image later, I saw that there wasn’t enough detail to suit me, either in the individual books or the darker spaces around the store, so I pulled a small cheat. Making a copy of the shot, I pulled down the contrast, boosted the exposure, and sucked out some shadow, then loaded both shots into Photomatix, fooling the HDR program into thinking they were two separate exposures. Photomatix is also a detail enhancer program, so I could add sharper textures to the books and a richer range of tones than were seen in the original through-the-window shot.
Hey, you can’t have it all, but, by at least trying, you get more than nothing.
And sometimes that’s everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE COMMON THREAD ACROSS ALL THE PHOTO HOW-TO BOOKS EVER WRITTEN IS A WARNING: don’t let all the rules we are discussing here keep you from making a picture. Standardized techniques for exposure, composition, angle, and processing are road maps, not the Ten Commandments. It will become obvious pretty quickly to anyone who makes even a limited study of photography that some of the greatest pictures ever taken color outside the classical lines of “good picture making.” The war photo that captures the moment of death in a blur. The candid that cuts off half the subject’s face. The sunset with blown-out skies or lens flares. Many images outside the realm of “perfection” deliver something immediate and legitimate that goes beyond mere precision. Call it a fist to the gut.
Conversely, many technically pristine images are absolutely devoid of emotional impact, perfect executions that arrive at the finish line minus a soul. Finally, being happy with our results, despite how far they are from flawless is the animating spirit of art, and feeling. This all starts out with a boost of science, but it ain’t really science at all, is it? If it were, we could just send the camera out by itself, a heart-dead recording instrument like the Mars lander, and remove ourself from the equation entirely.
Thus the common entreaty in every instruction book: shoot it anyway. The only picture that is sure not to “come out” is the one you don’t shoot.
The image at left, of a business building in downtown Monterey, California was almost not taken. If I had been governed only by general how-to rules, I would have simply decided that it was impossible. Lots of reasons “not to”; shooting from a high hotel window at an angle that was nearly guaranteed to pick up a reflection, even taken in a dark room at pre-dawn; the need to be too close to the window to mount a tripod, therefore nixing the chance at a time exposure; and the likelihood that, for a hand-held shot, I would have to jack the camera’s ISO so high that some of the darker parts of the building would be the smudgy consistency of wet ashes.
Still, I couldn’t walk away from it. Mood, energy, atmosphere, something told me to just shoot it anyway.
I didn’t get “perfection”. That particular ideal had been yanked out of my reach, like Lucy pulling away Charlie Brown’s football. But I am glad I tried. (Click on the image to see a more detailed version of the result)
In the next post, a look at another window that threatened to hold a shot hostage, and a solution that rescued it.
- 7 Ways to Inject More Creativity Into Your Photos (blogworld.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE READ MORE THAN A FEW ARTICLES OF LATE by professional photographers who confess that they occasionally get stuck in teaching mode, even to the detriment of their own love of shooting. One such author went to far as to recall a recent concert he had attended, camera-less, only to observe, with snotty amusement, the attempts of a young woman to capture action on the far-off stage area. His first reaction was to disdain not only her limited camera but to catalogue all her most heinous errors in composition, exposure, and use of flash, as he mentally predicted how poor her results would be and how she was, essentially, wasting her time.
Then something shifted in his thinking. Instead of being depressed at what hadn’t worked, the woman’s energy revealed that she was actually making the most of the moment; learning, through trial and error, what to do or not do in future. At the end of his essay, he came to realize that “she is a better photographer than me”, since she was taking risks, pushing the limits of her own skills, and developing her craft, one frame at a time, while he had left his own camera at home and was learning nothing. His point hit home with me, since it is a recurring theme of this blog and a key belief among those I respect most in the imaging world.
Shoot. Shoot some more. Dare to fail. Be willing to take more “bad” pictures than the next guy. Get your head out of academic minutia and into the doing of it. Screw up, suck up, but above all, show up.
Ready to play.
Sometimes, just the sheer unwillingness to go home empty-handed provides you with real delight. Last week, I was making the rounds at an area gallery district, the type that does nightly “art walks” as a way of speed-dating potential customers. Many of the best shots I get in these surroundings are near or just after dark, and I always like peeping into the windows of shuttered businesses at night, since some key character of light and mood invariably occurs. For the shot shown above, I fell in love with one gallery that had a kind of sentry posted outside, in the form of an enormous sculpted head. Its aloof expression reminded me of a cross between Easter Island and Blue Man Group, and I really wanted him/her/it to be a part of the shot. However, I had not brought an external flash unit with me, and the sculpture was reading 100% dark in contrast to the interior of the gallery. I was desperate, but not desperate enough to use straight-on pop-up flash, which would have blown the face out completely and destroyed any chance at a moody feel.
Time to improvise.
Having left my bounce card at home as well (I was on foot and truly traveling light), I noticed that the head was underneath a low over-hanging porch roof, something you just must have on the front of an Arizona business in summer. Going totally into what-the-hell mode, I stuck my flat left hand just under the bottom of the pop-up flash and angled it upward about 15 degrees to create a crude bounce off the roof ceiling, allowing the light to soften as it came down upon the top of the head. It took a few tries to avoid creating an uber-white Aurora Borealis effect on the ceiling, and I had to move my feet around to figure out how to get some of the light to cascade down the head’s front and illuminate its features. I also had to bump the ISO up a bit to compensate for the fall-off in the flash at the distance I was standing, but, at the end, I at least got something. Moreover, like the woman at the concert, what I had picked up in technique more than compensated me for the fact that the shot wasn’t strictly an award winner.
I have been playing around with primitive flash bouncing for a while now, and the results run the gamut from god-awful to glad-I-did-that. But it’s all a win no matter how each individual shot plays out, because every image brings me closer to the cumulatively evolved instinct that, someday, will give me great pictures. The baby will eventually be born, but the midwife has to do the front-end work. Nothing I will ever shoot will be captured under perfect conditions, so why drop dead of old age waiting for that to happen? We’re almost to the end of Century Two in this game of writing with light, and all the easy pictures have already been shot, so what’s left will have to be hewed out by hand.
I suggest that we occasionally get our nose out of books (and, duh, blogs too) and start carving.
IN ITS FIRST DAYS, photography took on the inward, personal aspect of painting, both in its selection of pictorial subjects and in its method of presentation, which was designed to legitimize the new science by aping the look of the canvas. Only by actively engaging the world and invading every corner of it in an outward search for truth or beauty did picture-making break free of the painter’s constraints. Once Matthew Brady’s stark images of the Civil War froze that conflict’s horror on glass, at least one leg of the photographer’s stool rested on a confrontation of reality.
In the 20th century, as shooters toggled between deliberate, arranged images and pure documentation, the “face” of the public became an unwitting tool in the artist’s toolbox. Human manifestations of delight, horror, revelation and ruin told the story of the new era even more graphically than the correspondent’s pen, creating some of the most indelible images of modern times. Indeed, there seemed to be an unspoken pact between the artist and his “prey” to the effect that their lives, like ours, could be endlessly recorded, interpreted, interrupted and enshrined for the sake of our “art”.
But is that era coming to an end? And, for photography, what lies beyond?
In recent years, both public and private institutions have begun to disallow photography in some venues that had historically been open to it, including retail stores, parks, malls and other previously “free” spaces. Some of this is the inevitable aftermath of our recent obsession with security, a kind of whoa-slow-down against the pervasive replication of all aspects of one’s identity. Perhaps, several gazillion camera phone snaps and gotcha YouTubes later, we have reached a tipping point of sorts, a world in which people desperately seek a firewall around their secret selves.
Even as certain nondescript individuals shamelessly seek the spotlight of reality shows and paparazzi-fed ego gratification, many more are feeling an unfamiliar new yen for shelter from the ubiquitous flash of fame. In such a time, the concept of commentary or “street” photography faces one of its most daunting challenges. What is permissible in an image, now? Are what were once the eloquently revealing truths of spontaneous snaps now a kind of voyeurism, a “reality porn” peek into peoples’ lives to which we have no right?
Without the harrowing chronicle of Dorothea Lange’s dust-bowl refugees, would we understand less of the horrific impact of the Great Depression? Was she underscoring an important message or exploiting her subjects’ suffering? Absent Larry Burrows’ grunt’s-eye-view of Vietnam for Life magazine, would we have missed a valuable insight into a war our government might just have gladly kept under wraps? We may have already reached the point where some of us, embarrassed for the intrusive nature of our craft, have begun to self-censor, to mentally de-select some images before we even shoot them. Such prior restraint may be the height of sensitivity, but it spells paralysis for art.