By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ONCE ASSEMBLED A SHORT BOOK CALLED “Juxtapositions” in which I flanked images of my own with quotations by great photographers on their craft. It was an amusing if inconsequential exercise, and helped me compile a miniature library of ruminations on why we do what we do. Some shooters were as eloquent in print as their pictures were, while others preferred to remark very briefly, content to let their images speak for them. I never thought, at the time, to seek out general philosophical treatises on creativity, to see the photographer’s motives discussed in general artistic terms. That now strikes me as short-sighted. It’s like doing a master thesis on breakfast and failing to consider eggs.
So let me make amends by pasting up the following passage and suggesting that it actually describes photography more perfectly than the words of any one shooter that I can recall. It doesn’t deal in the technical aspect of making a picture, since it actually predates the popularity of the medium, but perfectly describes what the photographer is seeking to do when he/she picks up a camera. From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Art:
“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole. This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty. Thus in our fine arts, not imitation, but creation is the aim. In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor. He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature, and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy, the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom, and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait, he must inscribe the character, and not the features, and must esteem the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.”
In making pictures, we craft compromises between what is visible and what our mind “sees”, between the mundane details of reality and the larger cues it feeds to our spirit. This is why the word “take”, in reference to the creation of a photograph, is so inadequate. We do certainly “take” something from the physical world, but we add personal intangibles to it, “making” an image out of a mix of both recordable and emotional information. As Emerson says so brilliantly, we “omit” the “prose of nature” and try to give “only the spirit and splendor.” If we’re lucky, we are not only faithful to our own vision, but instrumental in sharing something that another soul may recognize as familiar. That’s when a photograph has truly been “made”. It seems like magic because it is magic, as we exalt, in our copy, the features that please us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOW TO FEEL OLD, EXAMPLE #473: Sending a photograph of a “shirt pocket” A.M. transistor radio from the early ’60 to a friend, only to have said friend’s grandson ask him what the object is.
We often talk in these pages about context and how that can shape an image. If people have context for the subjects you depict, or understand how they relate to other things in their experience, they interpret the picture in a certain way. I know that thing, I use it everyday. Remove that context, however, making the subject a kind of associative free-spot, not tied to any particular memory or use, and the object loses its meaning. It’s unanchored, and can mean anything the photographer intends. My friend shouldn’t be surprised that my old radio is meaningless in his grandson’s experience. But if I am a photographer who’s chosen to re-purpose that radio in a context of my own making, my options are wide open.
Most things in our world are designed to do one thing. For example, a piano is never asked to do the work of a crescent wrench. But, the argument could be made, if you somehow don’t know what a piano is for, I can photographically tell you it is… a crescent wrench. The clear object in the above photo is designed for one task only…to hold and help dispense razor blade cartridges (see left). Its context is so narrow that, as soon as I remove it from my bathroom sink, it is already without a visual frame of reference. I can thus abstract it in nearly any way I want…for example, suggesting that it’s a futuristic concept car in a world’s fair. Yes, it’s a fairly silly exercise, but I show it here not to demonstrate how marvelously inventive I am but how inventive it’s possible to be, once an interesting thing is de-purposed and then re-purposed by the photographer’s eye.
What is macro photography, if not an attempt to make us see things in a completely different way, to make a creepy bug look like a marvel of engineering or a garden flower a self-contained universe? We don’t really consider to what extent we are constantly re-purposing things with our cameras. Even adjustment in white balance or lighting are attempts to impose our own perception onto reality…..again, to take it out of one context (the sky is always blue in the afternoon) and re-frame it in another (not today: today the sky is magenta). For me, the ultimate complement is not, “oh, what a pretty picture” but “I never looked at it that way.” Because photography begins as a mere documentary craft, but ripens, in the right hands, into an interpretive art.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A FEW WEEKS LATE in observing what has become a nearly annual habit in the pages of The Normal Eye since its launch some nine years ago. Like all of us (and certainly most photographers), I get swept up in what I think is important in the moment, and I can, at times, forget my manners. I’ve slung a lot of words in your direction over the better part of a decade, but only two of them really matter.
Thanks for subscribing. For reading. For sticking around. For caring enough to take issue with ideas, and to occasionally add your support for them. Thanks for helping me remember that, although technical knowledge is always a key part of photography, the real things that animate it as an art are motivations. Dreams. Attempts to make a visual record of our desires and dreads. To say that photography is about a certain camera or lens or setting is to say that painting is about the brushes, and we have always tried to keep our main mission in focus: to share, yes, what tools can help us, but, most importantly, what it feels like to face creative decisions and do your best to realize those decisions in a remarkably flexible medium, possibly the greatest storytelling vehicle man has ever known.
These pages pose plenty of questions, but I have tried not to insist that my personal answers to those questions are recommendations for all. I’m not Dear Abby. I have no set solutions to challenges that register differently with every eye and every camera. At most, what I write here is in the way of a field diary: I was presented with this and I decided to try….that. What you read here is an active, developing story of what I encounter and learn on my journey. You may find some common notes between my melody and yours, and you just as easily might dismiss that melody as noise. And that’s just fine.
While rummaging through a lot of old files in recent days (we all have extra time on our hands these days) I’m struck with how many images I’ve made of the insides of museums. Not to document the specific exhibitions of any particular place, but to show the feeling that I get inside such spaces. The potential for amazement. The fact that, any second now, something transformative could swing out of the darkness into clear view..challenging me to see differently. In that way, all of life serves as a museum, a collection of artifacts that can appear, depending on our perception, either as elegant clutter or inspiration. I know what choice I’ve made, and it’s the same choice made by all of you, every time you seek other sources of joy, other teachers, other talents. Thanks for making The Normal Eye one of the stops on your journey, and thanks for the energy you have invested in helping me make it better.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOON WE WILL STOP REFERRING TO THE DAILY GLOBAL TOTAL OF SELF-PORTRAITS by any specific number, since the actual figure will be (a) impossible to ascertain and (b) so astronomical as to be meaningless. A quick shuffle through just our own collection of selfies for a given period gives us an idea what happens when technical ease meets runaway narcissism. Or to put it simpler, we take a $%#@-ton of pictures of us. We love us.
The current Great Hibernation (or Uber-Lockdown, or Mass-Incarceration or Panic-Room Marathon) is forcing us to spend even more time with our favorite person, and it stands to reason that the circumstances will change the way we decide to document what we are personally enduring. Here I am in the sixth week of my bad haircut. This is me in my formal sweatpants. I don’t know where I took this…or what time…or what day/week/month. Change the nature of a photographic subject and you’re bound to change how you’ll document that subject.
The whole social context has been warped out of shape, and so must our image of ourselves, which, after all, is shaped by how we interact, where we go, what constitutes a good or bad day. And so self-portraits are being forcibly filtered through a completely different set of criteria than they were just a heartbeat ago, when all we had to do to be somewhere else was, you know, go there. The way emotions play across our faces will be pretzeled into interesting new shapes as a consequence. As we age in this particular barrel, we will be changed. Some of us will emerge from it as palpably different from the animals that went in.
That creates challenge for photographers, especially when it’s us shooting us. How trustworthy are we as narrators? How aware of we of the subtle changes we undergo when the toilet paper runs low? The pictures will eventually provide the chronicle. But in the interim, we need to ask different questions, seek different angles, spot variances. Hey, we might as well be honest. The camera never lies, right?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE THING THAT GUARANTEES VIRTUALLY INFINITE VARIETY AMONG PHOTOGRAPHERS is that, not only do we all see most things completely differently, we also vary wildly on what it is important to see. Turn ten photographers loose on the same subject and the results might just as well have been shot on different planets. Our individual brains seems to rank things in the world by how “view-essential” they are, or how worthy they are of our notice. This renders somethings that are vital to me nearly invisible to you.
We’ve all experienced the strange feeling of looking at images taken by someone else of a place that we have both visited at the same time, and seeing things that we could swear were never there. Who put that fountain near the plaza? Wasn’t the mountain to the left? Our mind is selectively failing to see some of the very same information that is obviously available to it, making our own work with cameras subject to selective invisibilities.
What renders something important enough for us to actively acknowledge it? Can some things become so common, so ubiquitous in our lives that we no longer see them? In the case of the vintage cabinets shown here: what, in our daily lives, could have been more commonplace, more taken for granted, than a bank of public telephone booths? How could these structures have been more widespread than they once were, in railway stations, courthouses, department stores, bus terminals, and a million other gathering places? And would that commonality have placed them somewhat below our radar, visually speaking? Now turn that on its head: what could be more noticeable than when this everyday object is rendered obsolete, its purpose vanished in a blink of technology? Will that thing now be more visible, or completely vanished, and for whom?
I bring this up to unstick us from the tired idea that “everything’s already been photographed”, that, for the camera, there is nothing new under the sun. In reality, were we to start shooting images of all the things we have, for one reason or another, failed to see all our lives, we would find poetry and plenty in what we think of as “nothing”. Many things that are “here” go unseen simply because we will not see them, and many things that are “gone” remain because we will.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST DAYS OF PHOTOGRAPHY MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE A REALM OF CONJURED DREAMS, as technology first enabled man to snatch instants from the flowing continuum of time. This grabbing and freezing process, the notion of stopping history and imprisoning it on a plate, involved a great deal of experimentation, as the very rules of exposure were being drafted on the fly. At first, both optics and recording media were slow to drink in light, meaning that calculating the precise duration for which to uncap the lens was, in the period before mechanical shutters, largely a matter of guesswork. Thus was born the world’s first photographic “aritifacts”, the blurred smears of things or people that kept moving during prolonged exposures. The Reverend H.J.Morton, writing for the Philadelphia Photographer in 1865, summed up the surreal experience of finding ghosts lurking in an otherwise frozen scene:
A beautiful picture lies smiling before the lens, when a cow gets up slowly and walks away deliberately, giving us a fine landscape with a continuous cow of many heads, much body, and centipedian legs.
Today, with the lightning-fast response that is built into even the simplest cameras, that cow can only be summoned in a deliberate time exposure, typically with the camera mounted on a tripod. It’s fair to say that our motives for making these kind of images has changed over the years, again, mostly due to technological advances, including vibration suppression, wider ISO ranges, and enhanced noise reduction (which works hand-in-glove to clean up high-ISO pictures). Fact is, there are fewer instances than ever before in which long exposures are needed, unless we utilize them to generate the very artifacts that we used to wish we could eliminate. As one example, everyone eventually creates at least one “light trail” photo, letting cars zoom through a long exposure largely unseen while leaving the glowing paths of their headlamps hanging mystically in the air. And there are certain collapsed studies of long durations which can only be appreciated by prying the lens open for a few extra beats. In the case of the above image, I was photographing the final night before the closure of a local art cinema, which would soon be razed to make room for a bigger cineplex with more screens, more room, and far less charm. I felt as if a lot of Spirits Of Cinema Past were in attendance, and so mounted a tripod to turn the customers themselves into passing shadows, just like the many spectres that had flickered across the theatre’s screens over the decades. And that’s the strange time-travel feature of photography: one era’s annoyance is another era’s cherished effect.
I seldom use my tripods any more, but having recently inherited one from a departed friend, I find myself recalling the days when it was my near-constant companion, a reverie which, in turn, sent me searching back for the theatre images. Making pictures is about harnessing the light with whatever lasso we have handy. As we grow, we learn to do more with less, creating in seconds what used to require elaborate forethought. But all that really means is that, as we improve, we are freer to focus on the picture, rather than the mechanics of making one. That means choices….and yes, even the choice to do conjure ghosts if the fancy strikes us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PATTERNS ARE KIND OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC ABSOLUTE, in that they require no context for comprehension in an image. We needn’t explain such arrangements of negative and positive space, such as the latticework of a single snowflake: their mere existence is story enough. We find endless fascination in the spirals within the heart of a flower, the alternating light and shadow inside a stairwell. Of course, we can certainly take the time to remark further about them, but the best photographs of patterns go way beyond our ability to justify them with mere words. In a visual medium, they are their own best testimony.
Other patterns resist interpretation for the reason that they are clearly of another time, so far removed from our own present-day experience as to be meaningless to us beyond their shape and contours. We can view mosaics from a vanished culture, but are prevented from deciphering their symbols: we find a flute from centuries past but can’t read the notated music that was intended to be played on it. In more recent terms, the technology that remade the planet during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century has left behind a rusting legacy of devices which speak very little as to their original functions. Masses of gears, wheels and belts which once were the stuff of everyday existence now need captions to even be comprehended by our eyes. Thus, as visual subjects, their patterns are so obsolete as to be abstract, presenting merely a mixture of textures and tones to our contemporary cameras.
The world is moving so quickly that even the wildly speculative “future” gizmos seen at the World’s Fairs of the 1960’s already need auxiliary context to be fully appreciated. In one respect, as purely visual artists, we are actually freed by this phenomenon. When a thing becomes unanchored from its original purpose, the photographer can assign any purpose to it that he pleases. The object is nothing, and so, paradoxically, it can be everything. Consider the mass of machinery in the above shot. Were I not to tell you its original use, would you recognize it as part of the machinery to be found in a flour milling facility from the 1800’s? Does knowing or not knowing that fact detract from its impact as an image? Are you all right with patterns that are truly absolute, scenes that are merely themselves, and nothing more?
You are always in charge of what you want your pictures to say. You can record events and people at face value, or you can imbue them with additional meaning. Or no meaning whatsoever. The camera is thus just a servo-mechanism. It’s not in charge of saying what the world is. That power, that responsibility, has always been yours and yours alone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE DOCUMENTS THAT ARE SHAPED BY PERFORMANCES. That sentence, at this point in history, seems so obvious that it seems superfluous to even state. But it wasn’t always seen that way.
The camera, at its creation, was feared and reviled as the very opposite of an art instrument, characterized as a soulless machine that recorded without seeing, without interpreting. Whereas the painter filtered the world through the experiences and emotions coursing through his heart and mind, the photographer just held a box, and the box merely measured light. The box was seen as a cold, lifeless thing could never render a breathing, living world. Could it?
But the box, it turned out, was never merely held, never just pointed, and its eye never merely etched data on a plate. How it was held, what it was pointed at made a crucial, measurable difference. What it framed and what it excluded made other differences. And then there was the eye of the thing. Turned out, even that glassy orb could, in time, be adjusted, made more sensitive, more attentive. In fact, photography was becoming, after the science was scoped out, a performer’s medium, no less than a person holding an instrument called a paintbrush, or striking an instrument called a piano. There was an expectation, an anxiety involved in the act, a desire to get it right. Each single photograph was subtlely different from all others, and the difference was in the nature of the performance.
I go through this meditation (or one like it) whenever I am on the eve of tackling a photographic subject that has eluded me for a long period of time. As you read this, I’m only days away from making a pilgrimage of sorts to such a subject, something that will be hard to re-visit in the future, and for which a lot of very fast, do-or-die decisions will be made in the moment. Well, do-or-die is a little dramatic: there is, after all, nothing really important on the line here. The subject matter doesn’t involve a breaking news event, nor will my success or failure in bringing back the pictures I want have any impact on life as we know it.
I just want to get it right.
The image seen here is of an access gate that is as close as I have ever gotten to my subject in the past. It is also the least beautiful feature of said subject, hence my annoying case of nerves.
My anxiety, though truly laughable/pathetic, accompanies things that I care about, and maybe that’s a good definition of art….an attempt to make sense of the things we care about. Just pointing a box cannot produce that feeling. But photography has never really been about the box, has it?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth —The Undisputed Truth
One can smile and smile, and yet be a villain…..William Shakespeare
THE GREAT ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, writing in her wonderful treatise on technique, At Work, confesses that she never asks her subjects to smile, leaving their most natural expression to emerge (or even remain hidden) as they choose. I love this idea, since I believe that smiles have forever been the mandatory mask we reflexively profer to the camera in nearly every setting, to the detriment, occasionally, of trustworthiness in our pictures. We smile at birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, weddings, perhaps occasionally even at funerals. We gamely grin our way through every occasion that calls for a photographic record, freezing our faces into rictuses amid toothy recitations of the word “Cheeeeeese“, as if any other response to a lens is incomplete, or, worse, rude. Ironically, when the grimace becomes too strained, we may even urge the shooter to “hurry up and take the picture”, lest our face freeze that way. Nevertheless, smiles are the social default, the unspoken civil grammar of portraiture.
And yet, consider how many astounding, revelatory portraits are virtually smile-less, or how we can sometimes view an image with outright suspicion if the smiles within it strike us as forced or contrived. More importantly, we might ask ourselves, what the hell is everyone so happy about? The urge to smile, darn you, smile in photographs is certainly a deeply rooted one. Perhaps the first person to beam for the camera was also the first person who didn’t have to pose stock-still for a full minute just to be recorded by the slow media of the 1800’s, a rod jacked up his back to keep his head immobilized. Who knows? But whatever the original motivation was to “look pleasant” (as early shooters often instructed), it stuck, and is now, in the age of the social-media-fed fueled selfie, practically an article of faith. We’re all so damned overjoyed to be here. Just take the picture, willya?
Have we all become slaves to the mandatory mask? Dare we have our picture taken when it’s not “a beautiful day in the neighborhood”? Are we doomed to endlessly emulate Alfred E. Neuman’s “what, me worry?” smirk? Can’t there be more to a portrait than just a simulation of jollity? Certainly we need not consistently present ourselves as dour grumps before the camera, but there must be some kind of happy (content? beneficient? neutral?) medium. Is the boy in the shot seen here any less “real” or interesting just because he forgot to say the “c” word? Or did we happen upon something closer to his real self that the mandatory mask might have concealed?
Every portrait is different, since every person’s face is a different and unique set of stories. Might it not take more than a mere smile to get all those stories told in an authentic way? Without a doubt, happiness, real happiness, is an experience that every photographer aspires to capture. But, emotionally, happiness is not the only arrow in the shooter’s quiver. If we’re really about truth-telling in our pictures, we have to get comfortable when something other than the mask shows up in the final product.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE OLDER I BECOME, both as a person and as a photographer, I wonder if there truly is any such thing as a “self-portrait”. Of course, I don’t doubt that it’s technically easier than ever to record one’s own image in a photograph. What I do doubt is whether the term portrait is a valid one when applied to oneself. Simply, can we be objective enough to accurately interpret who we are with a camera that we ourselves wield?
Now, bear with me. This isn’t as hippy-dippy as it sounds.
Many of us can recall the first time we heard out recorded voice played back. Its sounded alien, untrue, outside ourselves, even abstract. Similarly, we have also disparaged other people’s attempts to “capture” us in a photograph, dismissing their efforts with “that doesn’t even look like me!” Does this mean that the other person’s camera somehow transformed us into a distortion of ourselves? Or is it, rather, that we have an imperfect concept of what our actual appearance really is? But….okay, let’s suppose for a moment that everyone else in the world that takes our photo somehow doesn’t “get” us, that we, out of our vast knowledge of our own hearts and minds, are, in fact, the only person qualified to reveal ourselves in a photograph. All right, that being our theory, what are the real results of our having, especially in the current age, almost unlimited “do-overs” to get our pictures of ourselves “just right”?
After all, as much sheer practice as we have taking images of ourselves (and it is some real tonnage, folks), we should have reached some plateau of proficiency, some perfecting of process for telling our true story. But have we? Are you satisfied that your best, most authentic self resides in a picture that you yourself have taken? I know that, in my own case, I can only confirm that I have gotten better at producing a version of myself that I choose to represent me to the world. I have crafted a performance out of my own talent as a photographer that shows me in the most flattering light, portraying me, by turns, as thoughtful, funny, courageous, resilient, and whatever other recipe of herbs and spices flatter me most. But have any of these performances qualified as “portraits”? I can’t answer that question with complete confidence….and neither, I suspect, can many of you.
So is the “self-portrait” destined to be a beautifully concocted lie? Well, to a degree, yes, always. Those of us who apply an unflinching and honest eye to our own shortcomings and biases may occasionally approach the truth in the way we present ourselves to our own cameras. And a few of us will even achieve a kind of angelic honesty. And it will always, always be easy to have the whole process collapse in self-parody. But the point is this: given the sheer volume of “selfie” traffic loose in the modern world, we should at least try to break through our estrangements, our protective layers. A photograph can certainly be seductive even when it’s a lie. Sometimes because it’s a lie. But from time to time, it’s nice to take a gut check and see if we recall what the truth looks like as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY AT ITS MOST EFFECTIVE, is a pure and wordless kind of storytelling, virtually limitless and astoundingly efficient. Using a visual shorthand, that is, the static image stolen in an instant, we can suggest any narrative, past, present or future. Our tales not only feed off the storyteller’s intent but also off of what the viewer interprets. We can make anything mean anything. If stories are a constantly moving parade, we determine where the “hop on” and “hop off” points in it will be.
We do this by controlling the frame.
We make very intentional choices in a photographic frame. What is included is vital, but so is what is deliberately excluded, since both choices spark the imagination. We are, in effect, having a conversation, a debate over those choices with our audiences. Why did we show this and not that? Is this thing important because it naturally occurred in the picture, or am I making it important because I placed it there? And what do I think about what the photographer decided to leave out?
As the aforementioned parade of existence passes, the photographer’s hop-on point for the eye can supply context, showing connection between one thing and another…..or it can editorially destroy context, forcing us to see a thing in isolation, on its own terms. Consider, for a moment, the….. thing in the above image. Where did I get it? What was its purpose versus other things in its “world”? Can you, the viewer, assign it a new association that, for you, works just as well as the original?
All this discussion, all this interpretation, all these individual conceptions of what a thing “is”…all abetted by assembling the frame and than adding and subtracting within it. We talk a lot in these pages about the various sciences of photographic measurement…..exposure, light, apertures…. but I think composition outranks them all. Sure, know how to harness the tools that will help you record your message. But first, figure out what the hell you’re talking about.
And where you want your passengers to hop on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY PHOTOGRAPHER WORTH THE NAME is supposed to embrace landscapes, right? I mean, scenes of sea coasts and mountain ranges were among the first “official” subject categories photography inherited from the world of painting. The earliest pictures created with a “machine” pretended to legitimacy by capturing the same tableaux as those captured with a brush. I get that. But, as I have confessed many times in these pages, I often feel cast adrift in approaching “scenery” shots. I have more difficulty in shaping their narrative, whereas walking around a city, I feel like stories are literally laying all over the ground. I may have a general sense of what a landscape should look like, whereas I don’t always know what they are about. I have plenty of terrain, but no maps.
Think in terms of whatever kind of photograph you yourself feel most challenged. Do you shy away from your shorter suit because the task is too technically daunting, or because you feel unsure of what to say? It seems that landscapes often come to me without any clearly stated rules of engagement. What is a good composition? How crowded, how “busy” with visual elements can it be? Is the answer simply to render more detail than the next guy, that is, set for f/64 and show everything in tack sharpness, as if recording a scene “faithfully” were all? Or, as in the shot shown here (which I actually like), can a picture be dreamily soft and tremendously crowded with stuff, and still “work”?
The really maddening thing is that I just don’t have these inner dialogues when I’m shooting street scenes, abstracts, portraits. I don’t worry about whether a thing should be done, I just do it. Moreover, I trust myself to do it without a lot of dithering. But landscapes make me stop and worry. Maybe that pausing will lead to more deliberate thinking, and, in turn, to better pictures. The jury’s still out.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS THE GREATEST SINGLE MOTIVATOR, FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, is the eternal attempt to narrow the gap between what is seen and what can be shown, a permanent sense of one’s pictures coming up short, doomed to mere actuality versus the grand visions dancing in our heads. We shoot, we lament having “missed it”, and we shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I’ve written before, here, on the most frustrating, if tantalizing, subjects within that overall challenge….scenes or objects that we are free to repeatedly, endlessly re-shoot in hopes of “getting it right”, chasing the same things year after year, camera after camera, lens after lens, like Ahab chasing the White Whale round the world’s oceans.
These inexhaustible things are usually a staple of our immediate environment, part of our daily drives or walks, our standard routines. The maddening thing is that such hyper-familiar things should, eventually, submit to our art, should finally be captured in some final, completed fashion. But, in many cases, they remain studies, rehearsals, sketches. Unfinished business.
The tree you see here is one of my personal White Whales. I must drive past it at least five times a week, mostly in a quick glimpse out the window of my car. I have seen it in every season, every type of light, every mood filter within my own head. I have thrilled as it billowed to its fullest flower and mourned when groundskeepers judged it too wild and rangy, pruning it in ways that threaten, for a time, to obliterate the tree’s identity. I have parked and stepped over to pay it closer tribute with this lens or that, shooting full-on, in macro mode along trunk grain or branch lines, in fisheye, sharp detail, selective focus, monochrome and color. Each rendition gives me something; no one image delivers all.
Your particular tree (or house, or face, or river, or..) can both energize and enervate your photography. Even your failures can be seen as a prelude to inevitable success, as rehearsals toward a final, finessed performance. That feeling of being on a conveyor belt to Paradise is the essence of art, with the journey teasing us that there is, actually, a destination. If you have no White Whale of your own, I recommend heading out to sea, and scanning the horizon until you see one spout. Then grab a camera and try to tell someone about it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONCEPT OF THE STILL–LIFE is one of the most malleable in all of photography. Pore over enough image anthologies and you’ll see the term applied to every type of conglomeration of objects. Scale doesn’t matter, nor do either complexity or simplicity.
Story, however, does.
Annie Liebowitz’ massive shot of the cluttered interior of singer Pete Seeger’s workshop, jammed with tools, scraps and other glorious geegaws, forms a rich phantom portrait of the absent master. On the other end of the spectrum, the simple, classic bowl of fruit can suggest a time, a mood, and a place, all within the space of a few square inches. A still life is most eloquent when it implies existences without actually showing them. There is a life in these things. The photographer leaves behind clues as to whose.
I tend to feel the presence of people in empty rooms. I’m not saying I see apparitions of dead folks. The sensation is more like what I imagine Sherlock Holmes might experience when initially arriving upon a crime scene. To the great fictional sleuth, all rooms fairly scream out their stories: every stick of furniture, every scrap of food, every scattered book testifies in some way. Of course, photographs eventually prove that there is no such thing in nature as an “empty room”. Human activity leaves an after-image: we don’t scrub a place of evidence just because we physically leave it. Effective still-lifes recover part of that ethereal data.
It’s a great exercise in minimalism to see how little you need to show in a still life of a room and still suggest a narrative. It’s not necessary to tell the entire story. You need only pique your viewer’s curiosity as to what might have happened, or what the potential plot line of the scene could be. Photography, after all, is an interpretive art, and only a percentage of a place’s “reality” ever makes it into the frame. A still life, from Pete’s workshop to the bowl of fruit, is all about extrapolating from the seen to the unseen. If you’re lucky, someone outside yourself will see what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME MEMORIES ARE BURIED SO DEEPLY in our mental archives that, like old snapshots, they deteriorate, browning along the edges, retrieved only in imprecise or incomplete detail. Ironically, these mainstays of our very personhood evolve over time from fact into folklore, rendering fundamental, formative events unreliable, suspect.
And if one’s personal memory of a time or place is less than “actual”, what about photographs of the places where those imperfect memories were forged? How can camera images of battlefields, home towns, even one’s childhood home record anything real beyond physical dimensions?
The park in the above picture first entered my consciousness in the late 1950’s, when my mother had medical appointments a block away and my father walked me around the perimeter of the pond to kill time while she lingered in the waiting room. I recall very specific things about tile mosaics of fish set in the concrete walkways around the water, and a few flashing impressions of a nearby cafe which no longer exists, but that’s pretty much the sum total of my memories of the place.
So, as a photographer in 2017, how do I even attempt to make a visual document of this locale? Any specifics of my own experiences here have been smeared and sandpapered until they only represent a part of a part of the real story. Shouldn’t I, in fact, sort of “free-associate” the scene, assuming that any fresh impressions are at least as trustworthy as my moth-eaten memories of it? Since I can’t reasonably capture a faded dream, isn’t the dream realm where I should draw for the missing pieces?
We only suppose that a camera, which at one level is a mere recording instrument, will act as an objective reporter on the current sites of our old adventures. But that’s the problem. It can only take measure of things as they are, not the unique mix of fact and fable that passes for experience in our imperfect minds. And so we frown at the results and mutter, “it’s not like it was…”
The reply to which should be: how would we know?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE APPS BEING PEDDLED as post-production fixes for mobile photographs are one-trick ponies, limited in their range. This is less so than it once was, with new apps adding progressively more features, but there are still tons of single-purpose processes out there, gobbling up phone storage with apps that perform one task well. Want a second task? Download another app.
The fun part for me is to discover that, while a given app may have been created to solve a particular problem, it can also be used creatively to do something completely different. Take the example of the now-cliched creation of so-called “small planet” pictures, in which a standard landscape is spiraled into a ball shape, with its various tree and buildings now looking like features on a self-contained world, rather like the illustrations in The Little Prince. This process was once a somewhat complicated one, but, like almost everything else in the digital world, it’s been shorthanded to a few clicks and sliders in apps like Rollworld, which is not only cheap but insanely simple to use.
If you approach the use of such a specialized app in the simplest way, you’ll produce your five or ten little planet images (see photo at upper left corner), get the novelty boiled out of your blood, and then move on to something newer and shinier. However, Rollworld and programs like it can be a nice creative tool beyond their most obvious trick. The various sliders in RW let you not only roll your original linear image but control how it rolls, allowing a kind of folding-in, folding-out distortion. You can thus completely abstract even the most mundane cityscape into a symmetric pattern of textures, maximizing small things or relegating prominent features to the background. Other Rollworld sliders allow you to determine the tightness or looseness of the roll, to control the angle of the pitch, even swipe features from one part of the image across parts of the others to mirror or multiply specific items into a better symmetry. Call it Kaleidoscope-in-a-box.
I even import some of my standard DSLR images from various websites like Flickr (see above right) into my phone so they can be processed by the app as well. One problem: You want to save your end product at the highest possible file size. Even at that, some of them will only display well on monitors or the web, and may be too small for good resolution when printed out. This is a major problem with phone images in general: they are still designed, for the most part, to be outputted to other phones and screens.
The idea here is that many apps are capable of giving you more than the advertised effect if you play a little. It takes so little time and effort to experiment that you quickly build experimentation into your typical workflow. And that can only help you grow faster as a photographer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“REALITY”, THOUGHT TO BE the normal end product of the process of pointing a camera at something, is actually rather limiting. Sure, our little boxes were originally created as an accurate, even scientific means for recording our world.. a method more reliable, somehow, than the imprecision of the painter. Soon afterward, however, the camera longed for a soul of its own, or at least the painter’s freedom to make a subjective choice as to what “real” should look like.
Bottom line: for photographers, mere reality turned out to be, well, kind of a yawner.
To go even further, it seems to me that certain subjects actually call for a kind of unworldly, almost hallucinatory quality, an attempt to make things look not like what they are but how they feel. Of course, we can’t actually show emotions or states of mind, but various photographic techniques can, and should suggest them.
In visualizing ritual, ceremony, sacrament, or tradition, for example, you’re not merely chronicling activity. You’re also photographing mystery, or an extra dimension of consciousness. The above image, in terms of mere reality, is of a class for museum visitors curious to learn bout the Brazilian ritual of capoeira, a traditional fake-fighting martial arts performance that is performed during carnival and other national festivals. Now, you can shoot such a subject “realistically” (evenly lit, uniform focus, sharp detail), or aesthetically (dark, selectively blurred, even a little confusing), depending on what kind of feel you’re going for. This goes to the heart of interpretation. You’re not merely presenting reality: you are representing it.
Photographs originate in the mind, not in the camera, and so it must follow that there are as many “realities” as there are photographers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW all the elements of a story to tell it visually. Yes, photography certainly has the technical means to tell a detailed tale, but that narrative need not be spelled out in every particular by the camera.
Indeed, it might be the very information that’s “missing” that may be the most compelling element of a visual story. That is to say, if you don’t know all the facts, make the picture. And if you do have all the facts, maybe leave out a few…. and make the picture anyway.
The above image illustrates this strange mis-match between storytelling and story material. As a shooter, I’m tantalizingly close to the couple at the table next door to me at a plaza restaurant. I mean, I can practically count the salt grains on the lady’s salad. I can also tell, by her male companion’s hand gestures, that a lively conversation is underway. But that is the sum total of what I know. I can’t characterize the discussion. A business planner? A lover’s quarrel? Closing the sale? Sharing some gossip? Completely unknown. Sure, I could strain to pick up a word here or there, but that alone may not be enough to provide any additional context, and, in fact, I don’t need that information to make a picture.
This is what I call “low info, high narrative”, because I don’t require all the facts of this scene to sell the message of the picture, which is conversation. As a matter of fact, my having to leave out part of the image’s backstory might actually broaden the appeal of the final product, since the viewer is now partnering with me to provide his/her version of what that story might be. It’s like my suggesting the face of a witch. By merely using words like ugly or horrible, I’ve placed you in charge of the “look” of the witch. You’ve provided a vital part of the picture.
You won’t always have the luxury of knowing everything about what you’re photographing. And, thankfully, it doesn’t really matter a damn. That’s why we call this process making a picture. We aren’t merely passive recorders, but active, interpretive storytellers. High narrative beats low info every time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUTTERING SUFFERS A BAD REPUTATION, coming somewhere on the disreputability scale between “screwing around” and “just passing the time”, poking an insolent finger in the eye of the Puritan work ethic. The headmaster’s voice echoes from the land of Hard-Won Wisdom: Time is money. Make something of yourself. Whattaya gonna do, waste the entire day?
Yeah, replies the photographer within you. Thought I might….
Making a picture isn’t the same process as building a bridge. You don’t always end the project with the same aims as you began with. Like any other artistic enterprise, the answer might come in the journey, rather than the destination. And a photographer, caught in mid-creation and asked, “what you doing?” should be quite comfortable answering, “you know, I’m not really sure yet…”
The above image is a total exercise in “let’s see what happens if I do this“, and at no time in the making of it did I have a set plan or firm objective: I just did know when to stop, but everything else was negotiable in the moment. I wasn’t wasting time: I was investing it.
At first, I was trying to take a picture of my back yard, which over my shoulder, as it was reflected in the glass cabinet door in front of me. I was about to kill the power on the amplifier on a shelf behind the door when a test shot revealed something unusual. At my chosen aperture, the amp’s two red LEDs weren’t reading as sharp points of light, but as diffuse outer circles surrounding soft inner circles, almost like a pair of feral eyes. And at that point, the garden scene slowly started to take a back seat.
Shooting the glass door at a slight angle made my body register as a reflection, while shooting straight on turned me into a silhouette, which would become handy. Now that I was just a shape, I could be anything, so I positioned myself to where the dots indeed appeared to glowing, spooky eyes. Shooting with my right hand, my body details now masked by shadow, I crossed my left hand over beyond the right edge of my body, posing it to look as if I were stealing something, or perhaps twisting the dial on a combination safe. Having thus established the behavior for the character I was now creating, I grabbed my wife’s garden hat and threw a bed blanket around my shoulders for some sinister atmosphere. Click and done, with my newly imagined Phantom Blot plotting his way into the house. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew when to stop playing. Total time investment: five big minutes.
You won’t always have an organized blueprint for a picture when you set about making one. Besides, if you confine yourself solely to the familiar when shooting, eventually all of your photos will start to resemble each other, and not in a good, “cohesive body of work” way.
Screw with the formula. Embrace the uncertain.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MEMORY ISN’T SHARPLY DEFINED OR TIDY, and so the act of conjuring remembrance in art is never as forensically factual as sliding open an autopsy drawer. The yester-thing that we treasure most dearly are the true opposite of clinical artifacts: they are, instead, bleary, distorted, indistinct, and mysterious. Small wonder that trying to fix memory on a camera sensor is like trying to pitchfork smoke.
Creating images in an attempt to capture the past is a huge part of photography, but it’s a no-man’s land without clear markings or signs. We begin our visual argument by asserting that our version of a memory is the official one… but official according to whom? Even people who have shared a specific event will offer different testimony of what it “really” was. And that very subjective uncertainty becomes one of photography’s greatest charms.
It only took a few years for early shooters to conclude that photographs need not be confined to merely measuring or documenting the world. Early on, they enlisted fancy and whimsy to the cause of depicting memory, just as painters did. And conversely, once there was a machine like the camera to perform the task of faithfully recording “reality”, painters began to abandon it for Impressionism and everything that followed after. Both arts began, like Alice, to regularly venture out on both sides of the looking glass.
A great part of photography’s allure is in discovering how little objective reality has to be in image involving memory, and what an adventure it is to escape the actual in the pursuit of the potential. The camera lets us tell lovely lies in pursuit of the truth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU WOULD SUPPOSE that sustained, intimate contact with a photographic subject would inevitably lead to a superior, if not perfect rendering of that subject in an image. And supposing further that said subject is a person, you’d assume that one’s close bond with the subject couldn’t fail to produce the ultimate visual depiction of that person….a glimpse into their very essence.
Or so you’d suppose.
There is a reason why so many shooters pursue the same faces, many belonging to dear friends or loved ones, over a lifetime of picture-making….never quite able to reduce a face to its essence or its definitive “version”. It’s not that they don’t yet know enough about that particular arrangement of shapes and features. It’s that they know too much to settle for any single interpretation of them.
No sooner does the face of the Dear One display a given mood or aspect than it shifts like an active weather front to a completely different mix of elements. Faces are selves arrested in mid-flight, and, being in constant motion, rob us of the picture we originally set out to capture, only to bestow a fresh one on us. The “new” person we now see is, certainly, the same individual, but changed enough that we are off on a completely different mission, visually speaking. That is both frustrating and fulfilling.
The slices of persona that we freeze in the camera are just that: shifting glimpses. That means that, unlike pictures of monuments or mountains, they can’t be “done” in any permanent way. Add to this the change in how we all relate to each other over time, and it makes perfect sense to refresh our view of the most familiar faces an infinite number of times.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NOT STAND-ALONE WORKS OF ART, BUT CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN ARTIST AND AUDIENCE. You don’t just stride up to that framed image on the wall and let its wonderfulness wash over you; you bring what you have been, over a lifetime, to it, comparing those two entities side by side, and even assigning your own truth to the photo, “deciding” what it means. The pictures don’t speak to you: you debate with each other.
Think about the images that, over a lifetime, have reached you in the deepest way. Did those photographs bring you something that you didn’t already have, or was it echoed, defined, re-purposed, based on who you’ve been thus far, or how you see? How else to explain why a picture moves one person to tears, while it leaves another completely nonplussed? Of course, some photographs almost accidentally produce a similar result to a wide variety of viewers, but there are far more of them where the messaging is muddled, imprecise.
And that’s a good thing.
I made the above image several days ago purely as an experiment, using an earlier one of my pictures as a prop within what’s obviously a staged shot. The completed “new” photograph was part of an assignment by an image sharing group I belong to, which laid down several elements that had to be in the final picture: a hand covered by something, that same hand touching something, and a de-saturated color palette. Beyond that, I had complete control of how those elements would be combined or interpreted.
The reason I began to play with some older pictures was chiefly to see if I could take a photo made with one specific mood in mind and re-purpose it within a new context, making the image elicit something completely different. So, without further background or explanation, the challenge to you: what does this particular image (which has an older image within it) convey to you, if anything? What is the dominant mood or the implied backstory? And even if what you’re seeing is not the same as what I set out to “say”, does the picture have any relevance for you personally? Does it have any narrative value, or is it merely an exercise in technique?
Context isn’t everything in a photograph, but neither is any image is absorbed in a vacuum. We color our approach to it in some way, becoming, in essence, its co-creator. You may not be in the frame, but you’re definitely in the picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY WOULD BE A SNAP (sorry) if the camera actually possessed not just an eye, but also a brain. But that’s where you come in.
When the human eye takes in a scene, the brain automatically ranks all the information within it, basically making a composition of priority. We “see” some things and “don’t see” others, based on how our grey matter ranks the importance of everything in our field of vision. A camera cannot make these fine decisions: it merely makes a light record of what it’s pointed at. That accounts for the fact that our “perfect” landscape, the one we ourselves recalled from the first day of vacation, comes back, in a mere photo, complete with electrical wires, distracting signs, junk near the beach, and any other number of things our brains filtered out of the original viewing experience.
Composition is thus a matter of our deliberately arranging things by priority, making an argument for our audience to Look Here First, Only Look Here, Give Greater Weight To This Over That, or any other messaging we desire. In sales terms, it’s what pitchmen call Asking For The Order. Simply, composing a photograph means setting the terms of engagement for the viewer’s eye.
With still-life photographs, the shooter has the greatest degree of control and responsibility. After all, our subject is stationary, easily moved and arranged to our whim. You pretty much are lord of your domain. That being said, it’s wise to use this luxury of time and control to envision as many ways as possible to convey your message. The image at the top of this page, for example, is crowded, but the nut shells and the unshelled nuts are a study in textural contrast. There’s lots of color and detail, with one side being somewhat blanched while the other is rough and complex. That’s one way of making the image.
For comparison, in the second frame, the terms of engagement are completely different. The pile of shells at left is more sharply contrasted with the single nut at right. The nut carries the only vivid color in the image; it’s an outlier, a misfit…maybe the last man/nut standing? The simplification of the composition lets it breathe a little, allowing the viewer to speculate, invent. Are the shells symbolic of a mound of nuts that have already been polished off in some grand snacking orgy? Why was one lone nut left to tell the tale? And so on.
Change the arrangement of subjects in a scene and you’ve changed the terms of narration, or even insisted that there is no narration, just patterns, light, or abstraction. Whichever path you choose, no composition comes to the camera “ready to eat”, as it were. You have to tell your camera’s mechanical eye what to see, and how to see it.