By MICHAEL PERKINS
“A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE“, wrote Gertrude Stein, asserting that a thing is merely itself, and nothing else. It’s a classic quote, but a sentiment which is belied by any kind of interpretative art. For the painter, the poet, the photographer, or the sculpturer, the physical limits of an object are merely the jumping-off point to one’s personal way of depicting or describing. Certainly, in one sense, a rose is “merely” a rose. However, in the hands of an artist, it is always, potentially, on its way to being everything else.
Photographers instinctively know that they are not mere recorders of “reality”, that, in their hands, subjects are exaggerated, emphasized, abstracted. We make images of roses, certainly, but also the rose-pluses, the rose-minuses, the rose absurd, the rose imagined. This ability to tailor the showing of things to our ever-evolving sense of their meaning to us allows us to approach even the most over-documented things with fresh eyes.
It may be that nearly everyone with a camera who’s walked the streets of Paris has, somewhere in their portfolio, a shot of the Eiffel tower. In some ways, the challenge of trying to say anything new about what we might consider an “exhausted” subject is irresistible: we sort of dare ourselves to do a fresh take on it. The thing is, our depiction of these celebrated places, once we have trained our eyes, is actually unbound, or inexhaustible. It is only how well we have developed the muscles of our imagination that determines how many gazillions of personal Eiffels can exist.
The image here of a small selected vista from within the sixteen-story layout (2500 steps, 154 flights of stairs, 80 separate landings) of New York City’s Vessel shows, if nothing else, that there can never truly be a “typical” view of the structure. The visual story changes every few feet or so, depending on where you are standing, and even multiple frames taken from the same vantage point just minutes apart from each other will yield vastly different results, since light, color and the arrangement of visitors is not static. This is great news for anyone who might doubt that they could make a personal picture of something so overwhelmingly public or famous. My point is that you can’t not produce something personal of it, because, for photographic purposes, not only this object, but nearly everything, is inexhaustible.
It’s not that the many millions of images taken of a famous place over time may not seem remarkably consistent, in that they almost replicate each other. It’s that such a result is not predestined, any more than any other photograph we attempt is. Change something in the eye of the beholder, and you may discover that even the eternal rose is, well, something other than a rose. Sometimes.
(2021 marks the beginning of The Normal Eye’s tenth year. Endless thanks to our longstanding friends and newest arrivals. Please share what you find useful in our latest or archived pages and alert us to what we can do better. Peace to all.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHER LUCAS GENTRY has been mentioned in many of those handy web searches that collate the most memorable quotes about camera work, little bon mots that help spice up term papers and make bloggers (ahem) sound erudite. His single sentence, “Photography has nothing to do with the camera” is guaranteed to provoke either agreement or argument, depending on whom you share it with. I tend to camp with the “agreement” team, although I would perhaps amend his statement to assert that photography can have everything…or nothing to do with the camera. Taking a picture without some kind of gear is impossible, and every camera, good or bad, can produce some kind of picture. But, beyond that, the possibilities are wide open, and nothing is guaranteed.
We have all been assisted by a piece of equipment that helped us generate the image we had in mind, but first we had to have the vision. A camera is, first and foremost, a recording instrument, like a microphone. It does, to use a hideously overused term, capture something, but like a microphone, it can preserve either cacophony and rhapsody. Another famous photographer made this issue even more poetic by stating that a picture is made either in front of or in back of the camera. Those of you who have traveled through these pages with us over the years know that this sentiment is one of my guiding principles. As I frequently say, masterpieces have been taken with five-dollar disposables, while unspeakable horrors have been committed with Leicas. And vice versa.
We live in a progressive consumer culture, an endless cycle of buy-and-buy-again. We are trained to desire the Next Big Thing. Something shinier, sexier, newer. As a matter of fact, newness alone is often enough to part many fools with their wallets because they are led to believe that the best camera is the one they don’t yet own. If you know someone like this, scribble a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge on a cocktail napkin and get them to sign it immediately. In the meantime, let me assert that working a little longer with a slightly “outdated” camera that you understand and can bend to your will is preferable to jumping to one that is so difficult to master that it actively conspires against your success. I’m not talking about taking the logical upward step to the next level of gear that you’ve naturally evolved to; I’m talking about feverishly convincing yourself that you will be a better photographer once you’ve bought X or Y camera. Remember Mr. Gentry’s truth: it has nothing to do with the camera. Equipment is not magic. You will not win the Grand Prix because you bought a Ferrari.
Establishing the best possible bond between yourself and your machine of choice makes a difference in your work, because you are directing that work, which means knowing what the machine can deliver. If you don’t have that relationship with your camera at present, work until you get it. If you can’t master the device you currently own, you’ll be even further behind the curve with a camera you have to catch up with. Don’t expect to create art that’s alive by relying on an inanimate object to do the heavy lifting. When we refer to the “normal eye” in the official name of this blog, we’re talking about developing a way to see, to get back in touch with your vision, to “normalize” it. That means taking responsibility for your work, not delegating it to the gear. Forget everything else about photography, but remember that your camera can either be an ally….or a conspirator.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
2020, IN ADDITION TO BEING THE EMOTIONAL EQUIVALENT of a meteor shower for many of us, has also packed a lot of cruel ironies into the overall mix of horrors. Observe; electronically, we are closer to some than we have ever been, while also being geographically more distant; we can’t go out for our favorite foods, but have connected with our inner sourdough baker; and, most poignant, to me at least, we have seen photographs exalted from random markers of time and place to essential messengers, proxies to represent us to those we love.
Pictures of the holidays pack an extra dollop of emotional freight in a good year. In a horrific one, everything that comes out of a camera is weighted with extra heft. Everyday tasks become art; mundane events are promoted to major milestones. That means that seasonal images, already doing a lot of heavy lifting, impart, in pandemic times, even greater import. Things are both sad and happy, hopeful and despairing. Pictures measure both joy and loss in ever more profound ways.
Take the simple idea of the front entrances to our homes. During the holidays, we decorate them to amplify the concept of home, safety. And yet, this year, the welcoming message is a hollow one. The front door is not so much an invitation as the final barrier between the outside world and the people within, who must, for this time, barricade themselves behind it. The bells, balls, tinsel and lights say, “Come on in” even as our wiser minds tell us to say “Stay away.” The third-degree burn of this irony has made me reduce my usual wide tide of seasonal shots to almost exclusively focus on front doors. The warmth they project remains visually unchanged from that of years past. It’s our own emotional context that makes us feel the pictures differently. They are images of conditional welcomes, as the entire holiday season, as it must, becomes one big exercise in delayed gratification.
As with so many other things, photographs have become repurposed in the Year Of The Plague. How could they not? And yet, as My Happy Home is temporarily recast as My Brave Face, the photographs we take during the final stretch of this global nightmare may, in time, be among our most prized possessions, because half of “bittersweet” is still, after all, “sweet”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CERTAINLY, PHOTOGRAPHY IS PARTLY ABOUT LIGHT, AND EQUIPMENT, AND TECHNICAL MASTERY. However, after all those means are applied, the only determinant of the ends of all our energies comes from human choices. Arguments within the mind of the photographer about what “belongs” in a picture. How to convince the viewer that it belongs. How to apply all the means to make that information compelling, or universal.
It’s knowing what to say “yes” to, but, just as crucially, it’s about being able to say no to every other option, and being prepared to live with your decision. Of course, deciding what to put in an image is not, literally, a matter of life and death, as a choice of career, mate, or philosophy might be, but it is a very visual demonstration of what choice entails. Because, when you choose something, in a picture or in a life path, you automatically unchoose everything else. There is no way, in art in life in general, to have it all.
But better voices, voices far wiser than mine, have already spoken brilliantly of this process. One, in particular, has been considered by many to be the final word on the subject, so today it serves as my own picture’s caption:
THE UNIQUE BLEND OF TECHNICAL AND MENTAL PROCESSES that combines to form the phenomenon of photography is as real, and as elusive, as smoke. Real, because it results in a physical transfer of information from eye to document. Elusive, because, like smoke, photographs waft and curl in different contours with each and every image.
The making of a photograph is forever thrilling because it is an attempt to make something purely mental cohere into a tangible object. It’s a tantalizing dream that ends in a frustrating compromise, something pure that often enters the real world hobbled by impurities. And yet it’s the flawed part of this process that makes it irresistible.
If the Magic Picture Box had actually been able to reproduce reality, as many feared at its introduction, it would have long since lost its allure, and would offer no more romance than a seismograph or any other mere recording instrument. But something different happened instead.
Instead of the camera being reliable as a mirror of “the truth”, the very imperfectIon of its nature made it a messenger for “my truth”….a machine that must bend to the whims of its user. That’s why even the best camera is only as good as the eye behind it. It’s not that “the camera can’t lie”, but that it can neither lie nor tell the truth without human intention steering it.
I offer these scribblings as an answer to the oft-asked question, “why do you love it so much?”, not really to convert the unconvinced as to remind the devoted; because even people who make pictures constantly can occasionally forget what a miracle we help oversee.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU’VE LIKELY EXPERIENCED IT: I call it shutter lock, the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block. You have the subject. You have opportunity. And you certainly have motive. But the picture won’t come.
More specifically, the right picture won’t come. You’ve chosen the wrong angle. The wrong aspect. It’s lost in a sea of busy. Or it’s just…well, hiding. Your perfect shot has now become some frustrating game of Where’s Waldo? Should you move on? Reconsider? Or in Oz’ words, simply “go away and come back tomorrow”?
And then you move a few inches. You walk around your quarry and something else about it begins to speak, first in a whisper, and then, in a clear, loud voice that says, “of course”. And you make the picture.
My recent and most stubborn case of shutter lock has been on me since the start of our Great Hibernation, a time when photographers have flooded social media with ideas for “projects”. Essays. Statements that will sum up What We’re All Going Through. And more than a few challenges to find all that Supreme Truth in a self-portrait. How is this affecting you? How has it reshaped your features, the part of your soul that seeps though haunted eyes or pursed lips? I was fascinated by that idea, of course, and why not? We all love to explore ourselves, to regard ourselves as our own True North. But I wasn’t capturing it, or at least enough of it. I was staring at a landscape that I couldn’t turn into a picture.
And then I stopped looking inward. Selfies can certainly reveal our inner dialogues, but all my own face was registering was a kind of unreadable…numbness. And so I moved about thirty inches, and she was there.
Marian is always there at my most instructive moments of clarity. She hacks through my busy clutter and lets enough air into my brain to allow me to see sense, and regain my bearings. The most wonderful thing about it is, she often doesn’t know she’s doing it. There is was, on her face, the look I was seeking, and missing, on my own. A mix of grim resolution, hope, helplessness, exhaustion. Not a look of absolute despair….more like a dead serious attempt to re-focus, to keep swimming against the tide. Suddenly her face was not only a better expression of my own journey but everyone’s. It felt universal, beyond language. In short, it looked like a photograph.
And now it is one. I took it with the crudest camera I have, under the worst conditions possible. And then I tortured it even more in an app to make it appear antique enough to feel relevant to all crises, all dark nights of the soul. It’s technically a wreck, and yet I’m proud of it. Proud of myself for getting outside myself in order to see it. Proud of it as a possession. And proud to allow my partner to be The Interpreter.
FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.
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.