By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TECHNICAL ADVANCEMENT IN THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY has been a double-edge sword, creating either novel gimmickry or a wider array of serious technique, depending on who’s playing the game. The most popular tools available to the widest number of users, from fisheye lenses to phone app filters, illustrate this point again and again. Some people pick up these new features, play with them for a bit, then abandon them forever, while others use them as a way to expand their approach to visualizing an image.
I have written here before about iPhone’s in-camera panoramic tool, which I expect was originally included as a family-friendly option, perfect for making sure that everyone on the Little League team or the family reunion could be captured in one frame, the app instantly stitching a series of narrower photos taken in real time during a left-to-right pan. And, while it can certainly serve in that snapshot-y task, it creates its own set of technical problems. Nonetheless, I have become convinced, over the last few years, that it can lend additional ooomph to serious image making if (a) one is extremely selective in what is shot with it, and (b) the built-in shortcomings of the app can be worked around in the moment.
As with any other technical toy/tool, the results depend on how well you understand the strengths and weaknesses of iPhone’s pano app and plan your shots. Since you pan by pivoting your body (as if it’s the hub of a wheel), you can’t maintain the same distance from your entire subject as you move the camera left to right. That means that the center of that pivot, or what’s dead ahead of you, will tend to distort outward, like the center of a fisheye shot. Depending on what’s at the middle of your shot and how far you are from it, this can give you some unwanted funhouse results.
Also, in what is odd for a tool that’s designed to take pictures of lots of people, using the iPhone pano app to shoot a live, moving crowd is truly hit-or-miss. If a person moves through your picture as you are panning in the same space they occupy, they may be recorded as a slice or a piece of themselves, being caught partly in some of the picture’s vertical “tiles” but absent from the ones directly adjacent to it, causing them to register as a disembodied leg or a slivered torso floating in the air (see left).
In the shot at the top of this page, I was lucky that the street magician at left was standing still during the time I panned across him (once I’ve recorded his part of the frame, he can do what he likes, since the lens no longer “sees” that part of the picture). Likewise the crowd, enthralled by his performance, was remaining pretty static as I completed the pan across their part of the frame. The result has all the story-telling power of an ultra-wide shot, and, because of the composition, actually uses the fisheye-ish bulge to make the segmented pavement appear to be radiating outward from the performer.
And of course there is the subject itself, which has to benefit from all that left-right arrangement of information if you want to avoid just taking the picture for the sake of the effect alone. And there we have the balance between toy and tool that every photographer hopes to strike. Toys get cast aside once boredom sets in. Tools stay around and add to your work in very real ways.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I THINK THAT, FOR YOUNG AND EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS, there’s a greater natural comfort in coloring outside the lines, bending or breaking rules of the medium just to see what happens, regardless of the warnings of user’s manuals or procedurals. This is completely normal, and is, in fact, healthy for the art overall, as every age’s young turks shake the process up and keep us more hidebound shooters from imprisoning photography in a crust of habit.
Phone-based apps play directly to this “what the hell, let’s try it” tendency in the newbie. By their very nature, apps allow people to achieve in a second what used to take years of formal training and painstaking darkroom effort to achieve. This creates the feeling that anything is possible, and that, with the instantaneous feedback loop of digital, there is nothing to be risked or lost by trying.
Whenever I get a new app, I try to figure out what it can produce when used completely counter-intuitively, that is, by going in the direct opposite of its “correct” use. Call it a procedural hack if you will, taking one of the most available effects, the iPhone’s on-board panorama app, as a prime example. Now we all know how the app is supposed to work. You pan evenly and slowly from left to right across a scene and a lot of separate vertical “planks”, all of which are individual exposures, are stitched together by the software to give the appearance of a continuous image. You are instructed by the app when to slow down, and given a guide arrow as you pan that keeps you pretty much on an even horizon. And that’s all you’re supposed to be able to do.
Of course things can go wrong, and watching how they go wrong is what started me on an experiment. If, for example, someone walks through your shot while you are panning, he may appear in only a few of the “planks”, as a warped, disembodied sliver of his leg or arm, or be stretched like taffy across part of the frame. Thing is, this gives you a neat interpretational option for panos that you want to appear surreal. The idea is to deliberately throw those individual planks out of alignment.
Here’s how it works: as you pan, shift your up-down axis either side of that arrow’s horizon guideline. Go gently if you want things to undulate in a smooth wave. Jerk it around a bit of you want to create a seismographic effect, with sharp high-low spikes in your subject. I should note here that this requires a lot of experimentation to get the overall look that you want.
In the top image, I wanted to suggest the kinetic energy of musical dynamics in a static image, so I warped the piano keys out of alignment with each other, as if Salvador Dali had painted the keyboard. In the second image, I used the camera to scan a mounted mall mural, allowing me to work with a still image that I could tweak to suggest a collapsing building or an earthquake. Either of these images are easy to do with nothing more than your iPhone’s pano tool, and the effects can be dramatic. So love your apps, but love them enough to imagine what fun it can be to make them misbehave.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPHY IS REGARDED BY MANY AS A BIT OF A GIMMICK, an effect confined to the same realm as 3-d, fisheye lenses and faked pictures of cats driving sports cars. As a result, it’s rare that a pano is used for anything serious beyond landscape views, and, although apps have allowed even modest phone cameras to produce a modified panoramic effect, the majority of shots are still of ultra-wide, scenic vistas….the view from the beach to the resort hotel two blocks inland, and so forth.
But panos can be used to convey both scope and scale on subjects that have nothing to do with mountains or shorelines, and it’s encouraging to see more new photographers using the recently evolved technology to take advantage of that storytelling option. To use one example, the whole concept of sprawl–congested cities, vast arrays of clutter, the aftermath of the industrial age—seems custom-made for the panoramic’s less limited space requirements. It can actually open up editorial angles on a whole new range of subject matter.
Panos are great for showing overabundance, the sensory overload of contemporary life. In the above photo, it’s used to show the bulging, burgeoning, out-of-control volume of stuff in a congested antiquarian bookstore. The composition is dictated by the ultra-wide format to a degree, but when it’s married to the right subject matter, the shots can have a singular impact.
As with any other effect, there has to be a bottom-line benefit to the tale you’re trying to tell. It’s not enough to elicit a reaction of “wow, that looks weird”. That just relegates what you’ve shot to mere novelty. The upfront question should be: why are you deciding to distort visual reality or amp up the drama on this particular occasion? The effect has to seem inevitable in the result, with your audience admitting that, certainly, that was the best way to approach the shot and get the story across.
Sometimes photographs are about both process and subject. Panoramics have their place in serious photography, but only in serious hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE A THEORY THAT “SERENDIPITY” is just “dumb luck” for pretentious people. Somehow it makes our random discoveries and unplanned miracles sound cooler if we attribute them to some grand lining-up of the planets, as if we apes really meant to discover fire. So, fine. Consider this an incident of serendipity, although it’s mainly a case of “I stepped in sugar instead of….” well, you get the idea.
Setting the scene: a suburban mall near me recently closed its enormous bookstore, applying a dark sheet of tint on the building’s huge windows so gawkers couldn’t spy on the joint’s sad makeover as a furniture store. Of course, if you want to make people curious about something, blacking out the windows is a pretty effective tactic, and there are always plenty of people smashing their faces up against the impermeable tint every day to see what a bookstore looks like when it has, you know, no books in it. I am usually first in line for this ritual.
For some reason this week, a small peephole has been opened in the sheeting, allowing one to see the place’s vast, empty floor, its draped escalator, and an iron tangle of scaffolding, as well as a huge infusion of light from an open-work area at the opposite side of the store. It isn’t quite the “ruin porn” that photographers of dead malls love to record just ahead of the wrecking ball, but eerie enough to make me want to shove my phone camera up against the peephole to try to capture it.
Given the very wide-angle of such devices, however, I discovered, after the click, that the lens had also picked up a portion of the window next to the peephole, a portion still covered by tint and capable of reflecting the scene behind me….various buildings and landscaping of the rest of the mall. Even stranger, the “other” reality behind me melded, through the blurred outline of the peephole and variances of light, with the scene inside the store, as if they were all part of one dreamy landscape, a Hollywood set in transition. Giddy at what I had grabbed by accident, I shot a second frame to compose things a bit better, then converted it to monochrome with a filter that simulates a platinum print effect, an effort to eliminate mismatches in color and tone between the two worlds.
Sinatra once said that “the professional is the guy who can do it more than once”, so this image ranks me solidly among the amateurs. But so what. Whoops. Yay.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICANS LOVE TO CELEBRATE A WINNER, and they also like to clearly identify who most definitely did not win. We score-keep on everything from fantasy football to number of days on the job without accidental amputations, and we love, love, love to declare someone the champ…in anything. This either/or, winner/loser habit of the western mind, when applied to photography, leads people to argue over which is better…traditional cameras or those imbedded in mobiles, as if such a judgement is possible. Or as if it matters. So, as you rifle through these humble pages, I hope I make it abundantly clear that, from my standpoint, it’s all about the pictures.
The principle difference between, say, DSLRs and phone cameras, to me, is one of method, or how they approach the job of making an image. In full-function cameras, the emphasis can be on how to use the device’s controls and settings to set the terms of your picture before the click. In cellphone cameras, it’s all about how you can massage what the camera was able to give you after the fact, be it with in-phone apps or computer software. You simply can’t impose your will on an iPhone camera until after the picture is taken, and that’s an important distinction. Notice that I did not say better/worse, great/horrible. You just have to decide what’s important to you in a given situation.
Take a very simple choice that is available in even basic point-and-shoot “camera-cameras”, like white balance. Your camera has the option of deciding, for you, how colors should register based on the temperature of the light, or you can over-ride that function and customize it to your heart’s delight, something that, at this point in time, cannot be done on a cellphone camera. Even easier, menus reduce all your white balance options to visual icons (sunburst, house in shade, electric light bulb, etc) depending on how warm you want your pictures. You can even tweak for the precise kind of artificial light you’re working with, from incandescent to flourescent.
As an example, in the above shot, the morning light in the hotel lobby was, on automatic white balance, coming off blue, especially in the shadows. The entire effect of the golden period just after sunrise was being subverted by the camera. Easy fix: just dial it up for a shade setting, bump up the exposure a tad (slower shutter, higher ISO), and the warmth came back, but not so deep that everything went bad-suntan-bronze. And, yes, I could have got this shot with an iPhone, but the adjustment would have had to have been made after I got the shot wrong, then searched around for a fix. Again, there’s no good or bad.
You just have take your own temperature and decide what treatment you need.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMAS WERE DEVELOPED IN PAINTING, AND LATER IN PHOTOGRAPHY, to alter, not capture, reality. This is one of those man-over-nature struggles that thrilled 19th-century brainiacs. Consider: both mediums are hemmed in by physical limits. The frame can only be so big. The wall can only go so wide. Sadder still, there are limits to the width of human vision, which is why our neck swivels from side to side, giving us the ability to tilt our head attentively when our wives whisper something pertinent to us during the third act of The Barber Of Seville.
So, panos were a fascinating fakery from the start, an attempt to compensate for our limited senses and the cramped confines of the frame, providing no less a warp of reality than a kaleidoscope or 3-d. They were great for showing the broad sweep of the Battle of Gettyburg or the entire breadth of the Coney Island Boardwalk, but the emphasis, historically, was always on closely simulating reality, in that objects were photographed in their natural proportions from left to right and focus was always pinsharp from near objects to the horizon. In other words, “real” phoniness instead of exaggerated phoniness (huh?).
Now, however, with self-stitching panoramic software in phone cameras, we have a process that actually accentuates unreality, and that can be interesting. Ideally, to take a pano, you must sweep the camera slowly from left to right during the exposure. Now, this would result in a “realistic” perspective, if you could maintain constantly smooth motion and a uniform distance from your subject all the way across, which is impossible unless you’re seated on a dolly and being pushed along a track by four of your friends. So much for reality.
So, what you’re forced to do instead is to twist your body left, remain standing in one place, and be the central pivot point while you pan across yourself until you get all the way to the right. Imagine your body to be a hinge and your arms to be a swinging gate.This creates a crazy amount of spatial distortion not unlike a fisheye effect, and that is my point. Play to that weakness and make it a strength. Leave reality behind and look for patterns, your own abstract designs, in other words, improvements on reality. Panoramas aren’t tools for map-makers. You’re not going to hang your images like tapestries across the east wall of the capitol rotunda. So have some fun doing what reality won’t allow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RAISED AS THE SON OF AN ILLUSTRATOR WHO WAS ALSO A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of the photographic image as a work-in-progress rather than as a finished thing. That is, I bring a graphic artist’s approach to any project I do, which is to visualize an idea several different ways before committing myself to the final rendering. Call if sketching, roughing, rehearsing…..whatever…but, both on the page/canvas and the photograph, I see things taking shape over the space of many trial “drafts”. And, just as you don’t just step up and draw a definitive picture, you usually can’t just step up and snap a fully realized photo. I was taught to value process over product, or, if you will, journey over destination.
This belief was embodied in my dad’s advice to lay down as many pencil lines as possible before laying in the ink line. Ink meant commitment. We’re done developing. We’re finished experimenting. Ready to push the button and, for better or worse, live with this thing. Therefore the idea of a sketch pad, or preliminary studies of a subject, eventually led to a refined, official edition. This seems consistent with people like Ansel Adams, who re-imagined some of his negatives more than half a dozen times over decades, each print bearing its own special traits, even though his source material was always the same. Similarly, “studies” in music served as miniature versions of themes later realized in full in symphonies or concertos.
The photo equivalent of a sketch pad, for me in 2014, is the phone camera. It’s easy to carry everywhere, fairly clandestine, and able to generate at least usable images under most conditions. This allows me to quickly knock off a few tries on something that, in some cases, I will later shoot “for real” (or “for good”) with a DSLR, allowing me to use both tools to their respective strengths. The spy-eye-I-can-go-anywhere aspect of iPhones is undeniably convenient, but often as not I have to reject the images I get because, at this point in time, it’s just not possible to exert enough creative control over these cameras to give full voice to everything in my mind. If the phone camera is my sketch pad, my full-function camera is my ink and brush. One conceives, while the other refines and commits.
You write things like this knowing full well that technology will make a monkey out of you at its next possible opportunity, and I actually look forward to the day when I am free of the bulk and baggage of what are, at least now, better cameras overall. But we’re not there yet, and may not be for a while. I still make the distinction between a convenient camera and a “real” camera, and I freely admit that bias. A Porsche is still better than a bicycle, and the first time you’re booked as a pianist into Carnegie Hall, your manager doesn’t insist that they provide you with a state-of-the-art….Casio. It’s a Steinway or the highway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE EARLY 1950’s, AS TELEVISION FIRST BLINKED INTO LIFE ACROSS AMERICA, storytelling in film began to divide into two very clearly defined camps. In theatres, desperate to retain some of the rats who were deserting their sinking ships to bathe in cathode rays at home, movie studios went for stories that were too big to be contained by the little screen, and almost too big for theatres. You remember the wider-than-thou days of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-Ao, Cinerama and Super-Panavision, as well as the red-green cardboard glasses of 3-D’s first big surge, and the eye-poking wonders of House Of Wax, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Bwana Devil. Theatres were Smell-O-Vision, True Stereophonic Reproduction and bright choruses of Let’s Go Out To The Lobby sung by dancing hot dogs and gaily tripping soda cups. Theatres was Big.
The other stories, the TV stories, were small, intimate, personal, compact enough to cram into our 9-inch Philcos. Tight two-shots of actors’ heads and cardboard sets in live studios. It was Playhouse 90 and Sylvania Theatre and The Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Minus the 3,000 Roman extras and chariot races, we got Marty, Requiem For A Heavyweight, and On The Waterfront. Little stories of “nobodies” with big impact. Life, zoomed in.
For photographers, pro or no, many stories can be told either in wide-angle or tight shot. Overall effect or personal impact. You can write your own book on whether the entire building ablaze is more compelling than the little girl on the sidewalk hoping her dog got out all right. Immense loads of dead trees have been expended to explore, in print, where the framing should happen in a story to produce shock, awe or a quick smile. I like to shoot everything every way I can think of, especially if the event readily presents more than one angle to me.
The release of the new iPhone 6, which dropped worldwide today, is a big story, of course, but it consists of a lot of little ones strung together. Walk the line of the faithful waiting to show their golden Wonka ticket to gain admission to the Church of Steve and you see a cross-section of humankind represented in the ranks. Big things do that to us; rallies, riots, parties, flashmobs, funerals….the big story happens once a lot of little stories cluster in to comprise it.
Simply pick the story you like.
Remember, just like the phone, they come in two sizes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A QUICK GOOGLING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE THESE DAYS will turn up a number of sites dedicated to “faceless portraits”, if there can, strictly speaking, be such a thing (and I believe there can). In a recent post entitled Private, Not Impersonal, I explored the phenomenon in which photographers, absent the features that most easily chronicle their subjects’ personalities, imply them, merely through body language, composition, or lighting. At the time I wrote the post, I was unaware how widespread the practice of faceless portraits had become. In fact, it’s something of a rage. Hmm. The very thought that, even by accident, I could be aligned with something hip, is, by turns, both terrifying and hilarious.
Thing is, photographs, as the famous curator John Szarkowki remarked, both conceal and reveal, and there is nothing about the full depiction of a human face that guarantees that you’re learning or knowing anything about the subject in frame. We are all to practiced at maintaining our respective masks for many portraits to be taken, ha ha, at face value. Cast your eye back through history and you will find dozens of compelling portraits, from Edward Steichen’s silhouettes of Rodin to Annie Leibovitz’ blurred dance photos of Diane Keaton, that preserve some precious element of humanity that a formal, face-on sitting cannot deliver. Call it mystery, for lack of a more precise word.
In the above frame, the subject whose face I myself never even saw gave me something wonderfully human, about reading in particular, but about enchantment in general. She is furiously busy discovering another world, a world the rest of us can only guess at, seeping up from her book. Her entire body is an inventory of emotional textures…of relaxation, attentiveness, of both being in the present and so completely someplace else. Framing her to include the negative spaces of the window, the carpet and the wider bookstore isolate her further from us, but not in a negative way. She wants to be apart; she is on a journey.
My “girl with the flaxen hair” was unaware of me, and I shot furtively and quickly to make sure I didn’t break the spell she was under. It was the least I could do in gratitude for a chance to witness her adventure. Looking back, I think she provided more than enough magic without revealing a single fragment of her face. Seeing is selecting, and I had been given all I needed to do both.
Click and be gone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, AS A GRAPHIC ARTIST, USED TO WARN ME ABOUT COMMITTING MYSELF TOO EARLY. Not in terms of personal relationships, but as it applied to the act of drawing. “Always lay down all your potential pencil lines first”, he advised, “and then decide which ones you want to ink.” The message was that flexibility was as valuable a drafting tool as your 2H pencil or your Rapidograph pen, that delaying your final vision often helped you eliminate the earlier drafts and their respective weaknesses. I still value that advice, as it has a current corollary in the making of my photographs, largely as a consequence of the smartphone revolution.
Once phones began packing cameras that could actually deliver an image better than a Crayola shmear on a wet cocktail napkin, photographers who still chiefly relied on their traditional cameras suddenly had the luxury of a kind of optical “sketch pad”; that is, an easy way to pre-visualize a composition with a basic machine that you could use for a study, a dress rehearsal for a more precise re-imagining with a more advanced device. For many of us, the larger display area of a phone can often “make the sale” for a shot in a more compelling way than the smaller monitor on our grown-up camera, and, at the very least, we can judge how a photo will “play” less conspicuously than by lugging about more visually obvious hardware. It’s a fast way to gather a lot of preliminary ideas, especially in locales where you’re free to come back later for the serious shoot.
I especially like trolling through vintage stores, trying to find antique items that, in themselves, make for impromptu still-life subjects. Sometimes, to be honest, I go home with a pocket full of puckey. Sometimes, I decide to go back and do a more thorough shoot of the same subject. And sometimes, as in the above image, I decide that I can live with an original “sketch” with just a little post-tweaking. The exercise does one important thing, in that it reminds you to always be shooting, or at least always thinking about shooting.
I know people who have completely stopped even carrying DSLRs and other, more substantial gear in their everyday shooting, and, while I can’t quite get there yet, I get the idea on many levels. Hey, use a fine stylus, a sharp crayon, or a charred stick, dealer’s choice. Just get the sketch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMIC APPS FOR MOBILE CAMERAS CONSTITUTE A HUGE STEP FORWARD in convenience and simplicity in taking the kind of sweeping images that used to require keen skills either in film processing or in digital darkroom stitching. The newest versions of these apps are far from flawless, and, like any effect-laden add-on, they can become cheesy gimmicks, or, used to excess, merely boring. That said, there is a time and place for everything.
99% of the impact in a pano comes from the selection of your subject. Supposing a panoramic view to be a specialized way to tell a story, is the story you’re attempting to tell interesting in its own right? Does it benefit from the wider frame? Let’s recall that, as well as including a ton of extra left-and-right information, handheld pano apps create a distorted version of reality. In the earliest days of panoramas, multiple photos of a scene were taken side-by-side, all with the same distance from camera to subject. This was usually accomplished by shooting on a tripod, which was moved and measured with each new portion of what would eventually be a wide composite. At each exposure, the distance of the tripod to, say, the mountain range was essentially constant across the various exposures, rendering the wide picture all in the same plane….an optically accurate representation of the scene.
With handheld panos done in-camera, the shooter and his camera must usually pivot in a large half-circle, just as you might execute a video pan,so that some objects are closer to the lens than others, usually near the center. This guarantees a huge amount of dramatic distortion in at least one part of the image, and frequently more than one. The effect is that you are not just recording a straight left-to-right scene, but creating artificial stretches and warps of everything in your shot. You are not recording a scene that unfolds across a straight left-right horizon, but capturing things that actually encircle you and trying to “flatten them out” so they appear to occur in one unbroken line. By showing objects that may be beside or behind you, you’re kinda making a distortion of an illusion. Huh?
Again, if this is the look you want, that is, if your subject is truly served by this fantasy effect, than click away. You’ll know in a minute if it all made sense, anyhow, and that alone is a remarkable luxury. These days, we can not only get to “yes” faster, we can, more importantly, get rid of all the “no’s” in an instant as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS RANDOMNESS HAS STUBBORNLY ASSERTED ITSELF AS ONE OF THE MOST DECISIVE FORCES IN ALL OF PHOTOGRAPHY.One of the eternal struggles in our craft has been between our intense attempts to reduce the recording of light to a predictable science, and nature’s insistent pushback, allowing things that just happen to shape our results. I think most of our work as individuals is a constant wrestling between these two forces. One moment we fancy ourselves mastering all the variables that create images, and in the next we celebrate the wilding potential of just letting go, and actually celebrating the random effect. I find myself careening between the comfort of all the techniques I have accumulated over a lifetime, the so-called “guarantees” that I’ll capture what I’m looking for, and the giddy discovery that accidentals, or artifacts, somehow found themselves in my pictures despite my best efforts. The problem, for me, is learning to celebrate something wonderful that happened without my consciously causing it.
Phone cameras are forcing me to accept a little less control, since, even at their best, they can’t be managed in the way that standard DSLRs can. That leaves a certain number of results to chance, or, more exactly, to a display of the camera’s limits. One one hand, I’m grateful for the shots that I can “save” by using a mobile, since there will always be times that other types camera will be blocked, forbidden, or inconvenient. On the other hand, the results always make me wonder what else might have been possible if I had been completely at the helm in the making of the images. Some of the things I get “on the fly” with a phone camera are actually a bit magical, so that I actually love the things that are “wrong” with the picture. I’m sure this is part of the enjoyment that the lomography crowd derive from working with plastic toy cameras which create totally unpredictable results purely as a result of the camera’s shortcomings. In the above image, the garish register of nearly every color by my iPhone works well with the bizarre collision of dusk, neon, urban textures, even the overblown mystery of what’s going on inside the crazed little bodega shown here. The extreme wide-angle bias of the iPhone also has stretched things into exotic exaggerations of perspective, and the camera’s auto-boosted ISO produces a high level of noise. Does it all work? Yeah, pretty much. I don’t surrender control easily, but I’ve seen enough of the fortunate accidents of photographers from all over the world not to welcome nature’s interventions. I mean, after all, the idea that we’re actually in control is, at best, a pleasant illusion. We don’t really understand lightning, and yet, somehow, we’ve been given the ability to capture it in a box. Strange.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, WHEN EASTMAN KODAK’S AIM WAS TO PUT A CAMERA INTO THE HANDS OF THE AVERAGE EVERYMAN, their slogan, “You press the button, and we do the rest” was meant as an enticement. Not only had Kodak so simplified the processing of taking a snap as to make it irresistible, but they covered everything that happened next, allowing you to ship the camera, film inside, to them, at their cost, have them sweat the processing and printing, and ship back your photos, having also pre-loaded a fresh roll into your camera. You were covered at all ends, and this was a good thing. It was also an immensely successful thing for Kodak, which was, after all, not in the camera business, but in the film business (so shoot lots of it, hint hint).
Today’s camera phones are essentially the Kodak Brownies of the 21st century, with many refinements. Unlike the Brownie, the iPhone can intuit what you need in the way of light and aperture and supply it without troubling you with why or how it happens. Much like the box Kodaks of the Victorian era, today’s cameras are also bent on saving you the hassle of negotiating most decisions and choices. Again, this is a tremendously successful business plan, since it is safe to assume that most people would rather take the picture than think about how to take the picture.
But it is this very convenience that is a kind of strait jacket for photographers who were weaned on Pentaxes, Nikons and Canons, since, for us, the rules of engagement are lopsided. The camera is not meeting us in the middle as a co-creator or partner, but jamming us into a far corner, relegating us to the role of “the guy who hits the shutter”. Giving up all that active control can be freeing for some, but suffocating for others, and it speaks to the love-hate relationships many photogs have with their phones. On the one hand, Holy Hanna, looka these optics and ready-made tricks. On the other hand, you can feel that you’re just riding shotgun instead of steering.
With this in mind, I use an iPhone for the kind of street stuff where the concept or story is almost totally complete in itself, where I would only lose the moment or fiddle needlessly if carrying a more complex camera, or where the presence of a more obvious, “serious” camera would attract too much unwelcome attention. Damn ’em, phone cameras do buy you some invisibility and stealth, which is crazy, since much greater harm has been done by these ubiquitous little snoopercams than by all the “pro” cameras ever manufactured. Go figure.
When you take all the worry out of making a picture, you take all the responsibility and some of the joy out of it, too. My opinion, from my perch in the land of the dinosaurs. Cameras are not artists: they are tools, and when you give up the final say-so in what a picture will eventually be to a device, you get the recording of information, not the documentation of a soul.
“MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS” IS ONLY HALF OF PHOTOGRAPHY. The other half consists of placing yourself in the oncoming path of that runaway truck Experience so that you can’t help getting run over, then trying to get the license plate of the truck to learn something from the crash. You need to keep placing your complacency and comfort in harm’s way in order to advance, to continue your ongoing search for better ways to see. Thus the role models or educational models you choose matter, and matter greatly.
Lately, much as I thrive on wisdom from the masters and elders of photography, I am relying more and more on creative energy and ideas from people who are just learning to take pictures. This may sound like I am taking driving lessons from toddlers instead of licensed instructors, but think about it a moment.
Yes, nothing teaches like experience….seasoned, life-tested experience. Righty right right. But art is about curiosity and fearlessness, and nothing says “open to possibility” like a 20-year-old hosting a podcast on what could happen “if you try this” with a camera. It is the fact that the young are unsure of how things will come out (the curiosity) which impels them to hurry up and try something to find out (the fearlessness). Moreover, if they were raised with only the digital world as a reference point, they are less intimidated by the prospect of failure, since they are basically shooting for free and their universe is one of infinite do-overs. There is no wrong photograph, unless it’s the one you just didn’t try for.
Best of all, photography, always the most democratic of arts, has just become insanely more so, by putting some kind of camera in literally everyone’s fist. There is no more exclusive men’s club entitlement to being a shooter. You just need the will. Ease of operation and distribution means no one can be excluded from the discussion, and this means a tidal wave of input from those just learning to love making pictures.
One joke going around the tech geek community in recent years involves an old lady who calls up Best Buy and frets, “I need to hook up my computer!”, to which the clerk replies, “That’s easy. Got a grandchild?”
Find yourself a path. Find yourself a world of influences and approaches for your photography. And, occasionally, find yourself a kid.
- Resist the need to Get some new Camera – Change your Photography Instead (textb.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE MAN’S DEDICATION IS ANOTHER MAN’S OBSESSION. Whether we view a person as passionately committed or someone who should just be, well, committed is largely a matter of perception. Nowhere is this truer than in the artistic world. Walk into any gallery, anywhere, and you will engage with at least one fixation on excellence that you believe is proof that grant money is dispensed far too freely. If this were not so, there would only be the need for one artist. The rest of us would be manning xerox machines. That’s why some people believe Thomas Kincade was a prophet, while other believe he was just, well, a profit.
Usually these debates are accompanied by too many beers, more than a few elevations in volume, and at least one person who gets his feelings hurt. Such is life, such is expression. We just guarantee your right to try it. We don’t guarantee anyone’s obligation to buy it.
Discussion of the new book That Tree by Mark Hirsch (due in August) will fuel many such lager-lubricated chats, and some of them will be heated, I’m sure. The book actually demonstrates two separate obsessions, er, passions. First, Hirsch, a professional photographer, wished to create a substantial project for which he would set aside his Top Gun-level camera gear and shoot exclusively with his new iPhone. Second, early on in the project, he took the dare/suggestion from a friend to limit his subject matter to a single tree, an unremarkable bur oak that he had passed, without noticing, daily for almost nineteen years.
Think about this, now.
Looking back over the subjects that I personally have been drawn to revisit time and again, I’m damned if I can find even one with enough visual gold to warrant mining it for 365 images. the closest two subjects would be a small restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona called Zinc Bistro, and the campus of cliffside art galleries at the Getty Center above Los Angeles. And I have cranked out a ton of frames of both subjects, looking for a truth that may or may not be there to see…but not a year’s worth. I personally believe that I might conceivably be able to find that much mystery and beauty in my wife’s face….in fact, I shoot her as often as I can. However, long before a project of this scope could be completed, she would have taken out a contract on my life. True love will only take you so far.
I have got to see this book.
Mark Hirsch will either become my new synonym for Latest Photo God Almighty or another amusing asterisk in the broad sweep of imaging history.He will also provide strong talking points for those who champion the iPhone as a serious photographic instrument. For that alone, the book has value.
Either way, it ain’t gonna be boring.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photographer documents a year in the life of a tree on his iPhone (guardian.co.uk)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST ANNOYING COMMERCIAL ON TELEVISION AT PRESENT is the one from Apple reminding you that more people take pictures with the iPhone5 than with any other camera in the world. Now, I understand that The Men Who Would Be Steve at Apple need to assert their dominance in a rapidly accelerating race between smartphone camera brands. It’s just good business, and all that. Granting that, let’s agree that their statement is essentially meaningless for photography.
Apple can claim that their photo gadget is in more hands than anyone else’s? Ho-hum. The Kodak Brownie was able to make the same claim over 100 years ago, and successfully defend it for almost another fifty. We’re number one, sis-boom-bah, and what does that have to do with the kind of pictures that are being taken? The iPhone5 is a technical marvel on many levels, and it contains, among many other toys, a reasonably reliable, limited point-and-shoot-camera. You will always be able to get some kind of image on it under nearly any circumstances.
However, the Apple TV ad, while factually accurate, is artistically false, since it leads one to the spurious conclusion that more iPhone5 pictures means more excellent pictures. And there isn’t a camera, cheap or cherry, that can make that statement. I get just as agitated when trendo camera mags try to imply that if your gear costs thousands, your pictures will look like a million.
We’ve had almost two hundred years to shake off this childish notion. Equipment does not equal excellence. Convenience, speed, affordability, flexibility…cameras can make all these claims. But they do not confer the title of photographer on anyone.
Only you can do that.
And you can do it with a cheap piece of garbage, or a technical wonder, or any equipment stage in between. The idea is all. Everything else is just tinkering.
Here’s another piece of lunatic logic coming from another direction:
The idiotic recent decision of the Chicago Sun-Times to lay off all of its staff photographers, replacing them with freelancers (whom they will train on iPhones!), is not a lousy idea because there aren’t enough low-cost cameras out there to afford them some kind of coverage on their stories. It’s a lousy idea because it’s based on a flawed concept: the belief that photography is a universal skill, and that bystanders with smartphones are the equal of seasoned visual journalists, imbedded in their communities and schooled in its sources. They are not, and can never be.
Sadly,you can bet that editors across the nation are watching to see if the Sun-Times gets away with it. And they just might. Of course the quality of image reporting will take a hit, but since people are leaving the traditional newspaper as if it has leprosy anyway, will the customers know the difference? Look for this horrible move to be duplicated at a newspaper near you, since it’s (a) cheap, (b) easy to explain failure some other way, and (c) oh, yeah did I mention it’s cheap? Ironic sidebar: this is, officially the first time a newspaper has opted for less technology to become more competitive.
Expensive cameras and decent salaries are certainly no guarantee of good news coverage, but a staff loaded with veterans of wars, uprisings, elections, disasters and human interest is. The fact that several of them are Pulitzer Prize winners isn’t exactly a disqualifier, either.
You are the camera. You make the picture, regardless of the technology at hand. Forget that, and you might as well be holding a canned ham.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.com