By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN AND ANIMALS OPERATE IN WORLDS DIFFERENT ENOUGH FROM OUR OWN that they merit a special viewpoint when being photographed. Composing an image designed to enter into their special realities should facilitate that process, giving the viewer the idea that he has gained entry to their realms. The camera’s eye needs to seem to inhabit their actual living space.
I’ve felt for a long time that the formal K-Mart studio method of making a child’s portrait is stiflingly inadequate for plumbing that young person’s real animating spirit. And as for pets, the sheer daily deluge of animal snaps posted globally are served just as badly from over-formalizing or staging. Intimate insight into the self can’t be achieved by generic backdrops, tired props or balanced flash alone. If anything, such systems push the real child further away from view, leaving only a neutral facade in place of the true human. Personality locks eyes with the lens in unguarded, not choreographed, moments.
I’m not saying that no preparation should go into animal or child pictures. I am suggesting that a “snapshot mentality”, backed by lots of shooting experience, can yield results that are more organic, natural and spontaneous. Shoot in a moment but apply what you have learned over a lifetime.
Even the simple practice of shooting on your subject’s level, rather than shooting like a grownup, i.e., downhill toward your subject, can create a connection between your line of sight and theirs. If your kids and kitties are on the floor, go there. Another simple way to create an intimate feel is to have the child or pet dominate the frame. If there is some other feature of the room, from furniture to other people, that does not rivet your audience’s attention to the main subject, cut it out. Many, many portraits fail by simply being too busy.
And, finally, catch your dog, cat, boy or girl doing something he’s chosen to do. Don’t assign him to play with a toy, or ask him to stand here, here, or here. Wait like a professional, then shoot fast like a snapshotter. The more invisible you become, the less distraction you provide. Looking at a child or pet enthralled by something is a lot more interesting than watching him watch you. If you do happen to lock eyes during the process, as in the case of the rather suspicious house cat seen above, steal that moment gladly, but don’t try to direct it.
Don’t draw your portrait subjects into your energy. Eavesdrop on theirs. The pictures will flow a lot more naturally, and you won’t have to work half as hard.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A TITANIC CLICHE, BUT RESOUNDINGLY TRUE: if you want a child to reveal himself to you photographically, get out of his way.
The highly profitable field of child portrait photography is being turned on its head, or more precisely, turned out of the traditional portrait studio, by the democratization of image making. As technical and monetary barriers that once separated the masses from the elite few are vanishing from photography, every aspect of formal studio sittings is being re-examined. And that means that the $7.99 quickie K-Mart kiddie package is going the way of the dodo. And it’s about bloody time.
Making the subject fit the setting, that is, molding someone to the props, lighting or poses that are most convenient to the portraitist seems increasingly ridiculous. Thing is, the “pros” who do portrait work at the highest levels of the photo industry have long since abandoned these polite prisons, with Edward Steichen posing authors, politicians and film stars in real-life settings (including their own homes) as early as the 1920’s, and Richard Avedon pulling models out of the studio and into the street by the late 1940’s. So it’s not the best photographers who insist on perpetuating the restrictive environment of the studio shoot.
No, it’s the mills, the department and discount stores who still wrangle the kiddies into pre-fab backdrops and watch-the-birdie toys, cranking out one bland, safe image after another, and veering the photograph further and further from any genuine document of the child’s true personality. This is what has to change, and what will eventually result in something altogether different when it comes to kid portraiture.
Children cannot convey anything real about themselves if they are taken out of their comfort zones, the real places that they play and explore. I have seen stunning stuff done with kids in their native environment that dwarfs anything the mills can produce, but the old ways die hard, especially since we still think in terms of “official” portraits, as if it’s 1850 and we have a single opportunity to record our existence for posterity. There really need be no “official” portrait of your child. He isn’t U.S. Grant posing for Matthew Brady. He is a living, pulsating creature bent on joy, and guess what? You know more about who and what he is than the hourly clown at Sears.
I believe that, just as adult portraiture has long since moved out of the studio, children need also to be released from the land of balloons and plush toys. You have the ability to work almost endlessly on getting the shots of your children that you want, and better equipment for even basic candids than have existed at any other period in history. Trust yourself, and experiment. Stop saying “cheese”, and get rid of that damned birdie. Don’t pose, place, or position your kids. Witness these little joy generators in the act of living. They’ll give you everything else you need.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PICK ANY PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA YOU LIKE, and most of the available wisdom (or literature) will concentrate on honoring some arbitrary list of rules for “successful” pictures. On balance, however, relatively few tutorials mention the needful option of breaking said rules, of making a picture without strict adherence to whatever commandments the photo gods have handed down from the mountain. It’s my contention that an art form defined narrowly by mere obedience is bucking for obsolescence.
It’d be one thing if minding your manners and coloring inside the lines guaranteed amazing images. But it doesn’t, any more than the flawless use of grammar guarantees that you’ll churn out the great American novel. Photography was created by rebels and outlaws, not academics and accountants. Hew too close to the golden rules of focus, exposure, composition or subject, and you may inadvertently gut the medium of its real power, the power to capture and communicate some kind of visual verity.
A photograph is a story, and when it’s told honestly, all the technical niceties of technique take a back seat to that story’s raw impact. The above shot is a great example of this, although the masters of pure form could take points off of it for one technical reason or another. My niece snapped this marvelous image of her three young sons, and it knocked me over to the point that I asked her permission to make it the centerpiece of this article. Here, in an instant, she has managed to seize what we all chase: joy, love, simplicity, and yes, truth. Her boys’ faces retain all the explosive energy of youth as they share something only the three of them understand, but which they also share with anyone who has ever been a boy. This image happens at the speed of life.
I’ve seen many a marvelous camera produce mundane pictures, and I’ve seen five-dollar cardboard FunSavers bring home shots that remind us all of why we love to do this. Some images are great because we obeyed all the laws. Some are great because we threw the rule book out the window for a moment and just concentrated on telling the truth.
You couldn’t make this picture more real with a thousand Leicas. And what else are we really trying to do?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, HARNESSING THE NATURAL ENERGY OF A CHILD is a little like flying a kite during a thunderstorm was for Ben Franklin. You might tap into a miraculous force of nature, but what are you going to do with it? Of course, there’s big money in artificially arranging light and props for formalized (or rather, idealized) portraits of kids. It’s a specialty art with specific rules and systems, and for proud parents, it’s a steady market. We all want our urchins “promoted” to angel status, albeit briefly. However, in terms of photographic gold, you can’t, for my money, beat the controlled chaos of children at play. It’s street photography with an overlay of comedy and wonder.
However, attempting to extract a miracle while watching kids be kids is like trying to capture either sports or combat, in that it has a completely different dynamic from second to second, so much so that you should be prepared to shoot a lot, shifting your focus and framing on the fly, since the center of the action will shift rapidly. I don’t necessarily believe that there is one decisive moment which will explain all aspects of childhood since the creation of the world, but I do think that some moments have a better balance between sizes, shapes, and story elements than others, although you will be shooting instinctively for much of the time, separating the wheat from the chaff later upon review of the results.
As with the aforementioned combat and sports categories, the spirit that is caught in a shot supersedes technical perfection. I’m not saying you should throw sharpness or composition to the wind, but I think the immediacy of some images trumps the controlled environment of the studio or a formal sitting. Some artifacts of blur, inconsistent lighting, or imprecise composition can be overlooked if the overall effect of the shot is truthful, visceral. The very nature of candid photography renders all arbitrary rules rather useless. The results justify themselves regardless of their raggedness, whereas a technically flawless shot that is also bloodless can never be justified on any grounds.
Work the moment; trust it to develop naturally; hitch a ride on the wave of the instantaneous.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU LONG TO HEAR IT. The audible gasp, the sustained, breathless, collective “oooooh” from the crowd when the house lights are doused and the holiday tree glows into life in the darkened room. It’s a sonic sample of the extra dimension of emotional engagement that occurs at this time of year, imbuing your photographs with additional firepower. Call it wonder, magic, enchantment, or what you will, but it is there, in greater supply during the season, a tangible thing amidst the bustle and the endless lists of errands.
Children are the best barometers of this heightened awareness, since so many of their experiences are first-time experiences. Regular routines become magically unpredictable. Ordinary things take on the golden warmth of tradition. People that are normally on looser orbits circle closer to them for a time. Time expands and contracts. And their faces register it all, from confusion to anticipation. Reading the wonder in a child’s face is truly easy pickings at times like this, but I’m a big believer in catching them while they live their lives, not queueing up for rehearsed smiles or official sittings. Those are important, but the real Santa stuff, the magic fairy dust, gets into the camera when you eavesdrop on something organic.
The wonderful thing is, it’s not big feat to keep a kid distracted during the holidays. They are in a constant state of sensory overload, and so extremely unaware of you that all you have to do is keep it that way. Get reactions to, not re-creations of, their joy. Be a witness, not a choreographer. Stealth is your best friend for seasonal images, and it’s never easier to pull off, so bask a bit in your anonymity.
And, to further feed your own wonder, stay aware of how fleeting all of it is. You are chronicling things that can never, in this exact way, be again. That is, you’re at the very core of why you took photography up in the first place, a way to reboot your enthusiasm.
And it that’s not magic, then I will never know what is…..
by MICHAEL PERKINS
SUNDAY MORNINGS AT THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART ARE A GAGGLE OF GIGGLES, a furious surge of activity for, and by, little people. Weekly craft workshops at LACMA are inventive, inclusive, and hands-on. If you can cut it, fold it, glue it, paint it, or assemble it, it’s there, with booths that feature encouraging help from slightly larger people and smiles all around. It is a fantastic training ground as well for photographing kids in their natural element.
A recent Sunday featured the rolling out of long strips of art paper into rows along one of the common sidewalks, with museum guides on bullhorn exhorting the young to create their own respective visions with paint and brush. The event itself was rich in possibility, as a hundred little dramas and crises unfolded along the wide, white canvasses. Here a furrowed brow, there an assist from Mom. Fierce concentration. Dedication of purpose. Sunshaded Picassos-in-waiting weighing the use of color, stroke, concept. A mass of masters, and plenty of chances for really decent images.
Most of these events are as fast as they are furious, and so, during their brief duration, you can go from photographic cornucopia to….where did everybody go? Sometimes it’s over so quickly that it’s really tempting to treat the entire thing like low-hanging fruit: a ton of kids pass before your eyes in a few minutes’ time, and you have only to stand and click away. Thing is, I’m a lifelong believer in arriving early and leaving late, simply because the unexpected bit of gold will drop into your lap when you troll around before the beginning or after the end of things. In the case of this museum “paint-in”, the participants scampered on to the next project in one big sweep, leaving their artwork behind like a ruined battlefield. And then, miracle of miracles, one lone girl wandered into the near center of this huge Pollack panorama and sat herself down. The event was over but the vibe was revived. I whispered thank you, photo gods, and framed to use the paintings as a visual lead-in to her. It couldn’t have been simpler, luckier, or happier.
When the “stage” on public events is being either set or struck, there are marvelous chances to peer a bit deeper.People are typically relaxed, less guarded. The feel of everything has an informality, even an intimacy. And sometimes a small child brings the gift of her spirit into the frame, and you remember why you keep doing this.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN ARE THE GREATEST DISPLAY SPACES FOR HUMAN EMOTION, if only because they have neither the art nor the inclination to conceal. It isn’t that they are more “honest” than adults are: it’s more like they simply have no experience hiding behind the masks that their elders use with such skill. Since photographs have to be composed within a fixed space or frame, our images are alternatively about revelation and concealment. We choose how much to show, whether to discover or hoard. That means that sometimes we tell stories like adults, and sometimes we tell them like children.
The big temptation with pictures of children is to concentrate solely on their faces, but this default actually narrows our array of storytelling tools. Yes, the eyes are the window to the soul and so forth….but a child is eloquent with everything in his physical makeup. His face is certainly the big, obvious, electric glowing billboard of his feelings, but he speaks in anything he touches, anywhere he runs toward, even the shadows he casts upon the wall. Making pictures of these fragments can produce telling statements about the state of being a child, highlighting the most poignant, and, for us, the most forgotten bits.
Children are all about unrealized potential. Since nothing’s happened yet, everything is possible. Potential and possibility are twin mysteries, and are the common language of kids. Tapping into either one can provide the best element in all of photography, and that is the element of surprise.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HUMAN RACE TAKES MORE PHOTOGRAPHS EVERY TWO MINUTES, TODAY, THAN WERE CAPTURED DURING THE ENTIRE 19th CENTURY. As staggering as that statistic is, it’s even more amazing on a personal level, when we contemplate how many of those gazillions of images involve our children, as we chase the ever-elusive goal of pictorially documenting (or so it seems) every second of their existence. Not only are we constantly on the job as shooters, our young ones must also be forever “on”, delivering camera-ready smiles and cherubic cuteness on cue.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that kids actually evolve an alter ego to use for these “candid” moments after a while. Patented smiles, standby poses, a whole little system of default settings for quick use when Mom and Dad are in click mode. So, paradoxically, we are taking more and more pictures that reveal less and less about our children…..actually pushing their personalities further and further from discovery.
It’s tricky. And the results of our efforts actually count for more as time goes on, as traditional children’s portrait studios at department stores, malls, etc., are closing their doors. Increasingly, the pictures that we take of our kids are the ones which provide the most definitive chronicle of their most important years.
Point a camera at a child and he will try to give you what you want. But let him know it’s all right to inject himself into the process, and you will be amazed at the difference in the end product.
I recently took a series of informal portraits of several packs of Girl Scouts at a museum. They were told that they could use any of a variety of costume accents and musical instruments to create their own concept of the artists they saw on exhibit on their tour. Some of the girls organically assumed another identity completely, rock goddess, cowgirl, bluesy diva, and so on. Others stood frozen, as if waiting for me or someone “official” to tell them “what to do”. The hardest shots were the group portraits of the individual troops. The first frame was always stiff, awkward, like bankers at First National posing for a company picture in 1910.
However, simply by my saying just a few words like, “now act like you want to”, or, “now, act crazy”, the formal camera faces were stripped away, with truly great results. Arms on hips: attitude: dance poses: defiance.
I didn’t tell them what kind of pose to give me. I didn’t have to. They knew.
A camera can be a momentary intruder in a child’s busy day, but it doesn’t have to be. And photos of our children can actually show the magic behind the mechanical smile. However, the request that a kid show you something real must be a sincere one. And you have to be ready when the moment comes.
Getting beyond “smile” is the beginning of something wonderful.
(Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)