By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE FILLED PAGES OF THIS LITTLE HOMETOWN NEWSPAPER with confessional accounts of my weaknesses in many areas of photography, with special emphasis on my underdeveloped skill with landscapes. To say that I need improvement in this area is, on the Captain Obvious scale, somewhat akin to breaking the hot bulletin that Batman has anger issues. And yet we soldier on.
It’s hard to look out upon a vast mountain vista or a yawning canyon and think in terms of simplicity. At least in my own case. I initially came to the visual arts as an illustrator, influenced by artists that I can only call “completists” in that they drew intricate compilations of every leaf, stone and speck within a scene, a technique that my infant brain referred to as “realistic”. It follows, then, that as I segued into photography, my instinct was to go for that illustrative look, with tons of detail, and a broad panoramic sweep. It drew me to grand subjects and wide, wide lenses.
Occasionally, this has served me well, but more often it gave me a severe case of Too Much Picture, frames that were so drowned in detail and visual information that I was challenged to tell succinct, clear stories in landscape form. There was always plenty to look at, but I wasn’t developing a real instinct for what a viewer should look at first, or should regard as the central narrative focus of a picture. My sense of composition still fell too often into the “get everything in there” side of the fence. I produced well-focused pictures of scenes that were always okay, but seldom compelling.
These days, I fight to make the simplest framings that I can. I struggle to present one main idea and make everything else in the image subservient to that idea, or at least to get out of its way. The frame seen here is done quite differently than I might have made it as a younger man. The forked cactus at the center has been designated as the main messenger of the picture, with everything else reduced in definition or importance. In the past, I might have tried to expose the picture uniformly, with every spine, frond and branch in the same brightness or color intensity. Now I am far more likely, in this case, to expose just for the central open space and leave the surrounding halo frame in shadow….the idea being to let some things have louder voices in a picture than other things. I have done the same thing with selective focus, using blur or softer resolution to force attention onto the primary feature in the picture.
I still have a lot of work to do, but at least I have moved from my original habit of giving all elements in a landscape equal status to trying to, if you like, direct eye traffic to greater effect. It’s a struggle for balance between the picture’s M&Ms, or the major and minor messengers for that particular photograph. It’s not an exact science. Hell, it’s not even an exact art. But it’s the only way I can shoot landscapes if I want to escape the dreaded gravitational pull of Planet Postcard.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOKING BACK AT THE EARLIEST FORMATS FOR AMATEUR SNAPSHOTS, it’s almost possible to hear the frustration of photographers trying to deliver the world in a greatly constricted work space. Peruse your grandparents’ photo albums and you will find a number of images printed in such small sizes as to render anything more complex than a candid of a friend nearly unreadable. Size doesn’t matter in all things, but, for some subjects, the canvas needs to have a little breathing space.
Serious photographers with bulky medium and large format cameras could always create work on any scale that they preferred (think Ansel Adams), but amateurs in the first decades of the twentieth century were often confined to small spaces, many around the size of the present-day “credit card” prints produced by the Instax line of instant cameras. This miniature-scaled way of seeing in the world was death for landscape work especially, and it was not until the introduction of the 35mm camera and improved technology for enlargement (including the option of slide projection) that mountain ranges, seashores and canyons started to get their proper due.
Now, while it’s possible to photographically capture and suggest grand scenes, our urban sprawl hems us in once more, littered as it is with wires, signs and neon clutter. It’s not what to shoot, but where to stand when shooting it, that makes the difference. Often we ourselves are so desensitized to the garbage through which we habitually view beauty that we’re surprised when the camera records the visual debris that we’ve taught ourselves not to see. I once heard a Nikon rep say that, even in the middle of the ocean, some people’s pictures could somehow manage to have telephone lines visible in them.
But that’s a problem of seeing. Thing is, even when a photographer apprehends an epic-scale scene, getting a shot of it that’s free of junk can be daunting. In the case of this image, I woke up struck by the beauty of enormous banks of clouds rolling through the skies in a part of Arizona that is typically free of anything but solid blue. The problem soon became where to drive/pull over/aim to make sure that nothing else punctuated the impact of these enormous billows. I drove about ten miles until I got to a tiny municipal airport whose elevated observation deck afforded nearly unbroken horizons in all directions and started to crank away. Strangely, it was when I got my unbroken sky that I realized that there was nothing of scale to indicate how big the formations actually were. Enter a tiny mosquito of a private plane, barely big enough to create a flint of light to announce its presence. The ballet of big and little was now complete. The photographer’s job in showing the size of something lies simply in supplying the answer, “compared to what?” It’s Storytelling 101, it’s simple to do, and it makes the difference between a picture and a narrative.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST DECADES OF PHOTOGRAPHY, like the earliest years of any emerging art, operated under a different set of rules than those we set for ourselves today. More accurately, we may now operate in a world in which there are no immutable rules at all. It’s hard to imagine a book with the title Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus being published in, say, 1865.
When a different way of viewing the world comes mostly through a technical breakthrough (i.e., the invention of the camera), it can understandably be regarded, at least at first, as a measuring or recording device, a way of creating a merely physical chronicle of the world. Thus a camera can initially be regarded like a microscope or a seismograph….as a way of quantifying data…. which is precisely how early cameras were seen. Catalogue the great statesmen and authors for the ages! Assemble a library of images of the ancient world! Map the continent!
And so the first rules of photography bent toward the scientific. Make an accurate record. Not surprisingly, it took decades for picture-taking to be freed from the constraints of mere reality (as painting already was) and move toward the making of pictures, as photography eventually became an interpretive art. I often wonder if this explains why, of all the various subjects available to me, I am less comfortable in landscape work than in any other area.
There seems to be no way of escaping the pure recording function of it. I feel constrained to make it accurate, as if it’s for an official government survey, or as though I were being graded on the results by some imperious professor. I know the problem lies with me. I seem anchored to the idea of rendering scenery “real” (I hate that word), when, in fact, I could exercise just as much interpretative control over it that I do over everything else I shoot.
Is the shot shown here less real for having been partially defocused, or is it more personal because I have gently asked you to look at the subject in my own way? Do I really even have to ask these questions? Quite obviously, the rules of photography as we understand them are no longer based on pure science. Yes, it is “about” the lenses, to a degree, but it’s more completely about the human eye. We are not machines, nor should our art be purely the product of machines.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MERELY INVOKING THE NAME OF ANSEL ADAMS is enough to summon forth various hosannas and hallelujahs from anyone from amateur shutterbug to world-renowned photog. He is the saint of saints, the yardstick of yardsticks. He is the photographer was all want to be when (and if) we grow up. His technical prowess is held as the standard for diligence, patience, vision. And yet, even at the moment we revere Adams for his painstaking development of the zone system and his mind-blowing detail, we are still short-changing his greatest achievement.
And it is an achievement that many of us can actually aspire to.
What Ansel Adams did, over a lifetime, was work his equipment way beyond its limits, milking about 2000% out of every lens, camera and film roll, showing us that, to make photographs, we have to constantly reach beyond what we think is possible. Given the slow speed of much of the film stocks and lenses of his era, he, out of the wellspring of his own ingenuity, had to make up the deficit. He had to be smarter, better than his gear. No one piece of equipment could give him everything, so he learned over a lifetime how to anticipate every need. Look at one of many lists he made of things that he might need on a major shoot:
Cameras: One 8 x 10 view camera with 20 film holders and four lenses; 1 Cooke Convertible, 1 ten-inch Wide Field Ektar, 1 nine-inch Dagor, one six and three-quarters-inch Wollensak wide angle. One 7 x 17 special panorama camera with a Protar 13-1/2-inch lens and five holders. One 4 x 5 view camera with six lenses; a twelve-inch Collinear, including an eight-and-a-half Apo Lentar, a nine-and-a-quarter Apo Tessar, 4-inch Wide Field Ektar, Dallmeyer telephoto. One Hasselblad camera outfit with 38, 60, 80, 135, & 200 millimeter lenses. A Koniflex 35 millimeter camera. Two Polaroid cameras. 3 exposure meters (one SEI, two Westons).
Extras: filters for each camera: K1, K2, minus blue, G, X1, A, C5 &B, F, 85B, 85C, light balancing, series 81 and 82. Two tripods: one light, one heavy. Lens brush, stopwatch, level, thermometer, focusing magnifier, focusing cloth, hyperlight strobe portrait outfit, 200 feet of cable, special storage box for film.
Transport: One ancient, eight-passenger Cadillac station wagon with 5 x 9-foot camera platform on top.
However, the magic of Ansel Adams’ work is not in how much equipment he packed. It’s that he knew precisely what tool he needed for every single eventuality. He likewise knew how to tweak gear to its limits and beyond. Most importantly, his exacting command of the elemental science behind photography, which most of us now use with little or no thought, meant that he took complete responsibility for everything he created, from pre-visualization to final print.
And that is what we can actually emulate from the great man, that total approach, that complete immersion. If we use all of ourselves in every picture that we make, we can always be better than our cameras. And, for the sake of our art, we need to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA’S SOUTHWESTERN STATES COME EQUIPPED WITH SOME OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR SCENERY TO BE HAD ANYWHERE ON EARTH; jutting crags, yawning canyons, vast valleys, and more sky than you’ve ever seen anywhere. Photographically, the mountains, mesas and arroyos deliver on drama pretty much year-round, while the sky can be an endless expanse of, well, not much, really. Compositionally, this means rolling the horizon line in your framing pretty far toward the top, crowding out a fairly unbroken and featureless ocean of blue….except for more humid summer months, when cloud formations truly steal the scene.
It’s true: as the storm season (sometimes called the “monsoon”, for reasons that escape me) accompanies the year’s highest temperatures in desert regions, rolling, boiling billows of clouds add texture, drama, even a sense of scale to skies in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and California. It’s like getting free props for whatever photographic theatre you care to stage, and it often makes sense to rotate your horizon line back toward the bottom of the frame to give the sky show top billing.
Early photographers often augmented the skies in their seascapes and mountain views by layering multiple glass negatives, one containing ground features, the other crammed with “decorator” clouds. The same effect was later achieved in the darkroom during the film era. Hey, any way you get to the finish line. Suffice it to say that the harvest of mile-high cloud banks is particularly high in the desert states’ summer seasons, and can fill the frame with enough impact to render everything else as filler.
I still marvel at the monochrome masterpiece by Life magazine’s Andreas Feininger, Texaco Station, Route 66, Seligman, Arizona, 1947, which allows the sky overhead to dwarf the photo’s actual subject, creating a marvelous feeling of both space and scale. I first saw this photo as a boy, and am not surprised to see it re-printed over the decades in every major anthology of Life’s all-time greatest images. It’s a one-image classroom, as all the best pictures always are. For more on Feininger’s singular gift for composition, click the “related articles” link below.
Big Sky country yields drama all along the America southwest. And all you really have to do is point.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photography Monograph (conordoylephoto.wordpress.com)