THE GENTLE GIANT NEXT DOOR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DID NOT INHERIT MY FATHER’S PASSIONATE TALENT FOR GARDENING and landscaping, although I have always envied the way it miraculously devours him, each season bestowing on him distinct and endless variants of joy. He has owned and maintained the creekside half-acre back of his house for a third of a century now, and, as the aches and pains and limits of his ninety-three years often forbid his going out to play in his own private Walden, I cheer on days when I know it is clear enough, or warm enough, or safe enough for him to be out there. He and the yard get lonely for each other.
What was transmitted to me was his very special love of trees. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t awed by their beauty, their power, their endurance. That’s why my favorite part of my own “estate” is my view of the towering, sprawling titan just over the rear fence in my neighbor’s back yard. It’s unusual for an old, solid, massive thing like this to have survived the yank-everything-out-start-over ethos of the Southwest suburbs. Perhaps removing it was simply too expensive, too troublesome, leaving it to stand when many lesser trees might have been cleared out to make way for (??) progress? In any event, like anything that is purely or simply beautiful, it makes photographing it fairly complicated.
Over the past twenty years I have captured it in low light and full, dusk and dawn, rain or shine, and still I always come away feeling like I have failed to deliver its full story. Then again, what can its “story” even be? It’s a tree. But therein lies the paradox of making images of anything living, from human passersby to majestic landscapes. Their life is both static and in motion, both in and out of time. The camera both records accurately and lies absolutely when I point it at such a thing.
And so I keep going. What you see here is but the latest attempt from a few days ago. If you have the time, I can put on the kettle and guide you through the hundreds of other attempts I’ve made over the years at finding the soul of my gentle giant. Being that I don’t have to journey to the forest primeval to find something to admire this much, I admit to thinking that I have, you know, plenty of time to get it right. But, while the tree isn’t going anywhere, I certainly am headed, and before too long, for the stage exit. And so I keep going.
The tree has already gotten it right.
Maybe, by running a little harder, I can, in time, catch up with it…..
TWO SKIES, ONE GOAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I HAVE TO MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS ON AN OVERCAST DAY, I actually pray that the weather will deteriorate even further, since a dramatically lousy sky can create better results than an indifferent overcast. Murky weather mutes colors to the texture of bland dishwater, whereas rapidly shifting, strongly contrasty conditions can actually boost colors or create a dimensional effect in which foreground objects “pop” a bit. Keep your rainy days. Give me stormy ones.
Some days an uneven, rolling overcast contains dread darkness on one side and unbroken sun on the other, simulating the effect of a studio in which the subject is floodlit from front but staged against a somber background. This strange combination of natural lighting conditions confers an additional power on even the most mundane objects, and the photographer need do nothing except monitor the changing weather from minute to minute and pick his moment.
I love the architectural features of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, such as the section of one of the exhibit hall rooves, seen above. However, in fair or even grey weather, it has less impact than when it’s front-lit against a threatening cloud bank, so, on a rotten day, it’s worth checking and re-checking to see if it’s been amped up by “jumping away” from the background clouds. Likewise these palm trees:
Simply capitalizing on changes in lighting conditions can create more opportunities than all the lenses and gear in the world. Cheap point-and-shoot or luxuriant Leica, it’s all about the light….plentiful, free, and ever-changing. The ability to sculpt strong images from this most basic commodity is the closest thing to a level playing field for every kind of photographer.
SAME SHIFT, DIFFERENT DAY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS OF PERFORMANCES ARE PERHAPS MY FAVORITE STUDIES OF THE HUMAN FACE. None of the self-conscious artifice or hesitant reticence of the standard portrait shoot are present when a player, be it a violinist or pianist, is fully inside the trance of creation. Call it rapture, call it focus, but something almost holy illuminates the features when people sing or play. All the awareness of their face as a mask melts away, as all mental energy surges to the task at hand. Their faces become some other thing, and I can’t resist trying to preserve that.
I recently had a chance to shoot two performances at the same part of the same museum about
ten weeks apart. The first set of images were like walking barefoot through roses; everything worked. The second occasion, just a few days ago, was, by comparison, work, and frustrating work at that. The time of day for both sessions was the same, with mid-morning light entering the hall through cream-color curtains and softening everything to an appealing haze. My distance from the stage was also nearly the same on both days. What created the difference in my results, then, was my choice of lens, pure and simple. All of my “luck” came because the first lens was perfect for the task. All of my muttered oaths at the second occasion were due to how wrong my choice had been.
In the first case, exemplified by the mariachi band in the image at right, I used a 35mm prime, which
is simple, sharp and fast enough, at f/1.8 on the wide-open end, to give me enough light in nearly any situation. In the more recent shoot, I used a 300mm zoom, about the most opposite approach you could try. The lens cannot get any wider open than f/4.5, and shuts down all the way to f/5.6 when fully zoomed in, so, right off the bat, you’re starving yourself for light, especially in a room where most of it is behind the performers. I decided to try the 300 out of pure perverse curiosity, and from a sense of “what can I lose?”, which is a blessing, since, when the results don’t matter, you can try something, just to see what happens.
Well, I saw.
The light reduction with the 300 was more severe than I’d anticipated. Oh, sure, I could get really tight framings on the performers, but I was going to have to either slow my shutter speed to under 1/60 or jack the ISO up to undesirably high noise level, or, as it turns out, both. The contrast between light and dark was the first thing to take the hit, as tone registered in a muddy middle range with the zoom versus the sharply defined values I had gotten with the 35.
Then there was the overall softness of the 300, due largely to the small amount of camera shake on my part, which, in a zoom, is magnified several times over. In both cases, I got usable images, but whereas with the 35mm prime I had a kind of embarrassment of riches, the object with the zoom shoot was to salvage something and slave away like mad to do so.
I could easily have taken wider framed shots with the 35 (since it can’t zoom), then cropped them for tightness later, as I had on the first day. Instead, I got a lot of really tight shots of musicians that needed serious intervention to make them acceptable. But I want to emphasize that this is what experimentation is for. You put your hand on the hot stove, yell “OWWW!” and refrain from touching the hot stove in future. At the end of the second shoot, I had lost no money, no business, and very little time. That’s education on the cheap.
I don’t mind wearing the dunce cap every once in a while, if I know that, eventually, I’m going to end up in a fedora.