By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE MOST PHOTO-DOCUMENTED EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY, the attacks of September 11, 2001 have spawned images that can never be unseen. Images that tear at you, slam you in the back of the head, wring tears and rage from you, stun you mute.
As the keeper and curator of many of the most powerful of these images, the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan has achieved a tough but fair balance of emotion and academia. Given the staggering number of people whose personal stake in this space covers every human motive and perspective, the making of this part-exhibit-part-shrine may have been one of the most thankless jobs imaginable.
And yet the job has been done, with eloquence and a spare, stark restraint that is poetic. Visiting the museum is no easy task. As Shakespeare said, if you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now. But visit you should, and, yes, there is something that a camera can capture there without being crass or irreverent. The designers have seen to it.
Firstly, they have guaranteed that the main central exhibits of debris, personal documents, voice messages and news video are completely off-limits to any kind of photography. Walk in there, and you’ll know why. Those who accidentally caught this epic horror in the moment of its occurrence will never be equaled or surpassed by anyone taking a casual snap on a smartphone anyway, and trying to do so would be like setting off sparklers at a requiem mass.
No, the real photographic opportunities are in the dark, cavernous spaces under the surface of the street, dim caves that make you feel as if you yourself, are, for a moment, trapped, running out of light and time. The enormous foundation known as the slurry wall, which, in surviving the titanic forces of the towers’ collapse, kept the Hudson River from flooding all of lower Manhattan. The rusted girder that, like a day-glo-autographed tombstone, bears the signature of every working company of first responders that slaved away at Ground Zero, first as rescuers, next as salvagers, always as heroes.
It is here, in the quiet arrangement of these incredibly scaled spaces, that the 9/11 Memorial Museum becomes more spiritual than any hour you will ever pass in church. It is in these dark, harrowing parts of the hall that you fully sense what a slender thread we all hang from, and understand that light and darkness struggle for the same real estate, now as then.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU TRAVEL ENOUGH, YOU’LL DISCOVER THAT, OF ALL THE TIMES YOU WANT to take a photograph, there are only a few times in which acceptable picture-making conditions are actually present. For all too many subjects that you experience on the fly, only a small percentage of them allow you the time, light, information or opportunity to do your best. And yet…you do what you must, and trust to instinct and chance for the rest.
Immediately upon arrival in a new town, my mind goes to one task, and one task only: sticking anyone else with the driving, so I can take potshots out the car window as I see fit. I have no need to head the posse or lead the expedition. You be in charge, big man. Get me to the hotel and leave me to make as many attempts as possible to put something worthwhile inside my camera.
Of course, this means that I have to pay at least some attention to how insanely you drive…shortcuts, rapid swerves, jolts and all. And, hey, couldn’t you have lingered a millisecond longer after the light went green, since I was just about to create an immortal piece of street art, instead of the muscular spasm I now have frozen forever on my memory card?
When shooting from a car, there are lots of things that go out the window (sorry), among them composition, exposure, stability, and, most generally, focus. En route to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. a few years ago, I fell in love with the funky little tobacco shop you see here. The colors, the woodwork, the look of yesteryear, it all spoke to me, and I had to have it. So I shot it at 1/250 sec, more than fast enough to freeze nearly anything in focus, unless by “nearly anything” you mean something that you’re not careening past at the pace of the average Tijuana taxicab. Result? Well, I didn’t wind up with unspeakable blur, but it’s certainly softer than I wanted. Of course, I could have offered an acceptable alibi for the shot, something based on some variant like, “of course, I meant to do that”, that is, until I outed myself in this post, just now.
But we try. Sometimes it’s the fleeting nature of things seen from car windows that make the attempt even more appealing than the potential result. In that instant, it seems like nothing’s more important than trying to take a picture. That picture. I won’t get ’em all. But as long as I live, I hope I never lose that mad, what-the-hell urge to just go for it.
So okay, seeing as this is a photo of a tobacco shop, this is where one of you cashes in the “close, but no cigar” gag line.
Go ahead, I’ll give you that one.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT A PARTY, THERE ARE DISTINCT ADVANTAGES TO NOT BEING AN “OFFICIAL” PHOTOGRAPHER. You could probably catalogue many of them yourself with no strain. Chief among the perks of being an amateur (can we get a better word for this?) is that you are the captain of your own fate. You shoot what you want, when you want. Your arrival on the scene is not telegraphed by stacks of accompanying cases, light fixtures, connecting cords or other spontaneity killers that are essential to someone who has been “assigned” to an event. Your very unimportance is your license to fly, your ticket to liberation. Termed honestly (if unkindly), your work just doesn’t matter to anyone else, and so it can mean everything to you. Yay.
One of the supreme kicks I derive from going to events with my wife is that I can make her forget I’m there. I mean, as a guy with a camera. She has the gift of being able to submerge completely into the social dynamics of wherever she is, so she is not thinking about when I may elect to sneak up and snap her. Believe me, when you live with a beautiful woman who also hates to have her picture taken, this is like hitting the trifecta at Del Mar. At 20 to 1.
Free from the constraints of being “on the job”, I enjoy a kind of invisibility at parties, since I use the fastest lenses I can and no flash, ever, ever, ever. I do not call attention to myself. I do not exhort people to smile or arrange them next to people that they may or may not be able to stand. The word “cheese” never leaves my lips. I take what the moment gives me, as that is often richer than anything I might concoct, anyway. Working with a DSLR is a little more conspicuous than the magical invisibility of a phone camera, which people totally ignore, but if I am cagey, I can work with an “official” camera and not be perceived as a threat. Again, with a woman who (a) looks great and (b) doesn’t like how she looks in pictures, this is nirvana.
Candid photography is all about the stealth. It’s not about warning or prepping people that, attention K-Mart shoppers, you’re about to have your picture took. The more you insert yourself into the process (look over here! big smiiiiile!) the more you interrupt the natural rhythm that you set out to capture. So stop working against yourself. Be a happy sneak thief. Like me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN DEFINED CLASSICALLY AS “WRITING WITH LIGHT“, but I often wonder if a better definition might be “capitalizing on light opportunities”, since it’s not really what subject matter we shoot but light’s role in shaping it that makes for strong images. We have all seen humble objects transformed, even rendered iconic, based on how a shooter perceives the value of light, then shapes it to his ends. That’s why even simple patterns that consist of little more than light itself can sometimes be enough for a solid photograph.
If you track the history of our art from, say, from the American Civil War through today’s digital domain, you really see a progression from recording to interpreting. If the first generally distributed photographs seen by a mass audience involve, say, the aftermath of Antietam or Gettysburg, and recent images are often composed of simple shapes, then the progression is very easy to track. The essence is this: we began with photography as technology, the answer to a scientific conundrum. How do we stop and fix time in a physical storage device? Once that very basic aim was achieved, photographers went from trying to just get some image (hey, it worked!) to having a greater say in what kind of image they wanted. It was at this point that photography took on the same creative freedom as painting. Brushes, cameras, it doesn’t matter. They are just mediums through which the imagination is channeled.
In interpreting patterns of elementary shapes which appeal on their own merit, photographers are released from the stricture of having to endlessly search for “something to shoot”. Some days there is no magnificent sunrise or eloquent tree readily at hand, but there is always light and its power to refract, scatter, and recombine for effect. It’s often said that photography forced painting into abstraction because it didn’t want to compete with the technically perfect way that the camera could record the world. However, photography also evolved beyond the point where just rendering reality was enough. We moved from being reporters to commentators, if you like. Making that journey in your own work (and at your own pace) is one of the most important step an art, or an artist, can take.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ADVANCES IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WHETHER IN THE SCIENCES OF LENSES, FILMS, SENSORS OR TECHNIQUE, ALL HAVE, AS THEIR AIM, THE SAME RESULT: to make it easier to take more pictures…more often, and with fewer barriers between what you see and what you can catch in the box. Taking more pictures means increasing the yield of wonderful pictures, even if 95% of what you shoot is doody, and getting to the decisive moment of the “click” beats any other imperative. Any gimmicks or toys that don’t increase your readiness to shoot are wasteful detours.
This means that we are constantly weeding out dead growth, trimming away systems or ideas that have outgrown their usefulness. Rusty ways of doing things that cost us time, require extra steps, and eventually rob us of shots.
And that’s why it’s the age of the tripod is nearly over.
Getting past our artistic bias toward the ‘pod as a vital tool in the successful creation of images is tough; we still associate it with the “serious” photographer, even though today’s cameras solve nearly all of the problems tripods were once reliable in offsetting. What we’re left with, regarding the tripod’s real value, then, is old brain wiring and, let’s face it, sentiment.
More importantly, to my first point, the tripod is not about, “Okay, I’m ready!”. It’s about, “Hold on, I’ll be ready in a minute.” Worse yet, to the petty dictators who act as the camera police in churches, monuments, retail establishments and museums, they scream, “you can’t be here”. Call me crazy, but I still think of lack of access (spelled “getting kicked out”) as, well, sort of a hindrance to photography.
Tripods were, once upon a time, wonderful protection again several key problems, among them: slow film/sensor speed, vibration risk, and sharpness at wider apertures, all of which have long since been solved. Moreover, tripods may tempt people to shoot at smaller apertures, which could lead to softer overall images.
I readily concede that tripods are absolutely vital for extended night exposures, light painting, miniature work, and some other very selective professional settings. But for more than a century, ‘pods have mostly been used to compensate where our cameras were either flawed or limited. So, if those limits and flaws have faded sufficiently to allow you to take a nighttime snap, handheld at f/1.8, with a 1/15 shutter speed and the virtual guarantee of a well-lit shot, with negligible noise, why would you carry around twice the gear, pretty much ensuring that you would lose time, flexibility, and opportunities as a result?
The tripod has served us well, as was once true of flash powder, glass plates, even the torturous neck braces used to hold people’s heads in position during long exposures. But it no longer has a leg to stand on.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
THERE IS A DELIGHTFUL SEQUENCE toward the end of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo which shows the silent movie pioneer George Melies creating films in his own primitive studio in France. Like Thomas Edison, who built the Black Maria, a tarpaper shack that rotated on a turntable so its roof and front wall could be turned toward the sun for all-day shooting, Melies improvised his own turn-of-the-century solution for how to get adequate light to slow film. Like Edison, he built his studio to stand out in the open sun, but fashioned its walls completely of glass, huge panes mounted inside a simple metal frame cage. The frame held fixtures and scenery in place, and its spartan design gave Melies a pure, huge, natural light box inside which he directed the first minor masterpieces of world cinema. It’s a reminder of how truly elementary some of our light problems are. Just put yourself at the service of the available light and be ready to make magic….in seconds.
The point is, most of us probably have daily access to at least one “sweet” spot, either in our houses, or the yards and grounds that surround them, or somewhere near us, where there is abundant, reliable light, on a daily basis, sufficient to shoot almost anything..without muss, fuss, or flash. For me, it’s the southeast corner of the house, where the blazingly, brilliant Arizona morning light comes slamming in by way of the opened garage door, the front entrance sidelights, or the west window near where I am posting this. And when I say light, I mean BAM! light, with long, solid shadows and, just after dawn, a super-saturation of color that will vanish by midday, when the western sky is one big blinding, squinting, over-exposed whiteout.
In recent months, I have actually created crude mini-studio areas at these various BAM! points, staging objects on everything from snack tables to packing cartons, baffling or channeling the light in some cases with strips of cardboard or towels, but mostly just placing still-life objects right in the path of these killer rays. On occasion, I am rewarded with a great image before breakfast, which is a psychologically great way to put the right early spin on the day.
It also harks back to my childhood and the five dollar Imperial box camera that started it all. With one focal length and one shutter speed, you had to be cagey, to, in fact, get any image in other than ideal light. There was, to say the least, a high fail rate. Next time you stop by the house I can show you the shoebox of shame, wherein lie interred all the keepers that might have been. Rest in Peace.
Part of my mad pursuit of available light has been fed, in recent years, by the adventure I undertook of shooting exclusively with a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens for an entire year. Freed by this wonderful glass to attempt an ever wider scope of do-able shots, I did everything I could to push the envelope in whatever situation I could devise. Eventually I compiled a book of the luckiest results entitled The Normal Eye, and was left with a renewed passion for low-and- no-light opportunities.
Find the BAM! spot around your crib and have your own Melies moment. Turns out, the tools we need are never far off.
Make light of the situation.
(The Normal Eye is available through Blurb Books at www.blurb.com/bookstore