By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection “FIAT LUX”, available through NormalEye Press)
LIKE PHOTOGRAPHS THEMSELVES, THE REMARKS INTENDED AS COMPLIMENTS for photographs are often crippled by cliche, as we struggle to appreciate not only what an image looks like but what we believe it ought to look like. “It’s so realistic” and “looks just like a postcard” are two of my favorites, along with “nice color” or “you must have a really good camera”, but one of our well-worn go-to’s is, to me, head and shoulders above the rest: “the picture looks better than the real place/person/thing”. In that one sentence is the entire tug-of-war our minds wage between the province of the photographer and that of the painter.
In a painting, we know that fallible/biased human hands are not rendering “reality”, but a subjective amplification of it. Who knows if the trees were really that green, or the mountain that drenched in sun, and who cares? We stipulate that we are looking at an interpretation. There is no accusation of manipulation or fakery, since the painter’s perspective is baked into the process of painting. He doesn’t have to add, “at least that’s how I see it” because we all accept those terms of engagement.
The camera, however, is quite another thing.
Despite over nearly two hundred-plus years that demonstrate how very subjective photography is, we have a hard-wired reflex to see the camera as the agent of creativity, the soulless, unerring recording instrument which is the arbiter of all that is “real”. When the personal input of the photographer, like that of the painter, is introduced, we adopt different words to judge the results, many of them unflattering. We label the picture a “trick”, a “fake”, “manipulated” and, the latest insult in the critical lexicon, “post-processed”, as if any attempt at personalizing or idealizing a view of the world is untrustworthy, non-genuine. To say a picture looks “better than the real thing” is to somehow suggest that it is something less than the real thing, not more. Certainly, some painters have been tarred with the same brush, but not to the extent that photographers typically are. In fact, photographs are, as Picasso said of art in general, “a lie that makes us realize truth”. We create images that escape the mereness of reality on the road to something more essential about the condition of being human.
My grandfather’s old chess set, pictured here, is, in reality, pretty wrecked, bearing the scars of hundreds of skirmishes with many vanquished foes. Now, I could make a photograph that depicts all that detail, and it might be engaging, even touching as a comment on the fragility of objects. But in this frame, I’m approaching the white and black armies as real combatants, using selective focus to re-visualize them as mythic stand-ins for the legions who face off in actual battles over the broad span of history. The same focus scheme is designed to render everything else around them as fuzzy, immaterial. The fight, not little pieces of wood, is the so-called”reality”, and everything around it melts into obscurity. This is a picture planned like a painting is, a deliberate as-I-see-it denial of actuality in search of a different reality….my own. Like painters, photographers are looking for a verity that is occasionally “better” or “worse” than the real thing. Because if all you want of a camera is for it slavishly to perform a recording function, like a seismograph or a thermometer, then all photographers are obsolete and need to take up a different hobby.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHATEVER THE PERCEIVED DOWNSIDES of the switch from analog to digital photography, perhaps the only real net negative has been how speedy the process of picture-making has become. Yes, I said negative.
Admittedly most of that vaunted speed connotes as a positive to many, a miraculous convenience. And, indeed, progressively more responsive, even “intuitive” cameras produce usable images only slightly slower than their creators can hatch a whim. Want it, take it, got it. Fast.
But “usable” doesn’t necessarily mean “great”. And it can be argued that the sheer velocity at which we crank out photographs promotes, even guarantees a stunning yield of photographic mediocrity. Because art takes forethought, a pre-imagining discipline. And there is no way to achieve that if every picture, every time, is taken in an instant.
Eventually, photographers have to proactively take back control over their final product, by the simple expedient of slowing everything down. And there are any number of simple ways to practice this. Shoot on manual. Set aside the zooms and shoot with primes. Engineer more natural light shots in lieu of flash snaps. Keep one particular lens on your camera for a month and force yourself to shoot everything with it. In short, make the process harder, not easier. Make yourself uncomfortable.
One of my favorite mindfulness exercises come from shooting macro. It’s harder in every way from any other kind of work. Focus, composition, lighting and exposure are all exponentially more difficult at short distances, and that means a higher harvest of bad pictures(the photo shown here was the lone survivor among twenty frames). And that’s good, because that, in turn, makes it impossible to settle for your first frame. Or your twenty-first. And that means you have to try, adjust, compare, re-try. It takes time, all of it educational. But first you need to escape the realm of Snapshot Mind, a fun and carefree play land that digital makes especially seductive, but which can become a trap.
Of course, there is the phenomenon called “first thought, best thought”, in which amazing, fully realized images come right out of the chute, and very quickly. And there is no guarantee that, by simply taking your time, you will always use it wisely. But creating situations in which you must be more present, more deliberate, will, more often than not, show you how to shape and then re-shape your vision.
Turns out Rome really wasn’t built (or photographed) in a day.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, WHEN IT FLEXES TO ITS FULLEST LIMITS, should never be about merely accepting things at face value. The camera is a fairly reliable recording device, but simply using it to freeze time severely limits its narrative potential. Of course, on a purely personal level, that’s frequently just what we want: to stop the clock on the vanishing of tender times and loved ones: to preserve life.
However, I believe that the camera should also preserve death.
I’m not talking about doing a series of close-ups of Grandpa in the crypt. I’m mostly thinking biological subjects here. Living things are most typically photographed in the full bloom of health: the eye luxuriates over bright explosions of color, the hardy flesh of petals, the skyward reach of tender saplings. But if a photographic subject gains extra interpretive power as it’s removed from its standard context (nature in its regular settings), then a living thing achieves the ultimate visual re-contextualization as its life begins to ebb. Taking the familiar out of its comfort zone opens it up to alternate interpretations.
The rose seen above, taken with a Lensbaby Velvet 56 (a wonderful portrait lens which doubles as a decent macro), was days dead when I came upon it, and yet it presented textures more intriguing, colors deeper and richer than its fresher vase-mates. Is this ghoulish?
Depends. Decay is, after all, something we document with great enthusiasm as it applies to inanimate things like rusted cars, crumbling neighborhoods and abandoned infrastructures. How much more attention should be paid, then, to things that once mirrored our own fleeting arrangement with mortality, once throbbed with pulses as perishable as those bounding through our own veins.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NORMALEYE PHOTOGRAPHIC PARADOX No.346: You have to think hard about your equipment when you’re not shooting so that you don’t have to give much thought when you are.
Reacting “in the moment” to a photographic situation is often lauded as the highest state of human existence, and, indeed, the ability to see, and do, on the spot, can yield amazing results. But, in that marvelous inspirational instant, the smallest item on your checklist should be dithering about your gear. What it will do. What it can’t do. What you don’t know how to make it do. These are ruminations you run through when there’s no picture making going on.
Simply, the more you know about what you’ve taken to a shoot, the less creative energy will be drained off worrying about how to use it once you get there. You will get to the point where, for a given day’s subject matter, you take the wide lens, of course, or the macro lens, of course, or the portrait lens, of course. You’ll anticipate the majority of situations you’ll be in, and, unless you like driving yourself crazy, you’ll likely select one lens that will just about do it all. But whatever lens you select, you will want to know how much farther you can push it, as well. You know what you generally need it to do, but can it, in a tight spot, do a decent job outside its specialty? The answer is, probably yes.
One of my favorite lenses for landscape work is my ancient Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 prime. Nice and wide for most outdoors subjects, pretty fast for the close and dark stuff, and sharp as cheddar cheese in my most used apertures, especially the middle range, like around f/5.6. Can it do macro work, when I swing my attention from distant mountains to detail on a nearby cactus? Well, yes, within reason.
The minimum near-focus distance for this lens is about ten inches, more than close enough to fill a frame with the trunk of the saguaro with a little spare space to the right and left. I shoot in big files, so even with a post-op crop I preserve lots of resolution, and bang, the wide-angle does a respectable job as a faux macro.
I grew up around amateur race arenas which invited people to haul any old hunk of automotive junk to the track, to be run in so-called “run what ya brung” events. I personally hate to haul my entire optical array out on a project, swapping out glass for every new situation. I’d much rather save my neck and shoulder by calculating ahead of time which lens will do most of what I want, but be able to stand-in for some other lens in special situations. There are usually work-arounds and hidden tricks in even the most limited lenses. You just have to seek them out.
Run what ya brung.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIGHT IS THE PRINCIPAL FUEL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, but it needs refinement, just as crude oil needs to be industrially altered before it’s ready for consumer use. It isn’t just enough to record light in its natural form; it has to be corralled, directed, harnessed so that it enhances a photograph in such a way that, ironically, makes it look like you did nothing at all but press the shutter. So, right at the start, making images is a bit of a con job. Good thing is, it’s only dishonorable when you get caught.
Doing macro on the cheap with the use of screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of your regular lens is one of the situations that can create special lighting challenges. There is an incredibly shallow depth of field in these lenses, but if you compensate for it in the camera, by, say, f/8 or higher, you lose light like crazy. Slow down your shutter to compensate, and you’re on a tripod, since the slightest tremor in a hand-held shot looks like 7.8 on the Richter scale. Keep the shorter shutter speed, though, and you’re jacking ISO up, inviting excessive noise. Flood the shot with constant light, and you might alter the color relationships in a naturally lit object, effecting, well, everything that might appeal in a macro shot.
Best thing is, since you’re shooting such a small object, you don’t need all that much of a fix. In the above shot, for example, the garlic bulb was on a counter about two feet from a window which is pretty softened to start with. That gave me the illumination I needed on the top and back of the bulb, but the side facing me was in nearly complete shadow. I just needed the smallest bit of slight light to retrieve some detail and make the light seem to “wrap” around the bulb.
Cheap fix; half a sheet of blank typing paper from my printer’s feed tray, which was right next door. Camera in right hand, paper in left hand, catching just enough window light to bounce back onto the front of the garlic. A few tries to get the light where I wanted it without any flares. The paper’s flat finish gave me even more softening of the already quiet window light, so the result looked reasonably natural.
Again, in photography, we’re shoving light around all the time, acting as if we just walked into perfect conditions by dumb luck. Yeah, it’s fakery, but, as I say, just don’t get caught.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EVOLUTION OF ART IS SOMETIMES ABOUT SUBTRACTION RATHER THAN ADDITION. We reflexively feel that the more elements we add to our creative projects…equipment, verbiage, mental baggage…the better the result will be. I believe that, as art progresses, it actually becomes more streamlined, more pure. It becomes a process of doing the most work with the simplest, and fewest, tools.
That’s why I am a big fan of the idea of a “go-to” lens, that hunk of glass that, whatever its specific properties, answers most of your needs most of the time. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a prime or a zoom or a fisheye. If it delivers more of what you need in nearly any shooting situation, then there’s little reason to keep seeking happiness by lugging extraneous gear and spending extra time swapping lenses. And, after you have been shooting and editing for a while, you will know what that piece of glass is. As a personal example, the 35mm prime lens used in the above image, which can shoot everything from moderate macro to portraits to landscapes, stays on my camera 95% of the time.
Mikey’s Golden Rule # 3,456: The more you know your equipment, the less of it you need.
Consider several advantages of becoming a go-to kind of guy/gal:
Working consistently with the same lens makes it easier to pre-visualize your shots. I believe that, the more of your picture you can see in your mind before the click of the shutter, the more of your concept will translate into the physical record. Knowing what your lens can do allows you to plan a picture that you can actually execute.
You start to see shooting opportunities that you instinctually know will play to your lens’ strengths. You can even plan a shot that you know is beyond those strengths, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Whatever your choices, you will know, concretely, what you can and can’t do.
You escape the dire addiction known as G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Using the same lens for every kind of shot means you don’t have to eat your heart out about the “next big thing”, the new toy that will magically make your photography suck less. Once you and your go-to are joined at the hip, you can never be conned by the new toy myth again. Ever.
Finally, without the stop-switch-adjust cycle of lens changing, you can shoot faster. Sounds ridiculous, but the ability to just get on with it means you shoot more, speed up your learning curve, and get better. Delays in taking the pictures you want also delay everything else in your development.
There are always reasons for picking specific lenses for specific needs. But, once you maximize your ability to create great things with a particular lens, you may find that you prefer to bolt that sucker in place and leave it there. In photography as with so much else in life, informed choices are inevitably easier choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS, ALTERNATIVELY, AN ART OF BOTH DOCUMENTATION AND SUGGESTION. It is, of course, one of its essential tasks to record, to mark events, comings, goings, arrivals, and passings. That’s basically a reporter’s function, and one which photographers have served since we first learned to trap light in a box. The other, and arguably more artistic task, is to symbolize, to show all without showing everything. And on this Father’s Day (as on every one), we honor our parents by taking photographs which address both approaches.
For many years, I have taken the obvious path by capturing the latest version of Dad’s face. It’s an ever-changing mosaic of effects, which no photographer/storyteller worth his salt can resist. But in recent years, I also am trying to symbolize my father, to make him stand not only for his own life, but for the miles traveled by all parents. For this task, a face is too specific, since it is so firmly anchored to its own specific myths and legends. To make Dad emblematic, not just as a man but rather as “Man”, I’ve found that abstracting parts of him can work a little better than a simple portrait.
These days, Dad’s hands are speaking to me with particular eloquence. They bear the marks of every struggle and triumph of human endeavor, and their increasing fragility, the etchings on the frail envelope of mortality, are especially poignant to me as I enter my own autumn. I have long since passed the point where I seem to have his hands grafted onto the ends of my own arms, so that, as I make images of him, I am doing a bit of a trending chart on myself as well. In a way, it’s like taking a selfie without actually being in front of the camera.
Hands are the human instruments of deeds, change, endeavor, strength, striving. Surviving. They are the archaeological road map of all one’s choices, all our grand crusades, all our heartbreaking failures and miscalculations. Hands tell the truth.
Dad has a great face, a marvelous mix of strength and compassion, but his hands…..they are human history writ large.
Happy Father’s Day, Boss.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A DECADE-AND-A-HALF INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, we are still struggling to visually comprehend the marvels of the twentieth. As consumers, we race from innovation to innovation so amazingly fast that we scarcely apprehend the general use of the things we create, much less the underlying aesthetic of their physical forms. We are awash in the ingenuity of vanishing things, but usually don’t think about them beyond what we expect them to supply to our lives. We “see” what things do rather than seeing their essential design.
As photographers, we need not only engage the world as recorders of “reality” but as deliberate re-visualizers of the familiar. By selecting, magnifying, lighting and composing the ordinary with a fresh eye, we literally re-discover it. Second sight gives second life, especially to objects that have outlasted their original purpose. No longer needed on an everyday basis, they can be enjoyed as pure design.
And that’s exciting for anyone creating an image.
The above shot is ridiculously simple in concept. Who can’t recognize the subject, even though it has fallen out of daily use? But change the context, and it’s a discovery. Its inner snarl of silvery filaments, designed to scatter and diffuse light during a photoflash, can also refract light, break it up into component colors, imparting blue, gold, or red glows to the surrounding bulb structure. Doubling its size through use of “the poor man’s macro”, simple screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of a 35mm lens, allows its delicate inner detail to be seen in a way that its “everyday” use never did. Shooting near a window, backed by a non-reflective texture, allows simple sculpting of the indirect light: move a quarter of an inch this way or that, and you’ve dramatically altered the impact.
The object itself, due to the race of time, is now “useless”, but, for this little tabletop scene, it’s a thing made beautiful, apart from its original purpose. It has become something you can make an image from.
Talk about a “lightbulb moment”….
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- “A Sight Into My Photographic Mind” (Perspective) (mrphotosmash.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CERTAIN INANIMATE OBJECTS INTERACT WITH THE LIVING TO SUCH A LARGE DEGREE, that, to me, they retain a certain store of energy
even when standing alone. Things that act in the “co-creation” of events or art somehow radiate the echo of the persons who touched them.
Musical instruments, for my mind’s eye, fairly glow with this force, and, as such, are irresistable as still life subjects, since, literally, there is still life emanating from them.
A while back I learned that my wife had, for years, held onto a violin once used for the instruction of one of her children. I was eager to examine and photograph it, not because it represented any kind of technical challenge, but because there were so many choices of things to look at in its contours and details. There are many “sites” along various parts of a violin where creation surges forth, and I was eager to see what my choices would look like. Also, given the golden color of the wood, I knew that one of our house’s “super windows”, which admit midday light that is soft and diffused, would lend a warmth to the violin that flash or constant lighting could never do.
Everything in the shoot was done with an f/1.8 35mm prime lens, which is fast enough to illuminate details in mixed light and allows for selectively shallow depth of field where I felt it was useful. Therefore I could shoot in full window light, or, as in the image on the left, pull the violin partly into shadow to force attention on select details.
Although in the topmost image I indulged the regular urge to “tell a story” with a few arbitrary
props, I was eventually more satisfied with close-ups around the body of the violin itself, and, in one case, on the bow. Sometimes you get more by going for less.
One thing is certain: some objects can be captured in a single frame, while others kind of tumble over in your mind, inviting you to revisit, re-imagine, or more widely apprehend everything they have to give the camera. In the case of musical instruments, I find myself returning to the scene of the crime again and again.
They are singing their songs to me, and perhaps over time, I quiet my mind enough to hear them.
And perhaps learn them.