By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE YEARS, YOU AND I HAVE SHARED MANY DISCUSSIONS on the meaning of the old saw “the camera doesn’t lie”, which just may be the most ridiculous utterance in the history of photography. So let me warm myself on a chill winter Sunday by heaping more fuel on the fire.
Whatever your concept of objective truth, it must be evident to anyone who’s ever taken pictures that there is an unbridgeable gap between what the looking-machine sees and what it is able to convey. Some of this gap is purely technical, due to the limits of the science of abstracting and stopping time and trapping it inside a box. And some of it happens because the initial narrator in a photographic tale is the photographer himself, and God knows our veracity varies wildly person-to-person.
That is, we are, to one degree or another, liars.
In the 19th-century, the “doesn’t lie” maxim was likely borne of people trying to initially champion the camera, not as a cruel assassin to painting, but as yet another proof that the industrial age, with all its new tools for measurement and calibration of all human activities, had produced yet another marvel, a miraculous device that could faithfully record any event with the precision of a seismograph or a microscope. It was an argument for welcoming the camera into the pantheon of scientific instruments. But such a boast turned a blind eye to the fact that, from day one, photographers were using images to distort and deceive, as well as to inspire or create.
Part of the photograph’s power to lie is fed by our refusal to believe that it can lie in the first place. How can this be? We logically know, centuries on, that it is, at best, a flawed arbiter of fact. We have seen how easy it can be pressed into the service of tyrants and dictators, how truth itself can become contorted into whatever contour we want to serve our needs, aided in part by the “evidence” of the camera. And yet, we emotionally invest belief in photographs, instead of seeing them as merely interpretative, like painting or music. Ironically, we even take obviously manipulated images, such as the carousel seen here (a montage of nearly a dozen separate frames, with plenty of color and texture tampering added) and grant that, by virtue of not being “real”, actually reveal something that a mere documentary picture might not. Try to figure that one out.
In an era in which truth is, as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty said, whatever we say it is, it’s good to recall that a picture is only a picture, made by people, whose motives and agendas are inevitably part of the creative process. They can testify to both truth and lies, and we should never be passive in how we take in their information.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A WHOLE SEPARATE WING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ESTATE that values dark almost more than light. It’s a photography of near-night, work that suggests only the merest intrusion of illumination into a palette of black. An almost-nothing. A bleary, evanescent glimpse, a suggestion. Minimalism taken to the maximum.
Or, in other words, the dead opposite of the mindset of the majority of photographs made over time.
For most of us, the camera was expected to get better and better at registering accurate detail in less and less light, giving us a reasonably balanced record of color and depth, a kind of realism, or at least documentation. This is the photography of the consumer, who was taught to want pictures in which everything is spelled out, obvious, apparent. Sunny Days, Natural Flesh Tones, Life As We Know It. The advance of the science of recording things with cameras seemed to suggest that well-lit meant well-realized, that we would eliminate murk and shadow in the name of clarity. We decided that those things which dealt in the dark basement of tones were “bad” pictures, defective in some basic way.
The development of art photography has often taken the opposite approach, with some artists going so far as to revive “dead” technologies like daguerrotyping, serigraphing, deliberate under-exposure, even purposeful degrading of the image (dragging negatives over ground glass, dancing on them, soaking them in bodily fluids) to get the look they desire, actually eliminating information from their pictures. Even the recent fad of lomography, which worships faulty cameras and errant processing, is indicative of the “dark” school. It doesn’t have to be in focus. It doesn’t have to be a picture “of” anything. And who made up these rules for composition, anyway?
Photography, as always, will not be reduced to a set of standards. Consumer products still try to steer customers toward predictable images, with most “how tos” listing simple steps for uniform results, or pictures that “look like photographs”. The dark worshippers, by contrast, are asking us to train our eyes to see what is not presented, as well as what is. Alright, they concede, we didn’t show everything. But you can supply the rest.
Finally, the camera remains essentially a mere servant, subject to the whims of its user. We cannot truly mechanize and regulate what comes from the eye or the soul. True art can never remain static, and any kind of creativity that doesn’t frequently threaten to break down into chaos may not be worth the effort.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECALL, MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN THE JUICIEST COMPLIMENT I COULD IMAGINE SNAGGING for a photograph was that “it looks just like a postcard”. That is to say, “the picture you’ve made looks like another picture someone else made while trying to make something look like…. a picture”.
Or something like that.
Seems that an incredible amount of photography’s time on earth has been spent trying to make images not so much be something as to be like something else. The number of effects we go for when making an image, in the twenty-first century, is a list of the inherited techniques and processes that have waxed and waned, and waxed again, over the entire timeline of the art’s history. We are now so marinated in all the things that photographs have been that we find ourselves folding the old tricks into new pictures, without self-consciousness or irony. Consider this partial roster of the things we have tried, over time, to make images look like:
Paintings Etchings Drawings Daguerreotypes Tintypes Cyanotypes Expired film Cross-Processed Film Kodachrome Sepiatone Toy Cameras Macro Lenses Badly-focused, Damaged and Flawed Lenses Obsolete Film Stock Daytime Night-Time Negatives Postcards Antique Printing Processes Dreams, Hallucinations, and Fantasies “Reality”
We not only manipulate photographs to make them more reflective of reality but to mock or distort it as well. We make pictures that pretend that we still have primitive equipment, or that we have much better equipment than we can afford. We utilize tools that make pictures look tampered with, that accentuate how much they’ve been tweaked. We make good pictures look bad and bad pictures look passable.
This post is turning out to be the evil twin of a recent article in which I emphasized how little we know about making “realistic” images. The more I turn it over in my mind, however, the more I realize that, in many cases, we are trying to make new photographs look like photographs that someone else took, in a different time, with different limits, with different motives. We steal not only from others but also from what they themselves were stealing.
All of a sudden my head hurts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASK THE AVERAGE PERSON FOR A BRIEF COMPARISON BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, and you may hear the assertion that, ‘well, photographs are real..”, a statement that reveals the fundamental flaw in our thinking about photographs from their earliest beginnings. Simply because a camera measures and records light (perhaps also because it’s a machine), we’ve come to regard its end product as a literal representation of the world. But no serious examination of what artists have done with the photographic image will support that idea. Photographs are no more real than daubs of pigment, and no more reliable in their testimony.
Photographers twist and torture light and shadow to present their version of the world, not its literal translation. If they worked with top hats and wands instead of Leicas, their audiences would accept, with a wink. that a live rabbit was not actually produced out of the hat’s crown, but was, in fact, a feat of misdirection, of persuasion. The camera, on the other hand, gets far more credit for being faithful to the real world than it deserves. As the old saying goes, a photograph is a lie that tells the truth.
Making any kind of image, the photographer has any number of simple techniques available to him to make the inaccurate seem real, most of it achieved in-camera. Take, for example, the attempt, in the above photo, to create as great a sense of depth as is possible in a flat image. First, the use of a wide 24mm lens will optically exaggerate the distance between the front and back of the scene, nearly doubling the sense of space versus that of the actual room. On top of that, the image is composed with the most severe diagonal possible to pull the eye into its already over-accented dimensions.
As a final touch, the shot is taken at the smallest aperture practicable in the available light, insuring uniform sharpness as the eye looks “into” the scene. The result is a three-decker compound illusion……fairly removed from “reality” and yet suggesting itself to it, much as the rabbit seems to have emerged from the hat. Indeed, with the creative manipulation of the photographic process, you might not need, in terms of reality, either the hat or the rabbit to perform your “trick”. But you can certainly show them both in the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO FORCE YOUR AUDIENCE TO SEE THINGS ANEW, to strip away their familiar contexts as everyday objects and create a completely different visual effect. The first, and most obvious form of abstraction we all learned in our cradle, that of rendering a subject in black and white. Some early photographers spent so many years in monochrome, in fact, that they actually regarded early color with suspicion, as is it was somehow less real. The moral of the story is: the photograph demonstrates the world that you dictate, shown strictly on your own terms.
Abstraction also comes about with the use of lenses that distort distances or dimensions, with re-assignment of color (green radishes, anyone?), and by compositions that extract subjects from their natural surroundings. Isolate one gear from a machine and it becomes a different object. Magnify it, light it differently, or show just a small portion of it, and you are taking it beyond its original purpose, and into abstraction. Your viewer is then free to re-interpret how he sees, or thinks, about that thing.
One swift gift of the post-digital world that I find interesting is the ability, through apps, to render a negative of any image with a click or swipe, then modifying it with the same color filters that you might apply to a positive photo. This affords an incredible amount of trial-and-error in a remarkably short space of time, and better yet, you’re out in the world rather than in the lab. Of course, negatives have always been manipulated, often to spectacular effect, but always after it was too late to re-take the original picture. Adjustments could be made, certainly, but the subject matter, by that time, was long gone, and that is half the game.
Reversing the color values in a photograph is no mere novelty. Sometimes a shadow value can create a stunning design when “promoted” to a lead value with a strong color. Sometimes the original range of contrast in the negative can be made more dramatic. And, occasionally, the reversal process renders some translucent or shiny surfaces with an x-ray or ghostly quality. And, of course, as with any effect, it can just register as a stupid novelty. Hey, it’s a gimmick, not a guarantee.
“Going negative”, as they say in the political world, is now an instantaneous process, allowing you the most flexibility for re-takes and multiple “mixes” as you combine the neg with everything from toy camera effects to simulated Technicolor. And while purists might rage that we are draining the medium of its mystery, I respectfully submit that photographers have always opted for fixes that they can make while they are in the field. And now, if you don’t like the direction you’re driving, you can put ‘er in reverse, and go down a different road.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALL IT “EYE-HERDING”, if you will, the art of channeling the viewer’s attention to specific parts of the photographic frame. It’s the first thing we learn about composition, and we address it with a variety of techniques, from depth-of-field to color manipulation to one of my favorites, the prioritizing of light. Light values in any image do have a hierarchy, from loud to soft, prominent to subordinate. Very few photos with uniform tone across the frame achieve maximum impact. You need to orchestrate and capitalize on contrast, telling your viewers, in effect, don’t watch this space. Watch this other space instead.
In many cases, the best natural ebb and flow of light will be there already, in which case you simply go click, thank the photo gods, and head home for a cold one. In fact, it may be that “ready to eat” quality that lured you to stop and shoot the thing in the first place. In many other cases, you must take the light values you have and make the case for your picture by tweaking them about a bit.
I have written before of the Hollywood fakery known as “day for night”, in which cinematographers played around with either exposure or processing on shots made in daylight to simulate night…a budgetary shortcut which is still used today. It can be done fairly easily with still images as well with a variety of approaches, and sometimes it can help you accentuate a light value that adds better balance to your shots.
The image at the top of this page was made in late afternoon, with pretty full sun hitting nearly everything in the frame. There was some slightly darker tone to the walls in the street, but nothing as deep as you see here. Thing is, I wanted a sunset “feel” without actually waiting around for sunset, so I deepened the overall color and simulated a lower exposure. As a result, the sky, cliffs and dogwood trees at the far end of the shot got an extra richness, and the shop walls receded into deeper values, thus calling extra attention to the “opening” at the horizon line. The shot also benefits from a strong front-to-back diagonal leading line. I liked the original shot, but with just a small change, I was asking the viewer to look here a little more effectively.
Light is a compositional element no less important than what it illuminates. Change light and you change where people’s eyes enter the picture, as well as where they eventually land.