By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the odds are in my favorSomething’s bound to begin It’s gotta happen, happen sometime Maybe this time Maybe this time, I’ll win
EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER CAN IDENTIFY with Liza Minnelli’s hope, expressed in the musical Cabaret, that her personal losing streak is about to end. The very first time you click a shutter, you create the unbridgeable gap between what you see and what your hands and the machine can re-create, and, in our various disappointments, we theorize about what it’ll take to get us back on the path. More instruction? Travel? Mentoring with a master?
Or how about a new piece of kit?
We’ve written exhaustively about the allure of so-called G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the intoxicating belief that our very next camera or lens will turn the trick on our fortunes, somehow transforming us into the master photog we were born to be. The new toys’ attributes waft out of the brochure like the perfumes of a thousand Arabian dancing girls, curling around our hopes, blinding us with the seductive aroma of “next time”. And, while new gear often can allow us to execute things better from a technical standpoint, we are destined, in most cases, to settle into a kind of post-purchase melancholy when we realize that, after the Christmas-morning glow burns off, we just have one more piece of equipment to lug around with no ironclad guarantee of wholesale improvement. And them New Toys Blues are hard to shake, baby. Especially once the credit card statement posts.
Of course, we need to forgive ourselves if we occasionally lapse into the habit of seeing better picture-making as somehow coming at us from outside ourselves. After all, we must invest our money and trust in external devices to a degree. However, on our best days, we realize, at least for a while, that “the odds”, as the song goes, are already in our favor. Our best images still flow from us, not to us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A WORLD THAT SO SURGICALLY SORTS ALL MORTAL PLAYERS into winners and losers, it seems inevitable that we would devise systems by which the ”L”s might aspire to join the “W”s….some kind of schooling or preparation that transforms some of us, the one who are coal, into The Anointed, the ones designated to be Diamonds. Often, that sorting process comes in the form of commercial consumption, and one of its Meccas is Hollywood.
A photographer on the loose in Tinseltown becomes aware early on that all its shops and attractions, all its tour stops and theme parks, are actually one big Academy Of Making It, a huge machine that models the behaviors of the Chosen, a tutorial on how to persuade the Choosers to ask you into the club. And the most obvious cues occur at retail level.
Across every souvenir stand and shirt shoppe, the message is clear: winners buy this: winners wear these. If you don’t see anything here that looks like your look, your look is wrong. Hollywood purports to be about dreams, but it is also about nightmares, like the fever dream of not belonging to The Crowd, of not being plucked out of the chorus.
Whether the scenes we encounter on our streets are of victory or despair, the camera bears witness to the ongoing emotional high wire act. Hollywood is a uniquely American construct, which, like this all-night souvenir stand, encompasses both our desires and our defeats in the single act of selling us stuff…symbols, myths, ways of keeping score. It’s a special kind of envy-driven loneliness that’s also an industry that feeds on itself.
THIS FORUM HAS NEVER REALLY BEEN ABOUT GEAR, being an examination of why we make photographs rather than what specific equipment we use to do so. Of course, pictures aren’t born in a vacuum, so, even with the purest artistic motives, you still need a mechanism of some kind to carry out your wishes…and that means that some of what we discuss here is very much about what happens in them little magic light boxes. Still, this awareness has never led us into actual recommendations for specific products, as there are simply too many such advisories littering up the webby highway without me jumping into the fray.
Such neutrality about suggesting what to buy, however, can be maintained if I am listing reasons not to buy a camera, as such cautions transcend brands and models. That is, no matter why you decide to go gear shopping, there are things that should always be borne in mind, if our point is the motivation behind photography and not the devices we use. Call it a “how to not do” list. So, assume for a moment that you are suddenly in the market for a new gadget and consider the following.
DO NOT buy a camera because your friend, uncle, friend at the factory or buddy at the camera store uses it. Unless they are also going to take your pictures for you, their advice is so subjective as to be worthless.
Even in the age of easy online returns, do yourself a favor and DO NOT buy a camera that you’ve never held in your hand. The ergonomic layout of cameras varies widely from maker to maker, and it really does make a difference where they stick the buttons.
DO NOT buy any more camera than you need for what you do right now. It’s all right to select a few features that you may eventually use, even if you don’t use them at present. But that’s a far cry from buying a device that is drowning in options, seldom-used features, and infinite sub-menus. Pay good money for just the camera you need, with a smidge of extra growth room built-in. If you later find that you’ve outgrown the camera, then and only then is it time to trade up. Gear that is too strong on extra gizmos only gets partly used and can be intimidating enough to wind up in the hall closet a year later, after you’ve gone back to your cell phone.
DO NOT assume that the latest thing is the greatest thing. Manufacturers make their profits on the backs of customers who can be made to feel dissatisfied with what they own, and obsolescence is built into their marketing. There is aIso the problem that some companies’ models decrease in quality or precision as the brand ages (or as they chase greater profits). If your camera helps you take good pictures easily, and without a lot of exotic setup or detours, then keep it until it disintegrates in your hand.
DO NOT purchase equipment that places unnecessary obstacles between your conception and the finished product. If going from framing to shooting involves too many steps, your camera is taking your attention away from seeing, and that means missing shots. Making a picture should be as effortless as 1, 2, 3. If you already are on step 5 before you even click the shutter, get another camera.
DO NOT initially over-invest in a battalion of specialized lenses. You will eventually get to the point where lugging all that load will prove either inconvenient or painful or both, and many a photographer has eventually winnowed down his/her “must-carry” gear to a single lens that delivers 90% of what they want 90% of the time. Think about how much fun it is to lug around a lot of devices that only do a single task, and then run in the opposite direction.
Finally, DO NOT buy a camera that you are not head-over-heels, OMG, stop-the-presses in love with. Anything less will also wind up in the aforementioned hall closet.
Smmary: photography is about the gear….sometimes, but mostly it’s about everything else. Sexy ads and four-star reviews are deliriously distracting, and we all love to dream. But mostly, we’re here to make pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
EASTMAN KODAK WAS THE FIRST COMPANY to truly democratize photography, taking it from a tinkerer’s hobby or the domain of the studio professional and placing it in the hands of the average consumer. A streamlined process for producing modestly-priced, easily operated cameras, as well as the introduction of roll film and standardized processing, made it possible for anyone to capture memories on a reasonable budget. To do this quickly, Kodak, well before 1900, also became one of the first and best early forces in the use of mass marketing. And one of the biggest pillars in the foundation of that effort was Christmas.
For the near decade that The Normal Eye has been in business, we have always dedicated one annual post to the nostalgia and pure brilliance of Kodak’s Christmas ad campaigns. Being a company that fostered the creation of indelible memories (the well-known “Kodak Moment”), the creators of the Brownie camera sold us not merely the means of making pictures, but the motivation for doing so, capitalizing on the special sentiment that permeates the holiday season. The question was not “should I buy a camera?” but “why aren’t you already taking pictures as fast as you can squeeze a shutter?”. The Eastman company achieved the ultimate goal for a manufacturer, that is, creating a market that had never existed before and inventing the means to fill said market. Using full color photographs in their magazine ads in the early 20th century, an era which was still typified by painted or drawn illustrations, the company showed people using their cameras to freeze-frame both special occasions and everyday events, all the while reinforcing the idea that going so was easy and fun.
And when it came to Christmas specifically, Kodak, well before 1920, developed two key ambassadors to drive home the message. First was the pre-cheesecake pin-up known only as The Kodak Girl, who was shown clicking off memories in a variety of settings, and featured on calendars, packaging, and roll-outs for new products. As a back-up, the company became one of the first to enlist Santa Claus himself as a pitchman, which even the wizards at Coca-Cola would not do until 1930. The combination was the stuff of dreams, as well as of profits. Kodak cameras were not merely another element of the Big Day; they were a guarantee that the Big Day would be a success. A great holiday was a nice thing, but a great holiday caught in pictures was on another level entirely.
Wish fulfillment, or the possibility thereof, is so woven into the appeal of photography, that, once cameras and film were standardized and simplified, the hobby really didn’t need a big nudge to become a worldwide habit, as it remains to this day. But, as they say in the ad biz, you must always be Asking For The Order, and lots of our hard-wired desire to Say It In Pictures was inextricably linked, from the earliest days of the medium, to the consumption of products. “Open Me First”, the tag on Kodak gifts asked in over a generation of seasonal ads, and we certainly did. The message was, and remains, you can’t call it a life event until you’ve started taking pictures of it. That is both photography’s curse, and its blessing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BOTH IN THESE PAGES AND IN MANY OTHERS, FROM PEOPLE far wiser than I, a very basic recommendation for photographers has been to choose the simplest camera that you can for what you want to shoot, rather than purchase a high-tech toy loaded with extras that you don’t currently use. Makes sense; get as many features as you actually need to get the job done, but don’t fall for the old con that your next best picture will only come once you buy your next, better, costlier camera. This advice is not based on some rugged manliness on my part, but on the simple truth that you need personal development far more than you need state-of-the-art (or break-of-the wallet) gear.
And now consider this corollary; equipment manufacturers cannot survive if you only buy simple, efficient cameras. They can only profit by selling you everything that comes with; the cases, the filters, the extra lenses, the solar-powered cookie oven that ties into your USB port. The reality for the legendary Eastman Kodak Company was that, even if it made almost nothing on the sales of its cameras, all those cameras needed film pretty much forever. As for the camera companies that didn’t also own their own film factories, there was allure in selling their customers that one extra cool trick that their camera could not do all by itself. And thus came the brackets, the bolt-ons, the custom attachments, the gauges, and the meters. This “just one thing more” approach was a vital part of the analog camera market, and it has carried forward into the digital era. The camera, apparently the very same one for which you just shelled out major buckos, is, sadly, just not enough.
The image seen here is from the user’s manual for one of the first automatic SLRs of the late 1970’s. All of this stuff was available for sale for one model of one camera from one manufacturer. You will notice that this exhaustive listing of geegaws does not even include auxiliary lenses, which would probably be more crucial than, day, #48, the battery-driven power film winder, made for those too lazy or absent-minded to wind the film on themselves (think ’70’s!). And while there may be few customers indeed who coughed up for the entire toy catalog seen here, the very fact that it exists tells us that there is a better than average chance that, if you make an “Extender FD-2XA”, someone will convince themselves that they need one.
Here’s the take-home; the rules of composition, optics and exposure have not substantially changed in the last 100 years. What changes is the elegant little tasks and tricks designed into the camera and its attendant add-ons beyond those basics. Some you need, but most you don’t. If the camera you buy does not do 75% of what you need to do all by itself, and in a few simple steps, take it back. No one ever became a better photographer by merely buying more equipment, and many have actually made their process so complicated with extra doodads that their pictures are worse. Start basic and stay there until you develop a genuine need to take an additional step, and then take it. If you only buy what you need, photography is an art, like painting. If not, it’s just a hobby, like collecting baseball cards.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S RIFFED THROUGH EVEN A MODEST SAMPLING of my photography will soon deduce that I am a sucker for storefronts. If eyes are the window to the soul, the street-facing faces of businesses great and small are my favorite kind of mystery game. Who dwells within? What’s for sale? Why that name? Why this sign? And of course my insatiable curiosity about the lives of the people who bravely flip over the “open” sign every morning. Long before the customer steps inside to check out a merchant’s wares, he is “asked for the order”, so to speak, by the visual language of the storefront.
I once knew a gent whose urban shop had an enormous double showcase windows, a space far too big for the mounting of anything large or expensive. As the windows, which flanked his front entrance, both had shalow ledge shelves, he filled them with about a half dozen black rubber cat-toy rats. Nothing else. No signs, no specials, no mannequins. Just….rats. Guy was an exterminator, and he had been in his particular neighborhood for so long that he no longer needed to blow money on fancy advertisements or weekly specials. Maybe his name was on the building, but I’m not even sure of that. Got rats? I get rid of rats. End of story.
And there you have my quest in a nutshell. I love storefronts which boldly state that ground beef is going for $1.40 a pound or that “we repair any shoe”, but my absolute favorites are always the conundrums, the “exactly what is this place”-type businesses, where even a creatively decorated scheme is zero clue as to what is transpiring within….sort of like the shop seen here. And, yes, there are some tiny clues that Eyes On You is a place that sells glasses, as there are, indeed, a few of them just visible in a small niche in the right-hand windows. But what is all that other stuff? And what does it have to do with selling, well, anything? It doesn’t matter; half the fun, as the cruise lines used to say, is getting there, and decoding the marketing mysteries of small businesses is fun in the way that a brisk game of Twenty Questions can be. Photographs, as we often remind ourselves, both reveal and conceal….sometimes at the same time. Loving where and when that happens is the spice of the game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART”, goes the old joke about a lowbrow walking through a gallery, “but I know what I like.” Turns out that, in terms of how a photographer can remain true to his or her own heart, that’s a pretty wise statement. The message: don’t carry around loaded words that no one can define. Stick with your instincts, since they are beyond labels. Labels like “art”.
We place little verbal baggage tags on lots of things, mostly as convenient mental shortcuts, and so, in discussions about picture-making, the word art gets dropped more than an MC’s mic. And while it’s only mildly annoying that people bandy around a word that none of us even know the meaning of, it’s usually used to talk about something we aspire to do, i.e., “make art”. In today’s marketing environment, however, the whole thing has moved from silly to sinister, as the word art is now attached to certain kinds of equipment, so-called “art lenses” (as they are often called in advertisements), meaning, I guess, that you can buy the ability to make art. Just send for our free booklet…
The idea that art can be achieved with the purchase of a particular piece of gear is like saying that if you buy a really expensive hammer, you’re an architect. Or, let’s come at it from the reverse angle. Are we saying that, since I don’t own a certain kind of camera, I can’t make art? A quick Google of the phrase “what is an art lens” will actually dredge up three or more solid pages of links to a single lens manufacturer (whose products are on the high end of the precision scale) who cleverly put the word art in the actual name of an entire line of their optics. On the other end of the spectrum, in the land of instinctual, hipster-bound low-fidelity photography, a second manufacturer also refers to its product as creating “art” effects. Okay, so let’s parse this thinking out a little.
What can an “art lens” actually do? Is it specialized glass (think fisheyes, macros, selective focus) that performs one effect well? Does that confer “art” on your work? Is it anything that radically improves sharpness, or, vice versa, radically diminishes it in a desirable fashion? Is it a particular focal length, resolution rate, distortion spec? Does it cook your lunch and get your dog’s teeth 30% cleaner in ten days? Is the image seen up top “artistic?” And does my choice of equipment have any role in that? Was I doing something with an expensive optic to get this look, or was I shooting with something so basic that it always produces this result? And who is to say?
Art is hard enough to identify without slapping the word “art” on a particular hunk of gear. Art is nearly impossible to define, but, like the guy in the gallery, you know what you like. And the completely individual definition of that sensation is what makes for art…not a purchase, not a baggage tag, not an advertising claim. Equipment is less of a determinant in excellence than any other factor in photography. And those who quack the loudest about what “art” is may be, in the final analysis, as clueless to name it as the rest of us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, my final Normal Eye post before Christmas has been dedicated to the unique place occupied in the American holiday season by the Eastman Kodak Company, which not only sold most of us our first cameras near the dawn of the twentieth century, but taught us how to use them, all the better for increased film sales. Indeed, no sooner had Kodak placed simple Brownie box cameras in our hands than they began generating educational guides like How To Make Good Pictures, a book which remained in print with various revisions for over sixty years. But that was only half of the sales pitch.
The other half came in the dawning field of mass advertising, as Kodak became one of the most omnipresent features of the new illustrated magazines, creating luxurious reminders of how handy your Kodak would come in during your upcoming birthday, camping trip, or, most importantly, Christmas. Much of the company’s ad budget went into their annual yuletide messages, which, from year to year, introduced new models along with a visual depiction of happy people enriching their lives by taking lots and lots of pictures on Kodak film. Since The Normal Eye is more about the intention, rather than the technology, of photography, I made an annual habit of rifling through my own mental hoard of Kodak-tinged holiday memories. I remember the gadgets, for sure, but I mostly longed for the lives of the people in the ads. I wanted their Christmases and birthdays. I wanted to be welcomed into a room filled with their smiling faces, the joy of youth, the comfort of community. In short, I bought the whole package.
The most effective advertising promises you more than a consumer product: it sells you an experience, a state of mind. A transformation that, by an amazing coincidence only the seller’s product can deliver. Buy this, and you’ll be this, you’ll be here, you’ll be with…..whoever. The Kodak advertising campaigns sold a lot of camera and film for sure, but the message worked because it sold us the sensation of being other places, with other people, maybe as some other better version of ourselves. We dreamed of Christmases that never were, families that could never be. We associated making pictures with creating something better than the mere world. But in that process of becoming lifelong consumers of photographic equipment, a few of us learned that our cameras really could capture something just a little better, a little more joyous, than reality. It was a fable, certainly, but it was a warm and wonderful one.
It’s hard to connect the hollowed-out husk that Kodak has become in recent years to the titanic influencer it was in the 1900’s. The company forged our first photographic habits and channeled our dreams by first giving us a reason to want a camera, then showing it what it was for. Later on, most of us re-defined those rules of engagement in appropriately personal ways, deciding what to see and what to show. But before you can become a chef you first have to discover fire, or have it shown to you. And each fire begins with a spark.
Or the click of a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY CONSUMER, Apple, Inc. seems to stand alone in its ability to define a market for a product, fill that market before anyone else can, and engineer the very need for that product in its customers. Apple has not only wrought great things, it has convinced us that, even though we couldn’t have imagined them ourselves, we can no longer imagine life without them. That bond between provider and user seems unique in the history of the world.
But it’s been done before.
In the 1880’s, when George Eastman perfected the world’s first practical photographic roll film, the idea of owning one’s own camera was quaint at best. Early photo images were created by talented, rich tinkerers and the first few professionals, making photographers a small, select brotherhood. Even so, Eastman’s boldest idea was not his film but the affordable means to make a film user out of the average man. The new Eastman Kodak company, like Apple, conceived of a market, filled it almost exclusively with their own products, and closed the deal by proceeding to teach people not only how to use their Kodaks but how to link photography with a full and happy life.
Over the last few Decembers, I have dedicated pages of The Normal Eye to the decades-long love affair between Kodak and the world that it trained to treasure photographs. Its marketing reached its creative zenith with the “Open Me First” Christmas campaigns of the 1950’s and ’60’s, which posited the idea that nothing wonderful could happen in the life of your family, especially on The Big Day, if you failed to record even a moment of it on Kodak film.
However, Kodak’s mastery of emotional messaging was in full flower generations before the “Open Me First” pitches for Instamatic cameras and Carousel projectors. Long before television and radio, the company’s persuasive use of print carried much the same appeal: if it’s important, it’s worth preserving, and we have the tools and talent you need to do it. Kodak cameras quickly became positioned as The Ideal Christmas Present, as the company targeted newlyweds and young parents with their upscale models and cultivated the youth market with their $1 line of children’s cameras. In an early example of inspired branding, the kids’ models were marketed with the names and images of illustrator Palmer Cox’ runaway juvenile book characters, the Brownies, playful elves who were featured on Kodak packaging and ads for more than a decade, helping launch the world’s most successful lines of cameras, in continuous production from 1900 to 1980.
Not even Apple in all its marketing glory has managed to align itself so solidly with the emotional core of its customers in the same way that Kodak, for nearly a century, forged a bond between its users and the most emotionally charged time of the year. In so doing, they almost singlehandedly invented the amateur photographer, fueling a hunger for images in the average Joe that continues unabated.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE MOST UNIQUE CASUALTIES OF SO-CALLED URBAN PROGRESS, key parts of a city’s visual signature, are the everyday signs associated with local businesses, from the red neon over your local bar to the hand-painted address on your favorite eatery. Naturally, photographers have a big stake in the obliteration of any feature of the changing urban landscape, and there is a growing movement to treasure signage as symbols of identity in neighborhoods that are increasingly in danger of being genericized by fast-food and mega-retail chains.
Graphic designer Molly Woodward deserves a lot of credit for the attention now being paid to urban signage, and her website on what she calls vernacular typography contains essays and samples that illustrate what is being lost in town after town. Cities like New York that experience a faster-than-average turnover in area retail see signs for locally owned businesses vanish more frequently. And while it’s normal for mom-and-pop ventures to wink in and out of existence all the time, the chance for entire blocks to be graphically drenched in a candy coating of Starbucks logos is greater in major metropolitan areas.
Woodward’s web archive is rich in photographs of these disappearing urban signatures, and there is certainly a rich vein of source material for any enterprising city photographer. Signs help anchor neighborhoods, acting as mile markers, landmarks, and a more human scale of commerce. They remind us where we are, what our streets are all about. They mark where we grew up, what we wanted to be. The boundaries of our bailiwick. They are personal transactions. Meet me under the clock near the Chinese laundry. See you at 5 near the giant neon cheeseburger.
Shooting signs is an act of reportage; it’s correspondent work. And it’s no less important than photographing the ruins of an ancient cathedral or a portal on the Great Wall, since it’s a kind of archaeology. Many thanks to the Molly Woodwards of the world as they hold back the tide against a mindless homogenization of our streets. And thanks in turn to those who pick up her vibe and click away at the Acmes and Ajaxes in their own towns, often just steps ahead of the wrecking ball.