By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DISCUSSIONS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY begin with a body of commonly held terms, the basic and uniform names given to things. Such common ground is vital if we’re to understand each other. I can’t expect you to hand me a hammer if I ask you for a wrench. And so we base all our conversations about making images on words that mean generally the same to all of us….focus, aperture, exposure, etc. Makes sense, doanit?
And yet, over the years, we can disagree on what some of those words even mean, and that can slow down discourse.
Take the word monochrome. Most simply translated from the original Greek word monochromos, it means “having one color”, just as a monopod is a one-legged tripod. Seems a simple enough concept, and yet, in recent years, photographic journals, camera manufacturers and, Lord save us, blogs have increasingly begun to define the word as something that is color-less…that is, black-and-white. I know, seems like a really nit-picky point to raise in these complicated times of serious issues. And yet, if we allow imprecise speech to creep into our communications, we eventually get discourse which is imprecise as well.
Black-and-white, or grayscale is monochrome, but not all monochrome is black and white. The image seen here consists of varying tones of a single color, and so, strictly speaking, it is monochromatic, but is certainly not grayscale. Since photography was exclusively b&w for almost a century before films could produce a complete range of hues, we tend to think of the medium as being divided into two eras, Before Color and After Color. However, shooters who worked nearly their entire careers in grayscale, or, let’s say, a good 2/3 of an Ansel Adams’ lifespan, black-and-white was not “colorless” but a kind of color all its own, as legitimate as blue or red or whatever have you. Under the present understanding of these things, however, my image of a warm orange railway bench would be summarily tossed out of any image sharing site that defined itself as monochrome-themed. And that would be wrong.
Yes, I know……
Can’t you think of anything else to obsess over on a Sunday morning, old man?, I hear you moaning. Well, yes, yes I can. However, a 400-word treatise on why my poached eggs were runny at breakfast wouldn’t exactly leave readers riveted either, so, for the moment, let’s not call a wrench a hammer, and let’s not pretend that only grayscale is monochrome.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY, I WOULD HAVE A HARD TIME pinpointing the first photograph I shot after formally going into the Great Hibernation of 2020. The designated do-or-die date for heading ourselves into the bunker was fairly elastic, person-to-person, with some of us taking cover early in the spring, while others were forced to stay in-pattern for longer. I can determine, from the very type of pictures I took in this strange year, which were shot After The Before Times, but it would be mere guesswork to say that this image or the other was the first “confinement” photo per se.
But I can detect a change in the subject matter and viewpoint of those first days. I will always recall the realization that, as my world proceeded to shrink, my photography would become more introspective. This meant that my reaction to the sudden flood of spare time was, at least on good days, to luxuriate in the freedom it gave me; the leisure to select, to plan, to choose in the process of making pictures. As a consequence, in reviewing the year’s photographic yield, I find myself not so much choosing “favorites” or “bests” from the thousands of snaps I took in quarantine, but instead looking for the truest depictions of where my head was, and still is. This is all to say that I resisted getting in a year-to-year contest of some sort with myself over technique or skill and tried to concentrate on emotional accuracy.
This picture is not technically distinctive by any measure, nor is it particularly original, but it is true to where I was when I made it. In what could be called The Year Of Uphill Walking, it projects that struggle to just keep climbing, across rocky, barren terrain, in anxious anticipation of what may lie over the next horizon, and without the blandishment or warmth of color. No destination is sure, or even promised; no arrival time is predicted; only the journey itself exists. If I had to deliberately try to show what 2020 felt like, I couldn’t have found a more appropriate visual metaphor than this picture. This is not me being a superb planner of shots. This is me, months after the fact, marveling that some measure of this madness somehow organically made it into my camera. I never went out formally looking for a way to give expression for my feelings; I merely let the process happen through me, to be a barometer of what I thought it important to see and record.
Maybe that’s the way I should always make pictures. Sometimes I think I understand my process and other times I feel like it’s leading me around by the nose. I hope to re-discover genuine hope in 2021, but, if I…we, have to settle for less, I pray that I’ll at least find a way to tell stories about how that felt. And I hope I’ll remember how to put one foot in front of the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS FAIRLY SOLID CONSENSUS, among those who teach the basics of photographic composition, that the path to success lies in reducing a picture to its simplest terms. Removal of extraneous distraction, proper placement of a subject within a frame, depth-of-field calculations…all these techniques work toward a common goal; to help the eye engage the photo efficiently, to lock onto its essential story without being confused or deflected toward something less important. Often a cleaner composition is just a matter of cropping, or merely limiting the number of elements contending for the viewer’s attention.
But there is one approach to basic composition that may not be instinctive to us all, and that’s the role that color plays in our pictures.
Color is the current instinctive default for most of our photos. It took a long time for it to be technically capable of taking that mantle from monochrome, which was, by necessity, the palette that shooters painted on for over a century. Color is seductive, and seems like a more “realistic” medium for our very personal universes of family and friends. However, in the composition of any picture, it must be reckoned with as another object in the frame, no less than a tree or a cloud. It is one more thing in there that demands our notice, and, for many images, it certainly earns that attention. However, color can become the message of a picture, not just the way the picture is rendered, drawing off the viewer’s eye in exactly the same way as extra props, extraneous scenery or other clutter can.
Some would argue that black and white is more nuanced and subtle in the rendering of emotional directness, or texture, or contrast when compared to color, and yet some of us think of monochrome as somehow incomplete or unfinished. Try telling that to several dozen Pulitzer winners, some of whom, admittedly, worked before color was practical (and therefore not a real option), along with others who continued to choose b&w even after it became the minority medium. And this is not about unilaterally choosing sides, forever pitting the Kodak Tr-X crowd in a pitched battle against the Fuji Velvia cadre. It’s only about choosing the right tool for every picture, and not getting so locked into the global color default that you refuse to peer into the opposite camp. I continue to master every shot in color to this day, but a full fifth of my final output consists of mono conversions, with modern post-processing giving me every bit as much control over the results as in the old darkroom days (as seen in the illustrations). The best course, I believe, is to form the habit of looking at all your pictures both ways. Often, you will just stick with the color original, because it works. And other times you will play in the other playground because, for some pictures, that works.
Color is an object within your pictures, no less than a mountain or a chair. Think of it as another piece of visual furniture fighting for dominance in the frame, and deal with it accordingly. Monochrome is not photography’s simpler, poorer step-kid. Sometimes, it can be the pride of the family.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS THE TAKING OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INSTANT, so too is the messaging that the resulting image conveys to the viewer. The impact of a picture is immediate, established within nanoseconds of the eye’s initial contact with it. Additional viewing and pondering may, certainly, reveal deeper truths about a photograph, but I firmly believe that the main love it /don’t get it choice about a photo is made by the brain at first glance.
That said, information must be arranged in such a way as to expedite this choice. That’s the art of composition. What stays in, what is excluded, where the frame hits, and what its limits imply. The nature of the information is determined by the impact of light, which shapes and defines. That is in turn aided by texture, which adds dimension and context in how new or old, rough, smooth, substantial or ethereal things appear in the image. And finally, mood and aesthetic are established in the range of color or tonal data.
All of these elements are created by a series of decisions on whether “to do” or “not do”. Which is to say that all photographs have an assembly process. Steps. Priorities. More of this, less of that. The fact that the best photographers learn how to navigate all these decisions instantaneously is really a kind of miracle. Take the truly fundamental choice of color, for example. Not only do a picture’s hues have to be conceived in the mind before they’re attempted in the camera: they must be refined enough for the shooter to choose how all the shaping elements described above work in conjunction with each other. Think of the graphic equalizers on our old stereos, each ‘band” or part of the hearable spectrum trimmed or maximized to get a “mix” most pleasing to the ear. In visual terms, color is a key choice because it is an element that can shape so many other elements in turn. In the above image, color can resonate with memory and emotion. It can render what we term “warmth”. It also aids in the perception of depth. Consider as well that color has only become the default option for our photography in about the last sixty years. Before that, due to technical challenges for film emulsions and printing processes, it was a luxury item, even a novelty for many.
“Going back” to monochrome, the original default option for all photography, means actively recognizing what kind of information is lost and what kind of impact is gained by eschewing color. Is the image strengthened or weakened with its removal? Is converting a color shot to b/w as an afterthought (as I’ve done here) less effective than intentionally shooting the original in mono? Are the remaining tones strong enough to convey your message? Is one tonal palette more reportorial or “authentic” than the other? And, above all, what if the choice you’ve made (color or no color) isn’t the choice your viewer makes (in the case of this pair, for example, my wife prefers the color version, although “they’re both nice”)? Photography is about making decisions and learning to live with them. Or just canning the entire thing and trying again.
“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it” Ansel Adams once wrote, “and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium”. Which is a lot like God saying, “hey, don’t get hung up on making just one kind of tree”. The possibilities in making pictures are indeed endless, but each are rooted in our very purposeful choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WOULD ARGUE that most of the photographs commonly referred to as “self-portraits” are anything but. The tidal wave of daily images in which the photographer is also the subject are, in the main, merely our own cheery faces stamped onto whatever locale we choose as background. They are certainly recordings of us, but seldom much more. Portraiture, as painters came to use the word, is intended to penetrate, to comment, to reveal. Selfies testify that we were here: self-portraits attempt to explain why it matters.
Taking one’s image is not merely about putting up an endless string of publicity releases to reaffirm to the world that we’re still happy, healthy and young. It shouldn’t merely be the latest opportunity to display our most practiced social masks. That’s not revelation: that’s camouflage.
I’m no less vain than the next person. I would love every photograph taken of me, by myself or others, to be flattering. But the photographer in me insists upon more: I need also to make images that show me as uncertain, bloated, fearful, tentative, even alienated from my own internal idea of how I appear outwardly. Moreover, I need to monitor the distance between that surface and what I feel, or, in the words of the old Steve Winwood song, when I am but a stranger to myself. No brave face, no “smile for the camera” can do that.
I’m not comfortable with image you see here. I chose selective focus and monochrome for it because I feel that way at present, just as my expression is one of someone in a transition, and a rather awkward one at that. I don’t mind grinning for a snapshot, certainly. But a portrait should intend something different. And it’s okay if, on any given day, I don’t feel like pretending that life has is one big endless party. We are all the world’s foremost authorities on who we genuinely are. Our photography should endeavor to give testimony to that truth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST A LITTLE SCROLL STROLL THROUGH GOOGLE will show just how long and how intensely the debate over color has raged in the photographic world……that is to say, whether color should be used at all, or whether, indeed, it was the spawn of Satan, turning the art of imaging into a crude carnival trick. Today, we routinely concede that both monochrome and color have distinct uses in the making of images, each bringing singular strengths to the process. But it was not that long ago that the two camps went at it like Hatfields and McCoys.
Many still feel that color should only be called on to help complete or “sell” a picture, a finishing touch of sorts. “In black and white you suggest”, wrote Paul Outerbridge in Modern Photography. “In color, you state.” Others, like myself, believe that there are times when color is content, complete in itself, regardless of the “official” subject of the image. Or, as Alex Webb writes, “Color is very much about atmosphere and emotion and the feel of a place.”
The photos seen here show how, if color is a compelling enough messenger, most of the visual information in a picture can be pared away to let that color message breathe. The master shot of a street vendor at sundown (seen at directly above) might have worked out if I had done one or two things better, but upon later examination, I realized that the long horizontal string of neon-hued ukuleles at the top of the shot could work if cropped loose from the less effective uber-shot (as seen at top). Better still, the color in the cropped shot is not actually about “ukuleles”, since a string of tropical fruits or a rack of hats with the same tonal palette would sell the image just as well. This is truly a case of color “just because”, conveying Alex Webb’s “emotion and feel” without assistance.
A lot of the photo world’s resistance to color, which ended barely more than a generation ago, stemmed in part from a loathing for the limited printing processes which made it harder to predict or control results compared to monochrome. But there was also the fear that untalented shooters would use it as a sensational crutch to boost mediocre work. Now it seems clear that color, like any other technical element, lives or dies based on what it is called upon to do, and how well the individual artist makes his argument.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITOR ATTRACTIONS CREATE THEIR OWN KIND OF PECULIAR GRAVITY, in that many of them develop an “official” way to take in their delights, pulling you toward what they believe to be the center of things. From the creation of tourist maps to the arrangement of signs on paths, many famous “places to see” evolve systems for how to “do” parks, recreation areas, even ancient ruins. Some hot spots have even been so obvious as to mount signage right next to the “Kodak moment” view that, of course, you will want to to snap, since everybody does. And from here, folks, you can clearly see the royal castle, the original temple, the stunning mountain vista, etc., etc.
But predictability, or an approved way of seeing a particular thing, is the death of spontaneity, and certainly a danger signal for any kind of creativity. Photography is the visual measure of our subjective experience. It’s supposed to be biased toward our individual way of taking a thing in. Grading our reactions to visual stimuli on the curve, taking us all down the same path of recommended enjoyment, actually obviates the need for a camera. Just freeze the “correct” view on the gift store’s postcard assortment, and, presto, we can all have the same level of enjoyment. Or the same low point of banality.
Recently I visited the amazing Butchart Gardens, a botanical bonanza on the island of Victoria in British Columbia. If ever there was a place where you’d be tempted to tick off “the sights” on a mental checklist, this cornucopia of topiary choreography is it, and you will find it truly tempting not to attempt your “take” on its most photographed features. But an experience is not a triptych, and I found my favorite moments were near the fringes or niches of the property, many of which are as stunning as the most traveled wonders along the approved paths.
To my great surprise, my favorite shot from the tour wasn’t one of the major sites or even a color image, but a quick glimpse of a young girl hesitating in the narrow, arched portal that separated one side of an enormous hedge from the other. She only hesitated for a few seconds before walking into the more traveled courtyard just adjacent, which is, itself, recorded thousands of times a day. But that brief pause was enough. She had become, to me, Alice, dawdling on the edge of a new Wonderland. The arch became all mystery to me, but the picture needed to be simplified to amplify that feeling, relegating the bright hues to secondary status. And while it indeed seems counterintuitive to take a black and white image in the midst of one of the world’s great explosions of color, I gladly chose the mono version once I had the chance to compare it to the original. Some things just work.
One thing that never works is trying to make your personal photographs conform with what the designer of a public place has recommended as the essential features of that place. Your camera is just that….your camera. Shoot with someone else’s eye, and you might as well just frame the brochure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, ALMOST CERTAINLY, A STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOGRAPH BELOW. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is. And probably never will.
Images often state or at least imply a narrative, allowing the photographer to relate a dimensional story within the confines of a flat, static frame. It’s kind of a miracle when that happens, but there are also those pictures in which, although part of a story has been captured in mid-flight, the whole of the tale will never be revealed. Sometimes it’s because I flat-out don’t possess the skill to tell it properly. Sometimes it’s because, although I set out to tell something in a coherent fashion, I mucked it up in execution. And, in the most interesting/frustrating of cases, it’s because the photo simply contains too little content or context to make a story emerge.
Yet, these are the images that, perversely, I find myself returning to, as if staring at them multiple times will somehow solve the puzzle. It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay, since these “quandary” pictures also become some of my favorites. Maybe it’s because they’re orphans. Maybe I actually like that they defy explanation. It’s like reading Ulysses. I don’t get it, But then again, nobody else does, either.
This particular question mark of a picture was snapped in Boston on a day soaked in enough rain to chase my wife and myself off a local walking tour around the Commons, trading squishy sneakers for butt lumps on a bus that spent 10% of its voyage hipping us to the local scene and 90% gridlocked in Beantown traffic, which is about average, as I understand it. There was, as a consequence, plenty of time to snap things out of the windows, even though the rain played serious hell with both focus and resolution. After a while, however,even the doomed task of trying to shoot anything usable became a kind of pastime all its own, especially after the driver was forced to retrace the same circle of traffic hell for a second or third go-round.
The scene you see here is in front of a historic graveyard right in the heart of the commons, a “who’s who” of honored dead, where, so say the locals, you can sit in a bar drinking a cold Sam Adams, and gaze out the window at (say it with me) a cold Sam Adams. What inspired the ragtag orchestra you see marching in front of the illustrious headstones, sans any insignia, uniforms, or sense of self-preservation is, and will remain, beyond me. What they were marching for, who their intended audience or cause might be….all of it is forever a befuddled “huh?”. Bonus round: what with the light being so meager amidst the downpour, I had dialed down to a pretty slow shutter speed, so even basic sharpness was DOA for this particular frame.
Somehow, however, I love this picture, even more than if it made any actual sense. Unmoored from reality, I can make up a dozen might-be scenarios that explain it, and so it actually has more entertainment value than many of my so-called “successful” photographs. Or maybe I just like sitting in a pew at the Church of Weird every once in a while. And, on particularly dreamy days, I can stare at this band of gypsies and wish I could take up a tuba and head their direction for a bit.
After all, they know where they’re going…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN REVIEWING YOUR PAST PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK, you are bound to find shots that you have, for lack of a better term, outgrown. Unpack that word, and what you’re really seeing is the passage of time since you originally visualized a picture, along with the immense distance your eye and mind have traveled en route to the present day. Thus you are both benefitting and suffering from the luxury you enjoyed in being allowed to freeze time. You have not only immobilized a moment, but you have also preserved a record of what your “best practices” were at the time.
This painful but necessary re-assessment applies not only to the techniques used to create the initial image, but, in the incredibly speedy evolution of post-processing, all editing systems as well. Quite simply, if a picture is worth taking, it is worth fighting for…first by being as mindful and deliberate as possible in the taking, and then in a constant re-evaluation of how best to enhance its impact through editing. Therefore, if the first commandment of photography is Always Be Shooting, the second should probably be Never Stop Processing.
The above image is an example of this continuing dialogue. it was originally taken in 2012 and I have revisited it at least annually since then. At the time I first shot it, it was part of a three-shot bracket of exposures that were originally blended in an HDR program to try to get about the same degree of detail in both highlights and shadows….a look which can look great if done with a maximum of understatement, but which often winds up looking like an old Yes album cover under black light. From HDR, I moved on to a series of detail-enhancing programs which were more natural-looking, but still failed to deliver the punch I got from viewing the scene on-site. In one iteration, I added enhancement to a single shot alone, rather than a combination of all three bracketed images. And in 2016, I went back to the trio, mixed this time in an Exposure Fusion blender. And there’s no end in sight.
Ansel Adams, of course, famously re-visited his master negatives with up to a dozen re-mixed versions of the same scenes over decades, re-thinking his own revolutionary “zone system” for measuring exposure for every single particle of a subject, then mastering its application in the lab via burning, dodging and other means of print manipulation. I don’t work with those particular (and essentially film-based) techniques for several reasons, most of them economic. However, that still leaves me plenty of editing choices, with more gimcracks coming online every day.
Point is, pictures that are truly worth working for are also worth re-thinking, and a growing array of tools can give photographers endless ways to re-mix the hits. Of course, you will eventually come to a point where enough is enough. Historically, it’s a good thing that the Pope gave Michelangelo a deadline, or else he’d still be up on that ceiling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A BIAS IN WHAT WE CALL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY that leans toward monochrome images, as if black and white were somehow more emotionally honest, maybe even more reportorially accurate as regards social commentary. I suppose this preference borrows a bit from the fact that journalism and photographic critique sort of grew up alongside each other, with black-and-white news coverage pre-dating the popular use of color by several decades. However, since color has become the primary, rather than the secondary choice for most photographers over the past forty or so years, there may be no leader or “winner” between bright and subdued hues, no real rule of thumb over what’s more “real.” Street, and the tones used to convey it, are in the eyes of the beholder.
There must be dozens of images that I myself take in color each year, that, upon later reflection, I re-imagine in mono. Of course, with digital imaging, it’s not only possible but probably smart to make one’s “master shots” in color, since modern editing programs can render more in the way of black and white than mere desaturation. Just sucking the color out of a shot is no guarantee that it will be more direct in its impact, and may actually drain it of a certain energy. Other times, taking out color can streamline the “reading” of a photograph, removing the distraction that can occur with a full range of tones. The only set answer is that there is no set answer.
In the film era, if you loaded black & white, you shot black & white. There was no in-camera re-think of the process, and few monochrome shots were artificially tinted after the fact. Conversely, if you loaded color, you shot color, and conversion to mono was only possible if you, yourself were expert in lab processing or knew someone who was. By contrast, in the digital age, there are a dozen different ways to reconfigure from one tone choice to another in seconds, offering the chance for anyone to produce almost limitless variations on an image while the subject is there is front of them, ripe for re-takes or re-thinks.
None of these new processes solve the ultimate problem of what tonal system works best for a given picture, or when you exercise that choice. However, the present age does place more decision-making power than ever before in the hands of the average photographer. And that makes street photography a dynamic, ever-changing state of mind, not merely an automatic bow to black-and-white tradition.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CONTRAST IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT JUST ABOUT A COMPARISON BETWEEN DARK AND LIGHT VALUES. The word contrast also applies to things placed next to each other in a composition that fight for dominance. Happy faces next to sad. Images of wealth and opulence juxtaposed with poverty and misery. Some of it can be a kind of forced irony, and, as such, can produce pictures that get a little preachy, or appear deliberately staged.
I love urban architecture because many of its design elements are enough to create a compelling image all by themselves….that is, without the larger context of what’s around them. They don’t have to be about anything; they just are. Contrast isn’t needed in many cases, because I’m not trying to show mankind’s place versus the space of a building…..I’m just seeking absolute patterns. No comment, no message.
Occasionally, however, it’s great to invade all those clinical lines and angles with a bit of humanity, to break the geometry and inject something warm or whimsical. It doesn’t have to be deliberate and it doesn’t have to be amped up with busy staging. The best contrast shots between disparate elements are the ones that you simply witness.
In the above image, the boy on the scooter is neither a “bad” nor “good” subject, but he gains a little amplitude because of his odd placement amongst the more antiseptic surrounding textures. The shot also worked a little better in monochrome because, in the original shot, the boy’s shirt was so vivid that it drew too much attention to that part of the picture.
Photographers benefit from a million tiny collisions between seemingly opposed subjects every single day. Learning which ones to isolate and massage into pictures can be an enjoyable detective game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE FIRST EDITORIAL TRUTHS THAT PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN is that just pointing and recording is not photography. The marvelous device which was designed to arrest time in its flight and imprison it for future reference is truly effective for setting down the facts of a scene….details, textures, dimensions, etc. But, once the shooter is bent upon making any kind of statement…amplifying, clarifying, commenting….then the unadorned data of reality may prove to be a set of chains holding him earthbound. Every picture has it own terms, its own rules of engagement. And sometimes that means moving mere reality to the second chair.
Things that are only recorded are, to a degree, raw, in that they contain important information and extraneous data that might keep an image from being, well, a photograph. A deliberate act. Consider the purest form of “factual” photography, a reconnaissance flyover photo. Seen in its basic “real” state, the colllection of shapes, shades, and wiggles makes little sense to the observer. It needs the help of an interpreter to ferret out the pertinent narrative. Yes, this squiggle is a river. This grey smear is the warehouse. These scratchy cross-hatches are railroad lines. Photographs need to shaped so they can be interpreted. Sometimes this means, for lack of a more grammatical phrase, “including something out.”
There are many ways to achieve this, but, in the interest of brevity, I often find that a simple switch from color to monochrome goes a long way toward streamlining an image. Hues can be distractions, slowing the eye in its pursuit of a picture’s best impact. It prettifies. It luxuriates in tonal shifts, details, textures. Black and white can cut the busier parts of an image in half and convey a starkness (at least in some settings) that color can find problematic. Amping up the contrasts in black & white, eliminating many middle tones, can purify the image even further.
In the above comparison, a neighborhood in Seattle which is, in effect, its local Skid Row, is far more charming, far less gritty in the color rendering than in the mono version. Of course, the choice between the two approaches is made based on what you want to achieve. The same evaluation in a different situation dictates a different choice. Maybe.
Photography is not reality, and, if it were, it would never have flowered into an art, because reality is essentially dull. To make a picture, you have to determine the specific terms for that picture….what weight it wants to carry. Then it starts to become a photograph.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SHEER NUMBER OF PHOTOGRAPHERS IN THE WORLD pretty much insures that not too many of us are artistically, um, unique. If there was ever a time in the history of the medium when it was nearly impossible to develop a style free of influence (good or bad), it’s now.
That doesn’t make originality impossible. But it does mean that, when one of us evolves a new way of doing things, the speed of adoption means there’s about a half a global second before innovation becomes cliche. And the worldwide online community likewise switches its evaluation of an idea from “brilliant!!” to “hackneyed” within an ever shorter cycle.
One of the tricks that only really came to the fore in the early days of digital editing is the look of selective de-saturation of color. The technique was originally met with great enthusiasm, but to hear the wags that whine and howl around the web, you should now sooner be caught dead rather than use it.
Only, it’s not a given technique, per se, that becomes a drag, only its over-use or abuse. Think of canvas art for a moment. No one ever complains that “everybody uses oils to paint!” because it ain’t the pigment that separates the greats from the grunts. It’s what you do once you pick up that brush.
I steer away from partially desaturated shots because, while they can be real attention -getters, I myself don’t encounter many instances where I feel that they will actually help one of my pictures work better. The choice between monochrome and full color is, itself, fraught with a lot of mental measurement, meaning that you have a 50/50 chance in the making of an image to choose the wrong way to make it. Then there are color to b&w conversions, some of which really destroy the power of a photo. All this is before we get into the rather exotic decision of whether to make a picture “part” color.
Let’s say that there’s something to be gained by killing off all but the signature Manhattan cab yellow, as seen in the top image of NYC’s Union Square. Okay. It’s certainly technically easy to bring that off, but first you have to get beyond the initial “hey, that’s cool” sensation and ask, very critically, “what else am I giving away to nearly eliminate all the color in this image? Is the color of the dusky sky worth anything? How about the red glow of neon, the amber of lit windows, the darkening skin and fabric tones of passersby?
Lots of techniques fall or rise on whether they add or subtract from the image’s overall selling power. You have to learn when and where to do what…and to know why.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SOME, UTTERING THE WORD ABSTRACTION ALOUD is like saying bringing up politics at a family get-together, in that it forces people to take sides, or to account for their taste in front of others. And when you tie that scary word to art, specifically photography, people start to forget about making pictures, and begin wondering “what it all means”, or, worse, what an image is “supposed to be about”. We start making photos like regimented school children, all of us coloring the sun the same yellow and always drawing people with eyes in the same part of their face.
Instead of using the term abstraction to describe the idea of seeing something differently, I prefer the word extraction, as if we are pulling something different out of a subject. And it’s really not that academic. When we abstract/extract something, we are changing the relationship between the object and how we typically view it. Can showing just part of its shape register in our brains differently than viewing the entire thing? If I interpret it in monochrome versus color, can I re-shape the way you look at its positive (light) or negative (dark) space?
In abstracting/extracting, aren’t we really acting like designers, taking the familiar and rendering it unfamiliar to look at how it’s made and how we interact with it? Just as a designer might decide to create a different kind of teapot, can’t we take an existing teapot and change the way it impacts the eye? That’s all extraction is; one more way to shuffle the deck.
The object at the top of the page, a rare injection-molded plastic saxophone from the 1940’s, had already been “abstracted” by its designer, since we all have a traditional way of visually “knowing” that instrument. That is, it’s supposed to be brass-colored metal, curve in such-and-such a fashion, and feature ornamentation of a set type. Prominently, the designer re-ordered the sax’s features… in plastic, with browns and purples arranged in a fluid, stylized flow of elements. That means, that, as a photographer, I begin with my own set of expectations for the object already substantially challenged. Further, in photographing it, I can rotate the sax, compose it in the frame in an alternate fashion, reassign or intensify its colors, or, as in the small insert(which is a composite of a color negative, a monochrome negative, and a color positive), even change the relationship between surface and shadow.
There is a reason why even the police “abstract” a face into two interpretations, using both head-on and profile views in mug shots. Fact is, when you choose the viewpoint on an object, you change the interpretation of how the eye “learns” it. You extract something fresh from it . That’s the nature of photography, and scary words like “abstract” shouldn’t halt the ongoing conversation about what a picture is…or isn’t.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT MANY A WORKABLE PHOTOGRAPH HAS ONLY BEEN RENDERED SO BECAUSE OF SHEER BOREDOM. Face it: there are bound to be days when nothing fresh is flowing from one’s fingers, when, through lack of anything else to do, you find yourself revisiting shots that you 1) originally ignored, 2) originally rejected, or 3) were totally confounded by. Poring over yester-images can occasionally reveal something salvageable, either through processing or cropping, just as they can more often lead one to want to seal them up behind a wall. Even so, editing is a kind of retro-fitted variation on composition, and sometimes coming back around to a picture that was in conceptual limbo can yield a surprise or two.
I’m not suggesting that, if you stare long enough at an image, a little golden easter egg will routinely emerge from it. No, this is where luck, accident, and willpower usually converge to sometimes produce…..a hot mess, and nothing more. But leaving a picture for a while and returning to it makes you see with the eye of the outsider, and that can potentially prove valuable.
In the above shot, taken a few months go, I had all this wonderful gridded shadow texture presenting itself, shading what was otherwise a very ordinary stretch of sidewalk. A thought emerged that the stripes in the woman’s short might make an interesting contrast with the pattern of the shadows, but, after cranking off a frame or two, I abandoned the idea, just as I abandoned the shot, upon first review.
Months later, I decided to try to re-frame the shot to create a composition of one force against another…..in this case, the verticality of the lady’s legs against the diagonal slant of the shadows. That meant paring about two-thirds of the image away. Originally I had cropped it to a square with her lower torso at dead center, but there seemed to be no directional flow, so I cropped again, this time to a shorter, wider frame with the woman’s form reduced to the lower half of her legs and re-positioned to the leftward edge of the picture. Creating this imbalance in the composition, which plays to the human habit of reading from left to right along horizontal lines, seemed to give her a sense of leaving the shadows behind her, kind of in her wake if you will. At least a little sense of movement had been introduced.
I felt that now, I had the tug of forces I had been seeking in contrasting her blouse to the opposing grid in the master shot. I’m still not sure whether this image qualifies as having been “rescued”, but it’s a lot less busy, and actually directs the eye in a specific way. It will never be a masterpiece, but with the second sight of latter-day editing, you can at least have a second swipe at making something happen.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ABSTRACT COMPOSITIONS AREN’T MERELY A DIFFERENT WAY OF PHOTOGRAPHING A SUBJECT: they are, in many cases, the subject itself. Arrangements of shape, shadow and contrast can be powerful enough to carry the weight of a picture all by themselves, or at least be an abbreviated, less-is-more way of suggesting objects or people. And in terms of pure impact, it’s no surprise that photographers who, just a generation ago, might have worked exclusively in color, are making a bold return to black and white. For abstract compositions, it’s often the difference between a whisper and a shout.
I find it interesting that the medium of comics, which has long been defined by its bold, even brutal use of color, is also experiencing a black & white resurgence in recent years, with such masters as Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) rendering amazing stuff in the most starkly monochromatic terms. Likewise, the army of apps in mobile photography has reminded young shooters of the immediacy, the power of monochrome, allowing them to simulate the grain and grit of classic b&w films from Tri-X to Kodalith, even as a post-production tweak of a color original.
You know in the moment whether you’ve captured a conventional subject that sells the image, or whether some arrangement of forms suggestive of that subject is enough. In the above shot, reducing the mild color tonal patterns of a color original to bare-boned, hard blacks and loud whites creates the feel of a shaded door frame..a solid, dimensional space. The box-like enclosure that envelops the door is all there, but implied, rather than shown. As a color shot, the image is too quiet, too…gentle. In monochrome, it’s harder, but it also communicates faster, without being slowed down by the prettiness of the browns and golds that dominated the initial shot.
There are two ways to perfect a composition; building it up in layers from nothing into a “just-enough” something, or stripping out excess in a crowded mash-up of elements until you arrive at a place where you can’t trim any further without losing the essence of the picture. Black and white isn’t just the absence of color: it’s a deliberate choice, the selection of a specific tool for a specific impact.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT SEEMS UNGRACIOUS FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER TO COMPLAIN ABOUT AN OVER-ABUNDANCE OF LIGHT, since that’s basically the currency we trade in. More typically we gripe about not being able to bring enough of the stuff into a shot. I mean, the entire history of the medium is one big let-there-be-more-light prayer. But that’s not to say that light can’t create annoyance when you’re in a place where there is glorious, radiant illumination of….acres of nothing.
I’m not talking about sunlight on endless expanses of starched plain. I refer here to subject matter that is so uninteresting that, even though a bumptious bounty of light is drenching everything in sight, there is nothing to make a photograph of. Nothing that compels, inspires, jars or even registers. I recently made my annual return to a festival that, due to my frequent farming of it over the years, has now bottomed out visually. There is nothing left to say about it, although all that “nothing” is stunningly lit at this time of year.
In fact, it’s only by shooting just abstracted shapes, shades and rays, rather than recognizable subjects, that I was able to create any composition even worth staying awake for, and then only by using extremely sharp contrast and eliminating color completely. To me, the only thing more pointless than lousy subject matter is beautiful looking lousy subject matter, saturated in golden hues, but signifying nothing. Kinda the George Hamilton of photos.
So the plan became, simply, to turn my back on the bright balloons, food booths, passing parade of people and spring scenery that, in earlier years, I would have been happy to capture, and instead render arrangements without any narrative meaning, just whatever impact could be seen using light as nearly the lone element. In the above picture, I did relent in keeping the silhouetted couple in the final picture, so that it’s not as “cold” as originally conceived, but otherwise it’s a pretty stark image. Photography without light is impossible, but we also have to refuse to take light “as is” from time to time, to do our best to orchestrate it, much as we would vary shadings with pencil or crayon. We know that the camera loves light, but it’s still our job to tell it where, and how, to look.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TYPICALLY SHY AWAY FROM USING OR CREATING PHOTOGRAPHS as illustrations of work in another medium. Writers don’t try to caption my images, and I don’t presume, for the most part, to imagine visuals for their works. As both photographer and writer, I am sympathetic to the needs and limits of both graphic and written mediums. And still, there are rare times when a combination of events seem to imply a collaboration of sorts between the two means of storytelling. I made such an attempt a while back in these pages, in the grip of nostalgia for railroads, and so here goes with another similar experiment.
Last week, during a blue mood, I sought out, as I often do, songs by Sinatra, since only Frank does lonely as if he invented the concept, conveying loss with an actor’s gift for universality. I stumbled across a particularly poignant track entitled A Cottage For Sale, which I sometimes can’t listen to, even when I need its quiet, desolate description of a dream gone wrong. So, that song was the first seed in my head.
Seed two came a few days later, when I was shortcutting through one of those strange Phoenix streets where suburban and rural neighborhoods collide with each other, blurring the track of time and making the everyday unreal. I saw the house you see here, a place so soaked in despair that it seemed to cry out for the lyrics of Frank’s song. Again, I’m not trying to provide the illustration for the song, just one man’s variation. So, for what it’s worth:
Is lonely and silent, the shades are all drawn,
And my heart is heavy as I gaze upon
A cottage for sale
Where you planted roses,the weeds seem to say,
“A cottage for sale”.
But when I reach a window, there’s empty space.
But no one is waiting for me any more,
The end of the story is told on the door.
A cottage for sale.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS NEARLY A GENERATION AGO that Professor James Burke was the most admired media “explainer” of history and culture on both sides of the Atlantic, largely as a result of video adaptations of his hit books Connections and The Day The Universe Changed. Burke, trained at Jesus College in Oxford, was spectacularly talented at showing the interlocking linkages of events and human development, demonstrating the way they meshed together to act endlessly upon history, like gears locked in one large rotation. The result for viewers on PBS and the BBC was better than an ah, ha moment. It was more like an of course moment. Oh, yes, I see now. Of course.
In Universe especially, he examined the specific moments when everything we “knew” was altered forever. For example, we all “knew” the earth was flat, until we knew the exact opposite. We all “knew” that the sun rotated around the Earth, right up until that belief was turned on its ear. Our ideas of truth have always been like Phoenix birds, flaming out of existence only to rise, reconfigured, out of their own ashes. Burke sifted the ashes and set our imaginations ablaze.
As photographers, we have amazing opportunities to depict these transformative moments. In the 1800’s, the nation’s industrial sprawl across the continent was frozen in time with photo essays on the dams, highways, railroads and settlements that were rendering one reality moot while promising another. In the early 1900’s we made images of the shift between eras as the horrors of World War One rendered the Victorian world, along with our innocence, obsolete.
I love exploring these instants of transformation by way of still-life compositions that represent change, the juncture of was and will be. Like the above arrangement, in which some kind of abstract artillery seems to have un-horsed the quaint army of a chess set, I am interested in staging worlds that are about to go out of fashion. Sometimes it takes the form of a loving portrait of bygone technology, such as a preciously irrelevant old camera. Other times you have to create a miniature of the universe you are about to warp out of shape. Either way, it makes for an amazing exercise in re-visualizing the familiar, and reminds us, as Professor Burke did so well, that truth is both more, and less, than we know.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
IN A SIMPLER WORLD, THE KING OF HEARTS, quoted above in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, would be perfectly correct. All things being equal, the beginning would be the best place to begin. But, in photography, as in all of life, we are always coming upon a series of beginnings. Learning an art is like making a lap in Monopoly. Just when we think we are approaching our destination, we pass “Go” again, and find that one man’s finish line is another man’s starting gate. Photography is all about re-defining where we are and where we need to be. We always begin, and we never finish.
As 2014 comes to an intersection (I can’t really say ‘a close’ after all that, can I?), it’s normal to review what might be either constant, or changed, about one’s approach to making pictures. That, after all, is the stated aim of this blog, making The Normal Eye more about journey than destination. And so, all I can do in reviewing the last twelve months of opportunities or accidents is to try to identify the areas of photography that most define me at this particular juncture, and to reflect on the work that best represents those areas. This is not to say I’ve gained mastery, but rather that I’m gaining on it. If my legs hold out, I may get there yet. But don’t count on it.
The number twelve has become, then, the structure for the blog page we launch today, called (how does he think of these things?) 12 for 14. You’ll notice it as the newest gallery tab at the top of the screen. There is nothing magical about the number by itself, but I think forcing myself to edit, then edit again, until the thousands of images taken this year are winnowed down to some kind of essence is a useful, if ego-bruising, exercise. I just wanted to have one picture for each facet of photography that I find essentially important, at least in my own work, so twelve it is.
Light painting, landscape, HDR, mobile, natural light, mixed focus, portraiture, abstract composition, all these and others show up as repeating motifs in what I love in others’ images, and what I seek in my own. They are products of both random opportunity and obsessive design, divine accident and carefully executed planning. Some are narrative, others are “absolute” in that they have no formalized storytelling function. In other words, they are a year in the life of just another person who hopes to harness light, perfect his vision, and occasionally snag something magical.
So here we are at the finish line, er, the starting gate, or….well, on to the next picture. Happy New Year.