By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT IRONIC CLICHE OF CITIES is how they smash millions of people together while also keeping them completely isolated from each other, forcing the seeming intersections of lives that, below the surface, are still tragically alienated. Photography, coming of age as it did at roughly the same time as the global rise of cities, became accustomed, early on, with showing both the mad crush and the killing melancholy of these strange streets. We take group shots within which, hidden in plain sight, linger poignant solo portraits. The thrill of learning to speak both messages with a camera in one instant is why we do this thing.
Gray days, especially the fat batch of them I recently harvested in Manhattan, do half of my street photographer’s job for me, deepening colors and shadows in what can quickly become an experiment in underexposure, a lab which, in turn, profoundly alters mood. Things that were somber to begin with become absolutely leaden, with feelings running to extremes on the merest of subjects and forcing every impression through a muted filter. It’s what makes it out the back end of that filter that determines what kind of picture I’ll get.
The two diners in this scene are an arbitrary interpretation…..a judgement call that, on a bright day, I might have made completely differently. They are in parallel arrangement, so they both are looking off to the right, never across at each other. Does this make them lonely, or merely alone? The fact that there is one man and one woman in the composition doesn’t necessarily denote desperate or disconnected lives, but isn’t there at least a slight temptation for the viewer to read the image that way? And then there is our habit of seeing this kind of color palette as moody, sad, contemplative. The limited amount of light in the frame, as much as any other element, “tells” us what to feel about the entire scene. Or does it?
Now, of course, if you were to pack a roomful of other photogs into the same room alongside me to shoot the same image under the exact same conditions, you would very likely get a wider variety of readings. One such reading might suggest that both of these people were thoroughly enjoying a pleasant, quiet lunch, part of a lifelong pattern of contented fulfillment. Or not.
Cities are composed of millions of eyes backed by many more millions of inherited viewpoints on what defines big words like lonely, isolated, sad, thoughtful, and so on. But all of us, regardless of approach, are taking the strange city yin/yang of get closer/go away and trying to extract our own meaning from it.
“Something’s going to happen. Something….wonderful!” —Astronaut David Bowman, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST FUNCTION WAS AS A RECORDING MEDIUM, as a way to arrest time in its flight, to freeze select seconds of it. As evidence. As reference points. We were here. This happened. Soon, however, the natural expansion that art demands generated images of the things that happened before our direct experience. Ruins. Monuments. Cathedrals. Finally, the photograph began to speculate forwards. To anticipate, even guess, about what might be about to happen. That is the photography of the potential, the imminent. It’s rather ghostly. Indefinite. And all in the eyes of the creator and the beholder.
Is something about to happen? Does this place, this kind of light, truly portend something? Can a picture said to be ripe with the possibility of emerging events? I think they can, but these bits of pre-history are harder to sense than those we capture in the mere recording or retrieval functions of photography. In this case, we are not just witnesses or detectives, but seers. Of course, we may be wrong. Something may not happen as we seem to see it at present. History may not be made here. Perhaps no one will ever say or do anything extraordinary on this spot. The image of the possibility, then, becomes a kind of creative fiction, a pictorial what-if. And that places photos in the same arena as sci-fi, mysticism, poetry. If other arts can paint worlds that might be, why can’t a picture?
I don’t know why the meeting room shown here, which was being prepared for a conference later in the day, struck me. It might have been the somber color scheme, or the subdued light. It may have been the grand emptiness of it all; a room designed to be packed with people, sitting there, waiting for them to animate it. I just know that it was enough to slow my trek through a resort hotel long enough to try to show that potential. For what? A moment of high corporate drama? The end of someone’s career, the launch pad for a bold new idea? The meeting that might redraw the map of human destiny? Or nothing?
Ah, but what actually happens after the photo is taken is mere reality, and never to be matched or compared with the strong sense of eventuality that can linger in an atmosphere before something occurs. These kind of images are not, after all, witnesses to anything, but visions of the possible. And that is the essence of photography, where even a medium invented to record reality can ofttimes transcend it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW OF US CAN CHANNEL FRANK SINATRA’S VOCAL ACUMEN, but we can all relate to the urban movies that he started running in the projection rooms of our minds. For most of his career, The Voice was a very visual actor, shaping sound into virtual landscapes of lonely towns, broken-hearted guys wandering the waterfront, and blue mornings where the sun rises on you and ….nobody else. Frank could smile, swagger, strut and swing, for sure, but he was the original king of desolate all-nighters, our tour guide to the dark center of the soul.
He was also, not coincidentally, a pretty good amateur photographer.
I tend to see restaurants, bars, and city streets in general through the filter of Sinatra’s urban myths. Tables covered with upturned chairs. The bartender giving the counter one more weary wipedown. Dim neon staining rain-soaked brick streets. Curling blue-grey wisps of cigarette smoke. And shadows that cover the forgotten in inky cloaks of protection. Give me eight bars of “One For My Baby” and I’m searching for at least one bar that looks like the last act in a Mamet play.
It becomes a kind of ongoing assignment for photographers. Find the place that strikes the mood. Show “lonely”. Depict “Over”. Do a portrait called “Broken-hearted Loser.” There are a million variations, and yet we all recognize a slice of every one. Like Frank, we’ve all been asked by the host if he can call us a cab. Like Frank, we’ve all wondered, sure, pal, but where do I go now?
It’s not often a pretty picture. But, with luck, it’s sometimes a pretty good picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINTER IS A TIME OF MUTED COLORS, DIMINISHED SUNLIGHT and inner struggle. I’ve heard people refer to the leaner, darker months as the feeling of being shut up inside a box, almost like having yourself placed in storage. I would lop one side off of that polygon and say that, to me, it feels more like being locked in a triangle.
As a photographer, I feel as if, in winter, I sustain three distinct emotional “hits” about my work, forming the three sides of the triangle, all three pressing up against, and balancing, each other. These sides can be described as:
Not enough new or compelling ideas coming into my brain. A case of the “drys”.
Too much re-evaluation of all of my images that failed, along with a big fat dose of recrimination.
A near-crippling sadness over the photographic opportunities, many tied to people now departed, that I simply didn’t act upon, and which are now lost to me forever.
The first side of the triangle really isn’t unique to winter-time. I experience fallow periods throughout the year. They just ache more when amplified by slate-gray skies and dead trees. The second is to be expected, since spending more time indoors means rifling through old boxes of prints and slides, asking myself what the hell I was thinking when I chose this exposure or that subject, and ending the entire process by pitching some of those boxes into the incinerator. A needed exercise, but hardly anyone’s idea of a fun time.
No, it’s the third side of the triangle which is the real killer, since the photos that haunt you the worst are always the ones you didn’t take. Friendships pour additional salt into this particular wound, since, somehow, you never recorded quite enough of the faces which once were the common features of your world, and which time has, one by one, erased.
Your own personal list of pals-not-present grows steadily over the years, and the thought that you could have shot one less sunset to capture just one more portrait of some of them hurts. It’s not as if your emotional souvenirs of them aren’t burned into your mind’s eye. It’s not even that you might have done something magical or singular with their faces beyond another birthday candid. It’s simply that once you could, and now you can’t.
The triangle isn’t all torture. Breaking out of it means taking arms against ghosts, and (as Shakespeare said), by opposing, ending them. You not only have to keep shooting, but keep shooting mindfully. Because when all of this that we call reality finally drains through our fingers, the scraps of it that we leave behind really can matter. Even with triangles, there’s always one more side to the story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OFTEN, THE SHOT YOU GET HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO THE SHOT YOU THOUGHT YOU WANTED. We all like to think we are operating under some kind of “master plan”, proceeding along a Spock-o-logical path of reason, toward a guaranteed ( and stunning) result, but, hey, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all that.
Night shots are nearly always a series of surprises/rude shocks for me, since sculpting or harvesting light after dark is a completely different skill from what’s used in the daytime. Even small tweaks in my approach to a given subject result in wild variances in the finished product, and so I often sacrifice “the shot” that I had my heart set on for the one which blossomed out of the moment.
This is all French for “lucky accident”. I’d love to attribute it to my own adventurous intellect and godlike talent, but, again, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all about that, too.
So, as to the image up top: in recent years, I have pulled away from the lifelong habit of making time exposures on a tripod, given the progressively better light-gathering range of newer digital sensors, not to mention the convenience of not having to haul around extra hardware. Spotting this building just after dusk outside my hotel the other night, however, I decided I had the time and vantage point to take a long enough exposure to illuminate the building fully and capture some light trails from the passing traffic.
Minutes before setting up my ‘pod, I had taken an earlier snap with nothing but available light, a relatively slow shutter speed and an ISO of 500 , but hadn’t seriously looked at it: traditional thinking told me I could do better with the time exposure. However, when comparing the two shots later, the longer, brighter exposure drained the building of its edgier, natural shadow-casting features, versus the edgier, somber, burnt-orange look of it in the snapshot. The handheld image also rendered the post-dusk sky as a rich blue, while the longer shot lost the entire sky in black. I wanted the building to project a slight air of mystery, which the longer shot completely bleached away. I knew that the snapshot was a bit noisy, but the better overall “feel” of the shot made the trade-off easier to live with. I could also survive without the light trails.
Time exposures render an idealized effect when rendering night-time objects, not an accurate recording of “what I saw”. Continual experimentation can sometimes modulate that effect, but in this case, the snatch-and-grab image won the day. Next time, everything will be different, from subject to result. After all, this is photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COLOR IS LIKE ANY OTHER COMPONENT IN LIGHT COLLECTION AND ARRANGEMENT, which is, really, what we are doing. Seen as a tool instead of an absolute, it’s easy to see that it’s only appropriate for some photographs. Since the explosion of color imaging for the masses seen in the coming of Kodachrome and other early consumer films in the 1930’s, the average snapper has hardly looked back. Family shots, landscapes, still life arrangements….full color or go home, right?
Oddly, professional shooters of the early 20th century were reluctant to commit to the new multi-hued media, fearing that, for some novelty-oriented photographers, the message would be the color, instead of the color aiding in the conveying of the message. Even old Ansel Adams once said of magazine editors, that, when in doubt, they “just make it red”, indicating that he thought color could become a gimmick, the same way we often regard 3-d.
In the digital age, by comparison, the color/no color decision is almost always an afterthought. There are no special chemicals, films or paper to invest in before the shutter clicks, and plenty of ways to render a color shot colorless after the fact. And now, even the post-processing steps involved in creating a monochrome image need not include an investment in Photoshop or other software. For the average shooter, monochrome post-processing is in-camera, at the touch of a button. Straight B/W and sepia and even what I call the “third avenue”, the blue duotone or cyanotype, as I’ve used above.Do such quickie options worsen the risk of gimmick-for-gimmick’s sake more than ever? As Governor Palin would say, “you betcha”. Google “over-indulgence”, or just about half of every Instagram ever taken, as evidence.
Hundreds of technical breakthroughs later, it still comes down to the original image itself. If it was conceived properly, color won’t lessen it. If it was a bad idea to start with, monochrome won’t deliver the mood or the tone changes needed to redeem it. Imagine the right image, then select the best way to deliver the message. Having quick fixes in-camera aren’t, initially, a guarantee of anything but the convenient ability to view alternatives. In the photo above, my subject was just too warm, too pretty in natural color. I thought the building itself evoked a certain starkness, a cold, sterile kind of architecture, that cyanotype could deliver far better. The shadows are also a bit more mysteriously rendered.
At bottom, the shot is just a study, since I will be using it to take far more crucial pictures of far more intriguing subjects. But the in-camera fix allows you to analyze on the fly. And, since I got into this racket to shoot pictures, and not to be a chemist, I occasionally like a fast thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdict on something I’ve decided to try in the moment.
Giving yourself the blues can be a good thing.
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @ mpnormaleye)