By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO TRY TO SOLVE MYSTERIES, with many pictures providing sufficient data to reveal or imply a complete story. The still image can feel confining, though, since its space and time limits are strict and unforgiving, and so, narration-wise, we ask a lot of a single frame, and, in turn, we also ask a lot of our target audiences, expecting them to infer what isn’t stated, supply in their minds what goes beyond the things we’ve chosen to show. The tension between what a photographer tries to relate and what a viewer manages to extract is strong, so strong that it can often exceed our talents. We are always trying to lock down all aspects of the tale, and sometimes we don’t succeed.
And then there is the opposite drive, the urge to remove important information from a picture, asking even more of the viewer as we purposely hold back clues. Some photographs can almost seem to starve the eye, a strange effect indeed in a visual medium. What happened before we came to this place? Who are these people? What are they here for? What happens next? Good photographers know how to amass enough information to tell a story. Great photographers can pare away so much information that their pictures become a deliberately constructed puzzle. And as for the creative process, sometimes photographers get a subject or scene in view and don’t know, ourselves, what it really is we’re seeing. Instinct pushes us ahead to click the shutter anyway, convincing us that this incomplete story may have something more to give in future.
The picture seen here is an example of something I felt was intriguing in the moment, and yet, looking at it afterwards, I’m unsure whether it works or not. There are no clear hints of what the people in it are doing. Are they mere passersby, or engaged in some special mission? Does the light create a mood of anticipation? Of concern or dread? Does the shot’s conversion to monochrome help its overall mood, or does it just make it tougher to decode? Perhaps I just reacted to the composition or the light, and nothing more. And what could someone else would bring to the picture by looking at it? The frustrating part of these kinds of inner dialogue is that there is no final answer, because I didn’t select or set up this scene with the idea of conveying anything specific. I wasn’t working with intention. As with thousands of pictures over a shooter’s life, this is an instance in which I just reacted in the moment, and the results may or may not be of any value.
Narratives are strange things. We are often not in complete control of stories as they come forth, even though we would like to believe that we always act under some kind of plan. Sometimes pictures just happen. We are either open to that success/failure coin toss or we aren’t, but our attitude will color the kinds of pictures we’re willing to make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BASIC STRUCTURE OF A LINEAR STORY IS ENGRAVED into the DNA of our collective minds in what amounts, essentially, to three words: beginning, middle, end. Three distinct phases that indicate the birth, development, and logical terminus of a narrative. You start at the left and end up at the right, like the eye reading a written sentence. That’s storytelling in a nutshell.
But are all three elements present in a photograph?
As a static moment stolen from a million zillion consecutive other moments, a frozen instant plucked out of context, a photo is, almost of necessity, missing some of the standard elements of a narrative. The shooter cannot take us on a complete journey from beginning to end. Instead, he must choose one part of that sequential timeline and make it speak for the entire process. And so we make pictures of things that are just getting under way. We make different pictures of things that are in the process of progressing or changing. We make still others of things that are coming to a close. What we choose to show affects the conversation we are having with our audience. Will they understand what point in the continuum of a story we’ve chosen to display? Does their imagination or memory supply missing information about what’s not shown, through speculation, intuition? Pictures can’t show everything, nor do all pictures even show the same kind of information. However, over generations of transactions between shooter and viewer, there is a kind of understood, if unspoken language of what was meant and what was received.
This exchange is instantaneous and instinctive, but we can step back and analyze it. For example, in the above photo, what information is given, and what is withheld? Are we at the entrance into something, or near the escape out of it? Is this a scene of quiet serenity or dark foreboding? Is there a correct answer? Does there need to be?
You and you alone control the choices, often made in an instant, of what visually makes it into the final edition of a photograph. Some of those choices will be deliberate. Others will be reactive. Photographers can either conceal or reveal, and their editorial decisions, whether done at leisure or in a blink, determine what pictures we regard as memorable, or visceral, or genuine. What I’m getting at here is that storytelling is only partly about equipment, or even conditions, like light or weather. And that only makes sense: it would be foolish, after all, to think of a novel as great merely because of which pencil or keypad the author used, or to judge a musical performance by the piano. And so the most crucial element in photography must, must, must be the eye. Once that is sharpened, storytelling hits full throttle, and, conversely, without that acuity, all we can hope for is the occasional happy accident. No one picture tells the entire story, but we are in charge of what clues make it to the viewer. And that is one amazing superpower.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS, AT ONCE, A VERY SIMPLE ACT and one of the most complex of creative processes. It is both instinctual and intellectual, a thing of sudden inspiration and a constant weighing of variables. It is, simultaneously, a marveling at the random arrangement of all the stars in heaven, and an attempt to line them up in a pattern of one’s own desire. Few photographers have been able to consistently balance these disparate aims over the course of a career. Fewer still have been able to reduce the process to written wisdom as well, a quality which makes Henri Cartier-Bresson a prophet among poets. He not only defined human truth with his beloved Leica (which he called “the extension of my eye”) but also managed to speak about that miracle in a manner no less articulate than his grandiloquent images.
HCB’s career coincided with the rise of the great photographic feature magazines of the 20th century, like Life, Look, Parade, and Harper’s Bazaar, where a new kind of reportage was being invented on a daily basis, with photographs evolving from mere illustrations of mega-events to stories about people who lived their lives beyond the obvious ranks of fame and power. Photographers were entering into a more emphatically emotional role, both harvesting and inserting interpretive energy into what had formerly been a simple act of recording. Global displacements of individual humans, measured between the World Wars in the Great Depression and other seismic events generated image makers who could train their cameras to take the measure of joy and suffering in an incredibly intimate fashion. Cartier-Bresson’s beat, which was global as well, enhanced his eye for the universal, the common feelings that crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. But he was also helping to create a new way of seeing, a system that was equal parts brain and heart.
In describing what he would later call “the decisive moment”, that golden instant where subject and story reached their peak of impact, HCB described what, to him, was the aim of the enterprise:
For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight. It’s a way of life. (It is) the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms.
Composition. Interpretation. Empathy. Narrative clarity. These became the mainstay elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, the difference between just freezing something in a box and capturing something of fleeting but essential value. They also became the pillars of a discipline that would eventually be labeled “street photography”. Perhaps it was his practiced way of seeing which, late in life, led him back to painting, the visual medium for total control. It is one thing to learn to see, and it is something else entirely to be able to harness that vision, to make the camera execute it with a minimum of loss from the original conception. But the anticipation that something is about to happen keeps us addicted, and that in turn keeps us trying. As HCB himself recalled of the moments before the click, “I’m a bag of nerves waiting for ‘the moment’…and it wells up and up and it explodes…it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Seeing is everything.” It is a testament to how perfectly Henri pre-conceived a composition that almost all of his photographs are exactly as he shot them, without cropping or re-framing of any kind. They were just that right…..the first time.
We all occasionally get seduced by equipment, techniques, fads, even windy essays like this one, veering from the central mission of our art. But that mission is as simple as it is elusive: seeing is everything. With it, you can light a candle against the darkness.
Without it, you are worse than blind: you are unknowing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE SPOKEN A FEW TIMES HERE about the snapshot mentality, that hard-wired sense of urgency that seems to accompany nearly all picture-making….the flashing red light that screams Hurry. Get the shot. It’s a nagging feeling that we’re missing something great, that we’d better stop wasting time and start clicking. This hair-on-fire sensation may have come originally from cameras that were too slow or clumsy to operate, resulting in many lost opportunities. Then, as both cameras and film became more responsive, the idea that we could crank off a frame almost as quickly as the action of a special event spurred us on even further. Many generations and millions of personally precious occasions later, we almost always shoot on instinct. It takes practice and deliberation to slow down and actually plan a shot.
But the world is not composed solely of kids blowing out birthday candles or Bob being surprised by his retirement party, and there will always be times when, as far as photography is concerned, there is literally no big rush. Thing is, we have to retrain ourselves to sense what those moments are, and enjoy the luxury of being able to linger, even to leave, come back, reconsider, and re-shoot in an attempt to get the additional dimension that only comes from taking one’s time. This is an increasingly difficult habit to form, since we have so long married the instantaneous or fleeting quality of many situations to the way we take pictures. People who think too much about this kind of stuff have sold scads of books with the words contemplative or mindfulness in the title, but it really is just about slowing down long enough to let ideas percolate, for better pictures to emerge.
It is certainly true that technology has allowed us to make acceptable pictures of nearly anything, our cameras taking many decisions (including careless ones) out of our hands, trying, in essence, to anticipate what we probably “want” and attempt to give it to us. The aggravation of what results when we turn over the keys completely to these brilliant but non-intuitive machines, the gap between what it serves us up and what we truly seek, is the reason behind the blog you’re reading right now. The Normal Eye is dedicated to those times we wean ourselves off auto-settings, electing to both ask and answer our own questions, relegating the camera to its proper status….that of a servant. Part of the taking back of that control is placing yourself in situations where it’s okay, even optimum, for you to just simply cool your jets and think.
The frame you see here is #18 out of twenty shots taken toward a busy suburban road as seen from a roadside pond. The surface of this small lagoon is usually filled with concentric ripples from a centrally located fountain which is nearly always turned on, so in many cases, I could not dream of the reflections seen here. That idea alone was enough to make me pull off the road and park. Several of my first tries were framing disasters; a couple of others were taken from an opposite angle and contained too much clutter: and then there was this one, which was preceded by several in which the road was just crammed with late afternoon traffic. Frustration was mounting. I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Indeed I wasn’t sure I even knew what I was going for.
But then the lightbulb moment. This scene was going to remain stable for a while. Nothing could be lost by quitting the scene for a few minutes and approaching the whole thing with refreshed concentration.
I took a walk.
Five minutes had, indeed, made a difference in the intensity of the local traffic, which, in turn, gave me an idea for something that the picture could be about, as I saw a lone bus approaching from the leftward edge of my peripheral vision. Suddenly I had just enough context to at least imply a story. Whereas dozens of vehicles were just visual litter, a single bus could anchor the picture, add scale to the scenery, or at least tell the eye where first to focus. Ironically, I had a “snapshot’s” worth of decision time in which to snap the shutter before the bus passed out of frame, so, even though I had taken extra minutes to get the shot I wanted, I only had seconds to recognize that it had arrived. In the final analysis, I would have had, at least in my own mind, much less of a picture if I had settled for the first, perfectly adequate rendering of the scene. I had benefited by not having to make up my mind in an instant. Contemplative? Mindful? Who knows? To me, it’s just enjoying the luxury of those instances in which I can afford To. Just. Wait.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONCEPT OF THE STILL–LIFE is one of the most malleable in all of photography. Pore over enough image anthologies and you’ll see the term applied to every type of conglomeration of objects. Scale doesn’t matter, nor do either complexity or simplicity.
Story, however, does.
Annie Liebowitz’ massive shot of the cluttered interior of singer Pete Seeger’s workshop, jammed with tools, scraps and other glorious geegaws, forms a rich phantom portrait of the absent master. On the other end of the spectrum, the simple, classic bowl of fruit can suggest a time, a mood, and a place, all within the space of a few square inches. A still life is most eloquent when it implies existences without actually showing them. There is a life in these things. The photographer leaves behind clues as to whose.
I tend to feel the presence of people in empty rooms. I’m not saying I see apparitions of dead folks. The sensation is more like what I imagine Sherlock Holmes might experience when initially arriving upon a crime scene. To the great fictional sleuth, all rooms fairly scream out their stories: every stick of furniture, every scrap of food, every scattered book testifies in some way. Of course, photographs eventually prove that there is no such thing in nature as an “empty room”. Human activity leaves an after-image: we don’t scrub a place of evidence just because we physically leave it. Effective still-lifes recover part of that ethereal data.
It’s a great exercise in minimalism to see how little you need to show in a still life of a room and still suggest a narrative. It’s not necessary to tell the entire story. You need only pique your viewer’s curiosity as to what might have happened, or what the potential plot line of the scene could be. Photography, after all, is an interpretive art, and only a percentage of a place’s “reality” ever makes it into the frame. A still life, from Pete’s workshop to the bowl of fruit, is all about extrapolating from the seen to the unseen. If you’re lucky, someone outside yourself will see what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HUGE SURGE OF POPULARITY served notice on the painting world that there would, going forward, be more than one way to capture the human essence in a portrait. Initially dismissed as a mere recording device by panicky daubers the world over, the camera soon earned a place at the table by revealing just as much of the inner souls of its subjects as even the most trained brush, albeit by different roads. One of these, of course, was the eye, characterized as “the window to the soul.” To some, it seemed that painters merely drew your gaze to the eye, whereas the camera drilled straight through it.
Whether you share that view or shrink in horror from it, the fact is that generations of technical treatises have centered on the vital importance of engaging the eye in portraits: getting the right “catch light” spark reflected in it, making it the primary focus of the face, even zeroing out sharpness in the entire frame except in the orb’s immediate vicinity. It’s accepted wisdom that the eye sells the face and the face sells the picture. But what of faces that have another kind of story?
In the above image, we are, as viewers, denied access to the birdwatcher’s eyes, unless you interpret her binoculars as a kind of abstract substitute. But does that make the picture not a portrait? Using every other feature and prop available to the shooter, is there insufficient evidence to properly tell her story? Are we at all uncertain of her intent, enthusiasm, state of mind? Is her zeal any less obvious without those windows to the soul in sight? Or to think of it another way, would the picture have any greater narrative power if her eyes were visible?
Portraits are certainly anchored by their most provocative features, riveting our gaze to precise points of drama as urged by talented photographers. However, that list of elements is not absolute, any more than a blue sky is an absolute for a painter. Faces can spell out a message in upper-case neon letters or whisper it in muted shadows. But other than that, everything else is on the table. Portraits are a process, not a recipe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW all the elements of a story to tell it visually. Yes, photography certainly has the technical means to tell a detailed tale, but that narrative need not be spelled out in every particular by the camera.
Indeed, it might be the very information that’s “missing” that may be the most compelling element of a visual story. That is to say, if you don’t know all the facts, make the picture. And if you do have all the facts, maybe leave out a few…. and make the picture anyway.
The above image illustrates this strange mis-match between storytelling and story material. As a shooter, I’m tantalizingly close to the couple at the table next door to me at a plaza restaurant. I mean, I can practically count the salt grains on the lady’s salad. I can also tell, by her male companion’s hand gestures, that a lively conversation is underway. But that is the sum total of what I know. I can’t characterize the discussion. A business planner? A lover’s quarrel? Closing the sale? Sharing some gossip? Completely unknown. Sure, I could strain to pick up a word here or there, but that alone may not be enough to provide any additional context, and, in fact, I don’t need that information to make a picture.
This is what I call “low info, high narrative”, because I don’t require all the facts of this scene to sell the message of the picture, which is conversation. As a matter of fact, my having to leave out part of the image’s backstory might actually broaden the appeal of the final product, since the viewer is now partnering with me to provide his/her version of what that story might be. It’s like my suggesting the face of a witch. By merely using words like ugly or horrible, I’ve placed you in charge of the “look” of the witch. You’ve provided a vital part of the picture.
You won’t always have the luxury of knowing everything about what you’re photographing. And, thankfully, it doesn’t really matter a damn. That’s why we call this process making a picture. We aren’t merely passive recorders, but active, interpretive storytellers. High narrative beats low info every time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY WOULD BE A SNAP (sorry) if the camera actually possessed not just an eye, but also a brain. But that’s where you come in.
When the human eye takes in a scene, the brain automatically ranks all the information within it, basically making a composition of priority. We “see” some things and “don’t see” others, based on how our grey matter ranks the importance of everything in our field of vision. A camera cannot make these fine decisions: it merely makes a light record of what it’s pointed at. That accounts for the fact that our “perfect” landscape, the one we ourselves recalled from the first day of vacation, comes back, in a mere photo, complete with electrical wires, distracting signs, junk near the beach, and any other number of things our brains filtered out of the original viewing experience.
Composition is thus a matter of our deliberately arranging things by priority, making an argument for our audience to Look Here First, Only Look Here, Give Greater Weight To This Over That, or any other messaging we desire. In sales terms, it’s what pitchmen call Asking For The Order. Simply, composing a photograph means setting the terms of engagement for the viewer’s eye.
With still-life photographs, the shooter has the greatest degree of control and responsibility. After all, our subject is stationary, easily moved and arranged to our whim. You pretty much are lord of your domain. That being said, it’s wise to use this luxury of time and control to envision as many ways as possible to convey your message. The image at the top of this page, for example, is crowded, but the nut shells and the unshelled nuts are a study in textural contrast. There’s lots of color and detail, with one side being somewhat blanched while the other is rough and complex. That’s one way of making the image.
For comparison, in the second frame, the terms of engagement are completely different. The pile of shells at left is more sharply contrasted with the single nut at right. The nut carries the only vivid color in the image; it’s an outlier, a misfit…maybe the last man/nut standing? The simplification of the composition lets it breathe a little, allowing the viewer to speculate, invent. Are the shells symbolic of a mound of nuts that have already been polished off in some grand snacking orgy? Why was one lone nut left to tell the tale? And so on.
Change the arrangement of subjects in a scene and you’ve changed the terms of narration, or even insisted that there is no narration, just patterns, light, or abstraction. Whichever path you choose, no composition comes to the camera “ready to eat”, as it were. You have to tell your camera’s mechanical eye what to see, and how to see it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH IS DISCUSSED LONG BEFORE IT IS VIEWED, with an inner dialogue between shooter and subject that is held, however briefly, ahead of the shutter click. Sometimes, at a fortuitous intersection of talent and luck, that is the end of the discussion; other times, there will be additional chats between the first version of an image and its maker, a talk that can be endlessly debated in the processing and editing phases. And, of course, based on those results, photographs finally make their arguments to the world at large.
The bulk of those discussions focus on what the center, or the essence of a picture should be. Were all elements in balance right out of the camera…in which case, frame it and hang it, case closed? Or (and what is far more likely), did we find that essence at all? Was it compromised, watered down, by faulty composition? Did we make a weak lighting choice here or there? Did execution weaken the effect?
Usually, there is a clear component within a photograph that cries here I am a little louder than all the other parts of it. But sometimes, there are two or more pieces which feed on each other, boost each other’s effectiveness. In such cases, instead of one primary piece and a lot of secondary or extra pieces, you find two things in the photo that are basically tied for first place. When one thing in a picture feels diminished without interacting with another, both elements deserve to stay.
The picture at the top seems, to me, to be just such a case. The floral shop and its faceless proprietor seem somehow married to each other, two halves of a whole. And, while I can conceive of making two separate pictures from the master shot in which either the shop’s inventory or the saleslady are in solo starring roles, they truly do seem interdependent, so I declare a tie, and they both go to the finals.
Thus the discussion on what to include in the picture has gone on for at least two layers, with layer one being the planning of the photo, and layer two being the editorial decision to keep both flowers and florist on equal footing in the final image. Look over your own pictures and you will no doubt find several of these “tied for first place” compositions. It can seem counter-intuitive to have more than one main point in an image. But the image itself will tell you, unmistakably, when that actually make the most sense.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CAN YOU TRAIN YOUR EYE TO SEE FASTER? Now, by “seeing”, I mean a process which effectively goes beyond the mere reception of light or visual information, something unique to the process of photography. I’m asking if you can, in effect, train the eye to, if not actually see faster, to more efficiently communicate with the brain and the hand in selecting what is important, so more rapidly apprehend the fleeting moment when a picture must be made.
I’m talking about the gradually learned trick of deciding quicker what you want and when it might be near at hand.
Much has been written about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of “the decisive moment”, the golden instant in which viewpoint, conditions, and subject converge to be especially eloquent….to be, in effect, the only true artistic moment at which a photograph can be taken. Many reject this idea out of hand, saying that there are many potential great opportunities in the space of even a few seconds, and that the lucky among us grab at least one now and then. For those people, it’s not so much “the” moment as “a” moment.
Whatever the nature of the near-perfect shot is, sensing when one is imminent isn’t magic, and it isn’t accidental. It’s also not guaranteed by talent or luck. It has to be the result of experience, more specifically, lots of unsatisfying experience. Because I feel that the pictures you didn’t get are far more instructive than the ones you did, simply because you burn more brain cells on the mysteries of what went wrong than you do on the miracle of getting things right.
This image is neither the result of great advance planning nor of great fortune: it’s somewhere in the middle, but it does record an instant when everything that can work is working. The light, the contrasting tones of white and gray, the framing, the incidental element of the passing tourist….they were all registering in my mind at the precise instant before I snapped the frame.
This does not mean I was totally in charge of the process: far from it. But I knew that something was arriving, something that would be gone in less than a second. Also, the elements that were converging to make the image were also in flux, and, having moved on, would result in something very different if I were to take a second or third crack at the same material.
For a photographer, it’s a little like surfing. You take lots of waves, with the idea that any of them can deliver the ride of your life. But, on any given day, all of them could be duds. However (and this is the part about a trained eye), you can learn to spot the best waves faster and faster, converting more of them to great rides. And making pictures is much the same process. You can’t absolutely analyze what will make a picture work, but you can learn to spot potential quicker, on some level between intentional and accidental.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REALIZE, MORE THAN EVER, THAT THE BULK OF MY OWN PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK has been an attempt to tell human stories while using remarkably few humans to convey them. I always seem not to have a true style at all, just a string of endless experiments that either add or detract from my overall skill set. And yet, if there is any “signature” in my work, it seems to be in using objects, or atmospheres, to illustrate what makes (or made) people feel. The everyday “sets” on which the actors of life play their parts. The oddest thing about my photographs is how many times, over a lifetime, the sets are allowed to speak for the actors, without the actors present.
I shoot empty rooms, but rooms where I feel the weight of years of bustling, traffic, conversations, meetings. I shoot solitary objects on tables, but objects that I imagined were touched, treasured, and otherwise served to measure daily life. I’m not adept at staging people as models or actors in images, but I try to react to settings, see people in them, and show their absence as a kind of presence through these things, these places.
It doesn’t always work. And, as you all have, I’m sure, I often worry about whether I’m off on the wrong track, lost, kidding myself. When a photograph connects with someone, I’m still surprised, even shocked. Street photography, which I greatly admire, is, for most, the act of seeing important bits of drama or tension between people. I take the visual measure of what they build, what they use, even what they abandon, and try to draw their portraits that way. The actual participants may, or may not, be part of those drawings.
Like I say, it doesn’t always work. What I may see as a moment of contemplation or a quiet narrative may strike others as cold, remote. I never mean it that way, since that’s not how I see the world. To my mind, you can either show a child opening a Christmas present, measuring his first flash of joy, or you can photograph the box and wrapping paper a moment later, after the toy has been removed and only the potential of the thing is left behind, like a latent fragrance.
I like trying to detect those fragrances, those lingering essences, the vapors of vanishing potential. Like Chief Dan George observes in Little Big Man, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But, oh, man, when it does……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION IS A CONSCIOUS PRIORITIZING OF EVERYTHING WITHIN A PICTURE’S FRAME, a ruthless process of demanding that everything inside that square justify its presence there. When we refer to the power of an image, we are really talking about the sumtotal of all the decisions that were made, beforehand, of what to include or lose in that image. Without that deliberate act of selection, the camera merely records everything it’s pointed at. It cannot distinguish between something essential and something extraneous. Only the human eye, synched to the human mind, can provide the camera with that context.
Many of our earliest photographs certainly contain the things we deem important to the picture, but they also tend to include much too much additional information that actually dilutes the impact of what we’re trying to show. In one of my own first photos, taken when I was about twelve, you can see my best friend standing on his porch…absolutely…..along with the entire right side of his house, the yard next door, and a smeary car driving by. Of course, my brain, viewing the result, knew to head right for his bright and smiling face, ignoring everything else that wasn’t important: however, I unfairly expected everyone else, looking at all the auxiliary junk in the frame, to guess at what I wanted them to zero in on.
Jump forward fifty years or so, to my present reality. I actively edit and re-edit shots before they’re snapped, trying to pare away as much as I can in pictures until only the basic storytelling components remain….that is, until there is nothing to distract the eye from the tale I’m attempting to tell. The above image represents the steps of this process. It began as a picture of a worn kitchen chair in a kitchen, then the upper half of the chair near part of a window in the kitchen, and then, as you see above, only part of the upper slats of the chair with almost no identifiable space around them. That’s because my priorities changed.
At first, I thought the entire kitchen could sell the idea of the worn, battered chair. Then I found myself looking at the sink, the floor, the window, and…oh, yeah, the chair. Less than riveting. So I re-framed for just the top half of the chair, but my eye was still wandering out the window, and there still wasn’t enough visible testimony to the 30,000 meals that the chair had presided over. So I came in tighter, tight enough to read the scratches and discolorations on just a part of the chair’s back rest. They were eloquent enough, all by themselves, to convey what I wanted, without the rest of the chair or anything else in the room to serve as competition. So, in this example, it took me about five trial frames to teach myself where the picture was.
And that’s the point, although I still muff the landing more often than I stick it (and probably always will). To get stronger compositions, you have to ask every element in the picture, “so what do you think you’re doing here?” And anyone who doesn’t have a good answer….off to the principal’s office.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE COMPOSITIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY ARE CRAFTED AFTER THE SNAP than naturally spring forward, fully formed, out of the camera. Frame as carefully as you may, you often find that something needs to change to help your image’s story fully emerge. This usually means taking something away, cleaning things up…and that means cropping. I think it’s fair to say that, more often than not, we start with pictures that contain too much and carve out the core picture that deserves to survive, to be pushed to the front.
Sometimes a proportionate tightening is all that a picture needs, so that a large, busy rectangle becomes a streamlined, smaller rectangle. This can clear away extraneous objects like phone poles, wires, extra buildings, any distracting junk that pulls the eye away from the important stuff. But it isn’t always things: it can also be people, surplus bodies which, like extraneous elements of any kind, change the narrative, or keep it from connecting. Think of the picture as a theatrical production and yourself as the casting director. Anyone on the set who doesn’t move the story forward is not playing a part that we need. See the girl at the office for your check, so long.
In the picture above, the cropping seems to create the story of a mother and her children taking in the view from New York’s Highline Park onto a city street below. In the original shot, seen at left, she seems less like a mother and more like just another bystander. The crop has suggested a relationship or a role for her. The woman to her right (in the original), unlike the “mother” figure, is not acting as our surrogate, seemingly looking with us at the scene. She is on her cel phone, and therefore registers as more detached than her neighbor, whose face, since it’s invisible to us, could contain anything we want it to. To the right of the cel user, we see additional people who don’t subtract from the picture, but also don’t add anything. They are extras that we, the director, have decided we don’t need to cast.
Also, structurally speaking, the “mother” is arranged so that the diagonal line from the foreground building to her right seems to proceed into the picture from around the area of her right shoulder, so that she sort of anchors the leading line and sends your eye along it to the street below. None of this, mind you, was obvious in the shooting of the original shot, which is not terrible as a composition, only compromised by the inclusion of information that simply doesn’t advance the logic of the picture. I only use it as an example of how I was able to question the “casting” of the original frame and make a conscious decision to cut away things that slowed everything down.
If you can tell a story with two people better than you can with four or five, ask yourself if you really need them. Cropping isn’t an admission that you made a bad photograph. It’s confirmation that your first draft is worth taking to a second one.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK AT THE EARLIEST PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK OF NEARLY ANYONE and you will see a general attempt to frame up a scene and attempt to show, well, everything within range of the camera. It’s a time when we produce our most inclusive panoramas, our most crowded city scenes, our most enormous circus midways. Our pictures may be stories, but, at first, our stories have a bit of a problem getting to the point. We are so inclusive of raw data that every snap of life at the beach becomes a page out of Where’s Waldo? Thus, the very first real talent young photographers show is the ability to trim all that visual fat and get the maximum see for the minimum show.
Of course, when we are mere puppies, it seems counter-intuitive to say that showing less will actually make us see more. Minimalism doesn’t come easily to us, since we are afraid, at first, that we’re leaving something “important” out. Everyone comes to terms with this eventually if they shoot long enough, but we all arrive at the wisdom of it via various journeys. For me, it was my first attempts at still life compositions, which really are the most edited exercises we do. For these kinds of photos, it’s really about knowing what to leave out, or at least when to stop adding. And when a picture works, there is the nagging curiosity as to why….an inquiry which often leads to the conclusion that we used just what we needed, and then stopped.
Sometimes I get a sense of how little I need in a picture while I’m shooting. Many times, though, it comes to me in the editing or cropping process. If I snip something off of a picture and it doesn’t fall apart, I start wondering how much more I can pare away and still say what I’m trying to say. Learning, in recent years, how to compose again for a square frame has really been helpful, too, since it forces you into a pre-determined space limit. You can’t paint any wider than the canvas, if you will. You yourself might find other ways to get to the core balance your story needs. There is no true or single path.
I started the above image in a wide graveyard, then several graves and a tree, then one grave marker and a tree, then just the marker, and finally a portion of the marker. But in what I wound up with, aren’t all the elements I cut away really present for the viewer mentally anyway?
It’s often said, as a generalization, that painters start with nothing and add until they get the picture, while photographers start with everything and strip information away until they see just what they need. I really see a lot of photography that way. Tell the story with as few elements as you can and walk away. Minimum show for maximum see.
Not nearly so counter-intuitive, after all.