THE KEEPER OF THE LIST
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ALL THE YEARS I HAVE WATCHED HER PRESIDE over hundreds of both seasoned and starter birdwatchers in the Arizona desert, I can’t recall ever having seen Andree Tardy without her signature We Are Serious About This Stuff sunhat and her loose khaki fatigues. Chances are that if I were ever to bump into her in “civvies” at the local Safeway, I might easily pass her without notice, even though, by now, she has served for years as our group’s go-to Earth Mother, an empirical and encyclopedic source of information on Which Birds Breed With Who, how their plumage changes with the seasons, why the immatures are less resplendent than the adults, and how you can distinguish a “Too-Whit-To-Whoo” from a “Wit-Wit-Wit-Too-Too”. Because she is just that good.
“Okay, did anyone see any vermillion flycatchers?”
I mention Andree’s all-season costume because, for us, it is inextricable from her physical form, the “plumage” by which we identify her “behaviors”. Tough as a turtle’s toenail and consumed with a passion that defies the damage of time, she is, at 81, hardier than many of the sex-and-septuagenarians that trail behind her like lost chicks. That bottomless supply of energy is fed by an insatiable hunger to know more, to see what’s around yet another corner, and the corner after that. I have shot dozens of candids of her over the past twenty years, but I find that minimal images of her in full birders’ regalia registers even higher than a mere facial portrait. She just is the sumtotal of all her outer contours. from her fingerless gloves (easier to work binoculars with) to the billowy slacks that protect her from the scars and scrapes of desert plants to the headgear that all but obscures the aquiline angularity of her face. I can’t imagine making a picture of just her face. It would somehow seem incomplete, like Schweitzer without a pith helmet or Superman without the cape.
The other object that is constantly with her is only withdrawn at the end of bird walks, but is as crucial as every other component in her makeup: The List. Andree’s lifetime role as teacher, interpreter, guide and dauntless ornithological doyenne demands that, at the end of the day’s spotting, she, and she alone call out the categories and species, the better to officially tally the count of what, to a certainly, was actually seen. She knows she can count on us all to honorably report our individual sightings; after all, birding, unlike fishing or hunting, is a system built on honor, along with a proper Hippocratic pimch of “do no harm”. Anyone can teach someone else about birds, but The Lady Herself also teaches respect, humility, responsibility. The birds, and all who choose to watch them alongside her, could not be in better hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE LUCKY ENOUGH TO TAP INTO THE NATURAL PAIRING BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY and birdwatching will be humbled by observing the raw courage of winged creatures to survive despite humanity’s best efforts to the contrary. Even in rural settings, one cannot help but be struck by the numbing crush of obstacles mankind has left for the natural world to stumble over; how our habitat is so tilted in our own heedless favor that nature must live, not with us, but in spite of us.
Within cities, the horror is even greater, as our life crowds out any and everything that does not directly redound to our needs. In such tableaux, it is incumbent on the photographer to become a journalist, a chronicler of what needs to happen if we are to carry on sharing the planet with, well, anything. And, as an amateur birdwatcher, I am reminded by what bad earth citizens we have always been when my eye is drawn to what, to my mind, is one of the most elegant and misunderstood birds in our nature: the starling.
Introduced forcibly to North America in 1890 by a fanatical Shakespeare aficionado from Britain, who believed that his new home should feature literally every species of bird mentioned in the Bard’s works, the first stateside starlings originally numbered only about one hundred birds in all. Predictably, those have since become millions, earning not praise for the bird’s adaptability and intelligence, but scorn from those who regard them as invasive pests or worse. These gorgeous creatures, whose plumage, in the changing light of the full day, literally contains the rainbow, have made the best of their fate over the centuries, much like any other erstwhile immigrant. Sadly, they are often hunted and hated as if they themselves had decided to invade our shores just for the fun of it. And so it goes with scores of other creature; untold species of animals, plants and birds have been forcibly introduced onto the continent by the most predatory pests ever unleashed on the planet; humans.
Starlings are plentiful nearly everywhere, but the intense sunlight of the American southwest can highlight their hues in spectacular fashion, something I never would have slowed down to notice were it not for the birding buddies my wife has generously shared with me. My initial interest was boosted in intensity during Lockdown, mainly because being outside was one of the only essentially safe ways to pass the time, speeding up my bird learning curve a bit (although I am still barely able to hobble along in the “beginner” division). It has produced a kind of evangelism in me, and I can never again see a bird without wondering to what extent my fellow humans have complicated or compromised its existence. If we can muster shame about anything, it should be our hideous habit, going back over our entire history as a species, of fouling our own nests.
BEATING WINGS, BEATING HEARTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OF THE OVER 73,000,000 ACRES OF LAND IN THE STATE OF ARIZONA, only 43.2% is in private hands. That might, on paper, seem to weigh in nature’s favor, if “favor” means being protected from the more horrible by-products of human activity. However, from my the vantage point of my twenty-three years in Phoenix, the state’s largest urban concentration, it can seem like nature is either whipped to a draw by civilization (on a good day) or bound, gagged and locked in a dark closet by it (on all too many other days).
A bald eagle finishes a meal atop a concrete platform, just yards away from the 202 freeway in Tempe Arizona.
Nature photography in such a conflicted reality can be a challenge, but not because wildlife cannot be found near Arizona cities. In fact, rather than fleeing to the open desert or mountain ranges, it often thrives literally feet away from the most invasively harmful aspects of what we term “civilization”. No, the problem with making pictures of Arizona wildlife is in being tempted to do what I call “template photography”, to take the expected route toward idealization of animals, displaying them in the pristine conditions in which we wish they lived all the time. And yet, if we are to follow any tendency toward photojournalism, toward honestly chronicling the lives of these creatures in such a place, we must also make images of their struggles and triumphs within the world we have actually made for them. And that can be heartbreaking.
This is especially true in the case of birds, and most dramatic with larger varieties like raptors. The bald eagle you see in these images has learned to make his way alongside freeways, electrical wires, air traffic and other delights of the modern age, choosing, as seen here, the concrete footing for a bygone bridge over an urban stretch of the Salt River as the roosting point for enjoying a fish captured from what was, very recently, a dry bed deliberately replenished and stocked by the same governmental agencies charged with making the desert, well, “livable” for humans. It’s a strange and sad symbiosis, but it makes for enduring images. An eagle left to his own devices exists in an interlocking gearbox of interdependent ecosystems. It exists in balance. It’s brushing up against us that makes his life more hazardous than anything encountered in the wild.
Strangely, we begin to address this problem by addressing our own. If power grids go down because of birds becoming entangled in our wiring systems, those systems need to be re-designed, which has the dual effect of protecting more birds while guaranteeing that we keep our lights on. People are becoming more aware of how our own lives are impoverished if we make it impossible for creatures to grow and hunt and prey as nature intended, but, my God, the learning curve has been slow. How many of the motorists seen here, made aware of the majesty couched just yards away from their elevated roadways, might pull over, park, gawk and wonder? How many beating wings and hearts throb on, outside the scope of our impaired hearing? And how can we point our cameras at the wildness left in the world without also showing how our own untamed selfishness threatens that divine, raw beauty?
WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE? DEPENDS..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE OLD ADAGE ABOUT LIFE BEING WHAT HAPPENS WHILE YOU’RE BUSY MAKING PLANS also seems like a perfect fit for the act of photography. Certainly we love to take bows for our best work, and to let the myth persist that what’s hanging on the wall is exactly what we were going after in the first place. Well, I use the word “myth”. I actually mean “convenient lie”.
The scientist in us loves to keep alive the belief that we are in charge of our lives, that all our great results are the inevitable outcome of brilliant foresight and faultless planning. But the photographer side of us, the more instinctual half of our nature, knows how much luck and randomness figure into the mix. Yes, we came back with a great shot of C, but only after our “perfect” concepts of A and B fell flat.
Several weeks ago, I went birding with a small group into a marshy area near Show Low, Arizona. The water was all part of a reclamation project that created the illusion of a large pond/small river in what is typically semi-desert, and the entire local landscape was transformed, because of the extra moisture, with reedy banks, plentiful supplies of yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, and, well, bugs. A bleeding swarm of infinitesimal insects which are a huge Happy meal for the flycatchers in the area, but which also fill the hair, eyes and mouths of any, well, non-birds in the area.
Which is where my plan A fell apart.
Yes, O logical side, we will, as expected, be taking pictures of shorebirds and the shores that host them. Easy call. But, oof, here comes the photographer side, the instinctual guy, who now wants to make a bug picture. But how? Everything is awash in early morning sun, which renders the swarm all but invisible. They are so thick that they may make even carefully focused pictures look soft, as if I had a diffusion filter attached to my lens. The only way, then, to at least suggest the look of the plague was to aim at the darkest thing I could find, which turned out to be a small copse of free-standing trees further inland from the water and standing in their own shade. At least I had enough of a picture to suggest my new, revised main message, to wit: man, there’s a &%$ton of bugs here.
And so it goes. Planner Me begins with a startup scheme. No-Plan Me eventually straggles with another viewpoint. And the eternal question of “who’s in charge here” for a given picture changes on a whim, or around whatever might be, sorry, bugging me at the moment.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HUMILITY IN AN ARTIST IS NOT ONLY ADMIRABLE, but, for purposes of growth, absolutely essential.
We’re not talking here about a kind of polite, “aw shucks” modesty, which is usually staged for the benefit of others anyway. No, being humble does not mean disowning honest achievement, in photography or any other field. It consists of putting a dot on a line to show your position, where you stand versus where you stood and where you need to eventually stand. And in the making of images, as with many other endeavors, it’s about acknowledging that some of your worst failures and your best successes alike are totally accidental.
When shooting in the moment, conditions converge in milliseconds to either push us forward to completion or block us utterly from it. The losses are easy to see as “rotten luck” that we somehow didn’t deserve but can learn from. However, it’s the unearned wins, the pictures that fall into our lap despite everything, that truly aid the ripening of humility. We get great shots that we didn’t, in some way, “deserve”, although that’s an odd way to phrase it. And, in our gratitude for our occasional (and inexplicable) fortune, we can really learn something about not taking ourselves too bloody seriously.
this male wood duck was the gods’ gift to your humble author, on a day on which I could certainly use one.
This duck is luck, and nothing more. It’s more clearly described as a sort of inheritance.
There is no other way to describe the success of this picture. I did, certainly, travel to his regular habitat with the intention of shooting him, but any vain thought I had of proceeding from a deliberate plan or program evaporated when I finally caught a glimpse of him. Within seconds of his calmly sailing out of his secluded lair under a large shrub, he became part of a blurry mob of hunger-crazed mallards who thronged around him in a desperate bid for food that had been tossed into the pond by a kind visitor. The frame you see here was a desperate and quick click just insta-seconds before the starting pistol, and there was only time for this one frame.
Certainly, other attempts were made, once the melee ensued, but, trust me, they were as appallingly fruitless as this one shot was miraculous. This was not a case of my lifetime of experience and instinct coming to the fore in a grand blend of skill and judgement. This was click-like-your-life-depends-on-it- and-hope-like-hell. The important thing is to accept the fact that all the stars and planets lined up correctly and gave you a goodie, and that all your preparation and focus could be surpassed in a second by something this random. If that doesn’t inspire humility, then you’re probably beyond hope.
Part of artistry is embracing the ineffable quality of not being in total control, of being worked by the process as well as working it. Because once you know how little you are actually in charge, then you actually stand a chance of being used in a meaningful way. Whether it’s the flautists’s breath or the flute itself that makes the music, the melody is just as sweet, and keeping score of who’s the boss in an artistic endeavor is beyond useless.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“You’re taking your camera with you? TODAY?”
WHEN PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEAK OF A “LEARNING CURVE” for either techniques or gear, they’re actually talking about the process in which you make a whole lot of bad pictures on your way to good ones. Mastery is about of lot of things, but it’s mainly about lousing things up for a good long while and using the negative feedback to figure out what to do right by doing a whole lot of things wrong first.
The reasonable goal, therefore, in trying to get to the next level with your photography, is to do any and everything to speed up that curve…. to, in effect, tunnel toward your goal by getting all those transitionally wrong pictures past you. Being impatient in this regard, I have developed the habit of taking along whatever camera I’m currently trying to tame at every available opportunity, especially if there will be “nothing worth photographing”, whatever that means. I call such outings “burner days”, as I have no expectation whatever of producing any keepers, but am merely making myself shoot enough with the gear in question so that mental and muscle memory are built up more quickly, leaving me readier at an earlier stage to do something of consequence when it really matters.
The hungry woodpecker seen here was the product of a burner day, as I figured that a June morning in Arizona was too hot for any birds to venture out. I was wrong, and I took home a little miracle, not because I’m amazing, but because I was available.
Shooters who have never known any other realm than digital are already a little mentally ahead in the burner game, in that they are already accustomed to quickly firing off and evaluating lots of blown shots on their way to the final product. Those trained inititally in film were hemmed in by how many shots they could financially afford to attempt; moreover, the time-line of their failures was also drawn out by the unavoidable waiting period between snapping and processing. Now everyone can afford to fail, a lot, very quickly, and that is a good thing. The break-in period for any approach or equipment in greatly foreshortened in the digital era, with the added plus that many shots that might have been total flops in analog days can now be instantly re-calculated and reshot in the field, and possibly saved. An amazing luxury.
And so, there is real educational value in shooting your little fingers off at every opportunity. First, there’s little cost in either time or cash in trying everything you can think of. Secondly, since no one knows for sure that there’s literally “nothing to shoot” when they head out on a given morning, the element of surprise is constantly in effect. Many days you will bring home both blown exposures and technically perfect shots that are devoid of impact. But each one of those misses builds the habits that eventually will produce a higher harvest of hits. Simply, you can’t be sure that the picture of your life won’t jump into your lap even under the most unpromising scenarios. Better to be present to at least make the attempt, because even the bad pictures are stepping stones to the miraculous ones.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ENOUGH WITH THE FLOWERS.
Give the birds a rest. Put the quiet trails and placid sunsets on pause.
I want my skyscrapers back.
Yes, I’ve dutifully done my photographic confinement therapy, like everyone else whose worlds have shrunk during the Great Hibernation. I’ve lovingly lingered over the natural world, embraced the tiny universes revealed by my macro lenses and close-up filters. I’ve properly marveled at the wonder of simple things, patiently revealed in the quiet composure of a more inward kind of photo-therapy.
It was needful. It was even helpful. Hell, on a few days, it was essential. But instead of steady, slow inspirations into the deepest reaches of my lungs, I now long for shallow, quick breaths, terse inhalations of monoxide, stolen as I dash across a crowded crosswalk. I want to dodge things. I want to run for a train. I need to see the infinite collision of brick, stone, and steel textures all fighting for my visual attention in a mad crush.
I want to hear noise.
I can make myself comfortable, even modestly eloquent, shooting the splendors of the natural world. God knows we have placed too many barriers of estrangement from our inheritance in field and flower. But I have known, since I was a child, that my soul synched perfectly to the unnatural world, the arbitrary creation of we wicked, weak bipeds, with an affection that is every bit the equal to that which I feel for a tree or a blossom.
I see the same geometry and design in our crude imitations of nature as in the contours of the rose or the patterns within a cactus flower, and I’m not embarrassed to say that the spires, arches, bridges and alleyways that map our densest interactions give me an electric thrill. I should also add that I am not typical within my family, where there are far more Thoreaus, all centered on their respective Waldens, than there are Whitmans, who see glory in even the failed strivings of the urban experiment. I take comfort in my sweet claustrophobia, and I make no apology for the fact that my photography breathes its fullest in cities.
There were, of course, millions for whom, during the Horror, cities were a cruel prison, and I absolutely get that. As the Eagles said, we are all just prisoners of our own device. Artists can create a heaven or hell in any setting, as witness the miraculous faith of prisoner poets or the inventive tinkering of a Robinson Crusoe. Confinement is largely a matter of geography or physical constraint, but, as we have all spent a long year discovering, it can be overcome by a refusal of the mind to remain locked into a particular place.
I have not yet completed my slow trip back to the hunting grounds where my cameras talk loudest to me. Like the start of our communal imprisonment, it will come in layers, in a million tiny shards of re-discovery. But it will come. My cities will be restored to me. My flowers and birds and bugs will always be celebrated as the protectors of my sanity, of the need to take my art inward from time to time. But right now, I need to get out on the streets, and see what’s up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS MUCH AS WE’D LIKE TO PRE-VISUALIZE OR PLAN OUR IMAGES, the practice of photography is still chiefly a test to see how well we calculate and react in the moment. We all love to map out the various itineraries for our respective photo safaris in advance, but are also keenly aware that everything, literally everything in our blueprint can, and should be, blown to bits the moment magic is afoot.
The image you see here is the product of such a moment.
Officially, on the day this was taken, I was at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to scope out new birdwatching sites. I was a first-timer on the property, wandering pretty much in whichever direction my friends decided to drift. At some point, a smaller portion of our party decided to trek along the edge of the Salt River, in search of what I had no idea, or design. Half a mile or so later, I was surprised to have our point man remark that he had seen two horses wading and munching along the shore.
Barely five more minutes went by before it became clear that an entire small herd of wild mustangs had decided to cross the river from the far shore toward where we were standing. In what swiftly became something out of my own personal chapter of Lonesome Dove, I scrambled for an open space on the river’s sandy beach and, without thinking very much, cranked out as many frames at as many different exposures as I could. The entire parade got across in the space of barely two minutes. There was no way to plan: this was the frontier equivalent of what urban street shooters call “run and gun”. All in or all out.
But here’s the deal: while the appearance of a clutch of wild horses during a casual stroll certainly exemplifies the There Are No Second Chances rule in a very obvious way, all photographers are operating under that same rule all the time, in every situation. We may not be at risk of missing our own personal Wild West Fantasy, but there are thousands of expressions, variances of light, rapid transitions and other immeasurable changes that we stand to lose in every single shooting scenario. We are always being challenged to detect and isolate such moments-within-moments, with big events or small, and we need to calculate and click before the horses reach the opposite shore.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.
The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.
A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.
But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.
And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.
(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STOP BEING “REALITY” mere seconds after their creation, in that the truths they record have, in every sense, moved on, on their way to becoming a million other versions of themselves. We treasure our fragile little time thefts, those frozen testimonies to what some thing in the world looked like at some time. In this way, every photograph is a souvenir, an after-image of something lost.
It’s small wonder that photographers often experience a sense of fearful urgency, a hurry-up-and-preserve-it fever bent on chronicling a world that is borning and dying at the same time. It’s hard sometimes not to think of everything as precious or picture-worthy. The beginnings of things are essential, because they cannot last. Vanishings are important because they are so final. Even an image of a person who is still living bears a poignancy…..because it was taken Before The War, When Mamma Was Alive, When We Still Lived Across Town.
And when it comes to the natural world, photographers and non-photographers alike are ever more aware that they may be capturing, for whatever reason, the lasts of things. Species. Coastlines. Remnants of a world whose regular timeline of goodbyes has been accelerated. Photographers always have a mission to immortalize the comings and goings most central to their own lives, and that’s understandably their primary emphasis. But the natural world will also press us to be reporters in a more general sense. As one reality passes away and others begin, our sense of what is real may come down to the images we make as life careens ever on.
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH REMOVES SOMETHING from its original context, extracting it from its proper place in the world at large. In the act of placing things in a frame, the photographer excludes whatever else once surrounded that thing, so that, in the final result, a vast valley is reduced to one tree in one part of one meadow. Our mind stipulates to the supporting reality of whatever was extracted, and we either approve or disapprove of the shooter’s arbitrary editorial choice in composing the frame.
And so pictures often annihilate an object’s “origin story”, since we can’t often search them to view what something “came from”. Objects in a photograph merely are, with little obvious evidence of what they used to be. Sometimes that means that, when we do see where something originated, a picture of it can seem exotic or strange. And, as photographers, we can train ourselves to find that one view of a thing that has been, in effect, under-explored.
In the above picture, something that we tend to think of as being organically “born” in a natural setting (i.e., a cactus) is shown being deliberately farmed within a controlled environment (i.e., a greenhouse). It looks a little wrong, a bit strange…..certainly not typical. And yet, an interesting picture can be made from the scene, simply because we never see a cactus’ origin story, given that most photographs don’t select that story within their frames. This picture really doesn’t display its information in an original fashion: it’s the thing, in this particular context, that makes the photograph seem novel.
As always, the choices made inside and outside the frame of a photograph set the narrative for it. It’s therefore the most important choice a photographer can make.
COMPOSING ON THE RUN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOTS OF OUR BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE, EXCUSE THE EXPRESSION, snap judgements. Sometimes a composition simply seems to come fully formed, ready to jump intact into the camera, with no reasonable way to improve on a shot that is 99% pure impulse. Some of these gift moments are so seductive that we may not think to keep shooting beyond what we’ve perceived as the ideal moment. But more shooting may be just what we need.
Images that involve very fast-moving events may only have one key instant where the real storytelling power of the shot comes to a climax, with everything after seen as progressively less dramatic. The second after a baseball is hit: the relaxed smile after the birthday candles are blown out. Think, if you will, of a straight news or journalism image. Every second after the Hindenburg explodes is less and less intense.
But many images can be re-imagined second-by-second, with additional takes offering the photographer vastly different outcomes and choices. In the series shown here, I originally fell in love with the look of sunset on a wooded trail. My first instinct was that the receding path was everything I needed, and I shot the first frame not thinking there would even be a second. My wife, however, decided to walk into the space unexpectedly, and I decided to click additional frames every few seconds as she walked toward the shot’s horizon. She starts off in the lower right corner and walks gently left as she climbs the slight rise in the path, causing her hair to catch a sun flare in the second shot, and placing her in central importance in the composition. By the last shot, however, she is a complete silhouette at the top of the frame, taking her far enough “up” to restore the path to its original prominence with her as a mere accent.
Which shot to take? Anyone’s call, but the point here is that, by continuing to shoot, I had four images to choose from, all with very individualized dynamics, none of which would have been available to me if I’d just decided that my first shot was my best and settled. There will be times when the fullest storytelling power of a photograph is all present right there in your first instinctive snap. When you have time, however, learning to compose on the run can force you to keep re-visualizing your way to lots of other possibilities.
STAKES IN THE GROUND
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO DOUBT YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO SEE A PICTURE IN YOUR MIND that, for some reason, doesn’t make it into the camera.
It’s maddening. That fumbling few inches between success and failure that cannot always even be sensed during the taking of an image, but which, somehow, is as wide as a river gorge once the picture comes out. Dammit, you saw it. More importantly, you felt it. But something in perhaps a technically perfect photograph fails to engage, and the thing just can’t close the sale.
Going further with the metaphor of salesmanship for a moment, there are pictures which, in a manner of speaking, don’t “ask for the order”. They don’t effectively say, here is the main point of interest. Look here, then there. The best photos are triptychs in that they have a sense of inevitable direction. Your eye senses where to travel with the frame.
In the above forest scene, I nearly failed to provide that impetus because, in my first few shots, I was overly centered on getting the contrasty elements of the picture from fighting each other. Some trees came out like silhouettes. Some parts of the forest floor were way too bright. Somewhere along the line, I had decided that the picture was about solving those purely technical problems. Check those items off, I thought, and you’d have a real nice nature scene, or so it seemed at the time. Only one lucky thing intervened to change my mind and save the picture.
This comes under my general belief that most of the things you need to fix a composition are mere inches away from where you’re already standing. In this case, I moved a bit to the left of several trees and two small children swung into view, both of them representing a dynamic dollop of color in an overly bland palette of shades. Suddenly the picture was about these kids stealing away, inhabiting a quiet, separate world, their size dwarfed by the pines while giving measurable scale to the entire woods. They had found a complete reality away from everyone, and it would be easy to show that. Cropping to have them enter the frame at the bottom left corner helped direct the eye where I needed it to go first. Start here, and then look beyond.
It’s helpful to regularly dissect the pictures that almost had enough story to sell themselves. What stakes could I have pounded into the ground to mark the outline of the idea? Where did I fail to lay out the territory of the story?
It’s all about getting that image from your mind into the camera. That’s everything. That is, ever and always, the problem to be solved.
OF BIRDS AND BARRIERS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ART’S GREATEST “DEMOCRATIZER“, a medium that levels the playing field for creative minds as no other medium can. “Everyone gets a shot”, goes the old saying, and, today, more than ever, the generation of images is so available, so cost-effective that almost anyone can play.
Yes, I said almost. Because even as cameras become so integrated into our devices and lives as to be nearly invisible, there is at least one big stump in the road, one major barrier to truly universal access to image-making. That barrier is defined by distance and science.
For those longing to bring the entire world ever closer, zoom lenses and the optics they require still slam a huge NO ADMITTANCE door in front of many shooters, simply because their cost remains beyond the reach of too many photographers. Lenses going beyond around 300mm simply price users out of the market, and so keep their work confined in a way that the work of the rich isn’t.
Look at the metadata listed in the average “year’s best” or “blue ribbon” competitions in National Geographic, Audubon, Black & White, or a score of other photo magazines. Look specifically at the zoom ranges for the best photos of birds, insects and general wildlife. The greatest praise is heaped on images taken with 400, 600, 800mm glass, and rightfully so, as they are often stunning. But the fiscal wall between these superb optics and users of limited funds means that many of those users cannot take those images, and thus cannot compete or contribute in the same way as those who can afford them. For an art that purports to welcome all comers, this is wrong.
The owl image at the top of this post fell into my lap recently, and I was able to take advantage of this handsome fellow’s atypical appearance at a public place with the help of a 300mm lens. But that’s only because (A) he was still only about forty feet away from me, and (B) he is as big as a holiday ham. If he and I had truly been “out in the wild”, he would have been able to effectively enforce his own no pictures today policy, as I would have been optically outflanked. Two options would thus emerge: drop thousands for the next biggest hunk of glass, or take pictures of something else.
I am for anyone being able to take any kind of picture, anywhere, with nothing to limit them except their vision and imagination. Unfortunately, we will need a revolution on the high end of photography, such as that which has happened on the entry level, to make the democracy of the medium universal and complete. We need an “everyman” solution in the spirit of the Kodak, the Polaroid, and the iPhone.
The world of imaging should never be subdivided into haves and have-nots.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
WE ARE ALL BURT LANCASTER NOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER BEING FASCINATED as a child by the 1963 film The Birdman Of Alcatraz, based loosely on the life of murderer Robert Stroud, whose accumulated crimes drew him a life sentence, much of it spent in solitary confinement. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, centered on Stroud’s almost accidental introduction to birds, an improvised pastime which blossomed into an extensive and self-taught study of ornithology. The story’s biggest impact on me was the idea that someone could center on the smallest scintilla of hope, something others around you might ignore or simply not see at all, and that such small things might lead beyond mere survival to a kind of separate peace, even wisdom. In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a better model than that of a total psychopath. Still, the idea of being able to successfully navigate isolation was one that occasionally fascinated me over a lifetime. It’s also come to mind a great deal over the past year.
To paraphrase a cliched expression, we are all Burt Lancaster now; we have all learned to place greater focus on smaller worlds, and it is no accident that one of the biggest growth industries during our Global Great Hibernation has been the hobby of birdwatching. It’s cheap, it’s relatively easy to break into, and it’s as close as your window. More importantly, it’s a reassurance that life, or some semblance of it, has gone on, even if all we can do is watch as it wafts by. Like Stroud, we are all improvising to reduce the ache of greatly reduced circumstances. And like prisoners everywhere, confined behind either tangible or figurative bars, we are able, maybe for the first time, to see, in depth, something that was all but invisible to our previous system of seeing.
Nobody puts Baby in the corner, but you can occasionally put Starling in the circle.
For photographers, including this one, birds can be a metaphor for many things we already value about our art. Color, motion, texture, context, even a kind of portraiture…all are addressed in trying to assign traits or personalities to flying creatures. Working from the long, empty days, we slow down and deepen our observational powers. We view things in finer depths and degrees, in inches rather than miles now. I will freely admit that my own photographic coverage of birds had been, during The Before Times, confined to the easiest, most obvious captures; flocks caught accidentally in a vast beach vista; raptors in zoo cages; the occasional comic shot of a gull stealing a hot dog, etc. The quarantine has altered all that, stretching time like taffy, elongating our implementation of any undertaking from hours to days. But this is not an effort to overprescribe a general therapy for everyone; your “birds” may be furniture, the veins of a leaf, still lifes of your accumulated buffalo nickels. This is why we have congregations of varying denominations. While I am worshipping at the first temple of the ruby-throated sparrow, you may bow your head at the Community Church of the Holy Art Deco Ashtray or some such. The idea is that photography always benefits from patience and deliberation. Snap shots are marvelous manifestations of our impulses, but they are not the products of quiet contemplation.
My point is that there is room in your photography for both the spontaneous and the deliberative. In my case, tiny tweeters have become a kind of surrogate for human subjects, as I find myself searching their faces for traces of motive, emotion, even joy. Unlike the Birdman of Alcatraz, most of us will eventually be sprung, released back into the larger work yard, hopefully having learned a little more about playing well with others. And the pictures we made behind walls will be, in lasting ways, capable of taking grander flight.
February 17, 2021 | Categories: Commentary, Hobbies, Nature | Tags: bird photography, Nature Photography | Leave a comment