Wild Mustangs graze in an eastern section of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HUMANS, ALL TOO OFTEN, ARE PATHETICALLY INEPT AT VIEWING THE NATURAL WORLD through any lens of experience outside their own. We define things as being relevant or irrelevant relative only to our own needs, operating under the idea that the whole works is somehow put here for us. The wider universe of breathing, thriving, feeling things only becomes visible when it crosses over into the realm of our wants, our concerns. We are predictably, often fatally, clueless about life except as it pertains to us; we act as if someone left us in charge.
Obviously, this affects the kind of photographs we make of our interaction with nature. But seeing nature only on our terms shapes the images that we seek, providing only a narrow frame of reference. How to make a picture of something that we barely apprehend? How to capture the essence of a thing that strikes us as exotic, even alien?
Acting yesterday on a tip as to the whereabouts of a sizable herd of wild mustangs in the part of the Tonto National Forest near Fountain Hills, Arizona, I found myself, like all the other travelers pulling off to the side of the Old Bush Highway, struggling to apprehend the existence of a horse stripped of any connection with man. These gorgeous animals would never know the sting of a bit between their teeth, never wince from the pain of a branding iron, never labor under the weight of a rider or the cinched constriction of a saddle. That is, they would live their entire life as horses among other horses, with no thought of any other life or task beyond just being a horse. They looked like the “nature” we thought we had seen a thousand times, and yet they lived in a world defined by their priorities, not ours.
Guides in the area were on constant alert to make sure that we gawkers maintained a respectful distance, lest our presence violate the terms of the very special audience we were being granted, with most of the horses within fifty feet from their visitors. Some interpreted this as a way to safeguard our safety, but I chose to believe that it was they who needed protection from us. Our smells and sounds; our energy, our intrusive humanness. For one of the only times in our lives, we were in the presence of something innocent, something raw, unrefined. Unmolested. The wise thing was to remind ourselves that we were guests, not masters, awed children, not cowboys. Here was a chance to slow down and learn something.
Taking pictures of the natural world is never a single, simple thing. Many of the problems we have created for this tired old planet stem from the fact that we are increasingly estranged from most of the beings that we share the Earth with. Too often, we spurn true partnership between our realities and those of other creatures. How can our cameras be trained to tell the truth when we still know so little of what that truth looks like?
THE GENTLE GIANT NEXT DOOR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DID NOT INHERIT MY FATHER’S PASSIONATE TALENT FOR GARDENING and landscaping, although I have always envied the way it miraculously devours him, each season bestowing on him distinct and endless variants of joy. He has owned and maintained the creekside half-acre back of his house for a third of a century now, and, as the aches and pains and limits of his ninety-three years often forbid his going out to play in his own private Walden, I cheer on days when I know it is clear enough, or warm enough, or safe enough for him to be out there. He and the yard get lonely for each other.
What was transmitted to me was his very special love of trees. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t awed by their beauty, their power, their endurance. That’s why my favorite part of my own “estate” is my view of the towering, sprawling titan just over the rear fence in my neighbor’s back yard. It’s unusual for an old, solid, massive thing like this to have survived the yank-everything-out-start-over ethos of the Southwest suburbs. Perhaps removing it was simply too expensive, too troublesome, leaving it to stand when many lesser trees might have been cleared out to make way for (??) progress? In any event, like anything that is purely or simply beautiful, it makes photographing it fairly complicated.
Over the past twenty years I have captured it in low light and full, dusk and dawn, rain or shine, and still I always come away feeling like I have failed to deliver its full story. Then again, what can its “story” even be? It’s a tree. But therein lies the paradox of making images of anything living, from human passersby to majestic landscapes. Their life is both static and in motion, both in and out of time. The camera both records accurately and lies absolutely when I point it at such a thing.
And so I keep going. What you see here is but the latest attempt from a few days ago. If you have the time, I can put on the kettle and guide you through the hundreds of other attempts I’ve made over the years at finding the soul of my gentle giant. Being that I don’t have to journey to the forest primeval to find something to admire this much, I admit to thinking that I have, you know, plenty of time to get it right. But, while the tree isn’t going anywhere, I certainly am headed, and before too long, for the stage exit. And so I keep going.
The tree has already gotten it right.
Maybe, by running a little harder, I can, in time, catch up with it…..
CHARGING THE BATTERY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS NO SINGLE GUARANTEED SPARK for the creative process. As photographers, we move through the world on completely random tracks, and so there can be no set order for the things we will see, what their impact will be upon us, or indeed whether they will register with us at all. The development of a photographic “eye” is uneven and happens in fits and starts, not as a steady uphill climb from ignorance to enlightenment. Understandably, we all have different poets, or guides, that speak to us in this process.
It’s certainly not a stretch to connect Henry David Thoreau with contemplation, as well as the search for one’s role in the natural world. But maybe you’re not a tree and flower person. Maybe your Thoreau is found in a quiet room, or a back street, or the face of someone you love. The main thing is that, in the act of making images, we all choose influencers, teachers, gurus. Something someone did or said sometime leaves its mark on us. So forgive the decidedly “nature-y” bias of the image seen here, as well as the several sayings by Mr. T. listed below. They work well in tandem for me, but I think they also may remind you of your own personal guidepost, be it person or thing. Something lit the spark in you to make you want to capture light in a box in your very singular. Listen to that voice, and let it both anchor you and set you free.
Semi-photographic philosopher’s stones from the Laureate of Walden:
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.
Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.
There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.
and, finally, one that makes all the difference, whether you are clicking a camera shutter or building a tower:
Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.
FLY/NO FLY ZONE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS MORNING, AS I WALKED THROUGH A LOCAL PARK, my “poster child” for this current phase of the pandemic became, in essence, a poster bird.
One thing is certain about predators: they’re not crazy about hanging with humans in close quarters, certainly not at a distance of little more than twenty feet, which is where I found this red-tailed hawk staring back at me on the edge of a suburban park, only ten yards away from the nearest house and barely fifteen feet off the ground. Raptors typically keep their distance and maximize their stealth in heavily peopled areas, and so I was quite astounded that this fellow was remaining within camera range for what seemed forever.
Then I noticed his left foot….or, rather, his lack of one.
A million different scenarios zipped through my brain as to how this elegant hunter might have been rendered, in the worst case, unable to hunt, to feed himself. A fight? A storm? A birth defect? All roads led to the same conclusion… that an intervention of some kind was needed. A call was made to the local wildlife rescue agency, and the street coordinates were reported. Stay there, a volunteer said, and we will call you back in a half an hour….
And so we walked….literally “once more around the park”. As we killed the clock, I began to think of the bird as emblematic of where we all are at the moment. Technically, we still might have wings, but can we fly? In the wake of our various recent “injuries”, can we protect ourselves from the possibility of even worse harm? Can we keep our balance, adapt, adjust? Which skills are most crucial to the new “us”, and which of us might prove too damaged to make the transition?
Upon returning to the tree just ahead of the wildlife agency’s return call, we found that our charge had already answered most of those questions: he was gone. The agency told us that many such hobbled birds manage, and that, once on the wing, no rescuers could capture our hawk anyhow. Its survival was completely a product of its own actions from here forward. Just like us. God, just like us……
ALL MY LOVE’S IN VEIN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOONER OR LATER, EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, sifting through subject matter that is largely invisible to passersby, will elicit the question, “what are you looking at?” I seldom have a good answer for such queries, which usually come when I’m crawling on the ground, squinting at the sky, or otherwise peering at, well, you name it. The reason I tend to reply “oh, nothing” is that the answer won’t make sense to anyone else anyway. I mean, why am I staring at random pile of roadside rocks? Why do I find a rusty gate hinge fascinating at the moment? It’s actually easier to be assumed by people in the area to be the town idiot, because, the faster people write me off as mad, the sooner I can get back to what I’m doing, which is trying to make a picture. The process is seldom logical and always appears odd from the outside.
Hell, it appears odd from the inside. Like, of my head.
In one such instance, people see me staring at leaves. Dead or dying leaves. Wet ones. Half rotted ones. Leaves that are placed first on this side, then on that one, then directly in light, then cloaked in shadow. My interest in them isn’t botanical, since I often know next to nothing of the objects I’m photographing (not scientifically, anyway), and so I can’t even invent some great story about why I have chosen one over the other. They are just abstract texture to me, texture that almost always varies wildly from leaf to leaf. If I see anything symbolic at all in them, I probably see the human hand, specifically the aging human hand. In recent years I’ve taken a number of images of my ninety-year-old father’s hands, which are, at this point in his life, almost as telling about his history as the lines on his face. In turn, I began to study my own hands, which are twenty-three years behind his, but well on the path toward “wizened” status. It was at some point that leaves, which sport their own age spots, wrinkles, scars and discolorations, starting to talk a bit louder to me.
Over the past several years, my Phytomorphology series (which merely takes its name from the term for the study of plants’ external structures) has sported no other captions instead of randomly assigned numbers, a signal that, even though the collected pictures might look like part of a larger study, they are no such thing. And while I could have called them “big leaf”, “green leaf” or “dead leaf”, the arcane fakery of pretending I’m on some kind of academic mission amuses me, so….Phytomorphology 23, Phytomorphology 67, and so forth. So now we return to the sight of me randomly scanning the ground (with no particular purpose in mind), an activity that makes outsiders ask what I’m looking at. Now, I could improvise a great little comment about the veinous textures or the play of light on irregular surfaces or any other number of statements that would make me sound more like a “real” photographer, but, in truth, the leaves are merely a whim, perhaps more so than any other subject I’ve ever shot. I keep coming back to a quote from comedian Lenny Bruce, who was asked by a reporter why he chose this phrase or that structure for a given monologue. His answer: I just do it, that’s all.
In photography, as in any other form of personal expression, sometimes a thing just is, and there’s no point in being fussy about the why of it. I’m not clever enough to have a formalized reason for everything I shoot. Sometimes you just know, and you go. One more anecdote to close out: a farmer is working with his herd of cattle near the edge of a country road. Some city slicker who’s fascinated by this slows his car, asking, “excuse me, are those Guernseys or Herefords?”. “Heck”, says the farmer, “I just call ’em moo-cows.”
Maybe that’s my answer, the next time someone catches me in a meadow looking at leaves. “Gee, I guess I got some wrong information. They told me there were moo-cows around here…”
SAFE AT HOME
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO HEAR THE UNIVERSE LAUGH, goes the adage, make a plan. Or, in my specific case, if you want to ensure that pigeons hang around your house forever, make a plan to keep pigeons off the premises.
Start by installing tiny metal spikes in the cross beams right over the entrance to your front door. You’ve seen them, those steely porcupine quills designed to bar entry to all the nooks and crannies where birds love to assemble to conduct aerial assault on your sidewalks. Spikes go up, birds get packing, no cruelty, no pavement poo, everyone’s a winner, right?
And if you buy that story, I have bridge I want to sell you..
But, hey, I’m a humane slob, so I write the check, go for the whole spiny effect atop the house, and look forward to a lifetime of carefree maintenance and lordly leisure. Only someone forgot to send the spike company’s brochure to the curve-billed thrasher who decided to weave twigs between the spikes, further reinforcing his domicile against the elements. And wasn’t it nice of us to build the first phase of his nest for him? Sure, we’re swell that way.
So no pigeons living above the entrance, but still birds. Small hitch in the plan, however: Mama Thrasher isn’t a hit with the Neighborhood Watch Association (Avian Division) and leaves town. And here we see the fates in all their sadistic genius: a mother pigeon moves into my “pigeon-free” zone like a hobo in a rail car and proceeds to lay her own eggs. The circle of life is now complete!
So, as anyone wise enough to realize when he’s licked, I resolve to at least photograph this grand cosmic joke. Only the act of my going in and out of my front door each day spooks Mrs. Pudge to flight, and so it takes nearly a week to sneak a shot of her in residence……an ordinary, unchallenging, Photo 101 shot that a toddler could make, if only Nature can stop laughing at me long enough to say cheese.
Obviously, with this kind of outcome, I will not be rushing to bear-proof the back yard. Now if you’ll excuse me, the flowers could us a soaking rain, so I’m off to get my car washed.
THE NEW ERA OF TESTIMONY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHETHER THERE IS CONSENSUS ABOUT THE PRESENT OR FUTURE STATE OF THE NATURAL WORLD, we are certainly in the midst of the most muscular conversation about its fate than many of us have ever known. That means that we are changing and challenging our relationship to the globe almost daily…and, along with that relationship, the way that we see, and visually report upon it. That generates a new emphasis on bearing witness to what the planet is/can be/ might be.
I call it the new era of testimony.
The birth of photography coincided with the first great surge of cross-continental expansion in America, as well as an explosion in invention and mechanization. The new system for making a physical record of the world was immediately placed into service to help quantify the scope of the nation…to measure its mountains, track its rivers, count its standing armies. Photographers like Timothy Sullivan and William Henry Jackson lugged their cameras east-to-west alongside geological surveys, railroad agents, and the emerging naturalist movement. While some shooters chose to capture the creation of new trestle bridges, others helped poets illustrate their Walden-esque reveries. In all cases, photography was tasked with the job of showing the natural world and our interaction with it. Most importantly, the images that survive those times are a visual seismograph on both the grand and grotesque choices we made. They are testimony.
And now is a time of radical re-evaluation of what that interaction should look like. That means that there is a visual story to tell, one of the most compelling and vital that photography has ever told. Regardless of your personal stances or stats, man’s place on the planet will be in a state of fundamental shift over the coming decades. And the images that this change generates will define both photography as an art and ourselves as stewards of an increasingly fragile ecology.
Ansel Adams, for all his gorgeously orchestrated vistas, was, I believe, mistaken in almost deliberately subtracting people from his grand scenes, as if they were irrelevant smudges on nature’s work. It doesn’t have to be that way. We need not make war on our native world. But whatever we do, we need to use the camera to mark the roads down which we have chosen to walk. Whether chronicling wise or foolish decisions, the photograph must be used to testify, to either glorify or condemn our choices going forward.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE OFTEN HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADMIRE THINGS THAT ARE, STRICTLY SPEAKING, beyond our capabilities. The world is rife with people who master exposure, composition, editing and conceptualization in ways which make us gasp in a mixture of awe and envy. Sometimes, we are so amazed by artists outside our own area of expertise that we emulate their passion and, in doing so, completely remake our own art. Other times, we just glimpse their greatness like a kid peeking inside the tent flap at the circus. We know that something marvelous is going on in there. We also sense that we are not a part of it.
That’s pretty much been my attitude toward landscape work.
Much of it leaves me impressed. Some of it leaves me breathless. All of it leaves me puzzled, since I know that I am missing a part of whatever mystical “something” it is that allows others to capture majesty and wonder in the natural world, their images looking “created” my own looking merely “snapped”.
It’s not the same with urban settings, or with anything that bears the mark of human creativity. I can instinctually find a story or a sweet point of focus in a building, a public square, a cathedral. I can sense the throb of humanity in these places and I can suggest it in pictures. But put me in front of a broad canvas of scenery and I struggle to carve out a coherent composition. What to include? What to cut? What light is best? And what makes this tree more pictorially essential than the other 3,000 I will encounter today?
The masters of the landscape world are magicians to me, crafty wizards who can charm the dense forest into some evocative choreography, summoning shadows and light into delicate interplay in a way that is direct, dramatic. I occasionally score out in the woods, but my failure rate is much higher, and the distance between what I see and what I can deliver much greater. Oddly, it was the work of scenic photographers, not street shooters or journalists, that originally conveyed the excitement of being a photographer to me, although I quickly devolved to portraits, abstractions, 3D, hell, anything to get me back to town, away from all that scary flora and fauna.
Medium or bite-sized natural subjects do better for me than vast vistas, and macro work, with its study of the very structures and patterns of organic things works even better. But I forever harbor a dream of freezing a forest in time in a way that stuns with its serene stillness and simple dignity. I have to keep putting myself out there, hoping that I can bridge the gap between envy and awareness.
Maybe I’ll start at the city park. I hear they have trees there….
GIVING EVERYTHING AND MORE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE SPRING, JUST OUTSIDE OUR FRONT DOOR, THE MOST POIGNANT METAPHOR FOR MOTHERLY LOVE PLAYS OUT in the arms of our immense saguaro cactus. The trunk of this desert giant is regularly pockmarked by the peckings of improvised dwellings, which are temporary apartments for woodpeckers, thrashers and other breeds, and crude nests are typically crammed into the crevices between trunk and arm, so, whatever the season, we are well used to birdsong as the first sound of the morning.
But during late April and early May, an extra dimension of magic occurs when the typically blunt arms sprout hundreds of buds, and, in turn, bundles of gorgeous white cactus flowers. The blossoms are short-lived, opening and folding up dead within the space of a single day, but, for the earliest hours of their brief existence, they are life itself, not only to the regular bird crowd but also the seasonal surplus that flies in for breakfast. Between the blooms and the bugs which orbit them (also in search of nectar), it’s a smorgasbord.
That’s when I think of the sacrifice of mothers.
Birds, like most mothers you know, also spend every waking hour of their days foraging, building, sheltering, feeding, and fretting over the fates of their young. They tremble as their youngsters fledge; they learn to deal with the separation that must occur when their babies become adults in their own right; they deal with the sorrow over those who are destined never to fly. And they go on.
There is a kind of happy terror involved in being a mother, be you bird or biped, and the triumph of Mothers’ Day is that, somehow, that terror is faced, even embraced…..because the gold at the end of that particular rainbow is beyond price.
Hug a mother today, even if she’s not your own.
Especially if she’s not your own.
Connect, and say thank you.
After all, they taught us how to fly.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
- Happy Mother’s Day!! (dannapycher.wordpress.com)