THE IMAGE YOU SEE HERE IS NOT MINE, although I’d gladly claim it anyday. It was taken by a lady named Judith Shields, an enthusiastic amateur who recently entered it in a photographic contest and apparently earned some distinction with it. Where she finally placed in the winners’ circle is not as significant, however, as the fact that she was docked points by the judge of the competition because the center of the flower, being fairly open, did not conform to his concept of what constituted a “correct” depiction of the subject. Or something. Since the remark makes no sense whatsoever in terms of either art or photography, it understandably sparked an online thread about (1) why such a criterion should even be considered, and, as the conversation blossomed out, (2) what the value of photographic contests even is in the first place.
In the interest of transparency, let me state unequivocally, that the idea of pitting artists against each other and weighing their efforts as you might evaluate tomatoes at the state fair is anathema to me on its face. I realize that a select number of such contests actually result in increased prestige or opportunity for photographers, but that number is extremely small, and usually tied to specific professional organizations that are, in turn, linked to the print industry. Many more of these runoffs, though, are little more than vanity projects, and the value of both the judges and the judging varies wildly. To look at Ms. Shields’ picture and see anything else besides beauty and technical mastery is to pretty much miss the overall point of photography in particular, or art in general. Shooters take the world as they find it, and deciding not to make an image of a flower because it’s not at the right stage of “readiness” is beyond silly. And then there is the nagging question of who these judges are, and who, exactly, entrusted them with the safekeeping of All Photographic Truth.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the profit angle of photo contests, hundreds of which not only charge admission fees, but which also post arcane terms of agreement that, if carefully examined, preserve the creator’s “copyright” while allowing the hosts of the contest near- complete control of what happens to the artist’s pictures, issues ranging from where they can be published to how they can be cropped or contextualized. Ms. Shields’ flower could, under the terms of such rules, be used to promote fertilizer or cheeseburgers, should the contest gods be so inclined, and she might have no say whatever in the matter. Finally, the idea of competition among artists flies in the face of a photographer’s duty to himself or herself, which is to produce the work and live by the work, without needing to offer either explanation or alibi. The fact that this beautiful picture exists is enough to justify that existence, in that it was the creation of a person of sensitivity and vision. What crown or laurel, conferred on it by any outside jury, can add a scintilla of extra value beyond that?
Volumes could be written about judges and critics who initially disqualified what, in time, became the world’s photographic literature on the basis of this or that arbitrary rule or regulation. Pictures by Alfred Steiglitz, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others were once routinely dismissed based on arcane concepts of composition, light, focus or other arbitrary standards that have no place in art. Finally, either a work connects with people or it doesn’t, a truth that no panel of curators or judges can alter by sniffing around the edges looking for something to make themselves seem more important. At last, it’s the pictures that either speak or don’t.
This one does.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE NORMAL EYE BEGINS ANOTHER YEAR of scraps and scribblings, we like to both welcome those of you who’ve joined our little volunteer fire company since we last passed “go”, and thank our long-term friends and contributors for their vision and faith. As they say on the airlines, we know you have many choices for ways to fly. That you choose, from time to time, to fly with us is a great privilege.
We also mark the turn of the calendar to re-affirm what this home-town newspaper is, or is not. To my mind, the most vital part of photography has never been about mere technical proficiency. Virtually anyone, I believe, can learn the rudiments of exposure and aperture in a weekend. Not master them, but learn them. The greater task, by far, for anyone hoping to attain that mastery, is to train oneself to see in ever more comprehensive ways, to develop the instinct-based curiosity that takes the creative decisions from the camera’s automodes and puts them back into the hands of the photographer.
Prior to the development of more and more fool-proofed ways of acquiring consistently satisfactory images from the technical assists offered by amazing cameras, the native, or “normal” state of the photographer’s eye was one of mindfulness, of forethought, of consciously mapping out and planning a shot. Thus, as our name implies, “the normal eye” is one that sees critically and makes choices with deliberation. That means declaring more and more independence from mere technology. It means that your camera is your servant, not your master.
In the years since The Normal Eye was launched, the world has witnessed several significant revolutions in photographic philosophy, all of them placing the highest possible emphasis on experimentation and the kind of wondrous, personal uncertainty that can only result from the photographer, and not the camera, being in charge. The rebirth of instant camera’s, the refusal of film to “die”, the Lomography movement…. all are happening, not because of any sage wisdom in these pages, but because art cannot stand still, and will always reject the notion that everything’s already been invented, or that all the great images have already been shot.
The journey from taking pictures to making pictures remains irresistible, and, as it happens, inevitable. Thank you once again for joining us on that road.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ARTIST MUST KNOW WHICH CANVAS (or platform) is best for his particular work. And while photography is so rangy and wide, trying to find an area of speciality is no great challenge, so long as you are honest with yourself as to what your eye can effectively deliver. Do portraits alone help your vision pour forth? Then move in that direction, certainly. Drawn to minimalism as a way of expression? Then simplify, my son, simplify, and go in peace.
In fact, my own visual bias, if that’s the word, runs counter to my earliest influences. The first photographs that made me gasp in awe were, in fact, landscapes, since, as a boy, I collected many travel slides and magazines which emphasized life in the natural world. However, my second great influence was that of the great urban photographers, both journalists and poets, whose medium was the man-made, and not the organic, type of mountain. And even though I continued to marvel at the stunning statements made by naturalist shooters, I came to know that I did not have anything particularly wise or wonderful to contribute in that area.
I love nature. It is restorative, contemplative, and any other “ive” you choose. However, I cannot, personally, produce anything poetic or glorious in depicting it. I envy ecumenical writers like Walt Whitman, who reveled in both mountain and city street alike, describing both with incredible passion and power. As a photographer, however, I decided long ago to shoot where my eye is most organically excited…and that’s the city. I can never completely abandon scenic subjects, since I continue to hold out hope that one or another of them will make my heart leap to my throat, and, in turn, make a great vision leap into my camera.
Of course, the longer you make photographs, the more universal your purely technical competence becomes, in that you can deliver a serviceable picture regardless of the assignment. But a photograph is never merely a recording, and simply making an adequately composed, reasonably exposed frame is no greater an achievement than waiting the requisite number of minutes to soak a tea bag. It’s not so much knowing how to make the picture as wanting to, since that desire is the principal difference between acceptable and exceptional. Of course, passion is also not enough, any more than technical acumen is. But when the two meet, they will produce your best work.
As in the author’s mantra “write what you know about”, “shoot what you feel” must surely be a kind of aspirational prayer for better pictures. Can anyone say if a tree is less beautiful than a skyscraper? Not with any true authority. Point that camera where your heart points, and it’s hard to go far wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PERSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, MEASURED OVER A LIFETIME, can come to resemble a marriage, with all the occasional rifts, rumbles and repellents of living with anyone (or anything) nonstop ’til death. Just as any good golfer has thrown the odd club into the 7th hole lake, any shooter worth his emulsions/pixels will, at least once, consider pitching his gear into the nearest abyss, then setting a cheery bonfire of his accumulated work alight in the home driveway (after securing all necessary permits, of course). I dare you to deny it. We hate intensely because we have loved intensely, and fallen intensely short.
The fury eventually abates, however, and we resume the “on” portion of the on again/off again love of photography, not knowing when it next will toggle to “off”, or if switching back to “on” even has any prospect of success. The fact is, creative passion can generate emotional surges, microbursts of feeling so intense they could pop the top off a seismograph. This means answering “the questions” as they ring inside your skull:
Why did I ever start doing this?
What made me thing I’d ever be any good at it?
And where is that damned lens?????
In the interest of my own sanity, I never contemplate a total divorce from photography, but I avidly support the need for a trial separation from time to time. Every relief valve has to be opened and flushed out occasionally, and when the ideas, or the patience to execute them, seem to have gone south for the winter, you have to furlough the workers and shut down the plant. For a while. Hammering away at a problem with an image may eventually loosen what’s stuck, but it’s just as valuable to know when to lay down your tools and quit the scene. For a while. Once your brain is running on high-octane rage, all things beautiful and visionary will just be drowned out by all the screaming, so, really, I’m not kidding: accept the fact that occasionally you’ll announce to all your friends and family that you’re “over the whole photography thing”. And you will absolutely mean it.
For a while.
Here’s another thought: fake-quitting photography will provide the most severe test of how much you were into it in the first place. A trial separation is just that: a test to see if there was anything worth saving in the relationship. Scary process, but, if you come back, whether to a partner or a Nikon, you come back renewed and freshly committed to Make This Thing Work. All of a sudden, you’re bringing your Canon chocolates and roses, and arranging for a romantic candlelight dinner. And the work grows again.
For a while.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY FIND, AS I HAVE, THAT MANY OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ALSO, ARTISTICALLY, SPEAKING, “SOMETHING ELSE“. That is, their creative energies emerge in more than just one medium, even if images are their preferred language. This has always been thus. During the camera’s infancy, many photogs were former painters. Writers were also among the first to explore the new art of picture-making, and the amateur photo work of scribes like Emile Zola and Lewis Carroll remain worthy of note today.
In the 20th century, some painters-turned-photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson turned back to the brush late in life, while other artists like Man Ray stayed firmly anchored in both camps. And even the great theologian and poet Thomas Merton spent his last years as a Trappist monk dabbling in a kind of zen expressionism through the viewfinder of his Canon 35mm.
This doesn’t exactly prove that everyone who is adept in one kind of art will also be effective as a photographer, but it does demonstrate that some people who are curious in all ways of expression will sometimes also choose the camera as an instrument. I personally believe that this can only improve your way of seeing, since “vision” isn’t achieved merely through the eyes, but through the accumulation of all one’s life experience.
I would even go one step farther and claim that just studying photography may be bad for one’s development as a photographer. Rather, it is the total weight of one’s life which shapes one’s seeing, just as a worldlier view can inform one’s writing, cooking, singing, or strumming. No one art is so complete that it can operate in a vacuum, sealed away from all the other arts.
We readily accept that composers need to occasionally be historians, that writers should sometimes be philosophers, and that both painters and chefs should master a little science, so how can we believe that photographers can comment on the whole of life without at least dabbling in the world beyond their computers or darkrooms? You cannot be willfully blind as a person and visionary as a photographer at the same time. The more there is of you, the more of you there is that makes it into your pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITORS TO THE FACTORY HEADQUARTERS OF BEN & JERRY’S ICE CREAM in Stowe, Vermont, upon completing the standard tour of the works, are encouraged to climb a small hill out back of the building to view the company’s Dead Flavor’s Graveyard, an actual cemetery, complete with elegantly epitaphed tombstones and dedicated to such failed B&J varietals as Turtle Soup, Fossil Fuel, White Russian and Sweet Potato Pie. It’s a humorous way to point out that, even for talented startups, there’s no such thing as a direct shot up the mountain of fame. We duck. We detour. We change direction. It’s a process, not a product.
Photography is, in this way (and in no other way that I can think of) much like ice cream.
As we clear the 500 mark on posts for The Normal Eye, I want to (a) profoundly thank all those who have joined us on the journey, and (b) restate that, as our sub-head reads, it really is about a journey, rather than a destination. This small-town newspaper began because I had met so many people over the years who had become suspicious of their camera’s true intentions. Sure, they admitted, the automodes do pretty great on many pictures, but what if I actually want some say in the process? Can I be an active agent in the making of my own pictures?
Now, these weren’t people who wanted to purchase $10,000 worth of gear, sell their houses, abandon their children, and become photo gypsies for NatGeo. These were simply people whose photographic curiosity had finally got the better of them. What would happen, they asked, if I were to, all by myself, make one little extra choice, independent of the camera’s superbrain, before the shutter snapped? And what if I made two? Or three? Other questions followed. What is seeing? How do you learn to value your own vision? And what tasks from the era of film still apply as solid principles in the digital age?
The Normal Eye has spent the last four years trying to ask those questions, not from a top-down, “here is how to do it” approach, since so many of these solutions must be privately arrived at. This is not, and will never be, a technical tutorial. I reflect on what thoughts went into a particular problem, and how I personally decided to try to solve it. The results, as are all my words, are up for debate.
It’s humbling to remember that, in photography, there is always more than one path to paradise. And when I find myself being crushed under the weight of my own Dead Flavor Graveyard, I take heart in those moments when your feedback has made a difference in my motivations, or methods, or both. Recently, I received what I still cherish as one of the best comments over the entire run, with one gentleman proclaiming:
I’m not a fan of words, but the ones in this article are in a tolerable sequence.
Hey, that’s enough to hold me for another 500, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST SELLER LIST IS THE FASTEST WAY to cement a notion in the public’s mind as indisputable “fact”. We are great at quoting a concept captured in print, then re-quoting the quote, until the “truthfulness” of it becomes plausible. It’s basically a version of the statement, “everybody knows that..” followed by a maxim from whatever hardcover pundit is top in the rotation at a given moment. And it’s about as far from accuracy as you can get.
Ever since pop-psych guru Malcolm Gladwell’s hit book Outliers arrived on shelves a few years back, its main thesis, which is that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become excellent at something, has been trotted out a thousand times to remind everyone to just keep nose to grindstone and, well, practice will make perfect. Gladwell cites Bill Gates’ concentrated stretch of garage tinkering and the Beatles’ months of all-night stands in Hamburg as proof of this fact, and, heck, since it ought to be true, we assume it is.
However, it’s not so true as it is comfortable, and, when it comes to photography, I would never hint that someone could become an excellent artist just by putting in more time shooting than everyone else. If my method is wrong, if I never develop a vision of any kind, or if I merely replicate the same mistakes for the requisite practice period, then I am going to get to my goal older, but not wiser. Time spent, all by itself, is no indication of anything, except time spent. Evolving, constantly learning from negative feedback, and learning how to be your own worst critic are all better uses of the years than just filling out some kind of achievement-based time card.
The perfection of photography is about time, certainly, and you must invest a good deal of it to allow for the mistakes and failures that are inevitable with the acquiring of any skill. But, you must also stir insight, humility, curiosity and daring into the recipe or the end result is just mediocrity. Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, a quantity measurement, is only miraculous when coupled with an accompanying quality of work.
There are people who know how to express their soul on their first click of the shutter, just as there are those who slog away for decades and get no closer to imparting anything. It’s how well you learn, not how long you stay in school. It ain’t comforting, but it’s true.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL NATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is not unlike that seen in many other crafts that eventually lead to art. Built in layers at a measured pace over years, the photographer’s eye deepens, broadens, becomes both intellectual and instinctual. It is a process, one that some would argue is never complete, and is similar to the way a sculptor’s grip on the chisel goes from brute strength to brain wave, or the halting young painter, over time, converts brush strokes to master strokes.
However, this process is subverted by contemporary culture’s addiction to things…new things, shiny things, latest things. When photography meets consumerism, acquisition, not mastery, becomes the prime objective. How can you take today’s pictures with yesterday’s camera? This new toy, this fresh gadget, changes everything. Adapt, or die a thousand uncool deaths.
This is flawed thinking, but it sweeps many of us up in the frenzy to constantly replace all our gear, placing our faith in the mechanics, rather than the aesthetics, of making pictures. Advertising is about artificially engineering need. If you can be made to have disdain for your old stuff, the people who make new stuff will never run out of customers. It’s just that simple. Fact is, there are many people who presently own perfectly adequate cameras, and, based on where they are as photographers, they do not need to go to the next big thing, since they have not mastered what they presently use. Here is the truth: changing cameras because you have outgrown your current one is the only time such change makes any artistic sense.
Now, I’m not saying that you should “settle” if your camera is so limited that it’s holding you back. There are some gauzy-eyed fantasists out there that love to rhapsodize on how you can make glorious pictures with crappy cameras, and, while I applaud their enthusiasm, I question their sanity. Romantic notions aside, crap usually begets crap. Get a box adequate to your needs. But make sure that it is also proportionate to your ability and involvement. I have seen more newbies over-purchase monstrous mega-machines that they either under-utilize by 90% or which terrify them so much that they lie rotting in drawers (the cameras, not the customers) after a few months of frustration and failure.
Find the camera that defines what kind of photographer you are right now, and pull every ounce of creativity out of it until you know that you need something else in order to grow. Trying to shoot masterpieces with junk usually doesn’t work, but sinking your hopes into a $2,000 thoroughbred that you’re going to use like a point-and-shoot may actually be worse.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONLY PARTLY ABOUT A STRING OF TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENTS AND BREAKTHROUGHS. It is also the chronicle of what those advances have done to democratize the art, moving it from the domain of rich tinkerers and elites to an arena in which nearly anyone can participate and compete. From the first box camera to Instagram, it is about breaking down barriers. This is not something that is open to debate. It just is.
That’s why it’s time to re-think the words professional and amateur as they apply to the making of images. This is the kind of topic where everybody tends to throw down passionately on one side or the other, with few straddlers or fence-sitters.
Those shooters whose toil is literally their bread and butter are, understandably, a little resentful of the newbie whose low-fi snap of a trending topic tops a million likes on Twitter, all without said snapper’s having mastered the technical ten commandments of exposure or composition. And those whose work is honest, earnest and sincere, yet formally uncertified, hate being thought of as less Authentic, Genuine, or Real simply because no one has printed their output in the approved channels of accepted craft, be it magazines like Nat Geo or the cover of the New York Times.
Okay, I get it. From your personal perspective, you don’t get no respect. But you know what? Get over yourself.
Do we really need to trot out the names of those who never got paid a penny for their work, mostly because their entire output consisted of inane selfies or dramatic lo-fi still lifes of their latest latte? Is it helpful to point out the people within the “official” photographic brotherhood whose work is lazy or derivative? Nope. It is beyond pointless for the two sides to get into an endless loop of So’s Your Mom.
So let’s go another way.
The words professional and amateur are, increasingly, distinctions without difference, at least as ways to attest to the quality of the end product: the photograph. When you pick up a magazine featuring a compelling image, do you ever, ever ask yourself whether it was taken by someone who got paid for it, or do you, in fact, either react to it or ignore it based on its power, its emotional impact, the curiosity and daring of the shooter? The fact is, photography has, from day one, been moved forward by both hobbyist and expert, and, in today’s world, the only thing that makes a shot “professional” is the talent and passion with which it’s been rendered. Anything else is just jaw music.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BOY HOWDY, DO WE LOVE LISTS. Classifications. Stratifications. Ranks. Pecking Orders. Best Of. Worst Of.
Books you need to read before you die (how could you read them otherwise?). The Ten Biggest Errors in The Phantom Menace (not counting the error in making it in the first place). Guinness Records. Pillsbury Bake-Off Finalists. The number of times Burt Ward said “Holy”-something in Batman. And, for photographers, the inevitable (and ubiquitous) lists of Most Common Photographic Mistakes.
You’ve read ’em. I’ve read ’em. We both probably have actually learned something from one or another of them. And yet, I find something strangely consistent in most of these lists; they nearly all address technical issues only. Everything from selecting the perfect depth-of-field to a kindly reminder to remove your lens cap, but very, very little about the deciding factor in all great photographs, namely, having something to say. Tech tutorials are constantly torturing themselves into tabulated commandments, all the “thou shalts”, but it is rare that the aesthetic issues, the “why shoot?” arguments, are given equal billing. This impoverishes the literature of an art that should be more about intentions and outcomes than gear or settings.
If there has been any one bonanza from the democratization of photography (through smart phones, lomography, etc), it’s been the stunning reminder that your camera doesn’t matter as much as what you can wring out of it. Eventually we’ll be able to interface with our own senses, literally taking a picture in the wink of an eye (or the sniff of a nose, if you prefer), and, with every other device used before that to freeze time, it will rise or fall with the input of the photographer’s mind/heart. If equipment was the only factor that could confer photographic greatness then only rich people would be photographers, but that is obviously not the case.
With that in mind, lists of do’s and don’ts for photographers that only focus on the technical are (1) sending the erroneous message that only the mastery of technology is necessary for great pictures, and (2) ignoring the x-factor in the human spirit that truly makes the pictures come forth. If you can obey all the “thou shalts” and still make lousy images (and you can), then you know there is something else missing.