By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS IS NOT AN EXTRAORDINARY PHOTOGRAPH. It only exists because, in the moment, I needed to make it.
Over my lifetime, the two things likeliest to draw me to the side of the road for a quick snap are the polar opposites of existence; things getting ready to be born and things waiting to die off. Both have resulted in pictures that, almost purely on impulse, I felt the urge to attempt. This one, which is of a church under construction, held special appeal to me because, after a year of endlessly looping sameness, it was something just unusual enough to break the pattern I’d established, that of making more and more pictures out of less and less.
It’s not about the church as such, or about whether the world even needs churches at this point or what they convey about our lives. It’s not that grand a concept. To tell the truth, I was more drawn to the building site for how very raw and unrealized it was, how the building is just beginning to transition from a pile of materials into a stated purpose. The round recess at the front promises to eventually hold a stained-glass window, but, for now, it’s just a hole in a wall of wood. That same wood, in all its light and color variations, will soon see all its rough-hewn texture erased by a featureless coat of plaster or paint, making it so definitively “a church” that it will lose its appeal to me as a mere arrangement of shapes. As I said, it’s when things are on the way to being something (or on the way to becoming nothing) that I feel a picture needs to be made, or attempted.
As to said attempt, I shot seven frames very quickly, in simple, stark, midday light with a 35mm prime lens and almost no plan or scheme in mind. When the angle or composition seemed right, I shot. And then I stopped. The whole thing was a matter of three minutes. And yet, after months of unbroken sameness, of being forced to mine the overly familiar in my constricted sphere of experience, trying to find new ways to see it, this almost-church became a holy thing of sorts to me, a fresh canvas on which to paint. The refreshment this little exercise brought me still puts a smile on my face some five days after the fact, and I imagine that I will always have a special affection for this picture. In a way, it sent a signal to my tired brain that there is, still, a world out there, and that I will be one of the lucky ones permitted to re-enter it. I only hope I can earn the privilege.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A BREAK IN THE ACTION: a word from our sponsor: a coda before the chorus. Intrusions into the predictable rhythms of things can be either annoying or refreshing, depending on how we perceive them.
The right intervals between dots and dashes can drastically change the meaning of a telegram. A well-placed silence between musical notes can generate just the tension required to transform a composition into a masterpiece. And a sudden interruption in visual patterns can add impact to a photograph.
Once the eye detects, as they say on Sesame Street, that one of the things in a picture is not like the others, it pauses, re-evaluating every element in the scene, weighing it for relative value. Breaking an image’s pattern is either an unwelcome invasion or a kind of visual punctuation….again, varying as to the effect. The object violating the uniformity says pause, wait, re–consider, and begins a new conversation about what we’re seeing and what we think about it.
In the above picture, a human silhouette against the massive ceiling grid provides the basic context of scale, and defines the locale (a library) as a space where human activity takes place. The figure thus says how big the place is and what it is for, along with any other ancillary associations touched off in the viewer’s mind. Would the picture “work” without the figure? Certainly. The terms of engagement would just be different, that’s all.
Photographs are not merely pictures of things. They are also sets of instructions (suggestions?) on what to do with all that information. Think of them like roadside signs. It’s indeed helpful to be told, for example, that Sacramento is just another 100 miles away. But it’s just as important to have a big bright arrow telling you to head that–away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A HOUSE CRAMMED WITH LUXURIANT COFFEE TABLE BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY, my most lovingly thumbed volumes seem to center on studies of Art Deco architecture, a subject which provides me with endless enjoyment. Some books touch on overall moderne design, but most are specific reference works on the zigzags, chevrons, whorls and curves of buildings, clad in this seductive, streamlined celebration of style. Similarly, my travel plans over the years involve sticking pins in the globe to indicate the fattest troves of these buildings, mapping my strategies for someday capturing them inside a box. It’s a bucket list, if buckets had been designed by Walter Dorwin Teague or Norman bel Geddes.
Shooting Deco buildings can humble one, since the sheer volume of decorative accents in a single skyscraper could consume a coffee table book all its own. Deco may use fewer details or lines to suggest an idea compared to earlier eras, but it is still undeniably busy. Some truly extreme edifices, such as Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre, can nearly give you claustrophobia. These places were certainly meant to be looked at, but, to our contemporary eye, trying to take them “all in” is a little like sending your eye on a three-day bender. This also means that, for photographers, trying to tell a complete story in a single image is pert nigh impossible.
To that thought, I have spent several years going over shoots of Deco buildings that originally involved, say, thirty to forty images, only to find that, even when I was trying to break these giant birthday cakes into smaller slices, there was still enough going on, even in the edited shots, to warrant a second, third, or even fourth “sub-cropping”. One such place, also in L.A., is the giant faux-jade tower known as the Wiltern Theatre, so named because it occupies a corner at the intersection of WILshire Boulevard and WesTERN Avenue. The place was originally the Hollywood capstone of the Warner Brothers theatre chain, and survives today as a live performance space (think alt-rock meets emo). Point a camera anywhere, and you’ll harvest a click-ton of exuberant, exploding ornamentation.
The large shot seen at the top of the page is but one section of the glorious molded plaster overhang beneath the Wiltern’s marquee. The inset image at left is the larger master shot, in which I originally thought I was keeping it simple by limiting the frame to the lower part of the front right corner of the building. Turns out that even this “tighter” composition was too busy, hence the more radical crop to a smaller part of the pattern. On the way to the final edit, I also flipped the design upside down to make it splay out more dramatically and converted the dull gun-metal green to blue for a little extra romance.
All of which seems to be yet another re-hash of the old “less is more” argument. Simplify, simplify, grab the stone from my hand, grasshopper, etc., etc. Art Deco is a style in which the devil (the delight?) is most definitely in the details. Some are so incredible that it seems a sin to have them vanish into large, comprehensive uber-shots of big buildings, rather than being given the loving attention they deserve. And certainly, for photographers, there are other such visual birthday cakes that are more appetizing if you simply cut yourself a smaller slice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO TRACK THE SUN AS IT TRAVELS EAST TO WEST over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon have made amazing images of the way light changes contours, shadows, even the sensation of depth and scale over the course of a single day. Such hour-by-hour portfolios present pictures which are less about the subject matter and more about how light shapes that subject. And the same tracking exercise is possible in canyons of another sort, the vertical jungles we call cities.
Buildings in urban settings reveal more in pictures than their own particular physical shapes and designs: they also have visual artifacts tattooed onto them from their neighbors, which block, warp and reflect light patterns in their direction. Thus the most architecturally drab tower can become hypnotic when bathed in patterns of shadows shaped by the tower next door. And that means that those seeking abstract images may find that ordinary parts of the city can be rendered extraordinary by light’s odd bounces. Additionally, the fact that many of these light effects are fleeting, visible, in some cases, only for minutes each day, presents both a challenge and an adventure for the photographer.
In the shot above, a gorgeous Art Deco building in downtown Phoenix, Arizona benefits from a light effect that has only been possible for the last forty years of its existence. Erected in the late 1930’s, the northern face of 15 East Monroe Street would not, at its opening, have been dappled with the shadow patterns seen here. No, it took a soul-less glass box from the ’70’s, located across the street, to bounce patterns of reflected light onto the building as you see it here, and only for about two hours a day between late morning and noon.
During that window, 15 East Monroe displays a wonderfully checkered mix of reflected illumination on its golden terra-cotta exterior. I first observed the patterns ten years ago, and have been going back for occasional looks ever since. The trick, in this image, was to keep the texture of the building from looking too sharp, since the effect itself is somewhat dreamy, and works better if the overall photo of the building is also a little soft. I used a selective focus lens (sharp at the middle, softer toward the edges) to give the overall building a gauzy look, and let the picture really be about the light effect, rather than any specific part of the building. Even at this point, I am imagining about a half-dozen other ways to accomplish this, but this image can at least serve as an initial study, a guideline for what may, eventually, be my final word on the subject.
Photography, clinically defined, is the art of writing with light. Sometimes, regardless of the object in our viewfinder, what light does to things is, by itself, enough for an interesting picture. It takes some restraint to let the light be the subject, and to let the picture, in its most basic form, breathe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN DEFINED CLASSICALLY AS “WRITING WITH LIGHT“, but I often wonder if a better definition might be “capitalizing on light opportunities”, since it’s not really what subject matter we shoot but light’s role in shaping it that makes for strong images. We have all seen humble objects transformed, even rendered iconic, based on how a shooter perceives the value of light, then shapes it to his ends. That’s why even simple patterns that consist of little more than light itself can sometimes be enough for a solid photograph.
If you track the history of our art from, say, from the American Civil War through today’s digital domain, you really see a progression from recording to interpreting. If the first generally distributed photographs seen by a mass audience involve, say, the aftermath of Antietam or Gettysburg, and recent images are often composed of simple shapes, then the progression is very easy to track. The essence is this: we began with photography as technology, the answer to a scientific conundrum. How do we stop and fix time in a physical storage device? Once that very basic aim was achieved, photographers went from trying to just get some image (hey, it worked!) to having a greater say in what kind of image they wanted. It was at this point that photography took on the same creative freedom as painting. Brushes, cameras, it doesn’t matter. They are just mediums through which the imagination is channeled.
In interpreting patterns of elementary shapes which appeal on their own merit, photographers are released from the stricture of having to endlessly search for “something to shoot”. Some days there is no magnificent sunrise or eloquent tree readily at hand, but there is always light and its power to refract, scatter, and recombine for effect. It’s often said that photography forced painting into abstraction because it didn’t want to compete with the technically perfect way that the camera could record the world. However, photography also evolved beyond the point where just rendering reality was enough. We moved from being reporters to commentators, if you like. Making that journey in your own work (and at your own pace) is one of the most important step an art, or an artist, can take.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.
This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.
Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.
The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.
Or at least they will by the third can.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF MENTION, OF LATE, OF THE PHENOMENON KNOWN AS “PHOTOBOMBING“, the accidental or intentioned spoiling of our perfect Kodak moments by persons inserted into the frame at a crucial instant. Whether they block the bride’s face, eclipse Grandma’s beloved puppy, or merely pop up annoyingly behind the cute couple, they, and the images they ruin, are one of the hottest posting sources along the photo-internet galaxy right about now.
But fate photobombs us every day, and often drops a gift out of the sky, and into our pictures. The two-fold trick is to (a) be ready to improvise and (b) be grateful for the chance for something altogether different from what we originally conceived.
Happened to me several weeks ago. Total accident, since the thing I shot in the moment was not what I had started out for at all. Real simple situation:an underground walkway from one low-lying section of a city park to another, the sidewalk taking a short cut under a bridge. Overhead, six lanes of unheeding street-level traffic. Below, a concrete tunnel of sorts, with sunlight from the park illuminating either open end.
Oh, and the grate. Should mention that a section of the street overhead was, instead of solid roadbed, an open-pattern, structural steel grid, with dappled geometrics of light throwing a three-sided pattern of latticed shadows onto the side walls and floor of the tunnel below. Nice geometry. Now, I wasn’t looking to shoot anything down here at all. Like the chicken, I just wanted to get to the other side. But I had my wide-angle on, and a free light pattern is a free light pattern. One frame. A second, and then the bomb: a jogger, much more acquainted with this under-the-road shortcut than me, crossing from over my right shoulder and into my shot. Almost instinctively, I got her in frame, and relatively sharp as well.
Not content to have caught the big fish of the day, I took the opposite angle and tried again to recoup my “ideal shot”, minus the human element. But something had changed. Even so, I still needed a gentle nudge from Fate to accept that I had already done as well as I was going to do.
My battery died.
I limped home, then, during my upload, found that what I had been willing to reject had become essential. I wish it was the first time I’ve had to be taught this lesson.
But I’d be lying.
Photobombed by circumstance.
And grateful for it.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
CREATING FANTASY IMAGES ON A TABLETOP IS A LITTLE LIKE WATCHING YOUR GRANDMA IN THE KITCHEN, if your grandma (like mine) was the “I-don’t need-no-recipe”,a dash here, a pinch there kind of cook. Sometimes I think she just kept chucking ingredients into the pot until it was either the right color or the correct thickness. All I know is, when she was done, it “ate pretty good”.
I use the same approach when I am building compositions from scratch. You’re not sure what the proportions are, but you kind of know when you’re done.
One of the photo sharing sites that I recommend most enthusiastically is called UTATA, a site which promotes itself as “tribal photography” since it require a certain level of communal kick-in from all its members, posing workshop assignments and themes that take you beyond merely posting your faves. Operating in tandem with its self-named Flickr group, UTATA is about taking chances and forcing yourself, often on a deadline, to see in new ways. If it sounds like homework, it’s not, and even if you have no time to work the various challenges, you’ll still reap a vast wealth of knowledge just riffing through other people’s work. Give it a look at http://www.utata.org.
One of the site’s recent so-called “weekend projects” was to photograph anything that in any way depicted broken glass. No special terms beyond that. Cheap glass, wine glass, churchy stained glass, pick your texture, pick your context. I decided to so something with a shattered light bulb, but with a few twists. Instead of just breaking the bulb and shooting a frame, I opted to place the bulb in a food storage bag, then hammer it until it burst. Due to the sudden release of pressure when light bulbs are breached, they don’t just crack, they sort of explode, and, given the chemical treatment of the glass, there is a lot of pure white dust that accompanies the very fine glass particles. Breaking the bulb inside the bag allowed me to retain all that sediment, then make it more visible by pouring the bits out onto a black, non-reflective surface…in this case, a granite tile that I use to model product shots on.
I already liked the look of all the atomized white dust across that dull blackness, rather like a “star field”, or a cluster of debris, scattered across a vast void in space. The effect was taking shape, but the “garbage cook” inside my head was still looking for one more ingredient. The great thing about building a fantasy visual is that it doesn’t have to make “sense”….it just needs visual impact sufficient to register with the gut. If the micro-fine bits of the bulb represented some kind of space catastrophe, where was the cause? Inner stresses, like volcanoes, rupturing the Mother Bulb asunder like the planet Krypton? No, wait, what if something collided with it, some asteroid-like something that spelled doom for Planet G.E.? A quick trip out to the back yard gave me my cosmic cataclysm….I mean chunk of quartz, and the rest was just arrangement and experiment.
What does it all mean? Heck, what does beef stew mean? Making a picture can be like gradually adding random veggies and spices until something tells you it’s “soup”. And with tabletop fantasies, you get to play God with all the little worlds you’ve created.
Hey, over a lifetime, plenty of other people will take turns blowing up your work.
Why not you?
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.