By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR YEARS, I HAVE READ INTERVIEWS WITH VARIOUS PHOTOGRAPHERS that include some form of the question, “why do you think you first picked up a camera?” Some answers are profound, detailed, while others are more along the lines of “because it was there”, or “well, why not? In 2021, as the surfaces of many of our personal cocoons begin to crack a bit, a more relevant question might be “why will you next pick up a camera?” All art is fueled by motivations, by the need to create an outside expression of the person within. Change that person, or, in our case, change the entire human species, and motivations, and the art they create, will likewise be altered.
All of which is to say that, without a doubt, I am somehow a different kind of photographer today than I was a year ago. The fact that I can’t yet analyze in what specific ways that change has manifested itself is beside the point. Every cell in our bodies is a replacement for a cell from an earlier version of our physical selves, and yet the change has come about so gradually that we feel that we are the same person that we always were. It will take time, and the evidence of my work, to be able to see how this last year has adjusted how I see, and more importantly, what I now choose to look at.
This online forum, now in its tenth year, was never designed to be a meditation on my personal life, and that’s generally the way I like it. I can talk all day about why I decide to make a picture, and I have tried to find, in those reflections, something that is universal to the growth of every photographer. Sharing things more personal than the creation of an image, however, comes less naturally to me, a strange admission from someone who has chosen social media as a platform, but there it is. I always feel that the work will provide and clues to the person that created it better than my poor power to add or detract, or indulge in any freehand navel-gazing.
It will be some time before any of us can draw a clean line from “the kind of pictures I used to make” to “here’s how I see now”. I do know, however, that there’s been a huge change in the subject matter that’s available to me to shoot, whether it’s the faces of distant loved ones or the loss of routine hangs. But just being forced to create photographs with different stuff is not the whole issue; being persuaded to actually see differently is where the rubber meets the road, or, if you will, where the eye meets the viewfinder. I have been fortunate enough to see most of my old world emerge from this global nightmare intact, a fact that I consider a miraculous, if random, gift. I have been given what photographers value most; time. Now let’s see what I can do to identify the work to be done before me, both as a photographer and as a human being. No doubt new narratives and stories will emerge. And they will all need illustrations….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS ONGOING CHRONICLE, for anyone who is relatively new to it, is more about the motivations, rather than the methods, behind photography. The mechanical techniques of snapping a picture can only ensure that you will, in fact, produce an image. Everything else….the shaping, the conceptualizing, the intention of making a picture, happens outside the camera, inside yourself. What I’m leading to here is that, between you and your device, your device is far less crucial. This is why people can take good pictures with bad cameras, and why you can make a lousy image with a Leica. If I believed that photography was, like xerography, just a means of recording, then I could have saved you and me both the meanderings and mutterings of the last nine years.
Photography is a strange art because it begins with real subject matter and renders it surreal. Once an instant is yanked out of its rightful place in the orderly crawl of time, once it’s isolated and arrested in its flight forever, it becomes something else than what we first aimed at. We make a decision, in the present, to preserve something, and, in that instant, that object becomes something ago. Part of the past. Not only that, but it takes on the biases of the shooter, who decided that this light, rather than that light, should be the storytelling medium, that this composed frame should be chosen over all other possibilities. We dedicate ourselves, in a sense, to making things look “real”, while the very act of photography renders that reality null and void. The final picture of a thing is either real-plus, or real-minus, but, being filtered through both the camera and our own perceptions, it can never be merely “real” again.
We also decide what is worth photographing, as if the act of taking a picture of something could confer importance on it. Certainly, we are right at least some of the time. Some moments are, by their own nature, vital, essential to an understanding of the world. But then again, who is to say what’s meaningful and what’s banal? Perhaps the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it’s an argument, like a summary made before a jury. Well argued, the photograph is seen by one’s peers as necessary, as having added something to the overall experience….that is, the jury finds for your “truth”. Badly made, the argument that is a photograph is rebuffed or, worse, ignored. When I use the phrase the normal eye as the title for this screed it, means the process of teaching the eye to see in its own way, devoid of the interpretations or prejudices of others. To develop your most normal way of seeing. The trick of selecting little seconds of time to steal and preserve is quickly taught, in the purely mechanical sense. But as we soon learn, that’s only the first baby step in the quest for a photograph. That inner journey takes a lifetime.
(the image seen on this page is part of a new collection of Michael Perkins’ images, “Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light”, available from here from NormalEye Press.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I BELIEVE THAT PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE A NUMBER OF INTENTIONS that can be set for their images, with only one of them being the raw product of original shots. Certainly we all hope that we’ll hit a perfect storm of equipment, conditions and executions when first we click the shutter, but we have all also learned to set a number of later intentions for those same pictures, strategies that are hatched long after they are in the can. That’s the all-too-human gap between what we meant to do and what we actually achieved, which sets us looking to re-frame our projects from “rescue” missions to “salvage” missions, otherwise known as There Must Be A Usable Picture In Here Somewhere. One man’s afterthought is another man’s Photoshop, and so forth.
Suppose for example, you’re in the position of your humble author, who, several years ago, started his day in Manhattan with an 18-55 kit lens…..ideal for getting wide compositions in close quarters and such. You suddenly decide to add a side-trip to Liberty Island, a completely different shooting situation that may, in fact, distance you from your main subject. Yes, a truly wide lens certainly shows lots of touristy “stuff”, including Lady Liberty herself, her pedestal, all the visitors in the area, the occasional tree or building….a lot of everything. But even “zoomed in” to 55mm, the statue will not seem close at hand or, if you like, intimate. You didn’t know beforehand that you’d need a telephoto and so you don’t have one. However, being here isn’t part of your daily, or even yearly ritual, so you will likely be going for broke, finding the real core images later, through cropping. Your in-the-moment control has been compromised, so your revised plan is to recompose all the shots later. And hope.
Cropping can become a source of photo-snobbery in some circles, since, of course, true geniuses know instinctively how to compose a perfect frame every time, a notion which, romantically, is appealing, but pragmatically, is poppycock. Paring away non-essential parts of an image to amplify what’s left is not a sign of weakness, since the final edit must, eventually rise or fall on its own merits. In this exercise, it’s pretty obvious that the statue is the main headline, no disrespect to hot dog stands or strollers full of infants. So the first cropping decisions are easy, unless you specifically came to snap pictures of grass or sidewalks. But now, within that new work regimen, what parts of the statue are needed most? Is the bottom half as dramatic, or as revelatory, as the top half? How do you want the viewer’s eye to travel, horizontally or vertically? If you had been equipped with a zoom, what would your most instinctual composition? Is the statue to be paired with other elements to demonstrate perspective or scale, or does it pack more punch in isolation?
The cropped monochrome shot seen here is also, incidentally, an argument for shooting at the widest, most dense file size you can, so that image integrity is preserved, even with a dramatic loss of data. On this occasion, my “master” shots, seen at upper left and taken at ground level, were 3264 x 4928 pixels in size, whereas the drastically cut b&w version is still fairly solid at 2291 x 1496. A little processing was also used to cosmetically disguise the minor quality loss. The reason I am beating this particular drum is not to say that, with this stunt, I pulled some kind of rabbit out of my hat, saving a formerly useless picture. These particular images are not “keepers” per se, but can serve to remind me that the intention of a picture is not determined solely in the camera. Sometimes your best ideas for an image mean using imperfect first takes and seeing if they’ve missed the mark by millimeters or miles. It can mean either happy accidents or tragic misfires, but both outcomes afford you education, and that’s not nothing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DISCUSSING THE UNIQUE WAY PHOTOGRAPHERS “SEE” THE WORLD, we often describe the process rather like the development of a muscle: work it, flex it, watch it become tougher and more responsive with each “rep”: repeat as necessary.
But lately, in looking at the general viewpoint that informs my own work, as well as the singular visions that seem to define a “style” for many others, I think we may be looking at the whole phenomenon a little backwards.
Instead of moving progressively toward some eventual destination of “seeing”, as if it’s a mountain top we hope to scale and plant a flag on, maybe the idea of a “photographer’s eye” is more internal, more zen if you like.
Maybe all the formative forces of our lives, including our raw experiences, our philosophical stance, and other stampers of individual personality, have already decided what our “eye” or viewpoint is. Perhaps what keeps us from seeing effectively with that eye is all the noise, distraction, and input from outside sources. Perhaps we arrive at our first camera with a clear windshield, knowing, on some inner level, how we view the world. And perhaps that pristine glass is obscured by the litter and smears of everything outside ourselves that serves to block our view. Maybe, just maybe, every photographer already has an innate knowledge of how he/she regards the world, and what kind of images support that view….if we can just keep the outside world from cluttering and occluding it.
Another way to express this condition might be to imagine ourselves as wearing a tilted blindfold, which is too askew to completely block our vision, but seriously compromises the quality of what we see. Under this idea, any real restoration of our inner eye must include the complete excising of that blindfold. And we approach that result through photography.
Testing these ideas takes a little honest introspection. Look at your own work over a protracted stretch of time. Aren’t there certain consistencies that emerge in the pictures you regard as the truest? It might be something very elemental, such as a love of landscapes, that perpetually re-asserts itself, despite the fact that you “shoot everything.” It might be a mood or a belief that recurs in your visual stories. You might be given to commentary, or celebration, or abstraction. Whatever features your “eye” has, it may have always been so, as a measure of your essential self, with your pictures becoming more and more effective the more you get out of your own way. In my own case, for example, I tend to see beauty or poetry in man-made objects to the same degree that others see in the natural world. Certainly I would never turn down the chance to snap a stunning sunset, and yet, in architecture, in design, or merely in the random arrangements of light and shadow, I can more persuasively argue for beauty than if I were to shoot a thousand roses a day for a thousand years. Some would use the above image to argue that I value things over people, but, to me, things make the case for people, and vice versa.
I also have a hard time deliberately creating something ugly, even in the cause of journalism or documentation. At some level I simply refuse to believe that the world is a horrible place, although I must often depict the horrible things within it. And so it is for you: that is, photography is also a self-assertion of some kind…..not a viewpoint that you are trying to acquire, but one which you are constantly struggling to refine and purify. That is, you already have a photographer’s eye. Now, you need to spend the rest of your life keeping garbage from flying into it or otherwise clouding your very trustworthy and personal vision.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHS IS NOT MERELY A MATTER of getting everything you want into the frame, whether your subject is crowded or stark. It’s about both the arrangement of objects or patterns in a given space and the relationships those things have with each other. It’s a process which often makes photography as frustrating as it is thrilling. Or maybe a more precise way to say it is, composition is the frustration you endure to get to the thrill.
Yeah, I like that a little better.
Part of the method of composition, in what is essentially a flat plane, is the arrangement of your subject in such a manner that it creates the illusion of depth, a kind of invitation to the eye to look further “in”. There have been entire libraries filled with references to these so-called “leading lines” such as the trail-off on the pier you see in this ocean view. Everyone mentions it because, well, goldarn it, for a cheap little trick, it works pretty well. This particular image is about as rudimentary an example of faux depth as you can find, but nailing it involves a lot of little things that are quite variable from one situation to another.
Ansel Adams once half-jokingly said photography was largely about knowing where to stand, and it’s still the best compositional advice I’ve ever heard. Certainly in the case of this photo, where I chose to stand (a decision I changed and re-changed across the space of several minutes) made a huge difference in how the depth effect displayed the picture’s information. I was originally walking toward the pier at beach level, at which angle the front-to-back view of the pier tended to emphasize the information most near at hand, with the rest of the pier dramatically foreshortened or “squished”, like the contracted bellows of an accordion, and objects at the far end of the pier greatly reduced in detail or prominence. Standing beside the pier rendered it as a long left-to-right line reminiscent of a snake or a train. Lots of detail but not much drama, and no practical way to show the entire structure.
Walking to the second-floor landing of a beach restaurant at the head of the pier, however, gave me a sensation of distance that appeared natural and yet was a little more dramatic, the lines of the pier converging as they reached the horizon, just like your ninth-grade mechanical drawing teacher taught you to do. But that’s the process of composition in a nutshell: a combined approach consisting of what to include and how to include it, or like Ansel says, knowing where to stand.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO DOUBT WEARY OF QUESTIONS about the secret of his photographic technique, the late Lars Tunbjork once told an interviewer, “I try to take photos like an alien”, a statement which strikes me as the perfect description of the shooter’s viewpoint. We are steeped in our own humanity: we are swept along in its tidal swell. But being part of all life gives us a skewed perspective as commentators. Striving to renounce our membership, to become The Outsider, is an art in itself. And certain pictures simply can’t be made without it.
Observing a scene as if one were an “alien”, as if we were freshly arrived on a scene which possessed nothing familiar to us, forces us to make unbiased, instantaneous evaluations of what is picture-worthy, not from our memory or habit, but from instincts, even raw guesses. Like E.T., harvesting earth plants for the purpose of study, we are placing ourselves into the viewpoint of a Columbus or an Armstrong. If we succeed, our perspective is truly that of someone Who Has Never Been Before. These small stolen instants of what one photographer called the flash of perception free us, momentarily, from what we’ve learned or assumed over a lifetime of experience. They allow us to shoot things we don’t pause to understand or contexualize. We feel that something ought to be a picture, and so it becomes one.
Tunbjork often took shots of randomly selected people in office environments doing the daily mundane tasks of making a living. The pictures were certainly “real” in a sense, and can, in fact, convey the feeling that we are getting our first (fresh?) look at things so ordinary that they have become invisible. Just as in the case of the shot seen here, snapped as I took a shortcut through a busy restaurant, the sensation can be that we have just happened upon something previously hidden: a conversation, a short relaxed break, a backstage glimpse. We are intruding into a place where we normally are not admitted. We are stealing. Hopefully with a tale that, later, back on the mother ship, we can share with our fellow aliens.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY IS FLAT-OUT REPORTORIAL IN MOST CASES, placing its crucial emphasis on the capture of “the decisive moment”. The play that saved the day, or, at least, earned the headline. Hail Mary passes. Impossible catches. Long, nothin’-but-net buzzer-beaters hurled hopefully from Downtown. These are the essence of sports coverage; images that freeze such moments, photos which often outlive the text that they were designed to accompany. Sports photography is, for the most part, about moments of record, moments of now.
Take it out of its pro-level context, however, and sports, as played by most of the rest of us, can simply be about someday….or more precisely, any moment now. Sports reports are often viewed as strongly edited segments that stitch together one now moment after another in breathless digests of daily “greatest hits”. For many of us regular slobs, however, life isn’t played out that way. Real time, on our playing fields, consists of an infinite number of long, eventless stretches. Sadly, most of us don’t move seamlessly from career high to career high. Instead, there are many stops along the way…to smell the roses, count down the clock, and praaaaaaay for the final bell.
Photographically, kid sports often strike me as more fun than adult games, principally because the terms of engagement are so very different from the grown-up stuff. Children’s games are free of the deadly seriousness that seems to have tainted sports in recent years, robbing them of much of their playful escape. Young Dick and Young Jane aren’t doing this for a living. There is seldom anything of consequence on the line, except maybe the vanity of their parents. And when it comes to providing great images, the mix of true technique and awkward innocence makes for a charming combination, as the young combatants ape their mentors, even as they betray their innate kid-ness.
The young man captured here is, above all else, having fun. He’s enjoying the sweet anticipation of the unexpected. He already has the mechanics of a young pro, but his curious exploration of the option of stealing third is all little boy. Lots of story here, and in many moments which never approach the drama of a national championship or a three-peat. Images are narratives, and, in photographing more than just a player’s once-in-a-lifetime Grand Slam, we learn about striving. And waiting. And dreaming.
Theirs and ours.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS CHOOSE LENSES BASED ON LOTS OF CRITERIA, depending on what kind of “reality” they seek to visualize. In recent years, there has been a solid return to so-called “normal” or prime lenses, glass with focal lengths of 35-85mm which produce a perspective most like human vision, fairly free of the spatial distortion seen in ulta-wide lenses. At the same time, the use of ultra-wides in television and film, even for scenes in which a dramatic viewing angle is not particularly appropriate, is on the rise as well, and the widest consumer-level wides, including various types of fisheye lenses, are becoming sharper and cheaper than ever before.
I mention cinema here because it’s only after the emergence of 1950’s-era wide-screen processes like Panavision and Cinemascope that such lenses began to sell in larger numbers to amateur photographers, becoming an active part of the hobby. By the ’60’s, ultra-wides created stunning mutations of space in films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Orson Welles’ The Trial, but, in such cases, the idea was still to deliberately distort reality for dramatic effect. Today, the most common “kit lens” accompanying a new DSLR is the 18-55mm, which at its widest, can make vertical lines bend inward in a way that is dramatic, but not a true measure of natural distance relationships. And, yes, they allow you to stand closer to your subject and “get it all in frame”, but, at that point, you’re also making a decision about whether your image is to be interpretive of reality, or reflective of it.
Extreme wides, including fisheyes, can widen to 8 or 9mm, making the bending of lines so severe that the image elements seem to form a circle, with all lines arching sharply toward the center. And depending on what your image’s particular “reality” is to be, the distances of objects from front to back within the frame are also intensely exaggerated. Things which, in a “prime” lens image, appear just ten feet apart, can, in a fisheye shot, seem half a football field from each other. TV and film shooters exploit this big-time. If you’re shooting within a cramped interior and need to balloon its scope to suggest a larger scale, an ultra-wide really opens the place up. Medium-sized studios used in political debates now appear cavernous: ordinary city buildings shot wide for a crime drama take on intimidating height and depth, appearing to occupy entire blocks.
In the above image, if I want to make the viewer a little dizzy and daunted at the top of this rather modest escalator, I must use an ultra-wide to cheat, to trick the eye into concluding that it’s actually standing at the top of a sky-high ski jump. The tricky thing about ultra-wides, however, is that they mutate everything in the frame. And if part of that “everything” includes humans, your subjects can be taffy-twisted into some very alarming dimensions. Anything wider than about 24mm is downright uglifying for portraiture, unless a stylized effect is part of your interpretation. Lenses are not mere recording equipment. Their limits, biases, and faults can be exploited based on whatever kind of world you’re trying to conjure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULTRA-WIDE LENSES HAVE ALMOST BECOME AN UNAVOIDABLE CLICHE for people shooting in the streets of large cities, both for the great things they allow and the uber-excesses that they enable. There is, of course, a real practical benefit in being able to create an amped-up sensation of front-to-back space or side-to-side expanse while you yourself are limited in where you can stand or move. For example, if your back is crimped against a building, so that you can’t dolly backward, having the lens provide the extra width you need is great. If you’re pointing up for emphasis, the lens’ distortion of straight lines can be dramatically abstract, depending on the look you’re going for. All to the good.
Of course, depending on your selection of angle, you can get things so bendy and bizarre that you can induce motion sickness in your viewing audience, with towers and spires inclining sideways as if they about to topple to the street. Again, you have to decide what look you want: it’s not just about tilting the frame until you can “get everything in”. That’s shoveling, not shooting.
The thing to remember about ultra-wides in the city is how little re-framing it takes to get both the drama you want and at least a semblance of normal proportions and angles. As with almost every other situation, the salvation is in shooting a lot of coverage of a subject. Attack it from all angles and sides. You can’t know in the moment exactly what will work best…you’re working too quickly in a crowded, active environment. So walk around, attack it from all sides, and sort out the keepers later.
In the shot at the top of the page, I was interested in shooting Paul Manship’s magnificent “Atlas” sculpture, located along the Fifth Avenue edge of Rockefeller Center, from the rear, to accentuate the amazing musculature of the figure and get him in the same frame as the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Now, there’s already plenty of drama in the statue’s pose as is, but in the first photo, I angled the lens further upward to get an even bigger arc of action. In the lower image, I simply changed the up-down angle of the same 24mm lens I was using to get angles that were a bit more normal. Two different effects, just inches away from each other in approach and angle, but markedly different in result. Which one’s the keeper? Not my argument and not my problem. However, if I don’t shoot both images, I don’t get to make the choice.
Once more, the advantage of digital is pronounced. You can now shoot everything you think you might need. We’re not counting “roll” exposures in our heads any more. We can’t “run out of film”, so click away. Shoot it all while you’ve got it in front of you and throw everything you know how to try at the problem at hand. The bad pictures will speed the arrival of the good ones.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THE EVOLUTION OF A PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE is the imparting of new importance to things we have forgotten to see, those everyday objects that line or border our rituals and our daily to-and-froms, but which gradually are rendered invisible because our gaze is focused elsewhere. We fix upon the subway train that we have to catch, but miss the miniature tales buried in brick, steel, rust, entrances and exits. We’ve been down this street a million times, and always pause to peer in the window of, in order, the bakery, the newsstand, the Chinese take-out joint. Across the same street are a dry cleaner, a watch repair shop, and a storefront cathedral. We have never seen them.
Photography involves extracting stories where others see a blank slate, but that means first training ourselves to constantly re-see the things we believe we “know”, only to find that there are stunning revelations mere inches away from those known things. It’s the hardest habit to cultivate, this revealing of new layers in what we assume is the familiar. And yet it’s really the fresh blood that rejuvenates our art when it’s gone anemic.
One trick I try more often than I used to is to pause, after entering a building, to look back at the other side of that entrance…in other words, the view I would see facing me if I were using that entrance as an exit. It’s a very simply thing, but frequently there’s something fresh that presents itself, in something I believed I knew all about.
The above image comes from such an exercise. It’s taken just inside the main entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library, which, as you can see, has a great Art Deco grille of storybook characters over the door. But that’s just as you walk in. Pay equal attention when you’re walking out, and you see a strange bird looming over the entrance (now your exit). But not just any bird. It is, in fact, a rescued statue which once graced the main lobby of the long-departed Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, out of its old context as a symbol of high-flying journalism, but now a reminder of one of the city’s best voices. Best of all, the late afternoon sun projects the silhouettes of the storybook grille onto the eagle and the adjacent wall in an unearthly display of shadow. It’s worth looking back at. Or I could say I am always looking forward to looking back at it.
When looking for something new to photograph, seek out the places in which you’ve seen it all. You’ll never be happier to be proven wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CAN VIEW THE MAIN FUNCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY AS TWOFOLD, with the deliberate creation of a vision as one path, and the arresting of time in its motion as the other. In the first case, we plan, conceive and execute at our leisure until the image that is behind our eye emerges on the page. In the second, we are hastening to capture and cage something that is in the act of disappearing. In one instance we compose. In the other, we preserve.
Sometimes the two purposes come together in one picture, although you seldom know it until after the image is made. Take the example below. In the moment, I was struck by the light patterns that bounced across the empty space of an event room at the visitor center for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I wanted to do everything I could, exposure-wise, to dramatize the play of light in this special space. In addition to trying to create an image, however, I was also scurrying to keep a special number of factors from vanishing. I was both creating and preserving.
Obviously, the light you see would have had a dramatically different effect had the room been packed with, say, bodies or furniture, so its unobstructed path was one temporary condition. Another fleeting factor was the late afternoon light, which was, in addition to being extremely changeable, also one of the rare moments of pure sun the area had seen during a severely overcast day. It was as if the heavens opened up and angels were singing a song called, “Take The Picture, Already, Dummy”(perhaps you have heard this song yourself). Everything pointed to immediacy.
Full disclosure: getting this shot was not something that stretched me, or demanded exceptional skill. There was not one technically difficult factor in the making of this picture. You yourself have taken pictures like this. They are there and then they’re gone. But, they don’t get collected unless you see how fragile they are, and act in time. It’s not wizardry. It’s just acting on an instinct which, hopefully, gets sharper the longer you are in the game.
I often state one of my only primary commandments for photography as, Always Be Shooting. An important corollary to that rule might be, Always Be Ready To Shoot. Spot the potential in your surroundings quickly. Get used to the fact that many pictures will only dance before you for seconds at a time, flashing like heat lightning, then fading to oblivion. Picture-making is sometimes about casual and careful crafting of an image. And sometimes it’s a race of inches.
And sometimes it’s both.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN WE THINK OF URBAN BLOCKS, IT’S NATURAL TO THINK of those blocks as regular rectangles, well-regulated, even streets that run at direct parallels or hard right angles to each other. And while there certainly are cities with such mathematically uniform grids, some of the most interesting cities in the world don’t conform to this dreamy ideal in any way. And that means opportunities for photographers.
We’ve all seen street scenes in which the left and right sides of the road vanish directly toward the horizons, like staring down the middle of a railroad bed. But for the sake of dramatic urban images, it’s more fun to seek out the twisty mutants of city design; the s-and-z curves, the sudden zigzags, the trapezoids and triangles which signify confusion to cabbies and pedestrians but which mean good times for photogs. Let’s face it; snapping pictures of orderly things gets old fast. The very nature that makes us idealize “rightness” also makes us want to photograph “wrongness.”
That’s why I love to shoot in towns where the city was laid out with all the logic of the Mad Hatter on speed, those streets that seem barely coherent enough to admit the successful conduct of trade. Cities where locals and visitors alike curse the names of the urban planners, if there ever had been planners, if there ever had been a plan. A grand collision of avenues and alleys that looks like a kid whose teeth are crowding together in a greedy orthodontist’s dream fantasy. In such cities, including Manhattan, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Boston and many others, “order” is a relative term. There are precious few neat streets vanishing back to infinity, politely lined by cooperative structures queueing up parallel to the curb. And that’s my kind of living, breathing… chaos.
As a mild example, consider the Boston street shown above, on which nearly every building seems slightly askew from every other building, sitting on foundations that jut out at every conceivable angle and plane. It’s a grand, glorious mess, and a much more interesting way to show the contrasting styles that have sprouted in the neighborhood over the centuries. It’s reality that looks like an optical illusion, and I can’t get enough of it.
A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it’s also the least interesting. Go find cities that make no sense, God bless ’em.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS INSTINCTIVELY SEEK OUT VARIATION. We spend so much time looking at so much of the world that a lot of it starts to sort itself into file folders of things, patterns, or places, pre-sorting our pictures into this or that category. Sunsets: see Nature. Famous Buildings: a sub-set of Travel. And so on, until we are fairly starved for some visual novelty to shock us out of our slumber and spur us on to new ways of seeing.
One of the things that settles most readily into sameness is the human dwelling. Most of us live in some kind of basic four-walls, bedroom-kitchen-bath sequence, making our living spaces fairly predictable as subject matter. By way of awe and admiration, the real geniuses of, magazine illustration, to me, have always been the “house beautiful” photographers, since they must spend year after year making Mr.& Mrs. J.D. Gotmore’s McMansions seem unique and bold. That said, there is something about nearly everyone’s castle that might be distinctive, even revelatory, about the people who live within. It’s all in your approach.
I love to explore the places where people are forced to improvise living spaces either near or as part of their work, places that usually exist in stark isolation as compared to the crush of crowded urban centers. In the above image, I was allowed to climb to a small viewing angle of the beacon room atop a coastal lighthouse in San Diego, and, perhaps because I was limited to a shooting stance below the surface of the room’s floor, the resulting photo further exaggerated the confined, angular working space, which sits above living areas further down the house’s twisty central staircase.
These areas pose more questions than they answer. What is it like to have this building be your entire world for long stretches of time? What kind of person can do this work? What is the center of this unusual story? The blurring of boundaries between working and living areas is among the most novel material a photographer can tackle, since it contains one of the things he craves most….mystery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORST SOCIAL FAUX PAS OF OUR TIME may be the dreaded “TMI”, or the sin of sharing Too Much Information, creating awkward moments by regaling our friends with intimate details of our recent colostomies or carnal conquests. Funny thing is, much as we hate having this badge of uncoolness pinned to our chest, we commit its photographic equivalent all the time, and without a trace of shame.
I’m talking about the other TMI, or Too Many Images.
Let’s face it. Social media has encouraged too many of us to use the Web as a surplus warehouse dump for our photographs, many of them as ill-considered as a teenage girl’s hair flip. We’ve entered an endless loop of shoot-upload-repeat which seldom contains a step labeled “edit”. Worse, the vast storage space in our online photo vaults encourage us to share everything we shoot without so much as a backwards glance.
I’m suggesting that we take steps to stop treating the internet like an EPA Superfund site for images. I have tried to maintain a regular schedule of viewing the rearmost pages of my online archives, stuff from five years ago or longer, learning to ruthlessly rip out the shots that time has proven do not work. The goal is to force myself to re-think my original intentions and make every single photograph earn its slot in my overall profile. There are, by my calculation, three main sub-headings that these duds fall under:
A bad idea, well executed. Okay, you nailed the exposure and worked the gear to a “T”, but the picture has no story. There’s nothing being communicated or shared. Just because it’s sharp and well-lit doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside your stronger work.
A good idea, poorly executed. Hey, if you believe so strongly in the concept, go back and do it right. Don’t give yourself a pass on bad technique because it was a noble effort.
An incomplete idea, which means it wasn’t even time to take the picture at all. Maybe you didn’t know how to get your message across, for whatever reason. Or maybe if you got the conception 100% right, it still wasn’t strong enough to jump off the page. The litmus test is, if you wouldn’t want someone’s random search of your stuff to land on this shot instead of your best one, lose it.
Online stats make some of these tortured choices a bit easier, since, when you are looking at low figures on shots that have been available forever, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t lighting up anyone’s world. And as lame as view and fave counts can be, they are at least an initial signal pointer toward sick cows that need to be thinned from the herd. The cure for photographic “TMI” is actually as easy as shooting for long enough to get better. With a wider body of work viewed over time, the strong stuff stands out in bolder contrast to the weaker stuff. And that shows you where to wield the scissors.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE SPEED, ECONOMY AND EASE IT HAS BROUGHT TO NEARLY EVERYONE, has allowed an incredible acceleration of the learning curve for shooters, a temporal shortcut that has effectively enabled people to master in years what used to take a lifetime (not to say a personal fortune). Without the lag time and cost baked into the film medium, photographers can shoot a lot. Like, a lot.
Problem is, this skyrocketing learning curve for shooting skill has not been accompanied by an accompanying curve in editing skill. As a matter of fact, the two skills are going in opposite directions. And that is a bad, bad thing.
In the film era, there was limited admission to the “photographer’s club” at the pro level, and all pros had some way of winnowing out their weaker work. They had editors, publishers, or some kind of independent eye to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only the best work was printed or displayed. Not everyone made the cut. Some of us had to admit that we didn’t have “it”. There was more to photography than the mere flick of our shutter fingers.
Now enter the digital age, and, with it, the ersatz democracy of the internet age. Suddenly, all of everyone’s photos are equal, or so we have come to think. All images go to the infinite shoebox of the web: the good stuff, the not-so-good stuff, the what-the-hell stuff, all of it. Accounts on Flickr and Instagram allow posters a massive amount of upload space, and there are few, if any strictures on content or quality. But here’s the ugly truth: if all of our photos are special, then none of them are.
You can take most of the formalized schools on photography and sink them in the nearest bog with no damage to any of us, with one singular exception: those tutorials which teach us how to objectively evaluate our own work. Knowing how to wield the scissors on one’s own “babies” is the most important skill in all of photography, because, without that judgement, no amount of technical acumen matters.
If you don’t learn what is good and how close or far you, yourself have come to that mark, then how can anything become exceptional, or excellent? If your work has never had to face real critical heat, there is no incentive for you to change or evolve. This is increasingly important for the millions of self-publishing shooters and scribblers like me who presume to pronounce on what photography is. Just cause we’re in print don’t mean we’re right, or even honest.
Art cannot grow in a vacuum, and so, I say again, if we can’t self-edit, we can’t claim to be photographers, not in any real way. The curve of honest self-evaluation must soar alongside the curve of technical acuity, or the whole thing’s a joke.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE THE 1990’s, THE MOST COMMON BASIC HUNK OF PHOTOGRAPHIC GLASS for new DSLRs has been the 18-55mm wide-angle, dubbed the “kit lens”. It allows beginners to move from landscape-friendly wides to moderate zooms without switching lenses. Depending on how much a given shooter experiments, the kit can allow for a lot of nuanced compositional options between the lens’ range.
If you find yourself shooting at the widest angle most of the time, then you are really using an effects lens, since, at 18mm, the lens is more than wide enough to distort angles and distances in ways that, while dramatic, don’t reflect the way your eyes actually see. This makes for expansive vistas in crowded urban streets and a little extra elbow room for mountain views, but is substantially more exaggerated than focal ranges from 35-50mm, which produce proportions more like human eyesight. However, the focal length you eventually choose has to be dictated by what you care to create; there can’t be any yardstick than that, all people’s opinions off to the side.
I have found a personal sweet spot by going a tad narrower, back to 24mm, and I also work with a dedicated prime lens that will only work at that exact focal length. By trimming back from 18mm, I find the distances from front to back in an image are a little more natural to my eye, and that I still have a yard of room from side to side without ushering in that Batman-type bending of perspective.
For comparison, I have re-shot subjects that I’d photographed at 18mm and found, at 24, no loss in impact. In the images in this post you can see the difference in how the two settings frame up. The composition in the 24 is a little tighter, but, if that’s not wide enough for you, you can simply step back a bit and there’s the same composition you saw in the 18, albeit with a little more normal proportion.
The most important thing with a variable focal length lens is to give yourself the flexibility of being able to get good results all through the focal range, simply to avoid getting too comfortable, i.e., sliding into a rut from always doing everything in the same way. Putting yourself into unfamiliar territory is always a good route to growth, and playing with your gear long enough to know everything it has to give you is the best way to periodically refresh your enjoyment.
When Grandma serves broccoli, you don’t gotta eat and pound-and-a-half of it, but heck, try it. You might like it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINTER IS A TIME OF MUTED COLORS, DIMINISHED SUNLIGHT and inner struggle. I’ve heard people refer to the leaner, darker months as the feeling of being shut up inside a box, almost like having yourself placed in storage. I would lop one side off of that polygon and say that, to me, it feels more like being locked in a triangle.
As a photographer, I feel as if, in winter, I sustain three distinct emotional “hits” about my work, forming the three sides of the triangle, all three pressing up against, and balancing, each other. These sides can be described as:
Not enough new or compelling ideas coming into my brain. A case of the “drys”.
Too much re-evaluation of all of my images that failed, along with a big fat dose of recrimination.
A near-crippling sadness over the photographic opportunities, many tied to people now departed, that I simply didn’t act upon, and which are now lost to me forever.
The first side of the triangle really isn’t unique to winter-time. I experience fallow periods throughout the year. They just ache more when amplified by slate-gray skies and dead trees. The second is to be expected, since spending more time indoors means rifling through old boxes of prints and slides, asking myself what the hell I was thinking when I chose this exposure or that subject, and ending the entire process by pitching some of those boxes into the incinerator. A needed exercise, but hardly anyone’s idea of a fun time.
No, it’s the third side of the triangle which is the real killer, since the photos that haunt you the worst are always the ones you didn’t take. Friendships pour additional salt into this particular wound, since, somehow, you never recorded quite enough of the faces which once were the common features of your world, and which time has, one by one, erased.
Your own personal list of pals-not-present grows steadily over the years, and the thought that you could have shot one less sunset to capture just one more portrait of some of them hurts. It’s not as if your emotional souvenirs of them aren’t burned into your mind’s eye. It’s not even that you might have done something magical or singular with their faces beyond another birthday candid. It’s simply that once you could, and now you can’t.
The triangle isn’t all torture. Breaking out of it means taking arms against ghosts, and (as Shakespeare said), by opposing, ending them. You not only have to keep shooting, but keep shooting mindfully. Because when all of this that we call reality finally drains through our fingers, the scraps of it that we leave behind really can matter. Even with triangles, there’s always one more side to the story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AGO, RONALD REAGAN, UPON VISITING HIS OLD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL for a presidential photo opportunity, famously asked the local administrators how they managed to shrink the desks in the classrooms. Of course he was joking, but the remark was a telling one; when we return to the scenes of our earliest dramas and farces, we tend to believe that some other outside force sneaked into the place, before our arrival, and somehow re-ordered reality. We laugh at Reagan’s quip because we can see ourselves saying the same thing. It’s all about us.
Just as we are pleasantly shocked to view the graduated pencil marks on our old kitchen wall that logged our increasing height at different ages, we marvel when we take cameras back to the same places where we took cameras in the past. We think we are measuring time in what we shoot, but we are actually measuring ourselves in how we shoot. A recent trip to my hometown afforded me time to roll around to a number of places where I have repeatedly returned over a lifetime, each time approaching photography, and myself, a little differently. In some cases, the first frames I ever shot of these sites go back over forty years, and, good pictures or bad, the results are a few universes away from those first efforts.
How can it be otherwise? I don’t see the same way. I don’t look to see in the same way. Years ago, I was still enthralled with the idea of capturing an image in the box….any image. Hey, it worked. It’s not a stretch to say that, when I first learned to load and wind film or squint into a viewfinder, I was still amazed by the process alone, the idea of freezing time being an inexplicable miracle to me. Beyond hungering to produce my own miracles, I had no concept as to what I should be seeking, or saying.
One thing that has changed over the years is that I no longer try to stop the world with, you know, The Image. There is no “the” anymore, only “the next”. The thing I need to learn to make the picture will come, in time, if I spend long enough thinking or feeling my way through the problem. The photograph, I now know, is already in there, someplace. I just have to carve and peel until it emerges. In the images you see here, I have finally, decades hence, become ready to register the unknown in a familiar place.
To my amazement, I can actually pre-imagine a shot now, with a reasonable hope of eventually making my hand cash the check my eye has written. Back when I started, every picture was an accident….sometimes happy, often frustrating. Now, as I point my lens toward locales that are old friends, I know that they, largely, are constant. It is I who has moved. There’s some comfort, and lots of possibility, in realizing that the desks didn’t really shrink.
I just learned to stand up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO APPREHEND THE OVERALL DESIGN OF A SPACE, be it a midtown skyscraper or a suburban cathedral, is to see it the way the designer originally envisioned it; as a logical arrangement of spaces and shapes. Sometimes, viewing the layout of floors, lobbies, or courtyards from the top-down, or “bird’s-eye” view of the original design sketches is especially helpful, since it takes our eye far enough away from a thing to appreciate its overall conception. It’s also not a bad thing for a photographer to do when trying to capture common spaces in a new way. Move your camera, change your view, change the outcome of your images.
The overarching vision for a place can be lost at ground, or “worker bee” level, in the horizontal plane along which we walk and arrange our viewpoint. Processing our understanding of architecture laterally can only take us so far, but it almost seems too simple to suggest that we shift that processing just by changing where we stand. And yet you will invariably learn something compositionally different just by forcing yourself to visualize your subjects from another vantage point.
I’m not suggesting that the only way to shake up your way of seeing big things is to climb to the top floor and look down. Or descend to the basement and look up, for that matter. Sometimes it just means shooting a familiar thing from a fresh angle that effectively renders it unfamiliar, and therefore reinvents it to your eye. It can happen with a different lens, a change in the weather, a different time of day. The important thing is that we always ask ourselves, almost as a reflex, whether we have explored every conceivable way to interpret a given space.
Each fresh view of something re-orders its geometry in some way, and we have to resist the temptation to make much the same photographs of a thing that everyone else with a camera has always done. We’re not in the postcard business, so we’re not supposed to be in the business of assuring people with safe depictions of things, either. Photography is about developing a vision, then ripping it up, taping it back together out-of-order, shredding that, and assembling it anew, again and again. In a visual medium, any other approach will just make us lazy and make our art flat and dull.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THOSE WHO BELIEVE THAT SUBJECT MATTER IS KING IN PHOTOGRAPHY ARE FACED OFF in an endless tennis match with those who believe that only impressions, not subjects, are the heart of the art. Go away for fifty or sixty years and they are still volleying: WAP! a photograph without an objective is a waste of time! WAP! who needs an object to tell a story? Emotional impact is everything! And so on. Pick your side, pick your battle, the argument isn’t going anywhere.
Thing is, my assertion is that you don’t actually have to choose a side. Just let the assignment at hand dictate whether subject or interpretation is your objective. There are times when the object itself provides the story, from a venerable cathedral to an eloquently silent forest. And there are times when mere color, light patterns, or texture are more than enough to tell your tale.
I find, for example, that texture is one of my best friends when it comes to conveying a number of important things. The passage and impact of time. The feel and contour of materials, as well as the endless combinations and patterns they achieve through aging and weathering. A way to completely redefine an object by getting close enough to value its component parts instead of viewing it as a whole. This is especially true as I try to refine my approach to images of buildings. I find that breaking the overall structure into smaller, more manageable sections helps to amplify texture, to make it louder and prouder than it might be if a larger scene just included the entire building among other visual elements. Change the distance from your story and you change the story itself.
This Massachusetts barn has tons of character whether seen near or far, but if I frame it to eliminate anything but the raw feel of the wood, it demands attention in a completely different way. It asks for re-evaluation.Contrast the rough-sawn wood with the hard red of the windows,and, again, you’ve boosted the effect of the coarser texture. Opposing textures create a kind of rudimentary tug-of-war in a picture, and the more stark the contrasts, the more dramatic the impact.
Traditional, subject-driven story telling will dictate that you show the entire barn, maybe with surrounding trees and a rolling hill or two. Abstracting it a little in terms of color, distance and texture just tell the story in a distinct way. Your camera, your choice.