By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS NO SINGLE GUARANTEED SPARK for the creative process. As photographers, we move through the world on completely random tracks, and so there can be no set order for the things we will see, what their impact will be upon us, or indeed whether they will register with us at all. The development of a photographic “eye” is uneven and happens in fits and starts, not as a steady uphill climb from ignorance to enlightenment. Understandably, we all have different poets, or guides, that speak to us in this process.
It’s certainly not a stretch to connect Henry David Thoreau with contemplation, as well as the search for one’s role in the natural world. But maybe you’re not a tree and flower person. Maybe your Thoreau is found in a quiet room, or a back street, or the face of someone you love. The main thing is that, in the act of making images, we all choose influencers, teachers, gurus. Something someone did or said sometime leaves its mark on us. So forgive the decidedly “nature-y” bias of the image seen here, as well as the several sayings by Mr. T. listed below. They work well in tandem for me, but I think they also may remind you of your own personal guidepost, be it person or thing. Something lit the spark in you to make you want to capture light in a box in your very singular. Listen to that voice, and let it both anchor you and set you free.
Semi-photographic philosopher’s stones from the Laureate of Walden:
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.
Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.
There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.
and, finally, one that makes all the difference, whether you are clicking a camera shutter or building a tower:
Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.
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
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
THE ABILITY OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, EVERYWHERE, TO INSTANTLY SHARE any part of his or her output with the world is both a blessing and curse. The “blessing” part’s easy to understand. Breaking down the barriers to publication of ideas that have separated us all from each other throughout time…well, that’s a very heady thing. Pictures can now transmit commentary at nearly the speed of thought, establishing linkages and narratives that have the potential to shape history.
Then there’s the “curse” part, in which this very same technology carries with it the potential for unlimited treachery and mischief. Who says what pictures can be seen…when, and by whom? Without supervisory curation or any kind of global uber-editor, photography can just be a visual torrent of garbage, or banality, or worse. Obviously, we have had to navigate some very tricky waters as both the blessing and curse elements of modern photography wrestle for supremacy.
What has happened for, good or ill, is that we are all, suddenly, tasked with being our own editors, asked to perform a skill that is very difficult to bring off with any honesty. You’d think that, after years of taking thousands of pictures, most of us would have a higher yield of excellence from all that work, but I have found that, at least for myself, the opposite is proving true. The more I shoot, the fewer of all those shots strike me as extraordinary. I thought that practice would indeed make perfect, or that, at least, I’d come closer to the mark more often, the more images I cranked off. But that hasn’t happened.
Your skills accelerate over time, certainly; but so do your standards. In fact, any really honest self-editing journey will mean you are less and less satisfied with the same pictures, today, that, just yesterday, you would have thought your best work. You start to refuse to cut certain marginal pictures a break; you stop grading yourself on the curve.
Most importantly, you have been doing this just long enough to realize how very long the journey to mastery will be. Not just control of the mechanics of a camera, although that certainly takes time. No, we’re talking about learning to tame the wild horse of one’s own undisciplined vision, something that, over a lifetime, is hardly begun. Our moon landings come to look to us like baby steps.
Becoming one’s own editor means that, through the years, you’re liable to view one of your “greatest hits” from yesteryear and be able, sadly, to see the huge gulf between what you were trying to do and what you actually accomplished. I was horrified, a few years ago, to learn that my father, at some point, had destroyed the paintings he had made when he was in college. I had grown up with those images and thought them powerful, but he only saw their shortcomings, and, at some time or other, it was just too much to bear. I often think of those paintings now, whenever I view an older picture that I once thought of as “my truth”. In some cases, I can’t see anything in them but the attempt. A few of them do survive the years with something genuine to say…but, ask me again tomorrow, and I may reluctantly transfer many of them over to the “nice try” pile. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s only one I trust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A PHOTOGRAPHER, AND YET I CANNOT TELL YOU WHAT “REALITY” IS.
I point machines at the world and I get some kind of recording of light and shadow. Is what I get a literal translation of the way something, at least for an instant, really was? How did my composition, which necessarily had to leave out some things in order to include others, alter the complete truth of a scene? How did my selection of a lens, a time of day, the place where I stand, my own mood effect the outcome? And, if this machine, this recorder does not actually show “reality”, does that make me more of an artist, or less of a technician?
The world as we see it is never mere visual “evidence”. It comes to us filtered through every personal trait that shapes our ability to observe in the first place. Then we, in turn, filter that subjective experience into an even greater abstraction, shoving it through a lens that adds its own biases, limits, or flaws. So what comes out the other end? Should we even be worried that a photograph can’t be real? Might we not, in fact, be relieved to be freed from the constraints of the actual, just as painters and sculptors always have been?
The above image was taken by a person who stood in a particular place at a particular time with a specific piece of optical equipment and decided that the resulting balance of visual elements constituted a “picture”. That selection of a single part of a single moment will either convey a similar feeling to someone else, or it won’t. That’s what we uncertainly refer to as “art”, and, whether we like the terms of engagement, those “really” are the terms. Reality is beyond our reach.
But a commentary on it isn’t.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE LONG SINCE ABANDONED THE TASK OF CALCULATING HOW MANY DIGITAL IMAGES ARE CREATED every second of every day. The numbers are so huge as to be meaningless by this time, as the post-film revolution has removed most of the barriers that once kept people from (a) taking acceptable images or (b) doing so quickly. The global glut of photographs can never again be held in check by the higher failure rate, longer turnaround time, or technical intimidation of film.
Now we have to figure out if that’s always a good thing.
Back in the 1800’s. Photography was 95% technical sweat and 5% artistry. Two-minute exposures, primitive lenses and chancey processing techniques made image-making a chore, a task only suited to the dedicated tinkerer. The creation of cheap, reliable cameras around the turn of the 20th century tilted the sweat/artistry ratio a lot closer to, say, 60/40, amping up the number of users by millions, but still making it pretty easy to muck up a shot and rack up a ton of cost.
You know the rest. Making basic photographs is now basically instantaneous, making for shorter and shorter prep times before clicking the shutter. After all, the camera is good enough to compensate for most of our errors, and, more importantly, able to replicate professional results for people who are not professionals in any sense of the word. That translates to billions of pictures taken very, very quickly, with none of the stop-and-think deliberation that was baked into the film era.
We took longer to make a picture back in the day because we were hemmed in by the mechanics of the process. But, in that forced slowing, we automatically paid more active attention to the planning of a greater proportion of our shots. Of course, even in the old days, we cranked out millions of lousy pictures, but, if we were intent on making great ones, the process required us to slow down and think. We didn’t take 300 pictures over a weekend, 150 of them completely dispensable, nor did we record thirty “takes” of Junior blowing out his birthday candles. Worse, the age’s compulsive urge to share, rather than to edit, has also contributed to the flood tide of photo-litter that is our present reality.
If we are to regard photography as an art, then we have to judge it by more than just its convenience or speed. Both are great perks but both can actually erode the deliberation process needed to make something great. There are no short cuts to elegance or eloquence. Slow yourself up. Reject some ideas, and keep others to execute and refine. Learn to tell yourself “no”.
There is an old joke about an airpline pilot getting on the intercom and telling the passengers that he’s “hopelessly lost, but making great time”. Let’s not make pictures like that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH PAINTING AS ITS INITIAL INFLUENCE, THE YOUNG ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY spent its first years trying to record transcendent scenes of the world, from landscapes to portraits, in much the same elegant, poetic way that such subjects were translated to the canvas. Partly due to the limits of early exposure media, the task of making a picture was slower in those first years, almost a contemplative act. And so, in pace and mood, the strange new machine seemed intent on imitating its painterly elder, at least in part to make the argument that even a machine could be imbued with an artist’s eye.
Then came faster film and faster events. The images of war and the advancing grind of city life coincided with the introduction of more responsive films. The snapshot, the ability to catch an accelerating world on the fly, became commonplace. Photography took on a new role as reporter’s tool, a way to visually testify to human problems and their impacts. Photojournalism, in turn, gave way to commerce, which created an image bias in news coverage that persists to the present day. Photos take their tone from the needs of the marketplace. Tragedy outsells beauty. If it bleeds, it leads. Pulitzer prizes aren’t awarded to people who make pictures of daffodils.
And yet, there is a greater need for pictorial beauty than ever before, simply so that our visual diet doesn’t consist solely of red meat and blood. Certainly, the sensational holds tremendous sway over what gets published, re-printed, re-tweeted. The images that stamp themselves on our brains hold many traumas and dramas. Admittedly, some have sparked outrage, which in turn spurs action, and that can be a good thing. But photography can make us hard and jaded as well, and we dare not squeeze beauty into the margins of our consumption. Pictures shape feelings, and they can also condition us to feel less and less about more and more.
From Lewis Hine’s harrowing pictures of children in cotton mills to present-day iPhone dispatches from the latest repressions or riots, photographs are the seismograph of our collective consciences. But just as man cannot live on bread alone, he cannot subsist solely on nightmares. Beauty, harmony, aspiration, hope….we need to capture all these as well, lest, under the barrage of the shell and the bullet, the butterfly is blasted into extinction.
It’s a question of balance.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT IRONIES, YOU TRULY BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER the first time you consider chucking all your gear off a cliff and never taking a picture again. Just as you can’t understand faith until you nearly lose it, you can’t really become an excellent maker of pictures unless you’ve been paralyzed, even a little frightened, in considering the distance between what you know and what you need to know.
All visual arts, all arts in general, really, are pursuits. We are chasing something, either in our work or in ourselves. Maybe both. We don’t always know what it is, but we sure as hell know what it’s not. Calling forth an image from a mix of instinct, experience and light seems like an easy thing, since there are so many cameras that deliver acceptable pictures with a minimum of effort. Unlike the early days of the medium, it’s no longer an uphill struggle technically getting “a” picture.
Ah, but getting “the” picture…that’s the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes, that challenge seems glorious. A crusade. Other times, it’s a slog. And, occasionally, the wandering between what you see in your head and what you can deliver in a given picture is exhausting, and you will sometimes want to stop. For good. Many do, and many more ache to.
The technical part of photography can certainly be taught, just as there is not that much to the mere mechanics of hitting a baseball or driving a car. Getting to the excellence, however, is daunting. And if you’re hung up on destinations, on “getting there”, realizing that it’s actually about the journey can be heartbreaking. You want to arrive at perfection, and you realize that you never can.
You have to learn to live on little glimpses of the prize, those flickers of wow when an image starts to take on its own life. That’s the payoff. Not praise, or publication, or a million “likes” on Instagram. Because it really doesn’t matter a damn what others think of your work. If you don’t love it, all the applause in the world just becomes noise. The pictures have to be there. For you. The wandering has to amount to something.
Once you learn to find fault in even your favorite brainchildren, you can father better ones going forward. Even better, once you know what your work looks like when you’re lost, the closer you are to being found. Eventually, photography is like anything else you can care passionately about. The fire carries you through when the progress won’t.
So hang on. There’s light up ahead.
Go catch it.
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
MOST YEAR-END ROUND-UP LISTS, from rosters of hot-selling New York Times books to summaries of the most binge-worthy tv titles, tend, in our marketing-based society, to be “best-of’s”, rankings of what’s hot and what (since it didn’t make the list) is not. I’m certainly not immune to these sales-skewed tabulations, but, in strictly artistic terms, there should also be lists that are more like “most representative of” rather than “best”.
There’s a very human reason for this distinction. Creative people are often fonder of the their personal also-rans than their personal bests. We cherish the effort, as much as, if not more than, the race results. He who came in first and he who gave it the best go are often two different people (or two different works of art), and our hearts go out (especially in the case of our own work) to the stuff that shows our growth rather than our success.
And that’s where I find my head at the end of this photographic year.
Up top of the screen, starting today, there’s a tab for a new gallery page called Fifteen for 15. Now, quickly, guess how many pictures there are in it. Then guess what year they came from. Yeah, I’m really that dull. The images therein aren’t necessarily my technical best, perhaps not even the pictures that work the best for you as an audience. But they do comprise a pretty fair sampling of every direction in which I was attempting to stretch during the year, and maybe that’s more important than a mere brag-sheet of home runs.
I used to think my goal was to develop a style that didn’t, ha ha, look like a style (oh, these artists!) . Now, I actually want to try to create a chronicle of everywhere that I stepped outside my comfort zone, since that’s where both the spectacular wins and the astounding misses reside. And if I can finish out a given calendar year and point to at least a baker’s dozen of shots that show me at least trying to color outside the lines, I’ll call that year a success. With lists, “Best-Of’s” are great for the ego. However, “Representative-Of’s” may be better for the soul.
So, that happened.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN DRENCHED IN A VIRTUAL TIDAL WAVE over the last few days, visiting one of those torrential storms of discontent that can only exist on the internet, churning furiously, forever, no resolution, no winner. I don’t know when it began; I only know that, six months, a year, or a decade from now, if I return for more, the storm will still be raging, the two forces inexhaustible in their contempt for each other.
In one corner will be the photographers who believe that equipment has no determination in whether you make great pictures. In the other corner will be those who believe that you absolutely need good gear to make good images. The invective hurled by each combatant at the other is more virulent than venom, more everlasting than a family feud, more primal than the struggle between good and evil.
If you dig bloodsport, enter the maelstrom at the shallow end by Googling phrases like “Leicas are not the greatest cameras” or “your camera doesn’t matter” and then jump behind a barricade. Do more provocative searches like “hipsters are ruining photography” or “don’t think, just shoot” at your peril.
As with many other truth quests in photography, this one shows strong evidence for both of the waves in the surge. Certainly a great piece of equipment cannot confer its greatness upon you, or your work. And, from the other side, sometimes a camera’s limitations places limits, or at least austere challenges, upon even superbly talented people. And, so, to my mind, there is a third, more consistently true wave: sometimes there is a magic that makes it to the final frame that is mysterious, in that you don’t know how much of the picture you took, how much the camera took, or just how ready the cosmos was to serve that picture up to you. See image above, which I can no longer take either credit or blame for.
Yeah, that’s a little Zen high priest in tone, but look over your own work, especially things you did five or more years ago, where it’s now difficult to recall the exact circumstances of the success of a given image. Pull out the pictures that could be correctly captioned “I don’t know how I got that shot”, “I guess I just went for broke”, or “don’t ask me why that worked out..” There will be more pictures that fall between the extremes, that are neither “thank God I had my cool camera” nor “thank God I was able to make that image despite my limited gear.” That middle ground is the place where miracles thrive, or die on the vine. That strange intersection of truth , far beyond the lands of my-side/your-side heat, is where lies the real light.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
T.S. ELIOT ONCE ASKED, POIGNANTLY, ‘WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?‘ as if there could be no lonelier thing in this weary world. However, had he been a photographer, he might also have mused about the sound of one wife sighing, as her husband assures her that “I just need one more shot“, or “you can all go ahead, I’ll meet you at the gift shop.” Such assurances would be enough to send Mrs. Eliot’s one hand clapping T.S. soundly about the ears.
We really do hear the steam escaping from our wives’ ears as we mutter about whether we need a prime lens or a wide-angle for our next masterpiece. We understand that it’s not much fun watching your beloved stare at a pile of junk in a dark alley, pondering whether it all makes a profound statement about the state of the world. We get the fact that you might prefer that we answer your question about whether your mother should come and live with us, rather than mumble, “if I close down to f/11 to get past that glare, I’m gonna lose two stops of light…”
In short, we know what a colossal pain it is to be with someone who constantly hauls around a mad gaggle of gears, gauges, geegaws and gadgets. We even realize that you might have a hard time remembering the last time you saw us walking around on only two legs…..you know, without the tripod.
We stipulate that, sometimes, a hunk of rock is just a hunk of rock, not a canvas on which to mount our genius, just as “a little light reading” to the rest of the world might mean a beach thriller by Robert Crais, not the flash attachment section of the B&H Video catalog. We even admit that it’s a little catty of us to stare across the room at a restaurant and make our one contribution to the table’s conversation with, “look at that stupid guy. He’s not even framing up his shot!”
Yes, ladies, we need to not so much “get a life” as to get a slightly larger, wider one. So, thank you for reminding us that, if we fall off this mountain by stepping back for the perfect composition, we might make orphan our children. Thank you for occasionally filling us in on certain details of said children’s lives, such as their proper names, birthdays, distinguishing features, etc. Thank you for not wincing when we name the family dog Steiglitz. Thank you for not leaving us for dead when we use the foil cover from your best picnic casserole for a makeshift bounce reflector.
Mostly, as in the above scene, we humbly thank you for not seizing the opportunity to dump us and our dratted gear in the nearest abyss.
And then taking a picture of it.
And then laughing, hysterically.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, IF IT TRULY IS AN ART (and I’m assuming you believe it is), can never get to a place where it’s “done”. There is no Finished, there ain’t no Clock Out, and there shouldn’t be any Good Enough. There is only where you are and the measurable distance between there and where you want to be. And, once you get there, the chains get moved down the field to the next first down, and the whole drill starts over again.
That means that, as photographers, we are always just about to find ourselves uncomfortable, or need to try to make ourselves that way. Standing still equals stale, which, in turn, equals “why bother?” Sure, the first step toward a new plateau always feels like walking off a cliff, but it needs to, if we’re to improve. If your work feels like something you’ve done before, chances are it is. And if a new assignment or challenge doesn’t come from outside yourself, then you’ve got to do something to put the risk back in the process.
You can write your own prescription. Shoot all day with a limited camera. Do everything in b&w. Make yourself compose shots that are the dead opposite of what you believe looks “right”. Use the “wrong” lens for the assignment at hand. Force yourself to do an entire day’s work in the same aperture, shutter speed, or white balance. Just throw some kind of monkey wrench into your routine, before the routine becomes the regular rhythm (spelled “rut”) of your work. The words comfort and create don’t fit comfortably in the same sentence. Be okay with that.
We can’t always count on crazed bosses, tight deadlines or visionary mentors to nudge us toward the next best version of ourselves. Learn how to kick yourself in the butt and you’ll always be in problem-solving mode. That means more mistakes, which in turn means a speedier learning curve. You never learn anything repeating your past successes, so don’t curl up next to them like some comfortable chair. Put it all out there. Make the imperfect day work for you, and pray that there’s another one waiting after that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOT UNFAIR TO ARGUE THAT MOST MAJOR PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FAR MORE ELOQUENT with their lenses than with their tongues. The fact that their eyes speak volumes is what distinguishes them as artists, not whatever quick quips they may toss off about why they do what they do. There are a few shooters per generation, however, who really add to the art by sharing the motivations that accompany the making of it. Joe McNally is one such photographer.
Joe, whose work ranges from National Geographic, Life, and Sports Illustrated to his groundbreaking Faces Of Ground Zero, speaks not as a pristine philosopher, but as the grizzled, hard-boiled, run-and-gun, reality-anchored pro that he is. He knows deadlines. He knows the cigar-chomping breath of hate-crazed editors. He know what moves, both emotionally and commercially. And he has written two of the era’s best books (The Moment It Clicks and Hotshoe Diaries) on the real struggles that arise for the professional in the field. No esoteric essays. Just straight-from-the-shoulder truths from the world. A few Joe-isms to treasure forever:
No matter how much crap you gotta plow through to stay alive as a photographer, no matter how many bad assignments, bad days, bad clients, snotty subjects, obnoxious handlers, wigged-out art directors, technical disasters, failures of the mind, body, and will, all the shouldas, couldas, and wouldas that befuddle our brains and creep into our dreams, always remember to make room to shoot what you love. It’s the only way to keep your heart beating as a photographer.
or: I can’t tell you how many pictures I’ve missed, ignored, trampled, or otherwise lost just ‘cause I’ve been so hell bent on getting the shot I think I want.
This is the voice of a guy who’s been stomped on, crowded out, smashed up and beaten silly in the cause of a picture. This is a go-to guy when you want to learn about how to make tough calls and hard choices. And it’s the indefatigable spirit of photography telling you that, however you go out, don’t come back in without the picture. That means to always be looking, and to always be ready, and willing to:
Put it to your eye. You never know. There are lots of reasons, some of them even good, to just leave it on your shoulder or in your bag. Wrong lens. Wrong light. Aaahhh, it’s not that great, what am I gonna do with it anyway? I’ll have to put my coffee down. I’ll just delete it later, why bother? Lots of reasons not to take the dive into the eyepiece and once again try to sort out the world into an effective rectangle. It’s almost always worth it to take a look.
And how does he shoot? Twice as good as he talks. Photographers need, always, to reject comfort, familiarity, habit, ease. Joe’s “Gee” eye reminds us to stay hungry.
And stay on the job.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE USED TO BE A CARTOON THAT SHOWED A MAN WITH A LITERAL HOLE IN HIS HEAD, described by the caption as being “open-minded”, as if that were a negative, rather than a positive, quality. Regardless of what this says of the popular notion regarding the intellectually flexible among us, it actually reminds me that the best approach to some of the best photography in the world can be, as near as possible, no approach at all.
Okay, everyone sit back down. The old village crank isn’t proposing that one should not be mindful, or operate from a plan, when tackling a photo shoot. Merely pointing out that, if you’re honest, you can certainly point to pictures that you’ve over-thought to the point of sterility, draining the results of anything reflexive, impulsive, or instinctual. Moreover, it’s all too easy to map out a procedure for what you hope to do, then fall into desperate love with said procedure for its own sake. My, what a lovely, lovely little blueprint. Let’s not deviate from it an inch.
This little comic book of mine doesn’t have but a few meager themes, but one of them is that the best pictures land on your nose like an errant butterfly while you’re busy planning something very different. You may not select from your favorite phrase for this process, including Dumb Luck, Serendipity, Being At One With Your Chakras, or Accidentally Stepping In Roses. Point is, there are pictures to be extracted everywhere, not just where you feel like looking. Being open-minded doesn’t mean you have a hole in the head.
One really cheap and easy way to remind yourself of this idea is to compile, right here and now, a file of your images that were great in spite of the fact that they were not what you were initially after. Things that distracted you, with delightful results. Things that began by feeling wrong, then turned wonderfully right. Keep that file, label it Who The Hell Shot This?, and add to it over a lifetime to remind you that a stranger sometimes comes into your process and leaves you golden eggs.
Artists love to see themselves as flautists making beautiful music, when, actually, we are, in our luckiest moments, the flute itself, the wind rushing through us to facilitate melody. Now, translate that concept to photography, and ask: what does it matter whether you take the picture or the picture takes you?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, IN THE NATURAL COURSE OF THEIR CONTINUING DEVELOPMENT, will, at one point or another, get hopelessly lost. Stuck. Stranded on a desert island. Fumbling for the way out of the scary forest. Artistically adrift. Call it a dead spot, a dry spell, or shooter’s cramp, but you can expect to hit a stretch of it at some time. The pictures won’t come. You can’t buy an idea. And, worst of all, you worry that it will last……like forever.
At such times it’s a great idea to turn yourself into a rabid researcher. The answer to how to get unstuck is, really, out there. In your pictures or in someone else’s. Let’s look at both resources.
Your own past photographs are a file folder of both successes and failures. Pore over both. There are specific reasons that some pictures worked, and other’s didn’t. Approach them with a fresh eye, as if a complete stranger had asked you to assess his portfolio. And be both generous and ruthless. You’re looking for truth here, not a security blanket.
Beyond your own stuff, start drilling down to the divinity of your heroes, those legends whose pictures amaze you, and who just might able to kick your butt a little. And, just so we’re being fair, don’t confine yourself to studying just the gold standard guys. Make yourself look at a whole bunch of bad upstarts and find something, even a small thing, that they are doing right that you’re not. Discover a newbie who shoots like an angel, or an Ansel. Empathize with someone who needs even more help than you do. Once you have mercy on someone else’s lack of perfection, it’s a lot easier to forgive it in yourself.
We “artistes” love to believe that all greatness happens in isolation, just our art and us and the great god Inspiration. But even when you shoot alone, you’re in a kind of phantom collaboration with everyone else who ever took a picture. And that’s as it should be. Slumps happen. But the magic will come back. You just need to know how to reboot your mojo.
And smile. It’s photography, after all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE HAVE A LIFETIME OF HEART-TO-HEART TALKS with ourselves, seeking the answer to questions like “what’s this I see?”, or “what do I want to tell?” Tricky thing is, of course, that, as time progresses, you are talking with a variety of conversational partners. As we age, we re-engineer nearly every choice-making process or system of priority. I loved Chef-By-Ar-Dee as an eight-year-old, but the sight of the old boy would probably make me gag at 63. And so it goes with clothing, choice of good reads, and, of course photography.
One of the things it’s prudent to do over the years is to take the temperature of present-day You, to really differentiate what that person wants in an image, versus what seemed essential at other stages in your life. I know that, in my case, my favorite photographers of fifty years ago bear very little resemblance to the ones I see as signposts today.
As a boy, I was in love with technical perfection and a very literal form of storytelling. Coming up in an artist’s household, I saw photos as illustrations, that is, subservient to some kind of text. I chose books for their pictures, yes, but for how well they visualized the writing in those books. The house was chock full of the mass-appeal photo newsmagazines of that day, from Life to Look to National Geographic to the Saturday Evening Post, periodicals that chose pictures for how well they completed the stories they decorated. A picture-maker for me, then, basically a writer’s assistant.
By my later school years, I began, slowly, to see photographs as statements unto themselves, something beyond language. They were no longer merely aids to understanding a writer’s position, but separate, complete entities, needing no intro, outro or context. The pictures didn’t have to be “about” anything, or if they were, it wasn’t a thing that was necessarily literal or narrative. Likewise, the kind of pictures I was interested in making seemed, increasingly, to be unanchored from reference points. Some people began to ask me, “why’d you make a picture of that?” or “why aren’t there any people in there?”
By this time in my life, I sometimes feel myself rebelling against having any kind of signature style at all, since I know that any such choice will eventually be shed like snake-skin in deference to some other thing I’ll deem important. For a while. What this all boils down to is that the journey has become more important than the destination, at least for my photography. What I learn is often more important than what I do about it.
And some days, I actually hope I never get where I’m going.
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
YOU COULD ARGUE ALL DAY ABOUT WHETHER PUBLIC SPACES POSSESS MORE VISUAL POTENTIAL when they are full or when they are dead empty, and, depending on your photographic approach, both arguments would be correct. In other words, instead of a hard-and-fast truth, you have multiple truths, depending on which space is shot by which photographer under such-and-such circumstances. Hey, if ya want a vague premise, I’m your boy.
Plazas, train platforms, museums, places of worship, restaurants, sports arenas…..all the places where people convene in big mobs have all produced stunning images taken when said places contain no people at all. After hours, before opening, last call, snow days…there are endless reasons why people don’t go to places, and the unfilled space created by their absence is a separate kind of compositional challenge.
I have stated in previous posts on this forum that, for me, museums are tremendous sources of negative space, and yet positive possibilities,when devoid of crowds. Maybe it’s when people are about to be somewhere, when something is nearly ready to happen, that public places possess a certain, well, suspense. Whatever the phenomenon, I feel it, and will always squeeze off a few shots while the moment lasts.
Similarly, eateries are both potentially joyful and potentially lonely, and that kind of uncertainty excites me as a photographer. But you may be on the opposite side of the discussion. I can certainly understand that some would see a bunch of empty tables and chairs as depressing, unmistakably desolate. But I think it depends on the photograph, and I think it always will. There are many images of two people seated together at a cafe who are, sadly, miles apart due to their estrangement, and there are an equal number of pics of a hall just before celebrants from a wedding stream in. As with so much in photography, feeling comes both from what you did and didn’t show.