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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY YEAR AT THIS TIME, AS I HIT THE RESET BUTTON ON MY LIFE VIA SOME KIND OF BIRTHDAY RITUAL, I pause to wonder, again, whether I’ve really learned anything at all in over fifty years of photography. Surely, by this late date, the habit of shooting constantly should have assured me that I had “arrived” at some place in terms of viewpoint or style, right? And yet, I still feel as if I am just barely inches off the starting line in terms of what there is left to learn, and how much more I need to know about seeing. It’s a great feeling in that it keeps things perpetually fresh, but I often wonder if I’ll ever make it to that mirage I see ever ahead of me.
The aging process, and how that continually remaps your perception, is one of the least pondered areas of criticism as it pertains to photography. And that’s very strange. We track the evolution of technical acuity over a lifetime. We date ourselves in reference to a piece of equipment we acquired, an influential person who crossed our path, or a body of work, but we don’t thoroughly examine how much our photography is being changed completely because the person making the picture is in constant flux. How can we ignore what seems to be the biggest shaper of our vision over time? We don’t even want the same things in an image from one year to the next, so how can we take photos in our maturity anything like those we shot in our youth?
Looking back to my first images, it’s clear that I thought the mere opportunity for a picture plus the act of clicking a shutter would result in a good picture, a kind of “cool view+camera=art” equation. This is to say that, instead of thinking, “I could make a good picture from this”, I was actually thinking, “this would be a good picture.” I know that sounds like hair-splitting of the first order, but the two statements are, in fact, different. The first implies that the camera plus the subject will automatically result in something solid; it’s a snapshot philosophy. The second statement is made by someone who has been frustrated by so many snapshots that he knows he has to step into the process as an active player. That realization can only come with age.
As always, my father’s admonition that art is a process rather than a product emerges as my prime directive. When I look at the pictures made by a twelve-year old me, I can at least see what the little punk was going for, and I can measure whether I’ve gotten any closer to that ideal than he did. The trick is for old me to want it as badly as young me did, and when that happens, I forget how many candles are on the cake, and am just grateful that their light still burns brightly.
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
BOY HOWDY, DO WE LOVE LISTS. Classifications. Stratifications. Ranks. Pecking Orders. Best Of. Worst Of.
Books you need to read before you die (how could you read them otherwise?). The Ten Biggest Errors in The Phantom Menace (not counting the error in making it in the first place). Guinness Records. Pillsbury Bake-Off Finalists. The number of times Burt Ward said “Holy”-something in Batman. And, for photographers, the inevitable (and ubiquitous) lists of Most Common Photographic Mistakes.
You’ve read ’em. I’ve read ’em. We both probably have actually learned something from one or another of them. And yet, I find something strangely consistent in most of these lists; they nearly all address technical issues only. Everything from selecting the perfect depth-of-field to a kindly reminder to remove your lens cap, but very, very little about the deciding factor in all great photographs, namely, having something to say. Tech tutorials are constantly torturing themselves into tabulated commandments, all the “thou shalts”, but it is rare that the aesthetic issues, the “why shoot?” arguments, are given equal billing. This impoverishes the literature of an art that should be more about intentions and outcomes than gear or settings.
If there has been any one bonanza from the democratization of photography (through smart phones, lomography, etc), it’s been the stunning reminder that your camera doesn’t matter as much as what you can wring out of it. Eventually we’ll be able to interface with our own senses, literally taking a picture in the wink of an eye (or the sniff of a nose, if you prefer), and, with every other device used before that to freeze time, it will rise or fall with the input of the photographer’s mind/heart. If equipment was the only factor that could confer photographic greatness then only rich people would be photographers, but that is obviously not the case.
With that in mind, lists of do’s and don’ts for photographers that only focus on the technical are (1) sending the erroneous message that only the mastery of technology is necessary for great pictures, and (2) ignoring the x-factor in the human spirit that truly makes the pictures come forth. If you can obey all the “thou shalts” and still make lousy images (and you can), then you know there is something else missing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALONG WITH DARK MEAT, CRANBERRY SAUCE, AND THE PERFECT YAM, I find unending Thanksgiving nourishment from the words of every photographer who has gone before me. And if this week marks our annual listing of gifts and gratitude, I would offer, as no less important than family and friends, the collected Wisdom Of Shooters Past as a hearty, ten-course meal for amateurs and professionals alike to feast on. It’s nice to remember that we are all trying to learn to see, and see well, and is an encouraging reminder that, behind all great lenses, there are great minds. The thought precedes the image, and, indeed, without that spark, we are all just mechanics.
Therefore, without further ado, ten noble sentiments on the fine art of harnessing light, for this day of thanks:
It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.—-Alfred Eisenstaedt
Photographing a culture in the here and now often means photographing the intersection of the present with the past.–David Duchemin
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.—-Diane Arbus
One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.–Dorothea Lange
A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.–Edward Steichen
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.—Elliot Erwitt
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.–Henri Cartier-Bresson
The eye should learn to listen before it looks.—Robert Frank
If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, that’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.—Eve Arnold
Don’t pack up your camera until you’ve left the location.–Joe McNally
Always be seeing.
Always be shooting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC “MASTER THEORIES” ARE ONLY SLIGHTLY LESS PLENTIFUL than donuts at an AA meeting. I can’t hope to add any fresh shimmer to the bright shiny ideas on picture-making that have already been burnished by time, but I do believe that total photography is very tied to total development as a human being. Sounds like a mountaintop audience with the Maharishi, I know, but I think that, as we limit ourselves as people, so do we limit our ability to effectively interpret or record the world around us. This is not the stuff of master theses, for sure, but when it comes to photography as a way of life, I think all the wisdom you need boils down to a three-rung ladder, arranged thus:
TOP RUNG: LIVE MORE THAN YOU READ. Have direct, personal experiences that truly involve you. Do not vicariously re-live other people’s experiences and call that a life. Get your eyes off the screen, your ears out from under the Dr. Dre Beats, and your hands into the dirt. Learn concepts that call upon you to stretch. Try things that hurt. Taste stuff with strange ingredients. Learn to listen to ideas you think you’ll hate. Certainly, academic learning and secondary experiences have their value. We can’t all trek to Katmandu or scale Everest. But our grasp can certainly exceed what’s on Nickelodeon, a simple truth that brings us to:
MIDDLE RUNG. READ MORE THAN YOU SHOOT. You cannot possibly learn everything about photography by merely going out and doing. You have over two centuries of history, art, philosophy and example to absorb, even if your own style eventually goes rogue. You need influences. You need teachers. The shooters that went before you left wheels for you to roll on. Don’t try to re-invent those wheels; learn to steer by them. And do not limit your reading to photography. You cannot shoot what you cannot appreciate, and you cannot appreciate what you know nothing about. Learn the world, thus earning your right to have a point of view. And, finally, we have:
BOTTOM RUNG: SHOOT MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO. Certainly shoot more often than when you “have something to shoot”. Shoot when you’re dry. Shoot when you’re bored. Shoot when you’re wired/angry/amazed/frightened/joyful. Be okay looking like a fool for an idea. Most of all, be willing to take more lousy shots than the next ten guys put together. Think of all those bum images as the thick leaves of Christmas paper swaddling your best pictures. You gotta tear away all the layers to get to your shiny toys.
If these three rungs seem grossly over-simplified to you, try them for about forty years and get back to me. Photography cannot evolve unless we refine the person who clicks the shutter. None of these steps are guaranteed to produce immortal images. But you sure as hell can’t create greatness without them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“PHOTOGRAPHY DEALS EXCLUSIVELY WITH APPEARANCES” remarked Duane Michals years ago, “but, nothing is what it appears to be.” That’s a remarkably clear summation of the terms under which, with greater regularity, I approach things with my camera. In over fifty years of clicking away, I have never really felt like my work was reportage, or the recording of “reality”, but rather the use of reality like another paint brush or tube of color towards the more general goal of making a picture. What I wind up with certainly “appears” like something, but it’s not really a literal representation of what I saw. It is the thing I pointed the lens at, but, if I am lucky, it’s got some other extra ingredient that was mine alone. Or so I hope.
This idea that appearances are just elements in the making of something personal seems to be borne out on those photo “field trips” where instructors take a small mob of shooters out onto the street, all of them assigned to photograph the same subject or scene. Seldom is there a consistent result as these half dozen noobs frame up a common object, a phenomenon which argues for the notion of photography as interpretation, not just the making of a visual record. Consider: if the machine really were all, every one of the students’ images should look remarkably alike, but they generally don’t. How could they, when the mystery link in every shooter’s work flow has to be the “filter” of his or her own experiences? You show how a thing appears, but it doesn’t match someone else’s sense of what it is. And that’s the divine, civil argument our vision has with everyone else’s, that contrast between my eye and your brain that allows photographs to become art.
I think that it’s possible to worry about whether your photograph “tells a story” to such a degree that you force it to be a literal narrative of something. See this? Here’s the cute little girl walking down the country lane to school with her dog. Here’s the sad old man sitting forlornly on a park bench. You can certainly make images of narrowly defined narratives, but you can also get into the self-conscious habit of trying to bend your images to fit the needs of your audiences, to make things which are easy for them to digest.Kinda like Wonder Bread for the eye.
As photographers, we still sweat the answer to the meaningless question, “what’s that supposed to be?”, as if every exposure must be matched up with someone who will validate it with an approving smile. Thing is, mere approval isn’t true connection….it’s just, let’s say, successful marketing. Make a picture in search of something in yourself, and other seekers will find it as well.