the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Philosophy



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.



Professional standing doesn't deliver great photos any more than gadgets and gizmos do.

Professional standing doesn’t deliver great photos any more than gadgets and gizmos do.


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.




Pre-open, 2015.

Pre-open, 2015.


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.

Plaza Cafe, 2015.

Plaza Cafe, 2015.

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.


To view your earliest work is to encounter yourself as you would a stranger.

To view your earliest work is to encounter yourself as you would a stranger.


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?

Style is a constantly shifting timeline of approach.

Style is a constantly shifting timeline of approach.

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.



Dark days, dark thoughts.

Dark days, dark thoughts.


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 DSC_0244fallow 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.



If you don't have something of yourself in your shots, it's all just craft, yes?

If you don’t have something of yourself in your shots, it’s all just craft, yes?


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.


Capturing Lightning In A Box.

Words to grow by, from those who taught us how to capture lightning in a box.


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


Happy Thanksgiving.

Stay hungry.

Always be seeing.

Always be shooting.





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.




“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.



Eight years and three cameras ago. 1/125 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100, 13.7mm.

Eight years and three cameras ago. 1/125 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100, 13.7mm.


HE’S YOUR DAD, YOUR UNCLE, YOUR WACKY SITCOM NEIGHBOR: the guy who has every ratchet,widget and wrench in the Sears Craftsman catalogue, yet who is, strangely, incompetent at any task more complex than the replacement of a light bulb. If he could just get that table saw, that router, he could finally tackle that pet project with real zest. But heck, he explains, I don’t have the right extender, the extra power supply, the magical whatsit that just came out this year. In reality, this guy is not a handyman, he’s an actor playing the part of a handyman. He’s Batman with a utility belt big enough to spill over a city block. He’s a gadget addict.

Now, transfer all that imagery from fix-it toys to optical toys, and you can understand the disease that photographers call G.A.S—-Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

There is no vaccine or twelve-step program for some types of shooters for whom the next lens, the up-and-coming accessory will make all the difference, and catapult their photography from mundane to miraculous. And none of us, even the most rigidly discipline, is completely immune to the siren song of the bright and shiny plaything. Sadly, G.A.S. often sidetracks us for months or even years, taking us off the path of practice and hard work with the tools we have as we wait for the toys we want. It doesn’t seem to impress us that people are making extraordinary pictures with cameras that are, basically, crap. Similarly, It doesn’t seem to faze us to know that people lugging around fifty pounds of lens changes and thousands of dollars in Leica-like bodies are often coming home with a portfolio of poop to show for their efforts. G.A.S., once its fever envelops our tiny minds, creates the hallucination that photography is about equipment. Sure, and Mark Twain wrote better after he graduated from notepads to a typewriter.

It’s almost too simple a truth that practice makes perfect, practice with limited lenses and sad little cameras, practice with nothing to focus on but how well we can teach ourselves to see. G.A.S. fogs up our thinking, making photography a destination (oh, once I get that German glass!) instead of a journey (wonder what I can make happen with what I have). It’s magical thinking. The camera becomes a talisman, a magic monkey’s paw, Harry Potter’s wand. Real, serious development is delayed while we wait for machines to appear and deliver us.

Oddly, looking backwards can often help us move forwards. Now, follow me here a moment. Ever go through the ghostly Shoebox of Shoots Past to find that you actually nailed a biggie on the day that you had bad weather, a lousy subject and a disposable $10 camera? Of course you have. But, wait….how could you take a good picture with all the wrong gear? Because something in you knew how to make that picture, with or without the ease and convenience conferred by better equipment. And the more you developed your eye, the more often you could make a picture that good, on purpose, time after time. As an example, the image at left is eight years and three cameras ago for me. I could certainly shoot it better today, but, even with more primitive machinery, I got most of what I wanted with what I had on hand that day. You have pictures just like this. Yes, you do.

I’m not saying that tools aren’t great, but if your shelves are overfilled (and your wallet is over-depleted) due to Gear Acquisition Syndrome, it’s best to ask how much in the way of toys you really need. None of it can take a great picture unless your mind and your eye are on the steering committee. Ansel Adams’ claim that the most important part of a camera was “the twelve inches behind it” is gospel. Get religion and become a believer, o my brothers.




I’M BIG ON CELEBRATING THE FACT THAT DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HAS REMOVED THE LAST FEW BARRIERS to photography being truly democratic. Just as the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900 moved picture-making out of the salons of the privileged few and into the hands of John Q. Everyman, digital has been another quantum leap toward a level playing field, putting cameras almost literally into everyone’s hand. This, as with all mass movements, has both its pluses and minuses.

Digital photography has actually improved one democracy (everyone can afford to shoot) and created a second one (everyone can afford to fix what they shoot). For nearly the entire film era, processing after the shutter click was, for many of us, a luxury item. For initial developing, we defaulted to the guy at the regional Kodak plant or the corner Rexall. True hobbyists and professionals wielded most of the tools available for drastic makeovers of images, with most of us merely accepting what we got. Our near misses simply went into the loss column, while others‘ near misses could sometimes be revamped into acceptable, even exceptional photos. The titans of the photographic world (Ansel Adams and others) were renowned for their ability to creatively manipulate negatives into prints of rare art. Most of the rest of us clutched our Instamatics tightly and hoped for the best.

Shoot as if you'll have to live with the results forever, with no "fixing it later". 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Shoot as if you’ll have to live with the results forever, with no “fixing it later”. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Unfortunately, digital has over-corrected a bit in giving Everyman the chance to salvage more shots. Instead of developing habits that are, say, 75% good shooting and 25% good processing, we have instead veered toward the opposite, with more time than ever spent “fixing” shots that were ill-conceived in the first place. Moreover, many of these fixes, mounted on apps, are general, one-click options that deny us the finely tuned control that a good film era darkroom rat would have acquired. We have gained access to the information highway, but we still drive like teenagers. We are all over the road.

I see more professionals advocating a return,not to the format of film, but the shooting discipline of film. How differently would we shoot, for example, if it were still true that we wouldn’t have a lot of options for fixing our shots later? What strategies would develop if we had to make or break our shots in the camera, without any opportunity for tweaking them thereafter? Most importantly, which of our images could stand alone as straight out of the camera executions, as products of real, hard-earned skill rather than the comfort in knowing we could probably crop, resize, re-color or repair almost anything?

Now, I am not suggesting we all go back to making our furniture out of pine logs. I am not the last guy in town to trade in my horse for a Model A. I merely think that we need to re-introduce self-reliance into the picture-making process, to shoot as if it’s all on us, as if no Tech Avenger will ride to the rescue if we blow the shot in-camera. In fact, I am arguing for what I always argue for….personal responsibility for getting the shot right in the moment. Frame it, conceive it, expose it right the first time. It teaches us better habits, it increases our actual knowledge of what we’re doing, and it speeds our advancement as nothing else can.

Digital is a fabulous box of paints. Now we need to re-learn how to hold the brush.


Brooklyn Block, 2014. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Brooklyn Block, 2014. No, this building isn’t this pretty in “reality”. And that’s the entire point. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.



LIGHT IS THE ULTIMATE MAKE-UP ARTIST, the cosmetic balm that paints warmth, softness, even a kind of forgiveness, or dignity onto the world. Photographers use light in a different way than painters, since a canvas, beginning as a complete blank, allows the dauber to create any kind of light scheme he desires. It’s a very God-like, “let there be light” position the painter finds himself in, whereas the photographer is more or less at light’s mercy, if you will. He has to channel, harness, or manage whatever the situation has provided him with, to wrangle light into an acceptable balance.

No complaints about this, by the way. There’s nothing passive about this process: real decisions are being made, and both painters and photographers are judged by how they temper and combine all the elements they use in their assembly processes. Just because a shooter works with light as he finds it, rather than brushing it into being, doesn’t make him/her any less in charge of the result. It’s just a different way to get there.

Light always has the power to transform objects into, if you will, better versions of themselves. I call it the “ennobling gold”, since I find that the yellow range of light is kindest to a wider range of subjects. Stone or brick, urban crush or rural hush, light produces a calming, charming effect on nearly anything, which is what makes managing light so irresistible to the photographer. He just knows that there is beauty to be extracted when the light is kind. And he can’t wait to grab all he can.

“Light makes photography”, George Eastman famously wrote. “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But, above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

Yeah, what he said.



1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.


TOO MUCH OF THE TIME, WE ARE SHOOTING PHOTOGRAPHS TO NOT ONLY BE SEEN BUT “APPRECIATED“. This can become an emotional and artistic trap, since art is not designed to be juried. We’d all like the world to “get” what we do, but it’s all too easy to bend the arc of what we create until it matches the trajectory of what the world will approve.

Think for a moment about how such a tactic can cripple you as a photographer. I mean, stop you in your tracks.

Consider: many photographers will logically move, over time, from showing the world fairly literally to suggesting a special viewpoint, seeing it in a more abstract fashion. They learn to tell more by showing less, by being selective. This is a perfectly logical part of their development, but as a consequence, some of their pictures will inevitably leave some viewers behind. Suddenly, their images are “arty”, or “intellectual”, or whatever other word can be hurled at them to dismiss what they are doing.

But that’s okay. I’m not saying that you should live your life eating worms and striving to be a tortured genius. I just mean to suggest that your vision belongs to you. It’s validity cannot be diminished, unless you do it yourself. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Life and Look magazine photographer Elliot Erwitt on this :

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. 

What a great concept. The thing you are shooting is not content. The way you shoot it is. That means viewpoint and personal interpretation must be more important that objects or subjects. If they are not, there’s no way in hell to make photography be about anything but recording. If they are, thought, ah, then, anything’s possible.

Bottom line, if you aren’t true to your vision, it’s a cinch that no one else ever will be, either.

So there.





Bryant Park Tableau, 2013. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Bryant Park Tableau, 2013. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.


WHO CAN SAY WHY SOMETHING CALLS OUT TO US VISUALLY? I have marveled at millions of moments that someone else has chosen to slice off, isolate, freeze and fixate on, moments that have, amazingly, passed something along to me in their photographic execution that I would never have slowed to see in the actual world. It’s the assist, the approach, if you will, of the photographer that makes the image compelling. It’s the context his or her eye imposes on bits of nature that make them memorable, even unforgettable.

It’s occurred to me more than once that, given the sheer glut of visual information that the current world assaults us with, the greatest thing a photographer can do is at least arrest some of it in its mad flight, slow time enough to make us see a fraction of what is racing out of our reach every second. I don’t honestly know what’s more fascinating; the things we manage to freeze for further consideration, or the monstrous ocean of visual data that is lost, constantly.

There’s a reason photography has become the world’s most loved, hated, trusted, feared, and treasured form of storytelling. For the first time in human history, these last few centuries have afforded us to catch at least a few of the butterflies of our fleeting existence, a finite harvest of the flurrying dust motes of time. It’s both fascinating and frustrating, but, like spellbound suckers at a magic show, we can’t look away, even when the messages are heartbreaking, or horrible.

We are light thieves, plunderers on a boundless treasure ship, witnesses.

Assistants to the seeing eye of the heart.

It’s a pretty good gig.


1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 160, 35mm.

Los Angeles, California, November 22, 2013. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 160, 35mm.


THERE IS A DECIDED BIAS IN THE CONCEPT OF THE NEW YEARS’ RESOLUTION TOWARD THE NEGATIVE. Since we often define ourselves in terms of what we haven’t yet perfected in ourselves, many resolutions revolve around losing something (weight), stopping something (binge-watching Ren & Stimpy) or rooting something icky out of our personality or habit structure (insert your own wish list here).

Fair enough. But, in order for us to grow, we also need to resolve to add, to enhance, to amplify the best part of ourselves. And, for photographers, I can’t think of a single more compelling resolution than the pledge to see better and develop our expressive vocabulary in the new year. We already have the toys, God knows. It has never been easier to get your hands on image-making gear or to disseminate the images that you manage to create. Photography has reached its all-time high-water mark for democratization, with 2013 showing us that gasp-inducing, heart-stopping pictures can and will be made by anyone, anywhere. There is no longer an artificial barrier between pro and amateur, just a subtler one between those of us who have practiced eyes and those of us (nearly all of us) that need to tone our seeing muscles a bit tighter.

1/250 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/250 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Photography can obscure or reveal, defining or defying clarity as we choose. A resolution to keep seeing, to open our eyes wider, is more important than resolving to “take more interesting pictures”, “do fewer self-indulgent selfies” or “try all the cool filters on Instagram”, since it goes to the heart of what this marvelous art can do better than any other in the history of mankind. What can be better than promising ourself to always be hungry, always be shooting, always be straining ourselves to the breaking point?

For me, a good year is when I can look back over my shoulder during the last waning moments of December 31st and see at least some small, measurable distance between where I’m standing and where I stood last January 1st. Sometimes the distance is measured in micro-inches, other years in feet or even yards. There are no guarantees, nor can there be: human experience, and what we draw forth from it, is variable, and there will be years of no crops as well as years of bumper harvests.

But let us resolve to see, and see as fearlessly as we can. The Normal Eye has always been about its stated journey from “taking” pictures to “making” them, acknowledging that it’s seldom a straight-line path to perfection, and, in fact, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  Happy New Year.


Don't think you're paying me a compliment to say that this looks like a painting. Or a cabbage or a hammer. It's a picture.

Don’t think you’re paying me a compliment to say that this “looks like a painting”. Or a cabbage. Or a hammer. It’s a picture.


THE INCREASINGLY COMMON USE OF THE WORD “PAINTERLY” AS A GENERIC COMMENT ON CERTAIN KINDS OF PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES has got me grinding my teeth, as it perpetuates the use of a term that is absolutely meaningless. Almost as meaningless as noting, or caring, at this late date, whether elements of painting are present in photos. This argument goes back so far that I feel compelled to provide the following “Cliff’s Notes” in order to compress 150 years of bickering into a compact format.  Presenting:


a)  We are just as good as painting.

b)  No seriously, we are.

c)  Who said that? We are so not like painting, which is old and tired.

d)  Well, we’re a little bit like it, but we kinda feel weird about it.

e)   Wow, I’d love to photograph that painting.

f)    Man, I’d love to layer paint on that photograph.

g)   Hey, I found a way to make my photographs look like paintings!

Enough already. We never praise a painting by saying it looks “Photo-ish”, so why make the opposite comment? What visual flavor makes any image fall on either side of an arbitrary line, and who the $%#&! cares? The only comment that could possibly matter is to remark that something is “a great picture”, but even that is superfluous. Does it speak? Did it work? Is there something there? Was anything amplified, simplified, defined, revealed in said picture?

This kind of semantic drift persists because, amazingly, some people don’t think photography is miraculous enough without being laden with little linguistic Christmas ornaments that display their acumen and intellect. These are the same people who fret that processing is “cheating” and that expensive cameras make better pictures than cheap ones, and it’s a disservice to any authentic discussion, like the fact that those who wield brushes and those who wield Nikons can both exalt, or denigrate, the human experience.

You don’t have to paint me a picture. You just have to tell me a story.


Hey, we're all just trying to catch light in a box. Use any box you have, just grab something, like, say, the Empire State Building. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm

Hey, we’re all just trying to catch light in a box. Use any box you have, just grab something, like, say, the Empire State Building. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.


SOMETHING THAT LIVES IN THE NETHER WORLD BETWEEN A DIARY AND A PHILOSOPHIC SCREED, at the intersection of passion and obsession. That’s the no-man’s-land  I aimed this blog at 100 posts ago, today. From Day One, The Normal Eye was, and remains, an attempt to get beyond the mere technical doing of a photograph and scratch away at the ticket of techtalk to reveal why I was trying to capture a given idea inside a box.

There are, and have ever been, far better teachers on a purely technical level than I can ever hope to be. And, let’s face it, knowing just the metadata on a shot is no guarantee that something magical will happen, just as high-end cameras don’t guarantee high-concept images. No, the only thing I’m expert at, in any way, is judging my own intentions, in hungering after a visualization of what I feel in my bones.

All of you patient ones out there already know me, because your dad or your corny uncle or your nerdly, bookish kid is just like me. I am “that guy”. I have always been that guy. The guy who pipes up, in completely unrelated conversations, with the observation that “it’s so cool what the light is doing right now”. The guy who comes back from a family gathering with, strangely, no pictures of the family whatever, but a killer shot of what everyone concurs is a colorful shmear of…something. The guy who is so busy looking for “the moment” that he forgets to be in the moment.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, and, ouch, guilty.

Funny thing is (and this is the mainspring that drives The Normal Eye), I’m almost as excited about where I’ll fail next than where I’ll succeed. If less than half of the pictures out of a new batch doesn’t make me groan, what the hell was I thinking?, then I’m not working hard enough, and certainly not reaching far enough. Nothing artistically good comes from a place of safety, and repeating your past choices doesn’t repeat your past successes.

Those of you who have done me the great honor of reading and following this mess have my undying gratitude. And as for those who have taken the extra time to comment as well, thanks for becoming the most vital link in the chain. Bloggers may be doomed to forever shout off the edge of a cliff, but it’s a real Robinson Crusoe moment when some man (or woman) Friday actually shouts back. Thank you, one and all.

As far as there are clearly stated goals for any enterprise such as this (except to keep on going), I can faithfully pledge to keep the process as honest as possible, and to let my inner child, the brat who first picked up a camera, to shout down the rational adult, who unlike the kid, occasionally forgets that this is all supposed to be about discovery, and wonder. If I lose track of that, the whole game is up. I also hope to act as a better conduit to the best work going on in photography today, in these pages and through my Twitter feed @mpnormaleye. The great news: the golden age of photography is happening here, now. Everything that has gone before, while amazing, is mere prologue to what is on the way.

That is pretty damned exciting.

So thanks for where this has taken us so far, and please sign up for another hitch. I can’t promise I’ll dazzle you. But I do promise I’ll be dazzled.

After all, it’s so cool what the light is doing, right now.

Where’s my box?

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


Waiting for inspiration. Yeah, how's that workin' out for ya?

Waiting for inspiration. Yeah, how’s that workin’ out for ya?  



Hmm? Come again? No way for the artist to brand his persona on his output, to accumulate a body of work stamped with his own exclusive, and wonderful, identity?

Well, given the special nature of photography, maybe not. Think about it. We all emerged as the quasi-legitimate spawn of painting. Yes, you can struggle and wriggle, but The Brush is essentially our aesthetic daddy, the most important shaper of our inherited rules on what to look at, how to see. Of course, we were no sooner whelped than we began dissing the old man, saying we were not at all like painting, that our means of measuring the world was distinct, different, revolutionary. The upshot is that the typical artists’ claim to a personal style, an identifiable visual signature, may not be, in image-making, how we do business at all.

Van Morrison (God’s gift to moody poets) summed it all up in the title of one of his classic albums, No Teacher, No Guru, No Method. And that means that, unlike the painters of antiquity, none of us shoots enough of any one approach to the world to claim that any of us has a “style”. Think about your own images. Is every one of them representative of one kind of thought? Or do you, like most of us, flit from one dynamic to another? Are any of you 100% committed to landscapes? Sacred subjects? Abstractions? Street? Cute kitties? No, and none of us ever were.

One of the most frustrating things about reviewing the careers of the greatest poets (there’s that word again) of photography is that there is no central thread, no typical image for many of the masters. What is the iconic signature of a Steichen, an Avedon, a Weston? Review forty years of photographs from Alfred Eisenstadt during his tenure at Life magazine and pick out one picture which defines him. You can’t. There is no Mona Lisa moment. And perhaps there shouldn’t be.

I’ve been shooting for over forty years, and if someone were to ask me to select one image that absolutely represented the essential me, I’d be dumbstruck. And maybe that’s to be expected. The world’s most democratic medium is also democratic toward its subject matter as well. In photography, unlike painting, everything can be a picture. Anything can be plucked out of the continuity of time and frozen for us to ponder, worship, objectify, or loathe.

We are all self-taught, self-created, without antecedent or influence. No Teacher, No Guru, No Method. It should make us feel free, and can, of course, make us terrified as well.

Here’s the central nugget of that freedom feeling: photography isn’t here “because of”, or “in order to”, or “so that”…’s just here.

And that is enough.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)