By MICHAEL PERKINS
VAN LINES USED TO GIVE OUT SMALL GRIDDED PAPER SQUARES that prospective customers could use as room diagrams for the planning of their next homes. The fancier versions even came with pre-cut geometric shapes that you could place on the squares, to see if the couch would look good next to the settee, or whether the piano should go along the north wall. It was like paper dolls for easy chairs and coffee tables.
I recall those squares whenever I’m trying to photographically visualize the optimum composition of large spaces, especially if I’m lucky enough to do so from an elevated spot. Immense rooms start to look like rectangles within rectangles, squares butted up against other squares. Dividing lines between action and dead space begin to appear. Cropping parameters suggest one scheme, then argue for another. With enough time, a kind of strategy emerges for what should go where, much like those intricate battle maps used to illustrate the engagements in Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
The balance of “live” and “dead” space in public gathering places (like the museum seen here) has to carefully organized, since both kinds of space have their own special narrative power, and can intrude on each other if not orchestrated. In the above image, it’s almost as if the active roles by the tourists on the right ought to be contained, in order to avoid disturbing the abstract patterns on the left. A different method might also see the entire outer frame as a series of smaller squares and rectangles, just as a chessboard is a square composed of an infinite number of lesser squares. Depends on your eye.
Composition, if done at leisure rather than haste, is a negotiation, a bargaining session in which every inch of photographic real estate must earn its place in the final picture. It’d be glib to merely say “there’s no right answer”, but, if you look at images resulting from certain choices, it becomes apparent that such a statement cannot be true. Right will feel right. Wrong will always feel like you put the piano in front of the picture window. Not horrible… but not correct, either.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DOORS PRESENT A MOST INTRIGUING PARADOX for the photographer. They are both invitations and barriers, the threshhold of opportunity and the end of it. Entrances and exits create a two-way traffic, with people either vanishing into or emerging from mystery either behind or in front of them. In either case, there are questions to be answered. And while the camera is certainly no x-ray, it does set the terms of the discussion…an endless discussion… about secrets.
Think of those fateful doors beyond which we know something portentous or crucial occurs. Ten Downing Street. The portal to an execution chamber. A confessional. An organization open to “Members Only”. Doors are like red meat to the photographer because they mean everything and nothing at once. Like the children of Pandora, we inherit the insatiable curiosity to know what’s back of that thing. Who’s there? Who’s not there? What does the great Oz look like? What’s going on inside that doesn’t invite me, doesn’t want me?
All barriers seem wrong, even cruel to us, on some level. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down” writes Robert Frost in the poem Mending-Wall, and it seems like a reasonable sentiment. I can’t walk past a door, forbidding or friendly, without wanting my camera to go back and ask, knock, knock, who’s there? As an example the above image came to me unbidden, on a night in which my wife and I had walked along Queens Boulevard in New York in search of an all-night diner. Having succeeded in securing sustenance, we were walking home when a brief glimpse of a rather substantial iron gate became visible down a side street during the few scant moments it took us to skip through an intersection. I knew two things at once: I would never know what lay beyond that grand facade, and I would, still, have to make time to come back, on another night, to have my camera ask “the question.”
Photography can be about The Big Reveal, and often traffics in the solving of puzzles. But just picturing the puzzle is all right too. We don’t have to know whether the lady or the tiger is behind that door. We just have to use our magic boxes to knock on it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST EMOTION I EXPERIENCE IN LOOKING AT GREAT COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, is, of course, the awe that vision and talent naturally elicit. The second emotion, although I’m not proud to say it, is something akin to old-fashioned, green-eyed envy, given that so many of the world’s best images are, no surprise, taken from the world’s best vantage points. National Geographic, The Audubon Society, NASA, and hundreds of amazing journalists take our breath away not only for what they shoot, but for where they shoot it. Theirs is the stuff of Pulitzers and mass circulation. They literally make the shots seen ’round the world.
But there is, in all this camera envy, a spark of hope for the rest of us. Consider: not all of us can create great work even, by being in the right place at the right time. We also have to be the right people to make a shot eloquent, even if we’re standing at the edge of momentous events or breathtaking views. Yes, sadly, many of us won’t be sent by our editor to the sites with the greatest potential, or have enough liquidity to venture to them on our own dime. Most of us won’t be across the street for those moments when the world changes.
But here’s the deal: we do control the way we approach the places that we can get to. We can be the difference between a mundane and a miraculous image, even if the subjects we cover might escape everyone else’s glance. And we can re-imagine, through an angle, a viewpoint, a sensibility, something that’s been thought to be “photographed to death”, and harvest something fresh from it. Our cities, our daily routines, our most familiar mile markers need not have a single, “official” identity in photographs. Where we stand, what we choose to say, transforms even the most well-trod material. The street corner in the image at the top has mostly been seen or photographed at street level. Did I find something new in shooting it from an eighth-story window? And if I didn’t, could someone else?
Cameras, even the most expensive ones, don’t create beauty. Events, no matter how momentous, don’t guarantee stunning images. It’s the eye at the viewfinder, and the brain behind it, that determines whether a picture speaks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ARTIST MUST KNOW WHICH CANVAS (or platform) is best for his particular work. And while photography is so rangy and wide, trying to find an area of speciality is no great challenge, so long as you are honest with yourself as to what your eye can effectively deliver. Do portraits alone help your vision pour forth? Then move in that direction, certainly. Drawn to minimalism as a way of expression? Then simplify, my son, simplify, and go in peace.
In fact, my own visual bias, if that’s the word, runs counter to my earliest influences. The first photographs that made me gasp in awe were, in fact, landscapes, since, as a boy, I collected many travel slides and magazines which emphasized life in the natural world. However, my second great influence was that of the great urban photographers, both journalists and poets, whose medium was the man-made, and not the organic, type of mountain. And even though I continued to marvel at the stunning statements made by naturalist shooters, I came to know that I did not have anything particularly wise or wonderful to contribute in that area.
I love nature. It is restorative, contemplative, and any other “ive” you choose. However, I cannot, personally, produce anything poetic or glorious in depicting it. I envy ecumenical writers like Walt Whitman, who reveled in both mountain and city street alike, describing both with incredible passion and power. As a photographer, however, I decided long ago to shoot where my eye is most organically excited…and that’s the city. I can never completely abandon scenic subjects, since I continue to hold out hope that one or another of them will make my heart leap to my throat, and, in turn, make a great vision leap into my camera.
Of course, the longer you make photographs, the more universal your purely technical competence becomes, in that you can deliver a serviceable picture regardless of the assignment. But a photograph is never merely a recording, and simply making an adequately composed, reasonably exposed frame is no greater an achievement than waiting the requisite number of minutes to soak a tea bag. It’s not so much knowing how to make the picture as wanting to, since that desire is the principal difference between acceptable and exceptional. Of course, passion is also not enough, any more than technical acumen is. But when the two meet, they will produce your best work.
As in the author’s mantra “write what you know about”, “shoot what you feel” must surely be a kind of aspirational prayer for better pictures. Can anyone say if a tree is less beautiful than a skyscraper? Not with any true authority. Point that camera where your heart points, and it’s hard to go far wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REALIZE, MORE THAN EVER, THAT THE BULK OF MY OWN PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK has been an attempt to tell human stories while using remarkably few humans to convey them. I always seem not to have a true style at all, just a string of endless experiments that either add or detract from my overall skill set. And yet, if there is any “signature” in my work, it seems to be in using objects, or atmospheres, to illustrate what makes (or made) people feel. The everyday “sets” on which the actors of life play their parts. The oddest thing about my photographs is how many times, over a lifetime, the sets are allowed to speak for the actors, without the actors present.
I shoot empty rooms, but rooms where I feel the weight of years of bustling, traffic, conversations, meetings. I shoot solitary objects on tables, but objects that I imagined were touched, treasured, and otherwise served to measure daily life. I’m not adept at staging people as models or actors in images, but I try to react to settings, see people in them, and show their absence as a kind of presence through these things, these places.
It doesn’t always work. And, as you all have, I’m sure, I often worry about whether I’m off on the wrong track, lost, kidding myself. When a photograph connects with someone, I’m still surprised, even shocked. Street photography, which I greatly admire, is, for most, the act of seeing important bits of drama or tension between people. I take the visual measure of what they build, what they use, even what they abandon, and try to draw their portraits that way. The actual participants may, or may not, be part of those drawings.
Like I say, it doesn’t always work. What I may see as a moment of contemplation or a quiet narrative may strike others as cold, remote. I never mean it that way, since that’s not how I see the world. To my mind, you can either show a child opening a Christmas present, measuring his first flash of joy, or you can photograph the box and wrapping paper a moment later, after the toy has been removed and only the potential of the thing is left behind, like a latent fragrance.
I like trying to detect those fragrances, those lingering essences, the vapors of vanishing potential. Like Chief Dan George observes in Little Big Man, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But, oh, man, when it does……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THE EVOLUTION OF A PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE is the imparting of new importance to things we have forgotten to see, those everyday objects that line or border our rituals and our daily to-and-froms, but which gradually are rendered invisible because our gaze is focused elsewhere. We fix upon the subway train that we have to catch, but miss the miniature tales buried in brick, steel, rust, entrances and exits. We’ve been down this street a million times, and always pause to peer in the window of, in order, the bakery, the newsstand, the Chinese take-out joint. Across the same street are a dry cleaner, a watch repair shop, and a storefront cathedral. We have never seen them.
Photography involves extracting stories where others see a blank slate, but that means first training ourselves to constantly re-see the things we believe we “know”, only to find that there are stunning revelations mere inches away from those known things. It’s the hardest habit to cultivate, this revealing of new layers in what we assume is the familiar. And yet it’s really the fresh blood that rejuvenates our art when it’s gone anemic.
One trick I try more often than I used to is to pause, after entering a building, to look back at the other side of that entrance…in other words, the view I would see facing me if I were using that entrance as an exit. It’s a very simply thing, but frequently there’s something fresh that presents itself, in something I believed I knew all about.
The above image comes from such an exercise. It’s taken just inside the main entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library, which, as you can see, has a great Art Deco grille of storybook characters over the door. But that’s just as you walk in. Pay equal attention when you’re walking out, and you see a strange bird looming over the entrance (now your exit). But not just any bird. It is, in fact, a rescued statue which once graced the main lobby of the long-departed Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, out of its old context as a symbol of high-flying journalism, but now a reminder of one of the city’s best voices. Best of all, the late afternoon sun projects the silhouettes of the storybook grille onto the eagle and the adjacent wall in an unearthly display of shadow. It’s worth looking back at. Or I could say I am always looking forward to looking back at it.
When looking for something new to photograph, seek out the places in which you’ve seen it all. You’ll never be happier to be proven wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST SELLER LIST IS THE FASTEST WAY to cement a notion in the public’s mind as indisputable “fact”. We are great at quoting a concept captured in print, then re-quoting the quote, until the “truthfulness” of it becomes plausible. It’s basically a version of the statement, “everybody knows that..” followed by a maxim from whatever hardcover pundit is top in the rotation at a given moment. And it’s about as far from accuracy as you can get.
Ever since pop-psych guru Malcolm Gladwell’s hit book Outliers arrived on shelves a few years back, its main thesis, which is that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become excellent at something, has been trotted out a thousand times to remind everyone to just keep nose to grindstone and, well, practice will make perfect. Gladwell cites Bill Gates’ concentrated stretch of garage tinkering and the Beatles’ months of all-night stands in Hamburg as proof of this fact, and, heck, since it ought to be true, we assume it is.
However, it’s not so true as it is comfortable, and, when it comes to photography, I would never hint that someone could become an excellent artist just by putting in more time shooting than everyone else. If my method is wrong, if I never develop a vision of any kind, or if I merely replicate the same mistakes for the requisite practice period, then I am going to get to my goal older, but not wiser. Time spent, all by itself, is no indication of anything, except time spent. Evolving, constantly learning from negative feedback, and learning how to be your own worst critic are all better uses of the years than just filling out some kind of achievement-based time card.
The perfection of photography is about time, certainly, and you must invest a good deal of it to allow for the mistakes and failures that are inevitable with the acquiring of any skill. But, you must also stir insight, humility, curiosity and daring into the recipe or the end result is just mediocrity. Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, a quantity measurement, is only miraculous when coupled with an accompanying quality of work.
There are people who know how to express their soul on their first click of the shutter, just as there are those who slog away for decades and get no closer to imparting anything. It’s how well you learn, not how long you stay in school. It ain’t comforting, but it’s true.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THIS BUSINESS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is rifling through the accumulated habits and techniques of a still young art form and trying to not regard any of it as holy law. Relatively speaking, measured against the sprawling annals of painting and sculpture, photography has been on the planet for about a minute and a half, so it’s still not even in its adolescence. Hardly the amount of tradition that designates rules as “essential” or “unbreakable”.
This comes to mind a lot whenever I put together what I call “arrangements” but which others might refer to as “still lifes”. I get into a definition problem in referring to just any combination of inanimate things as a “still life”, since I tend to associate that term with a collection of items that suggest, you, know, a life caught in a “still”……some activity that is suggested just by looking at the objects associated with that activity.
It’s pretty obvious stuff: put together a duck decoy, a hunter’s cap, and a shotgun, and you can almost smell the marshlands where the mallards run. Shove a rubber ball, a doll and a set of blocks up against each other, and it’s “a day in the life of a child”. You don’t show the thrill of a baseball game; instead you suggest it with an antique bubble gum card, a torn stadium ticket, and a weathered ball. It’s Photography 101. When all else fails, throw three pieces of fruit in a bowl and park them next to a hunk of cheese. Inspirational.
By contrast, I don’t really think of what I assemble in a shot to be suggestive of a narrative in the traditional way. In fact, I have more fun shoving things up together which fight each other a little bit in terms of “why are these objects all here?” I’d rather ask the viewer to supply his/her own idea of what it’s all about instead of doing a Norman Rockwell number that leads them to an obvious association. In fact, every time I take a “typical” still life, I feel like I am making the props, instead of the photograph, supply the needed interest. It feels like set decoration.
In the above image, just as an example, I decided, for my own weird purposes, to do an alternate take on the typical surgical instrument tray, only using kitchen implements. In taking a look at the medical tools of just a century ago, many of them appear as if they are intended to peel or core instead of heal, anyway, and, similarly, some of the gimmicks in your kitchen drawer look as if they could inflict real pain. Strange? Probably. But, hey, I’m old, my mind wanders, and I’m sick of almost everything on TV. Except for that bit with Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory. Now that’s entertainment.
But I digress. Thing is,”still life” is too restrictive a term (or discipline) for lots of arrangements that you might find fascinating. Just pile stuff up and see what happens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this composition I’ve been working on with the baby grand piano is nearly complete.
If I can just get my hands on two quarts of motor oil and a kumquat.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE THE PRIMARY REASON THAT PHOTOGRAPHY FIRST “HAPPENED” FOR MOST OF US. Landscapes, the chronicling of history, the measurements of science, the abstract rearrangement of light, no other single subject impacts us on the same visceral level as the human countenance. Its celebrations and tragedies. Its discoveries and secrets. Its timeline of age.
It is in witnessing to faces that we first learn how photography works as an interpretive art. They provide us with the clearest stories, the most direct connection with our emotions and memories. And the standard way to do this is to show the entire face. Both eyes. Nose. Mouth. The works. Right?
But can’t we add both interpretation and a bit of mystery by showing less than a complete face? Would Mona Lisa be more or less intriguing if her eyes were absent from her famous portrait? Would her smile alone convey her mystic quality? Or are her eyes the sole irreplaceable element, and, if so, is her smile superfluous?
Instead of faces as mere remembrances of people, can’t we create something unique in the suggestion of people, of a faint ghost of their total presence” Can’t images convey something beyond a mere record of their features on a certain day and date? Something universal? Something timeless?
It seems that, as soon as we maintain rigidity on a rule….any rule…we are likewise putting a fence around how far we can see. The face is no more sacred than any other visual element we hope to shape.
Let’s not build a cage around it.