THE WHATS OF WHOS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RENDERING THE HUMAN IN THE FULL CONTEXT OF THE WORLD is, for me, the one true way to produce a photographic portrait. Sitting someone in a nice room with flattering light and a serene atmosphere might be a formalized way to record a person’s features……but….
Yeah, that’s always the problem with pictures, innit? That insistent but. The part left unspoken. The case left unmade. The squirmy essence of personhood that stubbornly resists imprisonment in our little boxes. It’s quite revealing that, in trying to compliment someone on a portrait, we used to actually say, “I really think you’ve captured him”, as if “he” were a lightning bug in a jar. But such statements miss the very point of portraiture, even photography itself.
Photographs of people can’t be “one and done”, or “official”, or, God help us, “the last word”, any more than sunsets can. We aren’t making a document of a static thing, only serving up a time-slice of something that, by virtue of being in the world, is in constant flux.
To illustrate, the shot you see above is, for me, every bit as much a “portrait” of my wife (the one on the right) as any organized or traditional rendering of her face, because it shows her in the context of a world she inhabits: a world defined by nature, friendships, and animals. I don’t need her face to tell a story about her.
What people do is as telling as what they look like, and so it has to enter into any image-making about who they are.
THE THIRD CHANNEL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, OUR CHOICES OF HOW TO PRESENT A PICTURE has changed as well as the means by which we shoot it. Certainly in the film era, sizes and formats shifted from square to landscape to portrait, and those shapes were reflected in the dimensions of the final prints or slides. You know, shoot it wide, print it wide. Somewhere between the waning days of prints and the first waves of pixels, however, the square nearly winked out for a while, and, with it, a particular way of composing a shot. Luckily, it’s back in full force.
It’s had help. Instagram and some retro-film cameras forced the square upon a new generation of shooters, and nearly all phones and phone apps readily offer it as a framing or editing choice. Strangely, manufacturers of DSLRs and other high-end cameras offer no option for shooting in square format, although they all include square cropping in their in-camera re-touch menus. This means that many photographers have to dream square but shoot otherwise, mentally composing the eventual square framing of their subjects in the moment, or even discovering, in edit sessions, that there is a decent square image inside their larger ones just waiting to be let out.
I have recently looked to deliberately edit in favor of the square, since I think that the format forces a kind of compact, centralized story-telling that might be diluted or weakened by wider or longer compositions. Looking at my initial landscape or portrait images, I ask myself if the entire force of the picture could be amped by squaring it off. Sometimes you think a shot calls for one orientation or the other, when the third channel of the square is actually a better tool. Hey, you can’t know everything at the moment of snap.
I do wish that DSLRs would routinely offer the chance to initially shoot in square, just as cheap hipster film cameras and phones already do. Not having every possible tool at your disposal seems wrong, somehow, and, with all the other gimmicks that are offered in higher-end cameras, from fake star twinkles to faux pencil-sketch effects, the inclusion of a third framing orientation just makes sense.
THE BOY IN THE BALL CAP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE SHOTS, MORE CHOICES: Photography really is as simple as that. The point has been hammered home by expert and amateur alike since before we could say “Kodak moment”: over-shooting, snapping more coverage from more vantage points, results in a wider ranger of results, which, editorially, can lead to finding that one bit of micro-mood, that miraculous mixture of factors that really does nail the assignment. Editors traditionally know this, and send staffers out to shoot 120 exposures to get four that are worthy of publication. It really, ofttimes, is a numbers game.
For those of us down here in the foot soldier ranks, it’s rare to see instances of creative over-shoot. We step up to the mountain or monument, and wham, bam, there’s your picture. We tend to shoot visual souvenirs: see, I was there, too. Fortunately, one of the times we do shoot dozens upon dozens of frames is in the chronicling of our families, especially the day-to-day development of our children. And that’s vital, since, unlike the unchanging national monument we record on holiday, a child’s face, especially in its earlier years, is a very dynamic subject, revealing vastly different features literally from frame to frame. As a result, we are left with a greater selection of editing choices after those faces dissolve into other faces, after which they are gone in a thrilling and heartbreaking way.
One humbling thing about shooting kids is that, after they have been around a while, you realize that you might have caught something essential, months or years ago, during an event at which you just felt like you were reacting, racing to catch your quarry, get him/her in focus, etc. A feeling of always trying to catch up. It’s one of the only times in our own lives that we shoot like paparazzi. This might be something, better get it. I’ll sort it out later. The process is so frenetic that some images may only reveal their gold several miles down the road.
Not the sharpest image I ever shot, but look at that face. Slow shutter to compensate for the dim light. 1/40 sec., f/3.2, ISO 200, 35mm.
My grandson is now entering kindergarten. He’s reading. He’s a compact miniature of his eventual, total self. And, in recently riffing through images of him from early five years ago (and yes, I was sniffling), I found an image where he literally previews the person I now know him to be. This image was always one of my favorite pictures of him, but it is more so now. In it, I see his studious, serious nature, and his intense focus, along with his divine vulnerability and innocence. Technically, the shot is far from perfect, as I was both racing around to catch him during one of his impulse-driven adventures and trying to master a very new lens. As a result, his face is a little soft here, but I don’t know if that’s so bad, now that I view it with new eyes. The light in the room was itself pretty anemic, leaking through a window from a dim day, and running wide open on a 50mm f/1.8 lens at a slow 1/40 was the only way I was going to get anything without flash, so I risked misreading the shallow depth of field, which I kinda did. However, I’ll take this face over the other shots I took that day. Whatever I was lacking as a photographer, Henry more than compensated for as a subject.
Final box score: the boy in the ball cap hit it out of the park.
GETTING BEYOND “SMILE”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HUMAN RACE TAKES MORE PHOTOGRAPHS EVERY TWO MINUTES, TODAY, THAN WERE CAPTURED DURING THE ENTIRE 19th CENTURY. As staggering as that statistic is, it’s even more amazing on a personal level, when we contemplate how many of those gazillions of images involve our children, as we chase the ever-elusive goal of pictorially documenting (or so it seems) every second of their existence. Not only are we constantly on the job as shooters, our young ones must also be forever “on”, delivering camera-ready smiles and cherubic cuteness on cue.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that kids actually evolve an alter ego to use for these “candid” moments after a while. Patented smiles, standby poses, a whole little system of default settings for quick use when Mom and Dad are in click mode. So, paradoxically, we are taking more and more pictures that reveal less and less about our children…..actually pushing their personalities further and further from discovery.
It’s tricky. And the results of our efforts actually count for more as time goes on, as traditional children’s portrait studios at department stores, malls, etc., are closing their doors. Increasingly, the pictures that we take of our kids are the ones which provide the most definitive chronicle of their most important years.
Point a camera at a child and he will try to give you what you want. But let him know it’s all right to inject himself into the process, and you will be amazed at the difference in the end product.
I recently took a series of informal portraits of several packs of Girl Scouts at a museum. They were told that they could use any of a variety of costume accents and musical instruments to create their own concept of the artists they saw on exhibit on their tour. Some of the girls organically assumed another identity completely, rock goddess, cowgirl, bluesy diva, and so on. Others stood frozen, as if waiting for me or someone “official” to tell them “what to do”. The hardest shots were the group portraits of the individual troops. The first frame was always stiff, awkward, like bankers at First National posing for a company picture in 1910.
However, simply by my saying just a few words like, “now act like you want to”, or, “now, act crazy”, the formal camera faces were stripped away, with truly great results. Arms on hips: attitude: dance poses: defiance.
I didn’t tell them what kind of pose to give me. I didn’t have to. They knew.
A camera can be a momentary intruder in a child’s busy day, but it doesn’t have to be. And photos of our children can actually show the magic behind the mechanical smile. However, the request that a kid show you something real must be a sincere one. And you have to be ready when the moment comes.
Getting beyond “smile” is the beginning of something wonderful.
(Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
ESCAPE FROM PLANET PORTRAIT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO HEAR US TELL IT, WE ALL REALLY LOVE OUR KIDS. Assuming that to be true, why do we still subject them to the greatest act of photographic cruelty since Tod Browning’s Freaks? I speak of course, of the creatively bankrupt ritual of studio portraits, many of them cranked out at department stores or discount mills, too many of them making our beloved progeny look like waxworks escaped from a casting call for Beetlejuice.
We can surely do better.
I’m on record as believing that children are the noblest work of nature, coming into the world bearing only joy and untainted by the cynical clown olympics that comprise our “adult” way of thinking. And since we all probably feel the same way, why do so many of us park the little dears in front of hideous backdrops, surround them with absurd props, and gussy them up as everything from fairy princesses to ersatz puppies to fake cherubs?
Part of this ridiculous tradition owes its origins to the early days of photography, when a portrait sitting was the one means by which people who might never leave behind any other visual record of their lives were placed in formalized settings for an “official” rendering of their features. Slow film speeds and primitive lighting dictated that parents “leave it to the pros”, giving these modestly gifted artists decades of practice in weaving imaginary dream framings for our precious kids. (Full disclosure: Yes, I know that the image at left is a leftover from the Victorian age. I didn’t post any contemporary images because (a) many of them are almost this bad and you already get the idea, and (b) I wasn’t eager to be beaten to a pulp by any proud parents.)
Could it be more obvious, billions of Instamatics and Instagrams later, that this sad ritual hasn’t had any fresh air pumped into it since the golden age of Olan Mills class pictures? Even the most elementary “how-to” books on candid photography have been telling us the same thing for nearly a century: don’t formalize the setting, formalize your thinking. Let your child show you what he is, in his own environment. That means that you need to shoot constantly and invisibly, getting out of the kid’s way. No 3-2-1 “Cheese!” commands, no “sit up straight and don’t slouch” advice, no arbitrary situation.
Sure, you can basically plan how you will shoot your child, but allow him to unfold before your ready camera and gain the confidence to react in the moment. Stop trying to herd him into a structure or a setting. If at all possible, allow him to forget that you’re even in the room. Witness something wonderful instead of trying to construct it. Be a fly on the wall. The child is pitching great stuff every time he’s on the mound. Just make sure you’re behind the plate to to catch it.
Dirty little secret: there is nothing “magical” about most studio portraits. In fact, many of the results from the photo mills are just about the most un-magical pictures ever taken, although there are signs that things are changing. It simply isn’t enough to ensure a perfectly diffused background and an electronically exact flash. Even today’s most humble personal cameras have amazing flexibility to capture flattering light and isolate your subject from distracting backgrounds. And going from standard “kit” lenses (say, an 18-55mm) to an affordable prime lens (35mm, 50mm) gives us insane additional gobs of light to work with, all without using the dreaded pop-up flash, the photographic equivalent of child abuse.
Doing it yourself with kid portraits is work, make no mistake. You have to be flexible. You have to be fearless. And you have to know when something magical’s about to happen. But it’s your child, and there is no outside contractor who has a better sense of what delight he has inside him.
Besides, isn’t it likelier that he will show you the magic in his own back yard than in a back room at K-Mart? Give him something that he loves to do, the better to forget you’re there, and crank away. I mean shoot a lot. And don’t stop.
You’re the expert here.
Don’t outsource your joy.
SMILE! OR NOT.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A COMMONLY HELD VIEW OF SELF-PORTRAITURE is that it epitomizes some kind of runaway egotism, an artless symbol of a culture saturated in narcissistic navel-gazing. I mean, how can “us-taking-a-picture-of-us” qualify as anything aesthetically valid or “pure”? Indeed, if you look at the raw volume of quickie arm’s length shots that comprise the bulk of self-portrait work, i.e., here’s me at the mountains, here’s me at the beach, etc., it’s hard to argue that anything of our essence is revealed by the process of simply cramming our features onto a view screen and clicking away…..not to mention the banality of sharing each and every one of these captures ad nauseum on any public forum available. If this is egotism, it’s a damned poor brand of it. If you’re going to glorify yourself, why not choose the deluxe treatment over the economy class?
I would argue that self-portraits can be some of the most compelling images created in photography, but they must go beyond merely recording that we were here or there, or had lunch with this one or that one. Just as nearly everyone has one remarkable book inside them, all of us privately harbor a version of ourselves that all conventional methods of capture fail to detect, a visual story only we ourselves can tell. However, we typically carry ourselves through the world shielded by a carapace of our own construction, a social armor which is designed to keep invaders out, not invite viewers in. This causes cameras to actually aid in our camouflage, since they are so easy to lie to, and we have become so self-consciously expert at providing the lies.
The portraits of the famous by Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and other all-seeing eyes (see links to articles below) have struck us because they have managed to penetrate the carapace, to change the context of their subjects in such dramatic ways that they convince us that we are seeing them, truly seeing them, for the first time. They may only be doing their own “take” on a notable face, but this only makes us hunger after more interpretations on the theme, not fewer. Key to many of the best portraits is the location of their subjects within specific spaces to see how they and the spaces feed off each other. Sometimes the addition of a specific object or prop creates a jumping off point to a new view. Often a simple reassignment of expression (the clown as tragedian, the adult as child, etc) forces a fresh perspective.
As for the self-portrait, an artistic assignment that I feel everyone should perform at least once (as an intentional design, not a candid snap), there is a wealth of new information gleaned from even an indifferent result. Shooters can act as lab rats for all the ways of seeing people that we can think of to play at, serving as free training modules for light, exposure, composition, form. I am always reluctant to enter into these projects, because like everyone else, I balk at the idea of centering my expression on myself. Who, says my Catholic upbringing, do I think I am, that I might be a fit subject for a photograph? And what do I do with all the social conditioning that compels me to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and smile in a friendly manner?
One can only wonder what the great figures of earlier centuries might have chosen to pass along about themselves if the self-portrait has existed for them as it does for us. What could the souls of a Lincoln, a Jefferson, a Spinoza, an Aquinas, have said to us across the gulf of time? Would this kind of introspection been seen by them as a legacy or an exercise in vanity? And would it matter?
In the above shot, taken in a flurry of attempts a few days ago, I am seemingly not “present” at the proceedings, apparently lost in thought instead of engaging the camera. Actually, given the recent events in my life, this was the one take where I felt I was free of the constraints of smiling, posing, going for the shot, etc. I look like I can’t focus, but in catching me in the attempt to focus, this image might be the only real one in the batch. Or not. I may be acting the part of the tortured soul because I like the look of it. The point is, at this moment, I have chosen what to depict about myself. Accept or reject it, it’s my statement, and my attempt to use this platform to say something, on purpose. You and I can argue about whether I succeeded, but maybe that’s all art is, anyway.
- Avedon For Breakfast (fabsugar.com)
- Getty Center Exhibits Herb Ritts and Celebrity Portraits (ginagenis.wordpress.com)
- Annie Leibovitz: ‘Creativity is like a big baby that needs to be nourished’ (guardian.co.uk)