By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I’M NOT A GREAT ONE FOR CHATTING PEOPLE UP, because it’s phony”, legendary photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones told an interviewer toward the end of his life. Answering standard questions about his approach to creating some of the most memorable portraits of both the haves and have-nots during the second half of the twentieth century, he added, “I don’t want people to feel at ease. You want a bit of edge. There are quite long, agonized silences. I love it. Something strange might happen. I mean, taking photographs is a very nasty thing to do. It’s very cruel….”
Such a remark was de rigeur for Armstrong-Jones, who worked hard over a lifetime to create the impression that he didn’t really work that hard at all, that his photographs were, in his words, “run of the mill”, although anyone looking over the body of work published under his British title, Lord Snowdon, would roundly disagree. His clients ranged from the royal family, including his first wife, Princess Margaret (sister of Queen Elizabeth), as well as the family’s next generation of nobles, highlighted by his celebrated portrayals of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also scores of portraits of a vast range of other subjects from ditch-diggers to dowagers, a list that boasted Princess Grace of Monaco, David Bowie, Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other times his lens would be trained on documentary subjects like natural disasters or the plight of mental patients. In Snowdon’s personally curated origin story, he seems to have backed into photography after flunking out of Cambridge, where he had originally studied to be an architect. Even the acquisition of his first camera, a gift from his sister to help pass the time during his recovery from a bout of polio, seems to have been an afterthought. Beginning as an assistant for the reigning British court photographer, he first distinguished himself with images of the brighter lights of the British stage, truly launching his career with an official 1957 tour portrait of Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Three years later, he married Margaret in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony that made history on two fronts, being the first such ritual to be televised as well as the first union between a royal and a commoner (from which union came Armstrong-Jones’ induction into the House of Lords). The marriage was most graciously described as “tempestuous”, and ground to a halt eighteen years later, hobbled by Margaret’s legendary partying and Snowdon’s equally celebrated eye for the ladies.
Perversely, Snowdon often disdained the very photographs that earned him his living, saying they were “all right for pinning up” but not worthy of being framed or treasured. Once, when asked if he had a favorite image, he quipped “yes….I haven’t taken it yet.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean that Snowdon ever gave any public clues as to how such a masterpiece might evolve, since he was remarkably closed-mouthed about technique, whenever he wasn’t actively denying that he had any. Proud of the fact that he didn’t prep or engage his subjects in conversation to relax them, he claimed he never even asked them to smile, since that was “a false facial expression”.
His professional credits ran the gamut from the London Sunday Times magazine (where he worked as photo editor) to commissions for Vanity Fair, The Daily Telegraph, and over thirty years with Vogue, with a notable retrospective of his work being mounted at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 2000. Interestingly, his favorite projects were not photographs at all, but the architectural designs he created for the London Zoo and various mechanical inventions, including a type of electric wheelchair which he patented. He consistently deflected probing questions about the style and philosophy behind his pictures, cutting off interviews with glib gibes that made it seem as if the images just jumped out of the camera by their own power. Perhaps, he seemed to be proposing, it had all been a happy accident.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the pictures are best suited to speak for themselves. Perhaps trying to explain how the magic works makes the magic sort of…not work. “I’m very much against photographs being treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art”, he once told a writer. “They should be seen in a magazine or book and then be used to wrap up fish and chucked away.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS STAGE OF MY LIFE, I find myself playing two conflicting games of “who’s there” as regards my identity in the context of generations. On one hand, in front of the shaving mirror, I can clearly see my grandmother’s face pushing its way forward through my own. On the other, I now can see echoes of the “serious” younger man I thought I was being inscribed across the features of my adult children.
It is too late for me to explore my grandmother’s face for further clues, beyond studying the images others made of her. Sadly, as a photographic subject, she was amazingly opaque. I can’t think of a single image of her that reveals or explains an iota of what I know emotionally of her. Looking down into her soul through a photograph is as unlikely as trying to see through a lead-lined wall. As for myself and my three legatees, we seem not only to be facial re-interpretations of each other, but occasionally, a glimpse into what she was as well. Strange.
My children are all serious contenders, in that they believe that life is to be gotten on with, no dilly-dallying, if you please. They are, in that way, far better agents of change and action than I was. Time has begun to burn childhood’s last traces from their features, but the remaining faces are those of big, deep livers, of striver-survivors. Their own legends are now inscribed on them: they are, focused, intentional, resolute, courageous. I see the concern and apprehension I once wore on my own face: I read the uncertainty of their contending in this world. But I also see every laugh, every explosion of joy, every haywire vision and dream that I knew in myself: I see their first giggles, their earliest amazements.
And so, although my camera can only see a fraction of these things unaided, I am now able to provide that aid: I see now with ever-new eyes. These intimate strangers are my teachers, not my students. My grandmother, cipher of raw endurance that she was, might even have recognized herself in these new iterations of old star-stuff. She speaks to me in the mirror, as if to remind me, get it right, boy. Similarly, my children speak to me in pictures, enjoining me to do the same thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST EXHAUSTIVE portrait projects in the history of photography was August Sander’s Face Of Our Time, a collection from the 1920’s of sixty formal portraits of German tradesmen of every class and social station, each shown with the tools or uniforms unique to his chosen profession. Sanders photographed his subjects as documents, without any hint of commentary or irony. The story in their pictures was, simply, the visual record of their place in society and, eventually, as cultural bookmarks.
Since Sander’s eloquent, if clinical work, similar photo essays have taken on the same subject with a little more warmth, notably Irving Penn’s Small Trades portrait series from the early 1950’s. Like Sander, however, Penn also shot his images in the controlled environment of the studio. In my own work, I truly feel that it’s important to capture ordinary workers in their native working environment, framed by everything that defines a typical day for them, not merely a few symbolic tools, such as a bricklayer’s trowel or a butcher’s cleaver. I also think such portraits should be unposed candids, with the photographer posing as little distraction as possible.
I really like the formal look of a studio portrait, but it doesn’t lend itself to reportage, as it’s really an artificial construct….a version of reality. So called “worker” portraits need room to breathe, to be un-self-conscious. And, at least for me, that means getting them back on the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EXQUISITE PLEASURES usually denied to even the best portrait photographers is the ability to turn back the clock, to use the camera to x-ray one’s way past a subject’s accumulated life layers, peering into the “them” that was. It’s not really that it’s impossible to retrieve part of a person’s yester-faces. It’s that it’s maddingly elusive, like getting a brief glimpse of a lighthouse beacon amidst billows of pea-soup fog. We have to take faces, for the most part, at, well, face value.
Case in point: meeting my wife, as I did, long after we both had lived fairly complete first lives, I can only know the early visual version of her through other people’s pictures. It allows me to look for parts of those earlier faces whenever I make new images of her, but I can never know when any of them will flash up to the surface. It does happen, but there’s no way to summon it at will.
Marian grew up in a beach town, with the seasons and rhythms of shore life defining her own to a degree. As a consequence, I always welcome the chance to shoot her near the sea….along beaches, atop windswept piers, weaving her way through the sights and sounds of boardwalks and harbors.
Of course, restoring Marian to her original context, by itself, is no guarantee that I’ll harvest any greater photographic truth about her face’s formative years than I do on any other day. Still, I find the idea romantic and brimming with tantalizing potential. Will I be given an audience with the ghosts of Marian past today? Will they even show up? The mystery of faces leads photographers on a blind chase, with only the occasional find to convince us to continue the hunt.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BY THE TIME IRVING PENN (1917–2008) WAS ESTABLISHED as a portraitist without equal for Vogue magazine, he had chalked off clear parameters for his style. Natural over artificial light: large format, high-resolution monochromes: a patient talent for extracting the essence of even the most reluctant subject: and an almost lucky-charm devotion to the worn and stained curtain he would use, almost exclusively, as his backdrop for the length and breadth of his legendary career.
Salvaging the curtain from a Paris theatre in 1950, Penn used it as the great equalizer in all his portrait work, staging everything from Picasso’s puckish gaze to Audrey Hepburn’s gamine charm in front of its collection of stains, spills and discolorations. The curtain was as essential to a Penn shoot as the great man’s lenses, and where he went, from remote African villages to literary salons, it went also. And finally, eight years after his death, it traveled one more time to New York, for a supporting role in an Instagram near you.
As part of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s centennial celebration of Penn’s work for 2017, the curtain was installed in a room chocked with shots of the famous people with which it had co-starred. Studio-style, it was mounted on a curved panel to avoid hot spots from glare, and visitors were invited to pose themselves in front of it, fore-lit by a well-placed fashion light. The message was seductively mis-leading. If the cloth is magic, maybe it’s transferable! Maybe it is that black crow’s feather that makes Dumbo fly…..
The Met’s true genius in installing this Penn-it-yourself feature in its exhibit became obvious once you took the bait. That is, there’s nothing better to teach you that his work was great than allowing you to take very bad pictures under some of the same circumstances. I certainly got the point after clicking off a seriously flawed candid of my wife, seen here. I mean, other than blowing the focus, the metering, and the placement of light and shadow, the shot’s perfect, right?
Of course, the Penn curtain challenge had a kind of theme-park appeal, sort of like when you stick your face through a hole in the back of a cartoon cutout at Coney Island to have your picture taken as a “strongman”…and just about as convincing. Because art isn’t gear: genius isn’t mere tools. And you can’t be Rembrandt just by picking up Rembrandt’s brush.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU WOULD SUPPOSE that sustained, intimate contact with a photographic subject would inevitably lead to a superior, if not perfect rendering of that subject in an image. And supposing further that said subject is a person, you’d assume that one’s close bond with the subject couldn’t fail to produce the ultimate visual depiction of that person….a glimpse into their very essence.
Or so you’d suppose.
There is a reason why so many shooters pursue the same faces, many belonging to dear friends or loved ones, over a lifetime of picture-making….never quite able to reduce a face to its essence or its definitive “version”. It’s not that they don’t yet know enough about that particular arrangement of shapes and features. It’s that they know too much to settle for any single interpretation of them.
No sooner does the face of the Dear One display a given mood or aspect than it shifts like an active weather front to a completely different mix of elements. Faces are selves arrested in mid-flight, and, being in constant motion, rob us of the picture we originally set out to capture, only to bestow a fresh one on us. The “new” person we now see is, certainly, the same individual, but changed enough that we are off on a completely different mission, visually speaking. That is both frustrating and fulfilling.
The slices of persona that we freeze in the camera are just that: shifting glimpses. That means that, unlike pictures of monuments or mountains, they can’t be “done” in any permanent way. Add to this the change in how we all relate to each other over time, and it makes perfect sense to refresh our view of the most familiar faces an infinite number of times.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW TO THE SOUL: that’s the romantic concept of the human eye, both in establishing our emotional bonds with each other and, in photography, revealing something profound in portraiture. The concept is so strong that it is one of the only direct links between painting (the way the world used to record emotional phenomena) and photography, which has either imitated or augmented that art for two full centuries. Lock onto the eyes, we say, and you’ve nailed the essence of the person.
So let’s do a simple comparison experiment. In recent years, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with selective-focus optics such as the Lensbaby family of art lenses. Lensbabies are unabashedly “flawed” in that they are not designed to deliver uniform focus, but, in fact, use the same aberrations that we used to design out of lenses to isolate some subjects in intensely sharp areas ( so-called “sweet spots”) surrounded by gradually increasing softness.
As a great additional feature, this softness can even occur in the same focal plane as a sharply rendered object. That means that object “A”, five feet away from the camera, can be quite blurry, while object “B”, located just inches to the side of “A”, and also five feet from the camera, can register with near-perfect focus. Thus, Lensbaby lenses don’t record “reality”: they interpret mood, creating supremely subjective and personal “reads” on what kind of reality you prefer.
Art lenses can accentuate what we already know about faces, and specifically, eyes…that is, that they remain vital to the conveyance of the personality in a portrait. In the first sample, Marian’s entire face takes on the general softness of the entire frame, which is taken with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens at f/4 but is not sharply focused in the central sweet spot. In the second sample, under the same exposure conditions, there is a conscious effort to sharpen the center of her face, then feather toward softness as you radiate out from there.
The first exposure is big on mood, with Marian serving as just another “still life” object, but it may not succeed as a portrait. The second shot uses ambient softness to keep the overall intimacy of the image, but her face still acts as a very definite anchor. You “experience” the picture first in her features, and then move to the data that is of, let’s say, a lower priority.
Focus is negotiated in many different ways within a photograph, and there is no empirically correct approach to it. However, in portrait work, it’s hard to deny that the eyes have it, whatever “it” may be.
Windows to the soul?
More like main clue to the mystery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN AND ANIMALS OPERATE IN WORLDS DIFFERENT ENOUGH FROM OUR OWN that they merit a special viewpoint when being photographed. Composing an image designed to enter into their special realities should facilitate that process, giving the viewer the idea that he has gained entry to their realms. The camera’s eye needs to seem to inhabit their actual living space.
I’ve felt for a long time that the formal K-Mart studio method of making a child’s portrait is stiflingly inadequate for plumbing that young person’s real animating spirit. And as for pets, the sheer daily deluge of animal snaps posted globally are served just as badly from over-formalizing or staging. Intimate insight into the self can’t be achieved by generic backdrops, tired props or balanced flash alone. If anything, such systems push the real child further away from view, leaving only a neutral facade in place of the true human. Personality locks eyes with the lens in unguarded, not choreographed, moments.
I’m not saying that no preparation should go into animal or child pictures. I am suggesting that a “snapshot mentality”, backed by lots of shooting experience, can yield results that are more organic, natural and spontaneous. Shoot in a moment but apply what you have learned over a lifetime.
Even the simple practice of shooting on your subject’s level, rather than shooting like a grownup, i.e., downhill toward your subject, can create a connection between your line of sight and theirs. If your kids and kitties are on the floor, go there. Another simple way to create an intimate feel is to have the child or pet dominate the frame. If there is some other feature of the room, from furniture to other people, that does not rivet your audience’s attention to the main subject, cut it out. Many, many portraits fail by simply being too busy.
And, finally, catch your dog, cat, boy or girl doing something he’s chosen to do. Don’t assign him to play with a toy, or ask him to stand here, here, or here. Wait like a professional, then shoot fast like a snapshotter. The more invisible you become, the less distraction you provide. Looking at a child or pet enthralled by something is a lot more interesting than watching him watch you. If you do happen to lock eyes during the process, as in the case of the rather suspicious house cat seen above, steal that moment gladly, but don’t try to direct it.
Don’t draw your portrait subjects into your energy. Eavesdrop on theirs. The pictures will flow a lot more naturally, and you won’t have to work half as hard.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATIVE USE OF SHARPNESS is one of the key techniques in photography. From the beginning of the medium, it’s been more or less conceded that not everything in an image needs to register at the same level of focus, that it can be manipulated to direct attention to the essence of a photograph. It’s always about telling the viewer to look here, ignore this, regard this as important.
This selective use of focus applies to the human face no less than to any other element in a composition. It’s strange that photography drew so strongly on painting in its early years without following the painter’s approach to portraits…..that is, that individual parts of a face can register in different degrees of sharpness, just like anything else in the frame. From the earliest days of photo-portraiture, there seems to have been an effort to show the entire face in very tight focus, de-emphasizing backgrounds by hazing them into a soft blur. It took a while before photography saw itself as a separate art, and thus this “always” rule only became a “sometimes” rule over a protracted period of time.
The Pictorialism fetish of the early 20th century, which avidly imitated the look of paintings, went completely the other direction, generating portraits that were almost uniformly soft, as if shot through gauze, or, you guessed it, painted on canvas. In recent years, shooters have begun a new turn toward a kind of middle stance, with the selective use of sharpness in specific parts of a face, say an eye or a mouth. It’s more subtle than the uniform crispness of olden days, and affords shooters a wider range of expression in portraits.
Some of this has been driven by technology, as in the case of the Lensbaby lenses, which often have a tack-sharp “sweet spot” at their center, with everything else in the frame fanning outward to a feathery blur. Additionally, certain Lensbabies, like the Composer Pro, are mounted on a kind of ball turret, allowing the user to rotate the center of the lens to place the sweet spot wherever in the image he/she wants. This makes it possible, as in the above shot, for parts of objects that are all in the same focal plane to be captured at varying degrees of sharpness. Note that, while all of the woman’s face is the same distance from the camera, only her eyes and the right side of her face are truly sharp. This dreamlike quality has become popular with a new breed of portraitists, and, indeed, there are already wedding photographers who advertise that they do entire events exclusively with these kinds of lenses.
The face is a composition element, and, as such, benefits from a flexible approach to focus. One man’s blur is another man’s beautification.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FORGET BLOWN EXPOSURES, SHAKY SNAPSHOTS, AND FLASH-SATURATED BLIZZARDS. The hardest thing to avoid in the taking of a picture is winding up with a picture full of other people taking a picture. Hey, democracy in art, power to the people, give every man a voice, yada yada. But how has it become so nearly impossible to keep other photographers from leaning in, crossing through, camping out or just plain clogging up every composition you attempt?
And is this really what I’m irritated about?
Maybe it’s that we can all take so many pictures without hesitation, or, in many cases, without forethought or planning, that the exercise seems to have lost some of its allure as a deliberate act of feeling/thinking/conceiving. Or as T.S. Elliot said, it’s not sad that we die, but that we die so dreamlessly. It’s enough to make you seek out things that, as a photographer, will actually force you to slow down, consider, contemplate.
And one solution may lie in the depiction of other people who are, in fact, taking their time, creating slowly, measuring out their enjoyment in spoonfuls rather than buckets. I was recently struck by this in a visit to the beautiful Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on a slow weekday muted by overcast. There were only a few dozen people in the entire place, but a significant number of those on hand were painters and sketch artists. Suddenly I had before me wonderful examples of a process which demanded that things go slowly, that required the gradual evolution of an idea. An anti-snapshot, if you will. And that in turn slowed me down, and helped me again make that transition from taking pictures to making them.
Picturing the act of thought, the deep, layered adding and subtracting of conceptual consequence, is one of the most rewarding things in street photography. Seeing someone hatch an idea, rather than smash it open like a monkey with a cocoanut does more than lower the blood pressure. It is a refresher course in how to restore your own gradual creativity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PORTRAITS, PHOTOGRAPHERS SOMETIMES HAVE TO SUBSTITUTE INTIMACY FOR TECHNICAL PERFECTION. We understandably want to come as near as possible to meticulously modulated light in telling the story of a face, and so we try to ride the line between natural, if inadequate light, and light which is shaped so much that we dull the naturalness of the moment.
It’s a maddening tug of war. If we don’t intervene, we might make an image which is less than flattering, or, worse, unfit for publication. If we nib in too much, we get a result whose beauty can border on the sterile. I find that, more often than not, I lean toward the technically limited side, choosing to err in favor of a studied snapshot rather than a polished studio look. If the face I’m shooting is giving me something real, I worry more about throwing a rock into that perfect pond with extra tinkering.
If my subject is personally close to me, I find it harder, not easier, to direct them, lest the quality I’m seeing in their natural state be replaced by a distancing self-consciousness. It puts me in the strange position of having to wait until the situation all but gifts me with the picture, as adding even one more technical element can endanger the feel of the thing. It’s times like this that I’m jammed nose-up against the limits of my own technical ability, and I feel that a less challenged shooter would preserve the delicacy of the situation and still bring home a better photograph.
In the above frame, the window light is strong enough to saturate the central part of my wife’s face, dumping over three-fourths of her into deep shadow. But it’s a portrait. How much more do I need? Would a second source of light, and the additional detail it would deliver on the left side of her head be more “telling” or merely be brighter? I’m lucky enough in this instance for the angle of the window light to create a little twinkle in her eye, anchoring attention in the right place, but, even at a very wide aperture, I still have to crank ISO so far that the shot is grainy, with noise reduction just making the tones flatter. It’s the old trade-off. I’m getting the feel that I’m after, but I have to take the hit on the technical side.
Then there was the problem that Marian hates to have her picture taken. If she hadn’t been on the phone, she would already have been too aware of me, and then there goes the unguarded quality that I want. I can ask a model to “just give me one more” or earn her hourly rate by waiting while I experiment. With the Mrs., not so much.
Here’s what it comes down to: sometimes, you just have to shoot the damned thing.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE SIDE BENEFITS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is that you don’t always have to pick your own subject. Sometimes someone else’s idea of a potentially good image can be yours as well. You simply camp yourself right next to where they’re working and pick off your own shots of their project. Assuming that everyone’s polite and there are no issues of neighborly nibbing, it can work. Just ask anyone who’s clicked away at a presidential press conference or the sudden exit of a celebrity through a side entrance.
Of course, when literally dozens of cameras are trained on a single event, its likely that everyone will come away with the same photos, or very nearly. The moment the prime minister points to drive home his main point, click. The instant when the judges place the tiara on the winning Miss Tomato Paste candidate, click. Sometimes, however, you can kind of “eaves-edit” on just one other shooter’s set-up and edit the shots a different way than he does. You’re not running the session, but you could come away with a better result than he does, based on your choices.
I recently came upon a man shooting a girl in the streets of a kind of faux-village retail environment in Sedona, Arizona. Obviously, the main feature was the lady’s infectious and natural smile. As I came quietly upon them, however, Mr. Cameraman was having a problem keeping that smile from exploding into a full-blown laughing fit. Ms. Subject, in short, had the mad giggles.
Now, from that point onward, I have no idea of what he went home with in the way of a final result, as I had decided that the crack-ups would make better pictures than a merely sweet set of candids. It just seemed more human to me, so I only shot the moments in which she couldn’t compose herself, and took off from there.
I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I snapped my little chunk of Mr. Cameraman’s moment and sneaked off, like fast. As I slinked away, I could still hear Ms. Subject telling him, through fits of laughter, “I am so sorry.” She may have been, but I wasn’t.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE MANY INSTANCES IN WHICH IT’S HEALTHY TO HAVE A LITTLE HUMILITY, and the biggest one probably is in the decision to depict a human face. It’s the most frequently performed operation in all of photography, and many of us only approach perfection in it a handful of times, if ever. The face is the essence of mystery, and learning how to draw the curtain away from it is the essence of mastery.
Nothing else that we will shoot fights so hard to maintain its inscrutability. It is easier to accurately photograph the microbes that swarm in a drop of water than to penetrate the masks that we manufacture. Even the best portrait artists might never show all of what their subject’s soul really looks like, but sometimes we can catch a fleeting glimpse, and getting even that little peek is enough to keep you behind a camera for a lifetime. It is everything.
Yousuf Karsh, the portraitist who can be said to have made the definitive images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other notables, said “within every man and woman. a secret is hidden, and, as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can.” Sounds so simple, and yet decades can go into learning the difference between recording a face and rendering its truths. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to photograph people who are strangers to us. How can that ever happen? Other times I fear that it’s beyond our power to create images of those we know the most intimately. How can we show all?
The human face is a document, a lie, a cipher, a self-created monument, an x-ray. It is the armor we put on in order to do battle with the world. It is the entreaty, the bargain, the arrangement with which we engage with each other. It is a time machine, a testimony, a faith. Photographers need their most exacting wisdom, their most profound knowledge of life, to attempt The Reveal. For many of us, it will always remain that….an attempt. For a fortunate few, there is the chance to freeze something eternal, the chance to certify humanity for everyone else.
Quite a privilege.
Quite a duty.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A TITANIC CLICHE, BUT RESOUNDINGLY TRUE: if you want a child to reveal himself to you photographically, get out of his way.
The highly profitable field of child portrait photography is being turned on its head, or more precisely, turned out of the traditional portrait studio, by the democratization of image making. As technical and monetary barriers that once separated the masses from the elite few are vanishing from photography, every aspect of formal studio sittings is being re-examined. And that means that the $7.99 quickie K-Mart kiddie package is going the way of the dodo. And it’s about bloody time.
Making the subject fit the setting, that is, molding someone to the props, lighting or poses that are most convenient to the portraitist seems increasingly ridiculous. Thing is, the “pros” who do portrait work at the highest levels of the photo industry have long since abandoned these polite prisons, with Edward Steichen posing authors, politicians and film stars in real-life settings (including their own homes) as early as the 1920’s, and Richard Avedon pulling models out of the studio and into the street by the late 1940’s. So it’s not the best photographers who insist on perpetuating the restrictive environment of the studio shoot.
No, it’s the mills, the department and discount stores who still wrangle the kiddies into pre-fab backdrops and watch-the-birdie toys, cranking out one bland, safe image after another, and veering the photograph further and further from any genuine document of the child’s true personality. This is what has to change, and what will eventually result in something altogether different when it comes to kid portraiture.
Children cannot convey anything real about themselves if they are taken out of their comfort zones, the real places that they play and explore. I have seen stunning stuff done with kids in their native environment that dwarfs anything the mills can produce, but the old ways die hard, especially since we still think in terms of “official” portraits, as if it’s 1850 and we have a single opportunity to record our existence for posterity. There really need be no “official” portrait of your child. He isn’t U.S. Grant posing for Matthew Brady. He is a living, pulsating creature bent on joy, and guess what? You know more about who and what he is than the hourly clown at Sears.
I believe that, just as adult portraiture has long since moved out of the studio, children need also to be released from the land of balloons and plush toys. You have the ability to work almost endlessly on getting the shots of your children that you want, and better equipment for even basic candids than have existed at any other period in history. Trust yourself, and experiment. Stop saying “cheese”, and get rid of that damned birdie. Don’t pose, place, or position your kids. Witness these little joy generators in the act of living. They’ll give you everything else you need.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PICK ANY PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA YOU LIKE, and most of the available wisdom (or literature) will concentrate on honoring some arbitrary list of rules for “successful” pictures. On balance, however, relatively few tutorials mention the needful option of breaking said rules, of making a picture without strict adherence to whatever commandments the photo gods have handed down from the mountain. It’s my contention that an art form defined narrowly by mere obedience is bucking for obsolescence.
It’d be one thing if minding your manners and coloring inside the lines guaranteed amazing images. But it doesn’t, any more than the flawless use of grammar guarantees that you’ll churn out the great American novel. Photography was created by rebels and outlaws, not academics and accountants. Hew too close to the golden rules of focus, exposure, composition or subject, and you may inadvertently gut the medium of its real power, the power to capture and communicate some kind of visual verity.
A photograph is a story, and when it’s told honestly, all the technical niceties of technique take a back seat to that story’s raw impact. The above shot is a great example of this, although the masters of pure form could take points off of it for one technical reason or another. My niece snapped this marvelous image of her three young sons, and it knocked me over to the point that I asked her permission to make it the centerpiece of this article. Here, in an instant, she has managed to seize what we all chase: joy, love, simplicity, and yes, truth. Her boys’ faces retain all the explosive energy of youth as they share something only the three of them understand, but which they also share with anyone who has ever been a boy. This image happens at the speed of life.
I’ve seen many a marvelous camera produce mundane pictures, and I’ve seen five-dollar cardboard FunSavers bring home shots that remind us all of why we love to do this. Some images are great because we obeyed all the laws. Some are great because we threw the rule book out the window for a moment and just concentrated on telling the truth.
You couldn’t make this picture more real with a thousand Leicas. And what else are we really trying to do?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT A PARTY, THERE ARE DISTINCT ADVANTAGES TO NOT BEING AN “OFFICIAL” PHOTOGRAPHER. You could probably catalogue many of them yourself with no strain. Chief among the perks of being an amateur (can we get a better word for this?) is that you are the captain of your own fate. You shoot what you want, when you want. Your arrival on the scene is not telegraphed by stacks of accompanying cases, light fixtures, connecting cords or other spontaneity killers that are essential to someone who has been “assigned” to an event. Your very unimportance is your license to fly, your ticket to liberation. Termed honestly (if unkindly), your work just doesn’t matter to anyone else, and so it can mean everything to you. Yay.
One of the supreme kicks I derive from going to events with my wife is that I can make her forget I’m there. I mean, as a guy with a camera. She has the gift of being able to submerge completely into the social dynamics of wherever she is, so she is not thinking about when I may elect to sneak up and snap her. Believe me, when you live with a beautiful woman who also hates to have her picture taken, this is like hitting the trifecta at Del Mar. At 20 to 1.
Free from the constraints of being “on the job”, I enjoy a kind of invisibility at parties, since I use the fastest lenses I can and no flash, ever, ever, ever. I do not call attention to myself. I do not exhort people to smile or arrange them next to people that they may or may not be able to stand. The word “cheese” never leaves my lips. I take what the moment gives me, as that is often richer than anything I might concoct, anyway. Working with a DSLR is a little more conspicuous than the magical invisibility of a phone camera, which people totally ignore, but if I am cagey, I can work with an “official” camera and not be perceived as a threat. Again, with a woman who (a) looks great and (b) doesn’t like how she looks in pictures, this is nirvana.
Candid photography is all about the stealth. It’s not about warning or prepping people that, attention K-Mart shoppers, you’re about to have your picture took. The more you insert yourself into the process (look over here! big smiiiiile!) the more you interrupt the natural rhythm that you set out to capture. So stop working against yourself. Be a happy sneak thief. Like me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A QUICK GOOGLING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE THESE DAYS will turn up a number of sites dedicated to “faceless portraits”, if there can, strictly speaking, be such a thing (and I believe there can). In a recent post entitled Private, Not Impersonal, I explored the phenomenon in which photographers, absent the features that most easily chronicle their subjects’ personalities, imply them, merely through body language, composition, or lighting. At the time I wrote the post, I was unaware how widespread the practice of faceless portraits had become. In fact, it’s something of a rage. Hmm. The very thought that, even by accident, I could be aligned with something hip, is, by turns, both terrifying and hilarious.
Thing is, photographs, as the famous curator John Szarkowki remarked, both conceal and reveal, and there is nothing about the full depiction of a human face that guarantees that you’re learning or knowing anything about the subject in frame. We are all to practiced at maintaining our respective masks for many portraits to be taken, ha ha, at face value. Cast your eye back through history and you will find dozens of compelling portraits, from Edward Steichen’s silhouettes of Rodin to Annie Leibovitz’ blurred dance photos of Diane Keaton, that preserve some precious element of humanity that a formal, face-on sitting cannot deliver. Call it mystery, for lack of a more precise word.
In the above frame, the subject whose face I myself never even saw gave me something wonderfully human, about reading in particular, but about enchantment in general. She is furiously busy discovering another world, a world the rest of us can only guess at, seeping up from her book. Her entire body is an inventory of emotional textures…of relaxation, attentiveness, of both being in the present and so completely someplace else. Framing her to include the negative spaces of the window, the carpet and the wider bookstore isolate her further from us, but not in a negative way. She wants to be apart; she is on a journey.
My “girl with the flaxen hair” was unaware of me, and I shot furtively and quickly to make sure I didn’t break the spell she was under. It was the least I could do in gratitude for a chance to witness her adventure. Looking back, I think she provided more than enough magic without revealing a single fragment of her face. Seeing is selecting, and I had been given all I needed to do both.
Click and be gone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PORTRAITURE IS RATHER NARROWLY DEFINED BY MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS as an interpretation of a person’s face, the place wherein we believe that most of his/her humanity resides. The wry smile. The upturned eyebrow. The sparkling eye. It’s all there in the features, or so we seem to profess by valuing the face over nearly all other physical features.We stipulate that there are notable exceptions where the body carries most of the message, as in crowd scenes, sports action, or combat shots. But for the most part, we let the face hold the floor (and believe me, after a few misspent nights, my face has held the floor plenty of times).
It’s interesting, however, in an age where privacy has become a premiere issue, and in which the camera’s eye never blinks, that we don’t explore the narrative power of bodies as much as we do faces. The body, after all, carries out the intentions of the mind no less than does the face. It executes the physical action that the mind intends, and so creates a space that reveals that intention. Just like a face. And yet, we have a decidedly pro-face bias in our portraiture, to the point that a portrait that does not include a face is thought by some not to be a portrait at all.
But let’s keep the discussion, and our minds, open, shall we? I love to work with random crowds, and I like nothing better than to immortalizing emotions in a nice face-freeze. However, I strongly maintain that, absent those obvious visual “cues”, a body can carry a storyline all by itself, even enhance the charm or mystery involved in trying to penetrate the personality of our subjects.
Consider for a moment how many amazing nude studies you’ve seen where the subject’s face is completely, even deliberately obscured. Does the resulting image lack in power, or does the power traditionally residing in the face just transfer to the rest of the composition?
Portraits (I insist on calling them that) that are more “private” for being faceless are no more “impersonal” than if the subject was flashing the traditional “cheese!” and beaming their personality directly into the lens.
Photography is not about always getting the vantage point that we want, but maximizing the one we have at hand. And sometimes, taking away a face also strips away a mask. But beyond that, why not actually court mystery, allow ourselves to trust our audiences to supply mentally what we reserve visually?
Ask yourself: what does a photograph of understatement look like?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS, ALTERNATIVELY, AN ART OF BOTH DOCUMENTATION AND SUGGESTION. It is, of course, one of its essential tasks to record, to mark events, comings, goings, arrivals, and passings. That’s basically a reporter’s function, and one which photographers have served since we first learned to trap light in a box. The other, and arguably more artistic task, is to symbolize, to show all without showing everything. And on this Father’s Day (as on every one), we honor our parents by taking photographs which address both approaches.
For many years, I have taken the obvious path by capturing the latest version of Dad’s face. It’s an ever-changing mosaic of effects, which no photographer/storyteller worth his salt can resist. But in recent years, I also am trying to symbolize my father, to make him stand not only for his own life, but for the miles traveled by all parents. For this task, a face is too specific, since it is so firmly anchored to its own specific myths and legends. To make Dad emblematic, not just as a man but rather as “Man”, I’ve found that abstracting parts of him can work a little better than a simple portrait.
These days, Dad’s hands are speaking to me with particular eloquence. They bear the marks of every struggle and triumph of human endeavor, and their increasing fragility, the etchings on the frail envelope of mortality, are especially poignant to me as I enter my own autumn. I have long since passed the point where I seem to have his hands grafted onto the ends of my own arms, so that, as I make images of him, I am doing a bit of a trending chart on myself as well. In a way, it’s like taking a selfie without actually being in front of the camera.
Hands are the human instruments of deeds, change, endeavor, strength, striving. Surviving. They are the archaeological road map of all one’s choices, all our grand crusades, all our heartbreaking failures and miscalculations. Hands tell the truth.
Dad has a great face, a marvelous mix of strength and compassion, but his hands…..they are human history writ large.
Happy Father’s Day, Boss.