By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEYOND THE RAW TRAGEDY of this year’s Great Hibernation, our forced stay-cation away from each other, the biggest loss for artists is the loss of faces. Photography engages the purposes and layers of human features, and draws its energy and appeal from the interpretation of those elements. When the people, through death or isolation, go away in great numbers, the faces that fuel our art go away as well. For those who create images, it’s like losing half the colors in the Crayola box.
That hunger for faces isn’t even fully satisfied after we have begun to cautiously crawl out of our respective caves, either, because the faces that we do see are partially concealed. We see eyes where once we saw both eyes and smiles. We try to intuit from memory what kind of expression lies behind the cloth of containment. Maybe that’s why, at least for this photographer, I’ve turned to a source I only selectively visit during normal times….the faces of animals.
It makes a kind of baseline sense. One of the only public places I go, while all this horror is sorted, is the local zoo. And here’s where the purists amongst us will moan that such places are the worst way to discover animals for purposes of photography. Snotty image contests have even gone so far as to routinely exclude such images from competition over the years, keening about how “dishonest” it is to capture an animal’s image in captivity, blah, blah, blah. That view is, of course, idiotic. The photographer alone determines whether an animal shot in the wild or in an enclosure registers with viewers as “real”. Better to shoot a stunning picture through bars than to let it go unmade.
And so, absent the human faces that typically populate our photography, we go in search of emotion and feeling in the faces of cats, apes, birds, and why not? If our own features are supposed to be a visual seismograph of our inner struggles, how does that happen any less with an animal? We’re already accustomed to labeling the reactions of the animals closest to us as those of a “happy” dog or a “lonely” cat, so the idea that animal faces register emotions is far from alien to us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, as I await the full return of human faces in all their mystery and madness, I will practice portraiture of another kind with friends of a different stripe. We love to flatter ourselves that our struggles, our triumphs are the only ones worthy of mention in the world. It’s time to realize what a stupidly limited concept that has always been.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE THING THAT GUARANTEES VIRTUALLY INFINITE VARIETY AMONG PHOTOGRAPHERS is that, not only do we all see most things completely differently, we also vary wildly on what it is important to see. Turn ten photographers loose on the same subject and the results might just as well have been shot on different planets. Our individual brains seems to rank things in the world by how “view-essential” they are, or how worthy they are of our notice. This renders somethings that are vital to me nearly invisible to you.
We’ve all experienced the strange feeling of looking at images taken by someone else of a place that we have both visited at the same time, and seeing things that we could swear were never there. Who put that fountain near the plaza? Wasn’t the mountain to the left? Our mind is selectively failing to see some of the very same information that is obviously available to it, making our own work with cameras subject to selective invisibilities.
What renders something important enough for us to actively acknowledge it? Can some things become so common, so ubiquitous in our lives that we no longer see them? In the case of the vintage cabinets shown here: what, in our daily lives, could have been more commonplace, more taken for granted, than a bank of public telephone booths? How could these structures have been more widespread than they once were, in railway stations, courthouses, department stores, bus terminals, and a million other gathering places? And would that commonality have placed them somewhat below our radar, visually speaking? Now turn that on its head: what could be more noticeable than when this everyday object is rendered obsolete, its purpose vanished in a blink of technology? Will that thing now be more visible, or completely vanished, and for whom?
I bring this up to unstick us from the tired idea that “everything’s already been photographed”, that, for the camera, there is nothing new under the sun. In reality, were we to start shooting images of all the things we have, for one reason or another, failed to see all our lives, we would find poetry and plenty in what we think of as “nothing”. Many things that are “here” go unseen simply because we will not see them, and many things that are “gone” remain because we will.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING CROWDS IS SOMEWHAT AKIN to using one’s camera to track a billowing cloud of soap suds. The shape of the mass shifts constantly, roiling this way and that, presenting the shooter with an ever-evolving range of choices. Is this the shape that delivers the story? Or does this arrangement of shapes do it?
And is just the size of the overall crowd the main visual message….with the perfect picture merely showing a giant jumble of bodies? Plenty of great images have been made that convey a narrative with just mass or scale. But throngs are also collections of individuals. Can’t a compelling tale also be told focusing on the particular?
When shooting any large gathering, be it a festival, a party or a demonstration, I am torn between the spectacle of the “cast of thousands” type shot and the tinier stories to be had at the personal level. In the shot seen below, I was following a parade, actually behind the traditional approach to such an event. What arrested my attention from this vantage point was the printed shawl of the woman directly ahead of me. The graphic on the shawl had been seen on other flags and banners in the march, but, billowing in the breeze on her back, the print became a kind of uniform for the march… a theme, a face all its own.
In this context, I didn’t need to see the actual expressions of the marchers: there was enough information in their body language, especially if I composed to place the woman at the center of the shot, as if she were the leader. That was enough. The actual march boasted thousands, but I didn’t need to show them all. The essence of everyone’s intentions could be shown by the assemblage of small parts.
Some crowd photographs speak loudly by showing the sheer volume of participants on hand. Others show us the special energies of individuals. Neither approach is universally sufficient, and you’ll have to see which is better for the narrative you’re trying to relate in a particular moment.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE HABITS WE FORM IN ITS PRACTICE, BECOME A HUGE MORGUE FILE OF FOLDERS marked “sometimes this works” or “occasionally try this”, tricks or approaches that aren’t good for everything but which have their place, given what we have to work with in the moment.
Compositionally, I find that just changing my vantage point is a kind of mental refresher. Simply standing someplace different forces me to re-consider my subject, especially if it’s a place I can’t normally get to. That means, whenever I can do something easy, like just standing or climbing ten feet higher than ground level, I include it in my shooting scheme, since it always surprises me.
For one thing, looking straight down on objects changes their depth relationship, since you’re not looking across a horizon but at a perpendicular angle to it. That flattens things and abstracts them as shapes in a frame, at the same time that it’s exposing aspects of them not typically seen. You’ve done a very basic thing, and yet created a really different “face” for the objects. You’re actually forced to visualize them in a different way.
Everyone has been startled by the city shots taken from forty stories above the pavement, but you can really re-orient yourself to subjects at much more modest distances….a footbridge, a step-ladder, a short rooftop, anything to remove yourself from your customary perspective. It’s a little thing, but then we’re in the business of little things, since they sometimes make big pictures.
THE FRAME OF AN IMAGE is the greatest instrument of control in the photographer’s kit bag, more critical than any lens, light or sensor. In deciding what will or won’t be populated inside that space, a shooter decides what a personal, finite universe will consist of. He is creating an “other” world by defining what is worthwhile to view, and he also creates interest and tension by letting the view contemplate what he chose to exclude. What finally lies beyond the frame is always implied by what lies inside it, and it is the glory of the invisible that invites his audiences inside his vision, ironically by asking them to consider what is unseen….in a visual medium.
Each choice of what to “look at” has, inherent in it, a decision on what to pare away. It is thus within the power of the photographer to make a small detail speak for a larger reality, rendering the bigger scene either vitally important or completely irrelevant based on his whim. Often the best rendition of the frame is arrived at only after several alternate realities have been explored or rejected.
Over a lifetime, I have often been reluctant to show less, or to choose tiny stories within larger tapestries. In much pictorial photography, “big” seems to serve as its own end. “More” looks like it should be speaking in a louder voice. However, by opting to keep some items out of the discussion, to, in fact, select a picture rather than merely record it, what is left in the frame may speak more distinctly without the additional noise of visual chatter.
“If I’d had more time”, goes the old joke, “I’d have written you a shorter letter”. Indeed, as I get older, I find it easier to try and define the frame with an editor’s eye, not to limit what is shown, but to enhance it. Sometimes, the entire beach is stunning.But, in other instances,a few grains of sand may more eloquently imply the beach, and so enable us to remember what amazing details combine in our apprehension of the world.