By MICHAEL PERKINS
“PHOTOGRAPHERS, ESPECIALLY AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHERS, WILL TELL YOU that the camera cannot lie” wrote a columnist for Lincoln, Nebraska’s Evening News in 1895. “This only proves that photographers, especially amateur photographers, can…for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas, on occasion.” All of which is to restate the obvious, that the manipulation of images is as old as images themselves, and that, even when a picture does actually tell the truth, the healthy skepticism persists that tomfoolery, if not actually perpetrated in this particular case, lurks ever nearby.
Faked photos emerged in the nineteenth century as soon as photography itself was out of the cradle, and by the time the world was rounding the corner into the 1900’s, successful hoaxes were perpetrated along two main tracks: profit and propaganda. The very fact that people regarded the camera as an objective machine with no particular axe to grind, a mere recording instrument, if you like, gave credence to outright lies created with a growing variety of tweaking techniques. Propaganda proved an obvious growth medium, as governments attempted to massage the historical record to win hearts and minds, a practice brought to the level of art by both Hitler and Madison Avenue in the century that followed. Likewise, profit loomed large, as companies marketed images that the public wished were real, blurring the line between dreams and documents in the service of sentiment or fantasy.
Both the motive to influence and the desire to cash in converge in this image, one of the best-selling photos of the late 1800’s, which purports to show General U.S. Grant heroically astride his horse surveying a roundup of Confederate prisoners at City Point near Richmond in 1864. Following the death of the pioneering Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, his nephew L.C. Handy came into possession of most of his uncle’s negative masters, and began reproducing them to the custom order of many who had, just a short time before, served in the conflict. The picture is striking, mythic, and an unmitigated fake. In fact, it is not a single picture at all, but a composite that combines Grant’s head (from an original Brady portrait), the body of Major General Alexander McCook, and a third image of the prisoners, who were actually photographed at a separate battle that took place hundreds of miles away from City Point. Handy copyrighted the composite and made a small fortune marketing it.
It took decades for the fraud to be detected, after sleuths discerned that, among other inconsistencies, the officer’s body is that of a one-star general (Grant was a three-star by that time) and that the body markings on his horse do not match those of Cincinnati, Grant’s favored mount in 1864. The point is that today’s photographers certainly have no fewer scruples than did the old masters when it comes to fakery, and that, at least today, we are aware of the tools that can be employed to stretch or scar the truth, and accept photography as an interpretative art, for good or ill, rather than merely a means of documenting events. Caveat emptor.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET ABOUT BEING A PARENT is that we all come to terms with the fact that, of course, even though you are not supposed to have a favorite child, you often sorta do. Maybe we don’t so much love one above all the others, but just struggle with the messy process of learning to love each child for very specific reasons. You can’t, officially speaking, choose one over all the rest, but you do ( but you don’t).
And, of course, in any field of artistic endeavor, we also parentally favor some of our works over others. Or, to return to my earlier point, we just love some of them differently. As photographers, we make very fast initial groupings of our images, sorting them quickly into grossly over-simplified “worked” and “didn’t work” piles, as if we were even capable of producing either spotless masterpieces or irredeemably flawed failures. Some of the zillions of pictures we generate never break out of these two polarized winner/loser silos, either being blessed with immediate approval or consigned to permanent dismissal. The fact is, our photographs can easily be broken into four, or eight, or dozens of piles that show a nuanced range from miracle to mire….pictures that almost worked “except for” some little something, or snaps that almost completely missed “except for this one part I really like.” We’d like to believe we live in a two-pile world, where even art is subjected to a nice, clean either/or judgement, but the truth is far more tricky than that.
I once categorized this image as a failure. I no longer feel that way. I cannot explain either reaction. I don’t have to.
Often, in reviewing or re-reviewing or re-re-reviewing the orphan images we originally stuck in the reject pile, we are struck by how foolish our original sorting process was. As with the picture you see here, we are struck, with the luxury of a little time distancing, to evaluate the things with fresh eyes. Shots that were utterly without merit may still be, generally speaking, misses rather than hits. But in finding them again after a prolonged absence, we lose some of the concept or animating spirit of the original concept: details of why we did it can fade a bit, and the picture will sometimes stand either straighter or crooked-er when forced to stand on its own. And in the light of this new viewing, some orphans will find a home, with even the still-bad shots imparting more wisdom about ourselves than they might have in the heat of battle.
The lonely part, for an artist, is when you love one of your “children” in a way that you can’t explain and in which the world can’t share. That love must be unconditional and absolute. You made the thing and you must own it, because you can see a little piece of yourself in it. The orphan gets a home because it needs one.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A CERTAIN DIVINE IMMUNITY attached to photographers who are lucky enough to remain amateurs, or, for those who do turn pro, the ability to remember how to shoot with an amateur brain. There used to be a cleanly defined line between people who had to make pictures for a living (under deadline, enslaved to editors, for the marketplace) and those who could never dream of doing so, but who might work every bit as hard just pleasing themselves. However, social media, with its ability to suddenly confer ( or cruelly withhold )sudden celebrity, has recently blurred this line between the careerists and the tinkerers. Now, even when we are making pictures for “no one”, we seem to be making pictures for everyone, anyway.
It’s getting harder to create a photograph in a feedback vacuum, to shoot without even a thought of how well a picture will be received. The tyranny of the new “like” and “fave” marketplace can riddle a photographer with doubt, gently bending his/her work to what might meet with the most approving eyes. In many ways, this new world is even more unforgiving, for amateurs, than the dreaded editing desk was for the professionals.
It’s more of a challenge than it used to be, these days, to allow oneself to make a picture like this one. The subject isn’t startling, or even especially unique, except to me. The composition is deliberately formalized, and so can’t qualify as avant-garde. The final shot, the product of a double exposure and some minimal color and contrast tweaking, is neither purely realistic nor challengingly abstract. In short, this picture is nothing in particular, except that it’s mine, made my way, for my own approval. I don’t have to worry that, as Frank Zappa would say, it suffers from N.C.P. (No Commercial Potential).
Any artist that is forced to produce for the popular market has two struggles: to achieve his vision and to package it for consumption by others. It’s THE tightrope act of a lifetime for photographers, with the amateurs envious of the pros’ access and the pros jealous of the casual snapper’s freedom. I have made my daily bread by a number of means over a lifetime, mostly under the gun of deadlines and editors in the print or electronic media, and so, while I have seldom earned a paycheck specifically with a camera, I have empathy for those who do.
There are things about working as a paid shooter that I will never have to endure, or suffer, and I know that. However, in the 21st century, even being an amateur is beginning to take on the haggard hassle that only used to accrue to the Guy Doing It For A Living. That is why the bigger fight in becoming a photographer is the mastery over one’s self rather than the perfection of mere technique. Sports and every other fun pursuit in our world has shown what happens when everything gets too serious and the meaningful meaninglessness goes out of something. In our art, we are being forced, more and more, to do everything for social reasons, to “take one for the team”. However, it is the pictures that you take from the team that truly remain your own, and that you will treasure the most over a lifetime.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES IN PHOTOGRAPHY, over the centuries, have been made as specific remedies to the limits of either cameras or recording media. Lenses and films were made faster, sharper, or more accurate because photographers were thwarted by the cramped parameters of the media. Such a cycle of malady-and-cure creates temporary and manic convulsions, fads if you like, along with solid, permanent improvements. Sometimes, as in the case of the now declining technique known as High Dynamic Range, or HDR, it’s easy to confuse a quick fix for a permanent one.
To review, HDR was an attempt to compensate for the limited range of light recorded by first-generation digital sensors, which effectively “read” extreme highlights or shadows, but were spotty in the mid-ranges, delivering only a portion of what the eye could detect. The solution was to take a bracket of anywhere from three to seven frames over a wide exposure range (grab your tripod, kids), then blend them, via software, to more consistently even out all values for a “balanced” or “natural” view. The other side-benefit of the process was a drastic amplification in detail.
HDR was immediately praised as having helped the photographer hurdle the last remaining barrier between the camera and real life. It quickly muscled its way into everything from amateur landscapes to commercial real estate, conferring prophet (profit?) status on authors like Trey Radcliffe, who soared to best-selling fame with books brimming with hyperbolic color and iridescent textures, every hobnail and brick in his goth HDR cathedrals registering the same, loud detail.
And that sameness, eventually, became the problem. Every part of every picture was now shouting. In the hands of many, HDR did not make images evenly modest: it made them uniformly garish. Too many HDR pictures were overripe, overcooked, as if the world were awash in day-glo gravy. Worse, the technique couldn’t work with live subjects or hand-held shots. Worse yet, in-camera HDR simulators in DSLRs and phone apps were virtually useless. Finally, if you actually liked photographing, you know, actual people, HDR made human flesh look like wet liver inside a tanning booth.
In the end, the problem HDR was created to address actually resolved itself, with second-gen camera sensors finally performing better along a wider range of light, delivering more even exposures right out of the camera. More importantly, photographers fell back in love with shadow, understatement, and mystery, satisfied that you don’t have to show everything to see everything. So, rest in peace, HDR. There now are better ways to keep it real.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GROWING DEBATE OVER THE RECENT EMERGENCE of a process called exposure fusion, which has been touted as an alternative , if not a replacement for, High Dynamic Range or HDR processing. Which camp you fall into depends greatly upon what look you want in your final image, and both processes can be generated within a popular program call Photomatix.
So, first, a bit of review: HDR blends multiple frames of the same subject, shot at differing degrees of exposure, basically deepening the lighter values and rescuing detail in the darker ones. This means that you can potentially create a composite photo which “sees” the entire range of values in the same intensity, somewhat like your own eye (the ultimate camera) sees them.
Photomatix’ other main flavor, exposure fusion, takes the same multiple exposures and weighs every pixel in each of them for its value, letting some pixels from all exposures ” show through” in the final composite. The range of tones from light to dark is far less dramatic than in HDR, producing an image that strikes some as more natural. It’s worth noting that exposure fusion processes faster and easier than HDR and produces none of its annoying “halo” around the periphery of objects.
One additional fun aspect of exposure fusion, for me, is in its ease of use in creating montage, or controlled double-exposures, as well as same-subject composites. In the above shot, you’ll see a particularly clean amount of transparency between the musicians at a museum and a shot of part of a sign advertising its theme statement. Moreover, exposure fusion operates with several supple contrast and compression slider switches that make very minute adjustments in a snap.
The current HDR / Exposure Fusion “face-off” can only be resolved by actual users’ results, the only thing that matters in photography. Hey, if you made a piece of cowhide light-sensitive with a mix of lemonade and Lestoil and found a way to make a print with it, then mazel tov and God bless.
It’s always, and only, about the pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A WHOLE SEPARATE WING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ESTATE that values dark almost more than light. It’s a photography of near-night, work that suggests only the merest intrusion of illumination into a palette of black. An almost-nothing. A bleary, evanescent glimpse, a suggestion. Minimalism taken to the maximum.
Or, in other words, the dead opposite of the mindset of the majority of photographs made over time.
For most of us, the camera was expected to get better and better at registering accurate detail in less and less light, giving us a reasonably balanced record of color and depth, a kind of realism, or at least documentation. This is the photography of the consumer, who was taught to want pictures in which everything is spelled out, obvious, apparent. Sunny Days, Natural Flesh Tones, Life As We Know It. The advance of the science of recording things with cameras seemed to suggest that well-lit meant well-realized, that we would eliminate murk and shadow in the name of clarity. We decided that those things which dealt in the dark basement of tones were “bad” pictures, defective in some basic way.
The development of art photography has often taken the opposite approach, with some artists going so far as to revive “dead” technologies like daguerrotyping, serigraphing, deliberate under-exposure, even purposeful degrading of the image (dragging negatives over ground glass, dancing on them, soaking them in bodily fluids) to get the look they desire, actually eliminating information from their pictures. Even the recent fad of lomography, which worships faulty cameras and errant processing, is indicative of the “dark” school. It doesn’t have to be in focus. It doesn’t have to be a picture “of” anything. And who made up these rules for composition, anyway?
Photography, as always, will not be reduced to a set of standards. Consumer products still try to steer customers toward predictable images, with most “how tos” listing simple steps for uniform results, or pictures that “look like photographs”. The dark worshippers, by contrast, are asking us to train our eyes to see what is not presented, as well as what is. Alright, they concede, we didn’t show everything. But you can supply the rest.
Finally, the camera remains essentially a mere servant, subject to the whims of its user. We cannot truly mechanize and regulate what comes from the eye or the soul. True art can never remain static, and any kind of creativity that doesn’t frequently threaten to break down into chaos may not be worth the effort.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE UNDENIABLE ADVANTAGE MOBILE OR PHONE CAMERAS HAVE OVER THEIR DSLR FOREBEARS is the ability to combine easy shooting and easy editing in the same small package. This adds convenience on top of convenience, allowing mobile pictures to be captured and refined in the field, with DSLR’s more generally tethered to PCs for their post-production editing.
Even more frustrating is that many basic phone cameras have a wider variety of processing options, even without the use of after-market apps, than come in a DSLR’s “retouch” menu, creating a greater disconnect between the “deliberate” editing of the late-film/early digital camera and the “instinctual” editing of phono-photography.
Recently, DSLRs have made it easier to wirelessly send their images to phones’ email inboxes, but, across several manufacturers, the process is far from sleek. But when you can send images taken with the superior lenses and larger file sizes of a DSLR to your phone, you can easily send those emailed items on to your favorite in-phone app for tweaks that can be done on the fly, with more tricks than your “real” camera allows. It also permits you to do radical re-mixes of yesteryear’s shots with today’s tech. Old photos can get a facelift with a lot less bother than if they go through a Photoshop-type workflow.
To illustrate: the top shot, a DSLR original, was way too busy. Jutting walls, extra people, over-bright colors…plenty to remove if the seated man at the front was to draw any central interest. Cropping and de-saturating in my Mac’s editing program was easy enough, but I wanted to further isolate him from the monotonous textured wall behind him.
The lens I used in the original wasn’t equipped to render different levels of sharpness within the same focal plane, but my phone had a handy app that did precisely that, and that’s where we went next.
Emailing the image to my phone was fast, as was forwarding the picture in the email to be saved as a camera roll image. From there, I sent the picture to an app called Analog Cam, which included a partial diffuser tool, allowing me to gradually blur everything in the focal plane except the man, as you see in the lower frame. Finally came a transfer from the app to a posting on Flickr. Thus with a few extra steps, I gained the flexibility I didn’t have when I shot the original, allowing me to save, salvage and send from one location.
The emphasis for mobile cameras is much more on post-shutter fixing than is the case with a standard camera. That said, there’s no reason why you can’t shoot on one and use the convenience of the other to get the result you want.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECALL, MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN THE JUICIEST COMPLIMENT I COULD IMAGINE SNAGGING for a photograph was that “it looks just like a postcard”. That is to say, “the picture you’ve made looks like another picture someone else made while trying to make something look like…. a picture”.
Or something like that.
Seems that an incredible amount of photography’s time on earth has been spent trying to make images not so much be something as to be like something else. The number of effects we go for when making an image, in the twenty-first century, is a list of the inherited techniques and processes that have waxed and waned, and waxed again, over the entire timeline of the art’s history. We are now so marinated in all the things that photographs have been that we find ourselves folding the old tricks into new pictures, without self-consciousness or irony. Consider this partial roster of the things we have tried, over time, to make images look like:
Paintings Etchings Drawings Daguerreotypes Tintypes Cyanotypes Expired film Cross-Processed Film Kodachrome Sepiatone Toy Cameras Macro Lenses Badly-focused, Damaged and Flawed Lenses Obsolete Film Stock Daytime Night-Time Negatives Postcards Antique Printing Processes Dreams, Hallucinations, and Fantasies “Reality”
We not only manipulate photographs to make them more reflective of reality but to mock or distort it as well. We make pictures that pretend that we still have primitive equipment, or that we have much better equipment than we can afford. We utilize tools that make pictures look tampered with, that accentuate how much they’ve been tweaked. We make good pictures look bad and bad pictures look passable.
This post is turning out to be the evil twin of a recent article in which I emphasized how little we know about making “realistic” images. The more I turn it over in my mind, however, the more I realize that, in many cases, we are trying to make new photographs look like photographs that someone else took, in a different time, with different limits, with different motives. We steal not only from others but also from what they themselves were stealing.
All of a sudden my head hurts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT MANY A WORKABLE PHOTOGRAPH HAS ONLY BEEN RENDERED SO BECAUSE OF SHEER BOREDOM. Face it: there are bound to be days when nothing fresh is flowing from one’s fingers, when, through lack of anything else to do, you find yourself revisiting shots that you 1) originally ignored, 2) originally rejected, or 3) were totally confounded by. Poring over yester-images can occasionally reveal something salvageable, either through processing or cropping, just as they can more often lead one to want to seal them up behind a wall. Even so, editing is a kind of retro-fitted variation on composition, and sometimes coming back around to a picture that was in conceptual limbo can yield a surprise or two.
I’m not suggesting that, if you stare long enough at an image, a little golden easter egg will routinely emerge from it. No, this is where luck, accident, and willpower usually converge to sometimes produce…..a hot mess, and nothing more. But leaving a picture for a while and returning to it makes you see with the eye of the outsider, and that can potentially prove valuable.
In the above shot, taken a few months go, I had all this wonderful gridded shadow texture presenting itself, shading what was otherwise a very ordinary stretch of sidewalk. A thought emerged that the stripes in the woman’s short might make an interesting contrast with the pattern of the shadows, but, after cranking off a frame or two, I abandoned the idea, just as I abandoned the shot, upon first review.
Months later, I decided to try to re-frame the shot to create a composition of one force against another…..in this case, the verticality of the lady’s legs against the diagonal slant of the shadows. That meant paring about two-thirds of the image away. Originally I had cropped it to a square with her lower torso at dead center, but there seemed to be no directional flow, so I cropped again, this time to a shorter, wider frame with the woman’s form reduced to the lower half of her legs and re-positioned to the leftward edge of the picture. Creating this imbalance in the composition, which plays to the human habit of reading from left to right along horizontal lines, seemed to give her a sense of leaving the shadows behind her, kind of in her wake if you will. At least a little sense of movement had been introduced.
I felt that now, I had the tug of forces I had been seeking in contrasting her blouse to the opposing grid in the master shot. I’m still not sure whether this image qualifies as having been “rescued”, but it’s a lot less busy, and actually directs the eye in a specific way. It will never be a masterpiece, but with the second sight of latter-day editing, you can at least have a second swipe at making something happen.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S TRICKY TRYING TO TRACK THE HISTORIC ORIGINS OF PHOTOMONTAGE, or to even isolate great early practitioners of the technique. Suffice it to say that, ever since the development of the glass negative, people have wondered what it would look like if you stacked one of them on top of the other and printed the result. Opinions vary wildly as to whether the results of such experiments constitute madness or miracle…it’s a taste thing. One thing is clear, however: the mobile age presents easier means than ever before for diving in to the montage pool and creating fast experiments at a fraction of the hassle experienced in film days.
(Now is the part where you decide whether that’s a good thing…..)
One of the top benefits of phone-based cameras is the huge number of highly responsive apps targeted at the tinkerer, the guy who wants to try just one more filter, one more effect, or a grand mash-up of everything together. Unlike the days of lab-based development and printing, digital montages are almost an immediate thrill. Better still, they can be re-imagined and re-done with the same short turnaround time inherent in all digital processes. That means that certain types of shots that would have priced themselves out of many a film shooter’s budget or know-how in Film-World are now just givens in Digital World.
(Now is the part where you decide how you feel about that…..)
If the same tools for experimentation or interpretation are in everyone’s hand, then such effects are no longer judged as wonderful just because they are rare, or novel, but for how well they are employed. In fact, a gimmick like photomontage can quickly become tiresome if over-used or under-inspired. The sample shots in this post are two-image composites processed on an app called Fused, which allows two photos at a time to be overlaid and custom-blended for a variety of contrast and color tweaks. Sometimes the effect can help pictures which are totally dissimilar find some common bond, but, at least for me, about 90% of the blends I try are kinda meh and are sent to the Phantom Zone faster than you can say “well, that didn’t work”. You can’t force the linkage just to be arty (well, of course you can, but..).
Pocket mash-ups are just one more way to untether photography from “reality” (whatever that is), and channel it into a personal form of abstract expression. That means it’s all about you. So what’s not to like?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO GET ALL MYSTICAL AND OOKY-SPOOKY ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, you can almost talk yourself into the idea that pictures kind of force their way past you on the way to their eventual best form. And, yes, I can hear your eyes rolling back in your head at the notion that an image is somehow destined to be created, that it emerges from your process almost despite you, like a rock that is pushed up through the earth by shifting tectonic plates. However, I have taken a handful of such pictures over a lifetime, as, no doubt, have you yourself, pictures that seemed to keep coming forth even beyond your first false steps until they reached their fullest expression.
Gee, is that incense I smell? Ommmmmm….
What I’m fumbling for here is a shared experience, and I do think that every photographer has had a semi-magical instance in which a photo almost taunts you to figure out how to make it work. Even in the best shots, there are moments of aching regret, maybe years down the path, that, had one or more things gone differently in the picture, it might have been eloquent or consequential. I truly believe that this very “so near, yet so far” quality is what keeps us in the hunt. After all, for the hunter, it’s the tiger he hasn’t been able to bag that calls louder than the ones already mounted over the mantel. So with photos. We are always singing the blues about the one that got away.
That’s why I’m a big believer in thinking of images as never really finished. They are, at best, preliminary studies for something else, picture that we still need to grow in order to complete. We lay them down, dissect them, re-shoot, re-imagine, and re-edit them. If you bend your thinking around, you can become comfortable with the fact that everything is a dress rehearsal for something that hasn’t arrived yet.
One of the starkest demonstrations of this fact is shots that were originally conceived as color images but which were later re-thought in monochrome. Nothing accentuates or streamlines your choices like shaving your tonal palette to the bare minimum. And, in the same vein, nothing makes you surer (or more unsure) about an image than reducing it to its simplest terms.
I think that, even as we are constantly expanding our arsenal of visual techniques, seeing them as growing, living things, so too we must think of our images as points on an evolutionary line, rather than final product.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY is that you always, always, have a backup plan. What you don’t frame correctly in the actual shooting of an image can be corrected in post-editing cropping, the use of “framing” within the composition itself, or even how you finally matte the picture before hanging it on the wall. This is as it should be since many pictures are not so much born as re-imagined.
Once you frame a photo, you’re giving the viewer the first visual cue as to what to regard as important. If I included it, you should notice it. If I excluded it, it’s either to set loose your imagination on why I defined this world within these parameters, or because I, as the narrator, am telling you it just don’t matter. You can even further enhance the effectiveness of the frame by its shape. A rectangle might enforce the reading of information left-to-right, for example, while a square might force the eye toward dead center. The original framing is your own best call to action in a photograph.
And even after you’ve defined the frame, you can still add a second directive within it to hyper-focus attention in a very specific space. The use of arches, building overhangs, edges of windows, cliffs, shadows or other secondary “frames” provides even greater cues to the eye, and also adds an illusion of dimension and depth.
In the above shot, the old stone basilica is obviously the main feature of the image, and so was cropped from a wider original to eliminate distracting foreground shrubbery on the right. However, the arch through which the building is viewed was retained, to act as a “secondary frame” and as a way to illustrate scale. The first frame says what information is important, while the second frame makes sure we get to the heart of the image more efficiently.
Using all framing devices available in an image is like using caps, lower case and italicised letters in the same sentence. Composition is about yelling to get people over to your picture, then whispering, as you gently guide them toward its heart.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A YOUNG PIANO STUDENT, I NOTICED THAT MANY OF MY FAVORITE SHORT WORKS all bore the elegant, mysterious name of etude. It was somewhat later that I realized that this was merely the French word for a “study”, and that some of what I regarded as highly developed, final compositions were, essentially, first versions, practice runs by the masters in search of some eventual greatness. And, since I was an illustrator as well as a musician, the idea of an etude as a prototype, a first version of something dovetailed nicely with the idea of a sketch, or as my father called it, a “rough”. An etude was a work in progress.
Then came photography and, with it, the giddy short-term gratification of just snapping a picture, of crossing a visual item off one’s to-do list. We are, as humans naturally attracted to the process of completion, of turning out a finished product. Click. Done. Moving on….However, despite what the auction houses and gallery curators of the world might try to tell you, art is not a product, and just like those melodiously wondrous etudes, the best images are always in the process of being created. You can always take a picture to another level, but you can’t finish it.
Walk across to the painters’ side of the Art building every once in a while and look at how many preliminary studies Leonardo or Michelangelo made of their greatest works, or the number of “early” and “late” versions there are of these same masterpieces. Now, travel back to the photography wing and witness Ansel Adams taking one crack after another at the same stony face of El Capitan, often merely reworking the same master negative up to a half dozen times over decades. You simply have to make different pictures of the same subjects across a lifetime, just because your idea of what’s important to show keeps evolving.
Finally, look objectively at your own output and discover how many of your older images are “good pictures” and how many are good ideas for pictures. You’ll no doubt find your own personal “etudes”, the studies that can still become something better. In my own case, I have to walk away from floral subjects from time to time, then return to approach them with a different mindset, since I’m equally fascinated and clueless as to how to imbue them with anything approaching soulfulness. My eye struggles to make something magical emerge from buds and bouquets as others have done. But I’ll stay at it.
Digital processes make it possible to crank through a wide variety of approaches to the same subject in a very short span of time compared to film-based techniques. Think easy-fast-cheap. Or think good-better-best if you like. Either way, the layers of learning are stacked ever higher and deeper, allowing us to regard photography as process instead of product. So do your scales every day, keep your fingers high and curved, and stay curious.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ABSTRACT COMPOSITIONS AREN’T MERELY A DIFFERENT WAY OF PHOTOGRAPHING A SUBJECT: they are, in many cases, the subject itself. Arrangements of shape, shadow and contrast can be powerful enough to carry the weight of a picture all by themselves, or at least be an abbreviated, less-is-more way of suggesting objects or people. And in terms of pure impact, it’s no surprise that photographers who, just a generation ago, might have worked exclusively in color, are making a bold return to black and white. For abstract compositions, it’s often the difference between a whisper and a shout.
I find it interesting that the medium of comics, which has long been defined by its bold, even brutal use of color, is also experiencing a black & white resurgence in recent years, with such masters as Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) rendering amazing stuff in the most starkly monochromatic terms. Likewise, the army of apps in mobile photography has reminded young shooters of the immediacy, the power of monochrome, allowing them to simulate the grain and grit of classic b&w films from Tri-X to Kodalith, even as a post-production tweak of a color original.
You know in the moment whether you’ve captured a conventional subject that sells the image, or whether some arrangement of forms suggestive of that subject is enough. In the above shot, reducing the mild color tonal patterns of a color original to bare-boned, hard blacks and loud whites creates the feel of a shaded door frame..a solid, dimensional space. The box-like enclosure that envelops the door is all there, but implied, rather than shown. As a color shot, the image is too quiet, too…gentle. In monochrome, it’s harder, but it also communicates faster, without being slowed down by the prettiness of the browns and golds that dominated the initial shot.
There are two ways to perfect a composition; building it up in layers from nothing into a “just-enough” something, or stripping out excess in a crowded mash-up of elements until you arrive at a place where you can’t trim any further without losing the essence of the picture. Black and white isn’t just the absence of color: it’s a deliberate choice, the selection of a specific tool for a specific impact.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE PHOTOGRAPHER’S LAB ACCIDENT IS, OCCASIONALLY, ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHER’S EUREKA MOMENT. Take the case of a visual effect that, in the film era, may have originated with an error in darkroom technique, and which is now being sought after by movie directors and amateurs alike as a look that they actively desire. Recent use of this effect ranges from the gritty, muted color and high-contrast of films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, to lab-less shortcuts in Photoshop and even shorter shortcuts in ready-to-eat iPhone apps. The look is called Bleach Bypass and it’s worth a look for certain moods and subjects.
The term derives its name from one of the steps used in film processing color film in which bleach is used to rinse away silver nitrate. By skipping this step, the silver is retained in the emulsion along with the color dyes. The result is a black-and-white image over a color image…kind of a photo sandwich. The resulting composite is lighter in hue but packs more extreme contrast and graininess in the monochrome values…an intense, “dirty” look.
Now, for those of you that don’t have a traditional darkroom handy, creating a bleach bypass “look” is easy in nearly any basic editing software suite. Check out the basic steps for Photoshop here. In most cases, you duplicate your original shot, desaturate it slightly, and convert the dupe shot to complete monochrome. The mono copy must also be manipulated for ultimate contrast, and the two shots must be layered in software to give you the desired blend. I tend to use Photomatix more often than Photoshop, since I work a lot with various kinds of tone-mapping for HDR, so I processed the “after” shot you see here in that program’s “exposure fusion” tab. However, as I say, lots of programs can do this with virtually no sweat.
The third image in this article (at left) was produced with a click and some swipes with the Bleach Bypass simulator in the AltPhoto app, which also mimics the look of antique film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X. As with many phone apps, it doesn’t offer much in the way of fine control, but if you do all your shooting and/or retouching in your mobile, it’s a pretty good quickie fix.
Once again, in the digital era, what was once (a) messy and troublesome becomes (b) no fuss, no muss, and therefore, (c) something that will be adopted and used by many, many more shooters. Democracy in technology does not, of course, guarantee equality of results. You just have more tools to serve you when the ideas come.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I VOLUNTEER AT A MUSEUM WHICH SERVES, IN LARGE PART, SCHOOL TOURS. And, in trying to explain the color choices made by varying cultures on the depiction of everything, from flowers to animals, I frequently ask my groups if anyone has ever colored something with a “different” crayon. Not “the wrong color”, just a different crayon, a choice resulting in a purple squirrel or a brown rose. I usually get at least a few “yeses” on the question, and, when I probe further as to what went into their decision, I almost always get one child who says, simply, “I just like it that way.”
At this point, I realize that at least one person in every mob will always be thinking of color as a choice, rather than as a right/wrong answer. In my early school days, teacher often handed out the same mimeographed picture to all thirty of us, expecting all thirty to produce precisely the same results: green grass, blue skies, yellow honeybees. Strangely, we kind of expected the same of ourselves. It was comforting to hand in a “correct” piece of art, something guaranteed to please, a safe shortcut to a gold star.
In photography, we start as witnesses to color, but should never remain slaves to it. The present generation of shooters, born and bred in iPhone Land, know that changing your mind and your thinking on color is just an app away, and why not? The same force that has finally democratized photography worldwide is also legitimizing any and every kind of artistic choice. With billions of uploads each day, uniformity of style is worse than a lifelong gig as a worker ant, and as uninteresting.
Color is as big a determinant in interpretation as any other choice that a photographer makes, and can result in subtle shaping of the mood of your work. The above tree was originally captured in natural color, but I thought the overall design of the tree was served by one tone fewer, so I reworked everything into three values….blue, green, and black. I believe that the central trunk hits with more impact as light and dark shades of emerald, and the conversion of the pine needles to a more severe shade gives me some of the directness of monochrome. Of course, you might reach a completely different conclusion, but we’re beyond right or wrong here, aren’t we?
The mimeograph is dead, and with it, solid notions of color assignment. Fewer rules means fewer obvious signposts, but that’s why there’s more than one crayon in the box, innit?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
QUICK, DO YOU KNOW WHO MADE THE HAMMER IN YOUR KITCHEN DRAWER? Let’s assume that it’s not a Sears Craftsman, but something you bought on the spot when you just needed, like, a hammer. Yeah, I’ll wait.
Follow-up question: does your off-brand Thor-wacker drive nails any less efficiently than a Sears? Or is it really all in the wrist?
In photography, sometimes tools is just tools. Cellphone apps comprise one of the the most glutted product markets ever, and, while some products do rise to the top and/or international prominence, there are gobs of different players out there to help us solve the same old problems, i.e., composition, exposure, color range, special effects. Those are the basics, and you need not be loyal to any predominant type-A app when, by the time I type the rest of this sentence, forty more guys will have served up their own solution for the exact same need. Go with what works. Add, subtract, adopt, dump, delete, and adore as needed.
Most cel camera apps, toolwise, are closer to a Swiss Army knife than a scalpel, blunt instruments that either apply an effect all-on or all-off. Single click, caveman-level stuff. Still, even the casual cel photog will pack a few of them along to do fundamental fixes on the go, and I recently noticed that I had acquired a decent, basic utility belt of bat-remedies, including, in no particular order:
Negative Me. Just what it says. Converts positive images to negative. Not something you’ll use a lot, but..
Simple DOF. A quick calculator that measures near, far and infinite sharpness based on distance, aperture and lens.
Fused. Instant double exposures, with about ten different blending formulas.
Soft Focus. Sliders for sharpness, brightness, color saturation. Instant glamor for portraits.
Timer Cam. Get in the photo.
Instants. Genuine fake Polaroid borders around your landscape or square images. Because we can’t give up our hipster groove.
AltPhoto. Best simulations of older classic film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X, as well as red filter, toy camera and antique effects.
Tilt-Shift Focus. Narrow the sharp areas in your images from a pinpoint to a basketball.
Flickr. Direct link to the mother ship
Pic Stitch. Framing templates for collages of two or more images. Drag and drop simplicity.
Use of these gimcracks ranges from the (yawn) occasional to the (yes!) essential, and your mileage may vary. Thing is, it’s truly a buyer’s (and user’s) market out there. Gather your own gold and click away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE AVAILABILITY OF PHOTO PROCESSING TOOLS, TO ARTIST AND BEGINNER ALIKE, in the digital era, has created a kind of unfortunate slingshot effect, as all suddenly achieved freedoms tend to. Once it became possible for Everyman to tweak images in a way that was once exclusively the province of the professional, there followed a trend toward twisting every dial in the tool box to, let’s be honest, rescue a lot of marginal shots. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to glam up a dud. Now raise your hand if you inadvertently made a bad picture worse by slathering on the tech goo.
Welcome to the phenomenon known as over-correction.
It’s human nature, really. Look at Hollywood. Suddenly freed from the confines of the old motion picture production code in the 1960’s, directors, understandably, took a few years to make up for decades of artistic construction by pumping out a nude scene and/or a gore fest in everything from romantic comedies to Pink Panther cartoons. Several seasons of adolescent X-rated frolics later, movies settled down to a new normal. The over-correction gave way to a more mature, even restrained style of film making.
Am I joining the ranks of anti-Photoshop trolls? Not exactly, but I am noting that, as we grow as photographers, we will put more energy into planning the best picture (all energy centered before the snap of the shutter), and less energy into “fixing it in post”. If you shoot long enough and work hard enough, that shift will just happen. More correctly designed in-camera images equals fewer pix that need to be dredged from Dudland.
Look at the simple idea of sharpening. That slithery slider is available to everyone, and we all race after it like a kid chasing the Good Humor truck. And yet, it is a wider range of color and contrast, which we can totally control in the picture-taking process, which will result in more natural sharpness than the Slider Of Joy can even dream of. As a matter of fact, test my argument with your own shots. Increase your control of contrast or color and see if it doesn’t help wean you off the sharpen tool. Or expose your shots more carefully in-camera rather than removing shadows and rolling off highlights later. Or any other experiment. Your goals, your homework.
The point being that more mindful picture-making will eliminate the need for many crutch-like editing tweaks after the fact. And if that also makes you a better shooter overall, isn’t that pretty much the quest?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD THE JOKE ABOUT THE COUNTRY PARSON WHO WAS IN THE HABIT of writing, in the margins of his sermon script, “Argument weak here. Scream like hell.” If he were a man of the camera instead of a man of the cloth, this instruction might have read, “photograph ineffective here. Over-cook everything.”
Choose your favorite post-editing workflow and chances are that you, or someone like you, have tried to rescue an indifferent image by pouring a few gallons of digital gravy over it, hoping to turn flank steak into filet. And you probably have your own personal folder of shame for the results of such attempts. Mine would fill up a small bookshelf. In the Library of Congress.
One of the hallmarks of the early digital age seems to be an affection for over-saturated color, as if we had had quite enough of natural tones, thank you, and were desperate to return to the earliest days of photographic color, when everything was played on the loud pedal. It’s kind of perverse, but it seems like, as soon as photographers outdistance an old technical barrier, they seem to get nostalgic for it and try to revive it. Why resuscitate daguerreotypes, pinhole cameras, high grain slow films, etc. Irony? Curiosity? Novelty? Who knows?
Whatever the motivation, the result has been a cornucopia of mobile apps that aim for an unnatural distortion of color values (spend ten minutes on Instagram for as many samples as you want) and the lo-fi or lomography movement toward cheap plastic toy cameras that can’t help but deliver hyped up hues (again, Instagram). There are also a number of HDR programs which tend to tempt people beyond their endurance when it comes to electrifying color even in an image’s shadows, making everyday like a day-glo version of your uncle’s golf togs and resulting in some pretty hideous excess (and yet, alas, such was I. See left).
What’s the new normal? Again, can’t tell you. It’s pretty certain, though, that we love cranking the color up to 11, whether it serves the photo or not. Backing off and backing away on the hue-mongous overkill takes real discipline. The amped-up image is fascinating in some kind of moth-to-the-flame way, but eventually it becomes like any other excess, in that it stifles, rather than frees, your art. No effect is so miraculous as to work in every situation. Eventually, it’s about what you’re seeing and saying.