By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HALF-CENTURY OR SO can be seen as a road race with the world of painting, with both runners trying to outpace each other in “realistically” depicting the world. The camera, being an actual recording machine, was first reviled, later praised as a more reliable chronicler of the actual world. Painters, in reaction, quit the reality playing field, inventing new, more abstract forms of expression like Impressionism, and left the documentary work to photogs. Or so everyone assumed.
After 1900, photographers, too embraced the idea that mere “reality” was overrated and developed their own very individualistic ways of making images, introducing the first manipulations of film, light, lenses, printing techniques and composition. Freed from the stricture of merely capturing a scene, shooters began to propose alternative visions, to interpret the world in very subjective ways. Today, one’s photographs can be as tightly naturalistic or as loosely abstract as one pleases, with some of the most impactful pictures being the ones that seem to be about nothing in particular. These “absolute” compositions, basic arrangements of color and light, may not be storytelling images in the same way that a war photo or a news snap are. They not only don’t provide explanations, they don’t even require them. The terms of engagement for such photographs are stark and simple: they’re pictures because we say they’re pictures, and they either grab you or they don’t.
My own training in photography manifested itself as a need to exercise control, to execute well and follow the rules of technique faithfully. However, my idea of getting a picture “right”, which might easily have stopped at just technical precision, has, thankfully, continued to crawl forward toward the kinds of absolutes I described before. Pictures that just are, such as the one shown here, pose a problem for me, since I have to leave the safety of things I know that “work”, entering a realm where I’m not sure where the paths are. I truly love what happens when I relax my grip on the old reliable truths and let things just happen, but it’s also a bit like walking in space: my tether could break, and I could be cast adrift.
The first time I heard someone, in speaking of one of my photographs, ask, “what’s that supposed to be?” I was stung, nervous. The question is, of course, ridiculous, as if there were only one way to represent the world, with every other way somehow counted as wrong. But the camera is not (and never was), a mere measuring and recording instrument. Over the centuries, it has been whatever we have asked of it, a seismograph of our own undulating curiosity. We learn to see by learning its operations. We learn to listen by shutting out every other sound except our own clear voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN OUR USUAL HUMAN PROPENSITY FOR USING PHOTOGRAPHY AS A LITERAL RECORDING MEDIUM, most of our pictures will require no explanation. They will be “about” something. They will look like an object or a person we have learned to expect. They will not be ambiguous.
The rest, however, will be mysteries…..big, uncertain, ill-defined, maddening, miraculous mysteries. Stemming either from their conception or their execution, they may not immediately tell anyone anything. They may ring no familiar bells. They may fail to resemble most of what has gone before. These shots are both our successes and failures, since they present a struggle for both our audiences and for ourselves. We desperately want to be understood, and so it follows that we also want our brainchildren to be understood as well. Understood…and embraced.
It cannot always be, and it should not always be.
No amount of explanatory captioning, “backstory” or rationalization can make clear what our images don’t. It sounds very ooky-spooky and pyramid- power to say it, but, chances are, if a picture worked for you, it will also work for someone else. Art is not science, and we can’t just replicate a set of coordinates and techniques and get a uniform result.
There is risk in making something wonderful….the risk of not managing to hit your mark. It isn’t fatal and it should not be feared. Artistic failure is the easiest of all failures to survive, albeit a painful kick in the ego. I’m not saying that there should never be captions or contextual remarks attached to any image. I’m saying that all the verbal gymnastics and alibis in the world won’t make a space ship out of a train wreck.
The above image is an example. If this picture does anything for you at all, believe me, my explanation of how it was created will not, repeat, not enhance your enjoyment of it one particle. Conversely, if what I tried is a swing and a miss, in your estimation, I will not be able to spin you a big enough tale to see magic where there is none. I like what I attempted in this picture, and I am surprisingly fond of what it almost became along the way. That said, I am perfectly fine with you shrugging your shoulders and moving on to the next item on the program.
Everything is not for everybody. So when someone sniffs around one of your photographs and asks (brace for it), “What’s that supposed to be?”, just smile.
And keep taking pictures.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.