By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, it’s often difficult to know when a simple composition will serve as the best overall tool for an effective narrative. We all heard something from our ninth-grade science teacher about the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, and some of that directness, expressed as an image that gets to the point without needless visual distractions or detours, certainly applies to some of our best work.
But then again…
Some pictures certainly suffer from an overabundance of detail. The eye can get lost on its way to the main point of the photograph; competing components of equal appeal can wrestle each other for dominance in a scene; and, of course, excessive clutter can defuse a photo’s impact altogether. Imagine a large Where’s Waldo? panorama in which, to your frustration, you just never manage to find Waldo at all.
That said, there are subjects which are busy, busy, busy, but which might actually lose their power if you tried to tidy them up or streamline them. Consider the above shot of a hallway inside the Library of Congress. Here is a place where no one even considered the minimalist credo that “less is more”. Indeed, this magnificent building is about majesty, power, prestige, officialdom, if you will. It means to shout loud and proud. It is an expression of an empire, an edifice to the grandeur of the ideas contained within its walls. Simple and spare just won’t cut it for such a place, and a photograph taken of it needs to respect that.
Even in places that boast this level of ornamentation, however, you can take small steps to prevent your viewer’s eye from being overwhelmed. An even, bright exposure, for example, with nothing lurking in shadows to trick your viewer into going on a scavenger hunt; sharp focus from front to back to allow all the detail to be prominently displayed; and the use of whatever leading lines might be in the structure, to keep the eye moving in as close to a single direction as possible, emphasizing depth and scale.
The old “keep it simple, stupid” rule does, indeed serve photographers well in scads of cases. But for those few occasions where busier is better, go full-tilt boogie and really ladle it on. The knack of knowing when to say “how much” and when to say “too much” is some of the best editorial education you can ever treat yourself to.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY WIFE AND I HAVE REACHED A REASONABLE DIVISION OF LABOR as regards road trips, with her taking on the nation’s freeways like an original cast member of The Road Warrior and me decoding various navigational vectors, from AAA maps to iPhones, as well as uber-producing the in-car tune mix. Everybody to their strengths and all that. This arrangement also frees me up to pursue the mythical goal of Immortal Photograph I Shot Out A Car Window, which will also be the title of my Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech.
Any day now.
Most of these potential world-beater images have been attempted through the front windshield, where it is at least a little easier to control blur, even glass reflection. Additionally, the majority of them, more and more, are done on mobile phones, which is not the greatest for resolution, but gives you that nice exaggeration on dimensions and depth that comes with a default wide-angle lens, which, in some cases, shoots broader vistas than even the kit lens on your “real” camera.
If you find yourself doing the same thing, you have no doubt noticed that you must get really, really close to your subject before even mountains look like molehills, as the lens dramatically stretches the front-to-back distances. You might also practice a bit to avoid having 10,000 shots that feature your dashboard and that somewhat embarassing Deadhead sticker you slapped on the windshield in 1985.
So, to recap: Shoot looking forward. Use a mobile for that nice cheap arty widescreen look. Frame so your dash-mounted hula girl is not included in your vistas (okay, she does set off that volcano nicely..). And wait until you’re almost on top of (or directly underneath) the object of your affection.
And keep an ear out for important travel inquries from your partner, such as: “are you gonna play this entire Smiths CD?”
Sorry, my dear. Joan Baez coming right up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STORIES OF “THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT” COMPRISE ONE OF THE MOST RELIABLE TROPES IN ALL OF FICTION. The romantic notion of stumbling upon places that have been sequestered away from the mad forward crunch of “progress” is flat-out irresistible, since it holds out the hope that we can re-connect with things we have lost, from perspective to innocence. It moves units at the book store. It sells tickets at the box office. And it provides photographers with their most delicate treasures.
Whether our lost land is a village in some hidden valley or a hamlet within the vast prairie of middle America, we romanticize the idea that some places can be frozen in amber, protected from us and all that we create. Sadly, finding places that have been allowed to remain at the margins, that have been left alone by developers and magnates, is getting to be a greater rarity than ever before. Small towns can be wholly separate universes, sealed off from the silliness that has engulfed most of us, but just finding one which has been lucky enough to aspire to “forgotten” status is increasingly rare.
That’s why it’s so wonderful when you take the wrong road, and make the right turn.
The above stretch of sunlit houses, parallel to their tiny town’s main railroad spur, shows, in miniature, a place where order is simple but unwavering. Colors are basic. Lines are straight. This is a town where school board meetings are still held at the local Carnegie library, where the town’s single diner’s customers are on a first name basis with each other. A place where the flag is taken down and folded each night outside the courthouse. A village that wears its age like an elder’s furrowed brow with quietude, serenity.
There are plenty of malls, chain burger joints, car dealerships and business plazas within several miles of here. But they are not of here. They keep their distance and mind their manners. The freeway won’t be barreling through here anytime soon. There’s time yet.
Time for one more picture, as simple as I know how to make it.
A memento of a world fighting to forget.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ART’S GREATEST “DEMOCRATIZER“, a medium that levels the playing field for creative minds as no other medium can. “Everyone gets a shot”, goes the old saying, and, today, more than ever, the generation of images is so available, so cost-effective that almost anyone can play.
Yes, I said almost. Because even as cameras become so integrated into our devices and lives as to be nearly invisible, there is at least one big stump in the road, one major barrier to truly universal access to image-making. That barrier is defined by distance and science.
For those longing to bring the entire world ever closer, zoom lenses and the optics they require still slam a huge NO ADMITTANCE door in front of many shooters, simply because their cost remains beyond the reach of too many photographers. Lenses going beyond around 300mm simply price users out of the market, and so keep their work confined in a way that the work of the rich isn’t.
Look at the metadata listed in the average “year’s best” or “blue ribbon” competitions in National Geographic, Audubon, Black & White, or a score of other photo magazines. Look specifically at the zoom ranges for the best photos of birds, insects and general wildlife. The greatest praise is heaped on images taken with 400, 600, 800mm glass, and rightfully so, as they are often stunning. But the fiscal wall between these superb optics and users of limited funds means that many of those users cannot take those images, and thus cannot compete or contribute in the same way as those who can afford them. For an art that purports to welcome all comers, this is wrong.
The owl image at the top of this post fell into my lap recently, and I was able to take advantage of this handsome fellow’s atypical appearance at a public place with the help of a 300mm lens. But that’s only because (A) he was still only about forty feet away from me, and (B) he is as big as a holiday ham. If he and I had truly been “out in the wild”, he would have been able to effectively enforce his own no pictures today policy, as I would have been optically outflanked. Two options would thus emerge: drop thousands for the next biggest hunk of glass, or take pictures of something else.
I am for anyone being able to take any kind of picture, anywhere, with nothing to limit them except their vision and imagination. Unfortunately, we will need a revolution on the high end of photography, such as that which has happened on the entry level, to make the democracy of the medium universal and complete. We need an “everyman” solution in the spirit of the Kodak, the Polaroid, and the iPhone.
The world of imaging should never be subdivided into haves and have-nots.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE MAN’S DEDICATION IS ANOTHER MAN’S OBSESSION. Whether we view a person as passionately committed or someone who should just be, well, committed is largely a matter of perception. Nowhere is this truer than in the artistic world. Walk into any gallery, anywhere, and you will engage with at least one fixation on excellence that you believe is proof that grant money is dispensed far too freely. If this were not so, there would only be the need for one artist. The rest of us would be manning xerox machines. That’s why some people believe Thomas Kincade was a prophet, while other believe he was just, well, a profit.
Usually these debates are accompanied by too many beers, more than a few elevations in volume, and at least one person who gets his feelings hurt. Such is life, such is expression. We just guarantee your right to try it. We don’t guarantee anyone’s obligation to buy it.
Discussion of the new book That Tree by Mark Hirsch (due in August) will fuel many such lager-lubricated chats, and some of them will be heated, I’m sure. The book actually demonstrates two separate obsessions, er, passions. First, Hirsch, a professional photographer, wished to create a substantial project for which he would set aside his Top Gun-level camera gear and shoot exclusively with his new iPhone. Second, early on in the project, he took the dare/suggestion from a friend to limit his subject matter to a single tree, an unremarkable bur oak that he had passed, without noticing, daily for almost nineteen years.
Think about this, now.
Looking back over the subjects that I personally have been drawn to revisit time and again, I’m damned if I can find even one with enough visual gold to warrant mining it for 365 images. the closest two subjects would be a small restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona called Zinc Bistro, and the campus of cliffside art galleries at the Getty Center above Los Angeles. And I have cranked out a ton of frames of both subjects, looking for a truth that may or may not be there to see…but not a year’s worth. I personally believe that I might conceivably be able to find that much mystery and beauty in my wife’s face….in fact, I shoot her as often as I can. However, long before a project of this scope could be completed, she would have taken out a contract on my life. True love will only take you so far.
I have got to see this book.
Mark Hirsch will either become my new synonym for Latest Photo God Almighty or another amusing asterisk in the broad sweep of imaging history.He will also provide strong talking points for those who champion the iPhone as a serious photographic instrument. For that alone, the book has value.
Either way, it ain’t gonna be boring.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photographer documents a year in the life of a tree on his iPhone (guardian.co.uk)
SOMETIMES YOU CAN BECOME SO FIXATED on the shot you think you want that the shot you could have can’t squeeze through the mental haze. You might even regard an element that has the potential to actually save your image as an annoyance, as if it’s blocking the view of your sacred “plan”. The alternate idea buzzes around your skull like some stubborn house fly, and you’re eager to bat it away and get back to your grand vision.
A while back, such an element was fighting to get my attention. It was the very thing my picture needed…and the very last thing I wanted. I wish I could say I came to my senses, but it was actually only after I viewed a burst of shots, after the fact, that I fully realized I had been given a gift.
The above scene, a small rustic graveyard, can be found in a mountainous village near the greater Santa Fe area in New Mexico. The location pulled me off the road with its breathtaking setting, as well as the many hand-crafted monuments scattered among the more traditional headstones. I was thinking: nice, self-contained scenic shot, lots of local flavor, warmer-than-normal desert light, just point and click, right? Simple.
Simple, that is, until our friend here showed up. Immediately I regarded him as noise, as an interruption of my “ideal” shot. Never mind the folly of thinking that there is only one way to approach a subject: I was muttering a few silent oaths even as I continued to click and track him as he crossed the graveyard. When was he going to get out of the way, so I could back to my master plan?
I kept everything I shot, figuring that I might have accidentally gotten my wonderful empty scenic before my visitor came along. Instead, at full-size review later, I came back again and again to look at him. His slim solitary form, his simple dress, his two plain flowers, and his downcast gaze all lent a story to what had been a simple, if nice, still life. In giving that sad little field some badly needed human context, his presence proved that it was he who belonged there. If there was an intruder in this drama, it was me. I was just there to take pictures of his life.
He was busy living it.
I frequently find that if I just turn my mind off and stop obsessing about my “vision”, many settings yield something stronger and more elequent than my original design. Think of it as being a sketch artist who keeps his options open by laying in as many pencil lines as you can before inking the final choice. Most importantly, you must trust and be thankful for the occasional gift.