By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATEST VIRUS-FORCED GLOBAL HIBERNATION, in which we try to wait out a capital “T”-sized terror, has left us alone with a lot of lower-case “T”s as well, that being our accumulated To-Do lists, which, what the hell, since we’re stuck here anyway, we might as well tackle, right? Said lists can contain anything, from repairing a squeaky door hinge to paring down that pile of unanswered junk mail…but, whatever the list’s holdings, the human impulse remains, yeah, well, maybe tomorrow, if I’m not busy.
Even the most severely sequestered amongst us are occasionally allowed out for a walk and a breath of air, and for those who also happen to be photographers, the itch needs regular scratching. But once a huge percentage of our usual haunts are closed for the duration, you must make pictures with whatever subject matter still remains in the rotation. For me, occupying one of the southwest states in the USA, that means heading to the various open spaces and digging the scenery, which sounds like a welcome respite, unless you know me. I wouldn’t exactly say that landscapes and me aren’t on speaking terms, but I would agree that we generally speak different languages. Thing is, when the great outdoors is most of what you’re going to be allowed to make pictures with, you must get your language straight, or give up the ghost. And so, during the worldwide lay-off, I’m communing with nature and hoping something worthwhile seeps into my pictures. It’s not easy for me. It’s more like “to-do” with a vengeance.
Give me a buzzing urban environment, a tableau in which people are scaled and contextualized and do battle with all manner of their own dwellings and creations, and the photographic truths fairly jump out of my camera. I see stories. I sense relationships. I create speculations and divine meanings. But point that same camera at a tree, a mountain, a seashore, and….well, it’s not as if I can’t make something “nice” out of the effort, but I must struggle to pull the truths out. I mean, I can compose and capture the essential beauty of a scene as well as the next guy, but it doesn’t feel like reporting as much as recording. I feel at the mercy of nature’s caprices in a way that I never do in cities. In working with landscapes I sense a division between what’s visually appealing and what’s emotionally compelling. My head can dig the scene but my heart is lagging behind. What’s wrong with me?
All photographers gravitate toward interpretations of the world as they see it, and they likewise grapple with ( or outright avoid) whatever their short suit happens to be. Some shooters are terrified of portraits. Others break out in a rash when forced to calculate arcane lighting schemes. No one gets it all. I marvel at the natural world. I do. I like solitude and silence and contemplation and all that there Thoreau stuff. But after long periods of silent dawns and rolling clouds, I feel an irresistible urge to head for a very loud, mob-crushed subway car. Gershwin once said that certain rhythm patterns came to him when he was clacking over train tracks. Others must go completely Ansel Adams and see the world within the veins of a single leaf. As it happens, our international time-out is occurring just as I have taken possession of a new camera, and so my mindfulness is already at a kind of artificial peak. Perhaps that process, coupled with a forced slow-down out in the wilds, will be enough to get my juices flowing.
Or at least, I’ll get a decent amount of exercise.
Hey, hug enough trees and you can really build up those biceps.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SHEER DURATION IN TIME REQUIRED TO MAKE A PHOTOGRAPH was, in the earliest days of the camera art, THE prime determinant of good results. Recording media was slow, and conditions had to be exhaustively massaged for a usable picture to be produced at all. Long exposures and other compromises made portraiture difficult and rendered many other subjects simply impracticable. Naturally, the forethought, the planning of an image was a conscious, deliberate process. If you wanted a photo, you had to prepare properly.
The emergence, around 1900, of the first amateur cameras, which made so-called “instantaneous”, hand-held exposures possible, ushered in the age of the “snap shot”, and meant that, suddenly, many millions of pictures were being produced each year. That revolution was later replicated at the dawn of the digital age, in which the time it took a camera to snap and deliver pictures became even shorter. That, in turn, created a secondary wave of mass amateur photography, as defined by the phone camera, creating a blinding hurricane of images produced far faster than a human could plan or pre-construct. In essence, we could take pictures almost quicker than we could think them through. And that, at least for me, is a problem.
The careful, contemplative aspect of photography, which originally had been forced on its earliest practitioners by primitive technology, is, of course, no longer a factor. However, slowing oneself down long enough to produce fewer but better pictures is still valuable, more valuable, in fact, than all our storied gear and toys combined. Walking along on a shoot, I have frequently felt this…. push at the back of my neck, this nagging urge to hurry up and get the picture, which actually means get any picture. And certainly that’s no tough feat, given the rapid response of contemporary cameras. However, a special kind of frustration comes later on, when I realize that, in being too eager to simply record a thing, I did not spend enough time to determine the best way to record it. I let the medium tell me when to click, with the primary emphasis on merely getting something in the can and moving on. Days later, looking at a series of technically adequate but artistically under-explored pictures, I feel a little sick. Turns out, the only thing worse than not being able to photograph something is to have had your chance and let your impulses propel you into mediocre results. In looking at such results, I initially respond with W.T.F. (if you don’t know what that is, Google it), then revise my jargon to W.T.R.(what’s the rush???).
As you no doubt can do with your own shots, I can now look at past photos and recall if I shot them at leisure, that is, with some intention or blueprint, or if I allowed myself to act as if I were on deadline. For instance, the above postcard scene could certainly have happened by happy accident if it were a stand-alone snapshot, but, in fact, it’s one of twenty frames taken on both sides of Columbus, Ohio’s Scioto River over the space of a half hour, since I was certain of my subject but unsure of how best to compose it. The point is that I came back with more choices than I needed on the thing I really came for, rather than shooting as many different things as quickly as I could.
I can’t over-emphasize the gift of time that only we can give ourselves when shooting. “W.T.R.” should always be echoing in our ears as a nagging question, and, if the answer is “no real rush in particular”, then take a beat, take your time, and make your pictures better. The camera can shoot faster than you can think, but that’s mainly because it isn’t troubled with thinking at all.
That’s your job.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS AN OBSESSIVE CHILD, I became crazed with the drawing of short animations on pads of paper known as “flip books.” You know the drill. Draw a picture on the top sheet, turn the page, draw another picture with a small change in position, and repeat several dozen times until you produce a brief cartoon by flipping the entire pad from the front to the back. I actually got pretty good at it, if, by “good” you mean manically addicted to perfection and insanely fixated on detail. I could make three seconds of cinematic grandeur. I just couldn’t do it fast.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the playroom, my sister and her partner, my cousin Mark, had so such problem. While I would spend the better part of a week sweating over the laws of locomotion for such classics as The Mummy Goes Mad or Spider–Man vs The Vulture, Liz and Mark cranked out ten titles a day, crude stick-figure blackouts created in ten-minute surges of creative hysteria, all ending with the unfortunate (and unnamed) hero exploding, then emitting a dialogue balloon with the single, sad existential word “WHY??” While I was doing DeMille parting the Red Sea, they were doing Mack Sennett one-reel wonders, heavy on the pie fights. Fact is, I found their stuff gut-achingly hilarious. There was no disputing which of the two “studios” better understood the entertainment biz.
Lizzie and Mark’s stick figures moved every bit as well as my fully-rendered players, but their impact was more immediate. Their drawings didn’t have even a single line that wasn’t absolutely essential to their narratives. I thought of all this recently when working with some distant crowds which were reduced to mere silhouettes in a deep telephoto of the coastline at California’s Morro Bay. As components in a larger composition, they were just markers, measures of linear space. Shooting even closer might have revealed their hair color, lines on their faces or the shine of water on their wet suits, but to what benefit for the overall effectiveness of the picture?
There are many forms of visual shorthand in the making of a photograph, and they can be effective in speeding the journey from the viewer’s eye to his heart. We might think of photography as the complete recording of detail, a piece-for-piece re-play of reality, just as I thought I had to draw every single web line on Spider-Man’s head. However, the most eloquent images often speak louder by using fewer words.
Sometimes, a stick figure is exactly what you need, and no more.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR MANY OF US, CAN OFTEN INVOLVE NOTHING MORE than finding a thing we want to capture and getting it all in the frame. Click and done. It’s only later that we sometimes realize that we should have, shall we say, shopped around for the best way, from angle to exposure, to get our quarry in frame. Or even look for a better frame.
One of the first tricks I learned in travel photography was from the old scenic shooters who created the travel titles for View-Master Reels, who always thought in terms of framing to maximize the image’s 3-d effect. For a start, since they were working in square format, they automatically had less real estate in which to compose. Secondly, they had to shoot in “layers”, since the idea was to have subject matter in multiple planes, for example, overhanging shade tree right at the front, a tourist midway into the shot, and Mount Rushmore at the back. They also learned to position things just inside the frame’s edge, what was called the “stereo window” to accentuate the sensation of looking into the photograph.
Thing is, all of these compositional techniques work exactly the same in a flat image, and can draw the viewer’s eye deeper into a picture, if used creatively. Certainly you can’t go wrong with a great exposure of a beautiful view. But experiment as well with things that force your audience to peer intently into that view. The image at the top is standard post-card, and works well enough. However, in the shot at left, in taking ten seconds to slip inside a gift shop that also looks out on the same view, I’ve tried to show how you can get an atmospheric framing that both accentuates depth and provides a bit more of a sense of destination. It all depends on what you’re looking to do, of course….but it makes sense to develop the habit of asking yourself how many different ways are available to tell the same story.
Editing a solid portfolio of shots can only begin with lots of choices. Hey, you’re there, anyway, so develop the habit of envisioning multiple versions of each picture, and weed out what doesn’t work. Remember again that the only picture that absolutely fails is the one you didn’t try to make.