By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE RIGHTLY ACCUSED, from time to time, of trying too hard to capture every key moment of life. Part of that drive can certainly be written off to the pursuit of any obsessive-compulsive hobby, from stamp collecting to Elvis paraphernalia. But some of it is driven by the haunted regrets that involve the pictures that we didn’t, and now never can, take.
I got a sad reminder of that this week. Because a friend of mine died. And somehow, I, the perpetual pest with a camera (in the estimation of my entire social circle, and beyond) never managed, in the seven years of that friendship, to take his picture even once. The hollow feeling that has accompanied that realization over the past few days is twice as painful, since this is not the first time this has happened. No, I can actually count a small crowd of people who have moved into important rooms in the house of my life, then packed and left without my having so much as a snapshot to remember them by. What does this say about me, and how I see my relationships with people?
Since my children have grown to adults and launched their own lives, I have seldom had subjects that have justified the feverish shower of photos that once defined my active parenting years. There are grandchildren now, but, compared to the torrent of images taken of them (and shared with me) by other family members, I see my own yield of personally shot pictures as a paltry pile. Now ask me how many images I’ve made of skyscrapers. Ouch.
And now another friend is gone, destined to live only in my memory, the way almost everyone was remembered by almost everybody before the invention of the camera. Surely my reminiscences of the most important people in my life are stronger, more personal, than any photograph I might create of any one of them, right? Or would a picture be the best tribute to those no longer here, a true measure, at least in light and dimensions, of what they were actually like? Or, further, do I just believe that even my best work might fall short of their best essence, and simply dodge the daunting task of documenting them in a physical way?
Friendships, at least the good ones, are like our notion of our very own lives, in that they seem to be destined to go on forever. Until they don’t. At this point in the game, I’m fast approaching a world populated largely by ghosts of adventures long past. A mere two-dimensional record of those who are gone is probably a sorry substitute for the detail of memory, except, of course, that memory itself will eventually corrode and go brown around the edges. Maybe the real reason to make a photograph of someone is the same reason a jazz musician creates an improvisation, in the moment, on a familiar tune. We are celebrating the now, interpreting this person’s impact on us right now. It’s be funny to learn that images are not so much about preserving people forever as they are emotional reactions to where they are for you while they are still here. Maybe our pictures don’t preserve anything about those people except how much we loved them. That’s not enough to show from the so many lives in our life. But it’s something.
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
JACOB MARLEY, THE RUEFUL GHOST of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, refers to the manacles and links that trail behind him as “the chain I forged in life”, and indeed, as the years wear on, one can certainly feel the accumulated weight of one’s own “ponderous” train, its clanking amplified to even greater force during the holiday season.
Certain cycles of the year speak louder to our memories than others, whether they mark anniversaries of loss, joy, sacrifice, devotion, or any other emotional life trophies. And the visual arts, including photography, tap into and amplify these feelings in everything from the pages of the calendar to snapshots of dear ones both present and absent.
Both present and absent. Living and dead. Still here and almost gone. Ghosts and survivors. Marley and Scrooge. The photographer can sometimes almost feel the collision of past and present within a single image, as if each force is grappling for control of the picture’s message.
In the above photograph, I was initially looking to steal a candid of my father as he watched some television. It should have been a simple task, but, when your father is still here at 88, the faces of those no longer here echo in his every feature. To add to the density of emotion, you have the fact that he’s seated beneath a mantle fairly buckling under the weight of a third of a century’s worth of well-curated nutcrackers. Thus, even though she’s dodged having her picture taken at this particular moment (a well-honed skill), my mother is present here as well.
And so, decisions, decisions: I could have made my father look over in my direction, maybe even coaxing a smile from him, but I liked his weary look of detachment, as if the years were a kind of Marley chain dragging him earthward. I also could have cropped out the nutcrackers, simplifying the overall frame. But the “ponderous” tonnage of memory the figures symbolize would have been wasted, so they stay.
Photographs can only rarely be snapped in their most complete form, and certain times of year prove too layered with history to make for so-called “simple” pictures. Maybe it’s the different way we see on certain days. And just maybe it’s a ghostly presence, a glimpse of the chain we forged in life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CAN VIEW THE MAIN FUNCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY AS TWOFOLD, with the deliberate creation of a vision as one path, and the arresting of time in its motion as the other. In the first case, we plan, conceive and execute at our leisure until the image that is behind our eye emerges on the page. In the second, we are hastening to capture and cage something that is in the act of disappearing. In one instance we compose. In the other, we preserve.
Sometimes the two purposes come together in one picture, although you seldom know it until after the image is made. Take the example below. In the moment, I was struck by the light patterns that bounced across the empty space of an event room at the visitor center for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I wanted to do everything I could, exposure-wise, to dramatize the play of light in this special space. In addition to trying to create an image, however, I was also scurrying to keep a special number of factors from vanishing. I was both creating and preserving.
Obviously, the light you see would have had a dramatically different effect had the room been packed with, say, bodies or furniture, so its unobstructed path was one temporary condition. Another fleeting factor was the late afternoon light, which was, in addition to being extremely changeable, also one of the rare moments of pure sun the area had seen during a severely overcast day. It was as if the heavens opened up and angels were singing a song called, “Take The Picture, Already, Dummy”(perhaps you have heard this song yourself). Everything pointed to immediacy.
Full disclosure: getting this shot was not something that stretched me, or demanded exceptional skill. There was not one technically difficult factor in the making of this picture. You yourself have taken pictures like this. They are there and then they’re gone. But, they don’t get collected unless you see how fragile they are, and act in time. It’s not wizardry. It’s just acting on an instinct which, hopefully, gets sharper the longer you are in the game.
I often state one of my only primary commandments for photography as, Always Be Shooting. An important corollary to that rule might be, Always Be Ready To Shoot. Spot the potential in your surroundings quickly. Get used to the fact that many pictures will only dance before you for seconds at a time, flashing like heat lightning, then fading to oblivion. Picture-making is sometimes about casual and careful crafting of an image. And sometimes it’s a race of inches.
And sometimes it’s both.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Okay, Wang, I think that’s enough pictures of the parking lot. —Rodney Dangerfield, Caddyshack
IF YOU WERE TO EXPRESS TODAY’S PHOTOGRAPHIC FREEDOM IN TERMS OF FIREPOWER, it would be fair to say that many of us have come to shoot in a somewhat scatter-shot fashion, like someone sweeping a machine gun. Indeed, digital allows us to overshoot everything to such a degree that doing so becomes our default action, because why would you take one picture of your child digging into birthday cake when fifty will do just as well?
Some over-shooting is really what pro photogs used to call “coverage” and is actually beneficial for particularly hard subjects. Awe-inspiring sunsets. A stag at bay. The fiery burst from a Hawaiian volcano. Such subjects actually warrant a just-one-more approach to make sure you’ve thought through every possible take on something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, or which may be vanishing presently. But that’s a lot different from cranking off four dozen clicks of the visitor’s center at Wally World.
Shooting better isn’t always assured by merely shooting more. Instead of the machine gun technique, we might actually improve our eye, as well as our ability to strategize a shot, by limiting how many total tries we make at capturing an image. My point is that there are different “budgets” for different subject matter, and that blowing out tons of takes is not a guarantee that Ze Beeg Keeper is lurking there somewhere in the herd.
So put aside the photographic spray-down technique from time to time and opt for the single bullet theory. For you film veterans, this actually should be easy, since you remember what it was like to have to budget a finite number of frames, depending on how many rolls you packed in. Try giving yourself five frames max to capture something you care about, then three, then one. Then go an entire day taking a single crack at things and evaluate the results.
If you’ve ever spent the entire day with a single focal length lens, or fought severe time constraints, or shot only on manual, you’re already accustomed to taking a beat, getting your thinking right, and then shooting. That’s all single-take photography is; an exercise in deliberation, or in mindfulness, if you dig guru-speak. Try it on your own stuff, and, better yet, use the web to view the work of others doing the same thing. Seek out subjects that offer limited access. Shoot before your walk light goes on at an intersection. Frame out a window. Pretend an impatient car-full of relatives is waiting for you with murder in their hearts. Part of the evolution of our photography is learning how to do more with less.
That’s not only convenient, in terms of editing. It’s the very soul of artistry.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF YOUR MOST FORWARD-THINKING DEVELOPMENT AS A PHOTOGRAPHER CAN OFTEN OCCUR on days when you’ve planned exactly…nothing. You may have noticed that you produce an occasional masterpiece in situations where there was “nothing to shoot” or you “didn’t have anywhere special to go.” Phrases like I was just wandering around are sometimes used by people describing how their favorite images wound up inside the camera.
What I’m saying is that, if making something out of nothing is the classic definition of creativity, go find yourself some nothing.. and shoot it.
There’s a strange paradox at play here. When you are photographing something that truly “matters”, your concentration is on the subject, not your technique, almost as if the thing will record itself if you just faithfully point the camera. Kids’ birthday parties or a view of El Capitan come “ready to eat” in a way, and you don’t fester about doing anything bold on your side of the equation. The task becomes, basically, not to screw up….hardly a recipe for excellence. When the subject matter is incomplete, however, or, more importantly, meaningless to you, the work is much harder and more mindful. Say what?
The emphasis shifts to how do I make something out of this, which whips you into a more deliberately creative mode. Suddenly there are things to overcome, from lighting to lousy composition. There are things to improve, since the subject isn’t supplying its own drama or beauty and needs you to shape it. It’s strange. The things that matter most can cause you to take the most lax approach to recording them, while the junk you shot just because it was there can get your juices going.
More importantly, since the “meaningless” is generally unknown to you, you don’t bring any biases to it. You don’t have a usual or traditional way of seeing it (you don’t care about it, remember?) , so you don’t fall into lazy habits or a usual way of photographing it. Its newness makes you innovate, makes you work harder to (here comes the chorus) make something out of nothing.
It’s when you have the most organic, most open attitude toward what you’re shooting that you feel relaxed enough to experiment, which speeds up your learning curve and deepens your involvement. And that means better pictures, since you take yourself, as well as the camera, off automode.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE ALL EXPERIENCED THE SHOCK OF SEEING OURSELVES IN A CERTAIN KIND OF PHOTOGRAPH, a strange combination of framing, light or even history that makes us actually ask, “who is that?? before realizing the truth. Of course we always know, intellectually, that a photo is not an actual visual record of events but an abstraction, and still we find ourselves emotionally shocked when it’s capable of rendering very familiar things as mysteries. That odd gulf between what we know, and what we can get an image to show, is always exciting, and, occasionally, confounding.
Every once in a while, what comes out in a picture is so jarringly distant from what I envisioned that I want to doubt that I was even involved in capturing it. Such photographs are magical orphans, in that they are neither successes nor failures, neither correct or wrong, just…..some other thing. My first reaction to many of these kinds of shots is to toss them into the “reject” pile, as every photo editor before 1960 might have, but there are times when they will not be silenced, and I find myself giving them several additional looks, sometimes unable to make any final decision about them at all.
The above shot was taken on a day when I was really shooting for effect, as I was using both a polarizing filter to cut glare and a red 25 filter to render severe contrast in black and white. The scene was a reedy brook that I had shot plenty of times at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, but the shot was not planned in any way. As a matter of fact, I made the image in about a moment and a half, trying to snap just the shoreline before a boisterous little girl could get away from her parents and run into the frame. That’s all the forethought that went into it.
With all the extreme filtration up front of the lens, I was shooting slow, at about 1/30 of a second, and, eager to get to the pond, the child was just too fast for me. Not fast enough to be a total blur, but fast enough for my lens to render her softly, strangely. And since every element in a picture talks to every other element, the rendering of the reeds, which was rather murky, added even more strangeness to the little girl, her face forever turned away, her intent or presence destined to remain a secret.
I might like this picture, but I worry that wanting to like it is making me see something in it that isn’t there. Am I trying to wish some special quality into a simple botched shot, acting as a sort of self-indulgent curator in search of “art”?
Can’t tell. Too soon.
Check with me in another five years or so.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE NEVER PARTICIPATED IN THE STRANGE NEW RITUAL known as “Throwback Thursday”, the terminally adorable craze involving the online resurrection of antique photos of oneself or friends, the purpose of which is apparently to celebrate our poor tonsorial and wardrobe choices of bygone days. I keep most historic depictions of myself under lock and key for a reason, and making myself look retroactively more idiotic than I am already, well, someone needs to explain to me where the “fun” part comes in. Just because I was once stupid enough to sport a shag cut doesn’t mean a record of that sad choice constitutes entertainment in the interweb age.
As a photographer, however, I can certainly see the wisdom of re-evaluating the images themselves, meaning how they were shot, or whether, under the microscopes of time and wisdom, they deserve to be aesthetically exonerated. Humane anglers have always practiced the “throw the small ones back” rule when fishing, the idea being that, given a chance, a minnow might grow into a respectable catch, and I think it’s normal to revisit old photos from time to time, as a record of one’s growth. I would even argue that a “Fishing Friday” each week would be good for the needful habit of self-editing, or just learning to see, no less than spending one’s Thursdays with painful reminders that hot pants really aren’t a fashion statement.
Yes, I am an aging crank. And yes, I do believe, as Yogi Berra once said, that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But I also believe in learning from one’s photographic mistakes, and reviewing old prints and slides actually does give you a pretty reliable timeline on your development. As a matter of fact, I am on record as believing that failures are far more instructive than successes when it comes to photography. You study and ache and cogitate over failures, whereas you seldom question a success at all. Coming up short just nags at you more, and the surprising thing about latter-day re-examinations of your photographic work is that you will also find things that actually worked, shots that, for some reason, you originally rejected.
Recently, the Metropolitan Art Museum mounted a show of Garry Winogrand’s amazing street work drawn from the hundreds of thousands of images that he shot but never processed or saw within his own lifetime. His is an extreme case, but, even at our end of the craft, we generate so many photos over a lifetime that we are constantly challenged to have a true sense of what we did even last year, much less decades ago. When we “throw back” to images of our dear departed dog blowing out his birthday candles, we should also shovel into the past for the instructive, potentially revelatory work that might be lurking in other shoeboxes. It’s free education.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS 10% PLANNING, 90% SERENDIPITY. Yes, I know. we would all rather believe that most of our images spring from brilliant conceptions, master plans, and, ahem, stunning visions. But a lot of what we do amounts to making the most of what fate provides.
There is no shame in this game. In fact, the ability to pivot, to improvise, to make the random look like the intentional…all of these things reveal the best in us. It exercises the eye. It flexes the soul. And, in terms of images, it delivers the goods.
Getting lost (geographically, not emotionally) is less an emergency than in ages past. Armed with smartphones, GPS, and other hedges against our own ignorance, we can get rescued almost as soon as we wander off the ranch. It is easier than ever to follow the electronic trail of crumbs back to where we belong, so drifting from the path of righteousness is no longer cause for panic. Indeed, for shooters, it’s pure opportunity.
Okay, so you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Fine. Re-group and start shooting. There is something in all these “unfamiliar” things that is worth your gaze.
Last week , my wife and I decided to trust her car’s onboard guidance system. The results were wrong but interesting. No danger, just the necessary admission that we’d strayed really far afield of our destination. We’re talking about twenty minutes of back-tracking to set things right.
One of the rural roads we drifted down, before realizing our error, led us to a stunning view of the back end of Tucson’s Catalina mountains, framed by small town activity, remnants of rainfall, and a portentous sky. I squeezed off a few shots straight out of the windshield and got what I call the “essence” exposure I needed. That single image was relatively well-balanced, but it wouldn’t show the full range of textures from the stormy sky and the mountains. Later, in post, I duplicated the one keeper frame that I got, modifying it in Photomatix, my HDR processing program. Adding underexposure, deeper contrast, and a slight rolloff of highlights on the dupe, I processed it with the original shot to get a composite that accentuated the texture of the clouds, the stone,, even the local foliage. A sheer “wild” shot had given me something that I would have totally missed if the car’s GPS had actually taken us to our “correct” destination.
What was ironic was that, once we got where we were going, most of the “intentional” images that I sweat bullets working on were lackluster, compared to the one I shot by the seat of my pants. Hey, we’ve all been there.
Maybe I should get lost more often.
Actually, people have been suggesting that to me for years.
Especially when I whip out a camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SHOULD BE CURATED SHOWS AT MUSEUMS ALL OVER THE WORLD JUST FOR SNAPSHOTS. It’s already a known fact that images taken in an impulsive instant are among the most emotionally immediate in history. What these billions of “shooting from the hip” pictures share is the uncompromised commitment of hitting that button, and letting what happens, happen. Of course, back in the day, many of us had no choice in the matter, especially with our earliest cameras. Sadly, sometimes the box was too dumb, too seized up in tech cramps to guess what we wanted. Today, however, we can’t blame the camera anymore if we fail to live in the moment. They are world-class enablers. If we didn’t get the shot, we need to be smarter.
And, to be fair, we are smarter, even in those just-shoot-it-moments. The amazing complexity of today’s captures on automatic modes has saved us the trouble, more than at any time in history, of having to put on the twin hats of physicist and chemist. That should mean scads of instances when we can truly trust our instincts and hand the dirty work off to the camera with a reasonable hope of getting what we were after.
Now, in the modern world, comes the tricky part.
We may now know too much, compared to the cavemen we were in the earliest days of photography. And, once we begin to comprehend the totality of tweaking, calculation, and post-processing that are available to “rescue” more of our shots, it’s amazingly hard to avoid availing ourselves of all of it. We can remove the tiniest mote of dust, conveniently wipe out the crummy telephone wires, erase the ex-girl friend at the wedding. Trickier still, if we shoot on manual mode, we can practically think the process to death, essentially bleeding the adventure and spontaneity out of at least some images that we should just shoot.
There will always be shots that are so complete in themselves that continuing to fiddle with them before shooting will just have a diminishing return, little gifts of the moment that are so nearly perfect already that you could render them lifeless by trying to “perfect” them. Important: this is not an argument for super-gluing your mode dial to the auto position, since that can also create a string of acceptable exposures that fall short of being compelling pictures.
The balance, the aggravation, and eventually, the joy, lies somewhere in the middle.
This is the kind of sunset that only becomes possible near the end of the rainy season (a relative term!) in the Sonoran desert. You get more days with at least some clouds overhead, breaking the mega-blue monotony of the southwestern sky. And you get wonderful gradations of color as the last light of day vanishes over the horizon. In this image, that light was changing, and leaving, rapidly. Not a lot of time to weigh options, but a perfect place to flail away and maybe get something. This was not shot on auto mode, but I made a very quick, simple calculation in manual, and kept the prep as brief as possible. Later on, I was tempted again to go on tinkering, considering a lot of little “fixes” to “improve” my result. To my eventual satisfaction, I sat on my hands, and so what you see is what I got…no frills, no fuss, no interfering with my self.
It would probably be a great exercise to compile your own personal museum exhibit of the best pictures that you successfully left alone, the captures that most validate your instincts, your impulse, your artistic courage. And, certainly I would love to see them linked back to this blog, as conversation between all of us is what I value most about the project.
Go for it.
- Getting Started: How to Hold Your Camera (nikonusa.com)