STORIES WITHIN STORIES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESTORATION OF HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT HOMES is an imprecise art. The challenges range from structures that are essentially unchanged since their original use, with all effects and furnishings intact, to buildings whose shells have been salvaged but which have lost all their historically correct detail. In the latter case, those returning the homes to daily use by the public must stage the places with period-correct props, trying to augment a narrative that an empty edifice along could not provide. They act in the same way as set directors on a movie shoot, filling in gaps to, in effect, supplement a big story with a lot of little ones.
Thing is, sometimes not only the devil, but the real interest, is in such details, as with this drafting set I encountered during a recent tour of a grand old summer home built by a millionaire in the Arizona desert of the 1920’s. Nearly every original accent in the house has been artificially placed to suggest real living space, even though its first owners sold the home soon after building it. One nice little tableau in a front-facing room features a copy of the original house blueprint, laid out on a table as if its creator were still poring over it, flanked by a lovely leather-bound kit from the long-forgotten Eugene Dietzgen Company, once one of the country’s premier maker of drafting tools. And therein lies a real tale.
Travelling (and drawing) in some very important circles.
Eugene, born in Germany in 1862, was soon moved by his father to Tsarist Russia, where Papa promptly got himself in hot water for distributing socialist literature critical of the reigning government. In 1881, Joseph Dietzgen sent his son to live in America, both to evade the local military draft and to spirit away some of the writings that had already landed the old man in prison on occasion. Arriving in New York at the age of 19, Eugene Dietzgen began working for a German drafting company, and soon moved to Chicago, where he formed his own tool-making firm in 1881. Applying his father’s progressive ideas in the new world, Eugene provided such exotic amenities for his employees as individual bathrooms for men and women (!) and open window sills inside the factory decorated with flowers. He also continued to promote the writings of his father, a philosopher who counted no less than Karl Marx among his fans. Early in the 20th century, the Dietzgen company soared to the top of its field with a very popularly priced slide rule, and slid into history as the Dietzgen Corporation, which exists to this day.
So, since it wasn’t the property of this historic house’s original designer, how did this elegant kit find its way to the Arizona desert? That’s the fun of diverting one’s attention from the intended purpose of placing the object on this particular table, and using the camera to celebrate the story within the story. This object was someone’s go-to for precision work. How? As a gift? An aspirational investment in a future career? An impulse purchase? As is often the case with a photograph, the picture is a two-way door: things are concealed and revealed, all in the same instant.
THE LOVED ONE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I STOLE THIS BOOK.
That is…..I think I might have.
Actually, the truth is a good deal more nuanced than that. Rather than deliberately planning to loot my local library for it, I just…sorta accidentally…failed to return it. Ever. Call it passive-aggressive larceny.
Or just sloth (likeliest option).
To be truthful, the book is merely part of a wider pathology, a lifetime habit of returning, well, anything back to its rightful owner well past its due date. Back in the VHS era, the local Blockbuster probably should have mounted a “wanted” poster of my kisser near the cash register…..but, as it turned out, I probably paid for the manager’s kid’s first year of college with overdue fees that rivaled the operating budget of a small nation-state. The fact: I’m a bad borrower, and it doesn’t really matter what the borrowed thing is. Late library books were more a symptom than a cause, and so I most likely made no particularly mindful attempt to appropriate Frank Lloyd Wright’s A Testament for myself.
However, in re-discovering this relic during a recent house-cleaning and general junk inventory, I can certainly see how I might have dreamed of pinching it, given what its ideas…about artistic integrity, vision, courage and reason… have meant to me for over a third of my life. And, like many old objects I’ve stumbled over anew in recent years, it seemed reasonable to want to photograph it, to try to both see it for what it was and for what it merely is, now.
What it is, among other things, is an old library book, and so it made sense to show its most library-like feature….the now-bygone checkout pocket and circulation ticket mounted inside the back cover. Such systems, in an age of barcodes, are now, themselves, history, as much as the book itself, and so that is the “face” I wanted to display. The wearing and tearing of the binding and pages is also evidence of a sort, of the heavy love-use the book had received over time, and so that also needed to be part of the visual story. Finally, I had located, within the same closet that held the book, an old replacement lamp for a film projector, which I never, as it turned out, actually used. This lightbulb which never had its “lightbulb moment”, could now act as a kind of symbol of the inspiration that had poured forth from the book’s pages for me with every single reading. Pretty on the nose, but still satisfying.
The objects we keep are never completely captured on camera. Even when we think we are objectively recording a thing, we are interpreting it, and that ambiguous approach somehow fits the muddled memory of the book’s journey from Theirs to Mine. I might have stolen it, after all. But maybe I just couldn’t make myself tell it goodbye. But now, in my picture, regardless of official ownership, I had made it indisputably mine at last, anyhow.
SOME OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS come riding in on the backs of the scrawniness stories, like Don Quixote limping into town astride Rocinante. To be sure, images are evidence, proof of a kind of a person’s various truths or journeys in life. But there are times when that evidence is scant, hidden, confined to the dimensions of a bone, the chip of a cup, The Dress She Loved.
Or a tool.
Like the camera itself, the tool is a device designed to work its wielder’s will. Case in point: the instrument at left, a punch for cutting holes into leather, a device which has no other official function than to execute the hand movements of the shoemaker who once owned it. A thing created to dumbly create other things.
But now, absent its master, it is also testimony.
With the shoemaker gone, the tool becomes a partial proof of his life, a defining characteristic of the way he made his living. It’s also a kind of miniature history of things in general, a living demonstration that, literally, “they don’t make ’em (or him) like that anymore”. In photographing the things people carried, which now must speak for them, I use the sharpest, most accurate lenses I can, using nothing but opaque backgrounds and soft window light, seeking the registration of every speck of patina, rust, discoloration or personalization available. For example, I love the worn fragment of leather glued to the left grip of the punch. I know, historically, that this particular tool was not originally made with any such pad or cushion, and so it had to have been the very human creation of its owner, an attempt to add a smidgeon of comfort to what must have seemed an endlessly repeating task.
I have photographed many artifacts from people I either knew too little or too briefly, from military decorations to cameras to scientific instruments to pocket watches. All reveal quiet stories about the vital beings who once thought of their quotidian uses as the stuff of forever. Now, weilding my own tool of trade, I can extend tiny bits of those forevers into a few more precious days.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PRACTITIONERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY EMBRACE WHAT THEY CALL REALITY, while other factions run as far away as they can from the strictures of the “actual” world. There will always be shooters who see their main role as that of a chronicler or witness, recording “Joe Friday” pictures, i.e., just the facts, ma’am. Others see the real universe as nothing more than a point of departure. Their images could easily be labeled “based on a true story.”
Neither viewpoint can go it alone. Without reality as a reference point, flights of fancy float off into chaos. Conversely, without a sense of whimsy, the gravity of the world can make a photograph leaden and moribund. Let’s face it: dreamers and didacts need each other, and complement each other within a single picture the way fat flavors lean meat. Moreover, trying to attenuate a customized mix of these two disciplines is the real fun in photography.
I’ve been fascinated of late by the new surge of interest in manual typewriters. It’s the same longing for recently-departed technology that’s fired a revival in film and the rebirth of vinyl lps. We are moving so quickly forward in some ways that we are understandably reluctant to regard every part of our past as dispensible ballast to be jettisoned on the way to some perfect Futureworld. And so we linger a while. We prolong our goodbyes a bit.
Some writers have recently renewed their love affair with the clack and clatter of the mechanical keyboard, marrying its noise, heft, and bulk to a kind of seriousness, as if a story or essay were somehow more authentic if pounded out on an old Royal or Smith-Corona. The recent documentary California Typewriter takes its title from a scrappy repair shop that survives to the present day by restoring old beaters for a new crop of trendy customers who either admire the sheer engineering wonder or the mystical oomph it confers on their scribblings. High-profile adherents like Tom Hanks, John Meyer and David McCullough rhapsodize about the contours, keyboard height, and return bell of their respective treasures. It’s great fun.
Photographically, I started to explore just how far the idea of the typewriter-as-magical-device could be stretched. Would it endow the user with the ability to solve knotty equations? Conjure ingenious recipes? What if the typewriter had unilateral power to enhance the creation of anything, even melody? What kind of typewriter might help Mozart crank out a concerto? Would his greatest works go mid-performed for centuries just because he transposed certain keys? And what would that process look like?
I decided to use a selective focus lens (the Lensbaby Composer with Sweet 35 optic) to de-emphasize the process of typing (the softly rendered keys) and call attention to the magical product (the sheet music being generated, focused more sharply) coming out of an imagined Corona wielded by an inspired Amadeus. The concept is so ridiculous that it’s compelling, producing a photograph which can’t be true but which ought to be true, rather like Dumbo using his ears to fly despite the fact that he weighs half a ton. I love these kinds of exercises because I embrace the fact that photographs can tell enchanting lies. And as Paul McCartney sings, “what’s wrong with that?”
(VERY) STILL LIFE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, WHEN IT FLEXES TO ITS FULLEST LIMITS, should never be about merely accepting things at face value. The camera is a fairly reliable recording device, but simply using it to freeze time severely limits its narrative potential. Of course, on a purely personal level, that’s frequently just what we want: to stop the clock on the vanishing of tender times and loved ones: to preserve life.
However, I believe that the camera should also preserve death.
I’m not talking about doing a series of close-ups of Grandpa in the crypt. I’m mostly thinking biological subjects here. Living things are most typically photographed in the full bloom of health: the eye luxuriates over bright explosions of color, the hardy flesh of petals, the skyward reach of tender saplings. But if a photographic subject gains extra interpretive power as it’s removed from its standard context (nature in its regular settings), then a living thing achieves the ultimate visual re-contextualization as its life begins to ebb. Taking the familiar out of its comfort zone opens it up to alternate interpretations.
The rose seen above, taken with a Lensbaby Velvet 56 (a wonderful portrait lens which doubles as a decent macro), was days dead when I came upon it, and yet it presented textures more intriguing, colors deeper and richer than its fresher vase-mates. Is this ghoulish?
Depends. Decay is, after all, something we document with great enthusiasm as it applies to inanimate things like rusted cars, crumbling neighborhoods and abandoned infrastructures. How much more attention should be paid, then, to things that once mirrored our own fleeting arrangement with mortality, once throbbed with pulses as perishable as those bounding through our own veins.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A BOY, THEODORE ROOSEVELT TAUGHT HIMSELF THE ANATOMY OF BIRDS that same way James Audubon did, by studying birds he himself had killed. Although this coldly clinical approach may strike us as cruel today, it was accepted practice for a young naturalist in the late 1800’s, a time when even eminent surgeons, faced with a shortfall of cadavers for academic study, occasionally hired freelancers to raid graves in search of, er, manpower. And so it goes.
At decidedly less risk, photographers have also made still-life studies of dead things, from game kills to seed pods, trying to appreciate structure, design, and function in a controlled environment. But there is more to their pokings than the grand advancement of science, given that death changes things in a way that transforms their aspect, altering their usefulness as visual subjects. Objects that have gone from living to non-living reflect light differently; textures and patterns are re-shaped; in short, the thing becomes an abstraction of itself.
Add magnification to the mix, and a thing becomes completely untethered from our usual conception of it, since, among other things, we are used to viewing it from a distance of feet or inches rather than millimeters. Just as where you stand affects the impact of a landscape, the place where you park a macro lens on an object dictates a completely different story with just the smallest variation.
There is a renewed fascination in the photographic world with minimalist abstraction, in which an object is changed so much in magnification and composition as to become a completely new thing, or…if the photographer so desires, a whole new nothing, a subject with which the viewer has no prior associations, functioning as pure pattern or design. For me, that’s the appeal of macro work…..to take the familiar and render it neutral in meaning, allowing me to re-assign it visually, to ask the viewer to, in effect, regard it as a foreign object, one that can take on whatever significance he sees fit.
Photography is primarily about what to see but it often provides cues as to how to see as well. Viewpoint is verification, and things impart different truths to our eyes, depending on how we approach them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST SPOT IS COMPLETE WITHOUT A STROLL THROUGH the local craft shops, those kitschy little warrens of handmade goods from pottery to stone trinkets. Whether they are called “studios”, “boutiques” or “trading posts” these collections of gypsy creativity are on the main and minor drags of every destination town, and they are occasionally real feasts for the eye…and, in turn, the camera.
The stuff on the tables and counters is usually a riot of color and texture, and thus somewhat low-hanging fruit for photogs. But you can miss out if you limit your framings merely to the finished product, especially if the backstage or work areas, where the magic truly happens, are open or, even better, an active part of the customer experience. Lots of small craft factories, art sites, galleries and festivals incorporate the actual making of their goods into the overall tourist trip, and I often find these staging areas far more interesting than what eventually makes it to the sales floor.
Everyone recalls the corner pizzerias that oriented their kitchens so that the guy flipping the dough was in a display window near the street. It was great passive show biz and the same “backstage” allure still works for handmade jewelry and other crafts. And, while witnessing the literal creation of objects is one kind of storytelling opportunity, a quieter one can occur when you cruise past vacant desks whose tops are cluttered with tools and decorative components. These kind of still-life subjects are ripe with potential, since they show what is about to happen. They’re also displays of someone’s personal work area, their most individual arrangement of space.
Sometimes the best part of a shopping experience is the unpolished part. Pictures are where you find them, and opportunities reveal themselves when you start looking beyond the obvious locations.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DAYTIME PHOTOGRAPHS OF BUILDING EXTERIORS present the interior contents of apartments, stores and offices in a very muted fashion. Glare, sunlight, and plain old dirty glass, along with the limited scope of some camera sensors, render inside space in a somewhat flattened manner. Fortunately, night shots of the same spaces reveal something completely different, hints of the lives of the people who have locked up and headed home for the evening.
Like a picture framed in a black matte or displayed on a bed of velvet, night images of building interiors, taken from outside those buildings, benefit from that contrasty “punching up” between dark and light. More to the point is how people decide to stage their work space when they clock out. Do they leave a single lamp on to illuminate their desk? Is the room largely dark, but partially painted with ambient light from the cleaning person down the hall? Are certain displays, logos, personal effects altered by the overall reduction in illumination? And, for the photographer, does something different emerge in the feel of the room that seems invisible by day?
I recently walked around a large museum campus, taking medium-distance time exposures of several buildings whose exterior lighting scheme seemed altered at night, when I saw the office window you see above. The overall scheme of light in the room was warm. The gorgeous amaryllis plant arching over someone’s desk not only worked that slightly orange room light, but was made especially seductive with the deepening of its own colors. Here was a workspace where someone drew rest, beauty, and solace from the inclusion of just one extra humanizing item. And, after dark, it glowed like a coal to passersby. I had to have it, at least inside my camera.
I’m not saying that all peeks through all windows yield treasures to the photographer’s eye. But the sheer volume of visual information on a city street during the day is cut by half after sundown, and occasionally, you find a late-burning candle that has spent the daylight hours hiding in plain sight.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE POP CULTURE TRENDS OF THE PAST FEW YEARS has been the improbable reemergence of the vinyl LP, inching its way back onto shelves in edgy fashion boutiques and chain stores alike along with an entire battery of support materials: preeners, cleaners, racks, boxes, even the iconic hippie fruit crate, along with a new generation of high-and-low tech turntables and speakers. It’s fun to watch the emotional re-run that people of, ahem, a certain age will experience as we recall a world that used to be divided into Side One and Side Two.
However, we’ re missing out on a very important part of all that lore. The humble 45 rpm record.
Singles were the dominant format for record sales from the beginning of rock to the mid-’70’s, with marketing of pop tunes aimed squarely at the middle bulge of the Baby Boom, a flood of teens armed with disposable cash but consuming their music mostly two songs (A-side, B-side), or about a dollar’s worth, at a time. Eventually, a new crop of college students embraced the LP for its long-form story-telling potential, graduating from singles like Love Me Do to albums like Sergeant Pepper.
Photographically, the remains of all those singles-fed slumber parties and sock hops tell a strong story in the tattered textures of kid’s objects that, like action figures and train sets, were loved to death and treasured all the more because of their imperfections. In the above 45 carrier (party in a box!), half the visual story is told in the wear and tear that is hard-wired into analog. The battered box sings a song all its own.
For this shot, I took a single exposure, side-lit with bright but soft window light, then made a dupe of it, one copy tweaked to near-underexposure, the other to uber-brightness. The two were then made into a fake HDR in Photomatix, which is, above all, a great detail enhancer. Since the shot was done at f/5.6, the whole box is sharp, giving the software plenty to chew on. A few minor changes in contrast to amp up the differences in color along the faded box pattern, and presto, the golden age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Photography is about recording change, halting decay in its tracks for a moment….preservation, if you will. The new flawless vinyl reissues of our old faves possess the sound of yesterday, but they can’t tell us a thing about how it all looked.
And that’s where you, the guy with the camera, come in.
WITH THESE HANDS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, I NEED TO RENEW MY SENSES OF GRATITUDE AND HUMILITY, and I refresh both by leafing through a hefty tome called View Camera Technique, a 300-plus page collection of graphs, diagrams and tables on what still stands as the most technically immersive photographic instrument of all time. I use the word immersive because all of the view’s operations must be mastered through personal, direct calculation of a horde of formulae. Nothing is automatic. Results can only be wrung out of the device by the most exacting calculations. The guaranteed given of the view camera: there will be math on the final.
The aforementioned gratitude and humility come from the fact that I am free of the Pythagorean calculus that it took for earlier shooters to master their medium, and the knowledge that I will never apprehend even half of the raw science needed to summon images forth from these simply built, but technically unforgiving cameras. However, along with a hugh whew of relief comes just a slight pang of regret, since the camera has gone the way of many other tools that used to be in a direct, cause-and-effect relationship with the human hand.
As a kind of strangely timed stream-of-consciousness, my most recent review of View Camera Technique was followed, just a day later, by a visit to a local art foundry, a unique marriage of state-of-the-art kilns and caveman-simple hand tools, many of which were arranged on work benches near the visitors’ center, looking very much as if the past 500 years had not occurred. The marvel of hand tools is that, visually, they put us right back into an age when the world only yielded a working life to the direct, simple transmission of human force and will to a physical object. The use of a hammer is an unambiguous and impeccably clear transaction. You either drove the nail or you don’t. As Yoda said, there is no try.
Cameras no longer require us to wrestle directly with them to extract a photograph by real exertion, and that should give us, as shooters, an appreciation for those remaining implements which still do convey simple, A-B energy from hand to tool. Such objects remain powerful symbols for action, for creation, and for our urge to personally shape our world. And there must still be a great many pictures that we can summon forth to celebrate that relationship.
LESS STILL, MORE LIFE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORIANS WILL PROBABLY CRINGE AT MY OVER-SIMPLIFICATION, but I tend to believe that still-life compositions were originally popular to shooters because they solved a technical problem. At the dawn of the imaging art, recording media, from salted paper to glass plates, were so abysmally slow that exposure times stretched, in some cases, to nearly an hour. This meant that subject matter with any kinetic quality, from evolving landscapes to a baby’s face, were rendered poorly compared to inanimate objects. Still lifes were not so much about the beauty and color of fruit and cheese on a plate as they were about practicing…learning how to harness light and deliver a desired effect.
As film and lenses both sped up, a still life could be chosen purely on its aesthetic appeal, but the emphasis was still on generating a “realistic” image…an imitation of life. The 20th century cured both photography and painting of that narrow view, and now a still life, at least to me, offers the chance to transform mundane material, to force the viewer to re-imagine it. You can do this with various processes and approaches, but the main appeal to me is the chance to toss the object out of its native context and allow it to be anything…or nothing.
In the image at left, the home-grown vegetables, seen in their most natural state, actually have become alien to our pre-packaged notions of nutrition. They don’t even look like what arrives at many “organic” markets, much less the estranged end-product from Green Giant or Freshlike. And so we are nearly able to see these vegetables as something else. Weeds? Flowers? Decay? Design? Photographing them in our own way, we are free to assign nearly any quality to them. They might, for example, be suggestive of a floral bouquet, a far cry from the edibles we think we know. Still life compositions can startle when they are less “still” and more “life”, but we have to get away from our subjects and approach them around their blind side.
As always, it’s not what we see, but how.
THE VANISHED NORMAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FUTURE DOESN’T ARRIVE ALL AT ONCE, just as the past doesn’t immediately vanish completely. In terms of technology, that means that eras kinds of smear across each other in a gradual “dissolve”. Consider the dial telephone, which persisted in various outposts for many years after the introduction of touch-tone pads, or, more specifically, Superman’s closet, the phone booth, which stubbornly overstayed its welcome long past the arrival of the cel. The “present” is always a mishmosh of things that have just arrived and things that are going away. They sort of pass each other, like workers at change of shift.
Photographically, this means that there are always relics of earlier eras that persist past their sell-by date. They provide context to life as part of a kind of ever-flowing visual history. It also means that you need to seize on these relics lest they, and their symbolic power, are lost to you forever. Everything that enjoys a brief moment as an “everyday object” will eventually recede in use to such a degree that younger generations couldn’t even visually identify it or place it in its proper time order (a toaster from 1900 today resembles a Victorian space heater more than it does a kitchen appliance).
Ironically, this is a double win for photographers. You can either shoot an object to conjure up a bygone era, or you can approach it completely without context, as a pure design element. You can produce substantial work either way.
Some of the best still life photography either denies an object its original associations or isolates it so that it is just a compositional component. The thing is to visually re-purpose things whose original purpose is no longer. Photography isn’t really about what things look like. It’s more about what you can make them look like.
LOW-TECH LOW LIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIGHT IS THE PRINCIPAL FUEL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, but it needs refinement, just as crude oil needs to be industrially altered before it’s ready for consumer use. It isn’t just enough to record light in its natural form; it has to be corralled, directed, harnessed so that it enhances a photograph in such a way that, ironically, makes it look like you did nothing at all but press the shutter. So, right at the start, making images is a bit of a con job. Good thing is, it’s only dishonorable when you get caught.
Doing macro on the cheap with the use of screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of your regular lens is one of the situations that can create special lighting challenges. There is an incredibly shallow depth of field in these lenses, but if you compensate for it in the camera, by, say, f/8 or higher, you lose light like crazy. Slow down your shutter to compensate, and you’re on a tripod, since the slightest tremor in a hand-held shot looks like 7.8 on the Richter scale. Keep the shorter shutter speed, though, and you’re jacking ISO up, inviting excessive noise. Flood the shot with constant light, and you might alter the color relationships in a naturally lit object, effecting, well, everything that might appeal in a macro shot.
Best thing is, since you’re shooting such a small object, you don’t need all that much of a fix. In the above shot, for example, the garlic bulb was on a counter about two feet from a window which is pretty softened to start with. That gave me the illumination I needed on the top and back of the bulb, but the side facing me was in nearly complete shadow. I just needed the smallest bit of slight light to retrieve some detail and make the light seem to “wrap” around the bulb.
Cheap fix; half a sheet of blank typing paper from my printer’s feed tray, which was right next door. Camera in right hand, paper in left hand, catching just enough window light to bounce back onto the front of the garlic. A few tries to get the light where I wanted it without any flares. The paper’s flat finish gave me even more softening of the already quiet window light, so the result looked reasonably natural.
Again, in photography, we’re shoving light around all the time, acting as if we just walked into perfect conditions by dumb luck. Yeah, it’s fakery, but, as I say, just don’t get caught.
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE. OR NOT.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THIS BUSINESS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is rifling through the accumulated habits and techniques of a still young art form and trying to not regard any of it as holy law. Relatively speaking, measured against the sprawling annals of painting and sculpture, photography has been on the planet for about a minute and a half, so it’s still not even in its adolescence. Hardly the amount of tradition that designates rules as “essential” or “unbreakable”.
This comes to mind a lot whenever I put together what I call “arrangements” but which others might refer to as “still lifes”. I get into a definition problem in referring to just any combination of inanimate things as a “still life”, since I tend to associate that term with a collection of items that suggest, you, know, a life caught in a “still”……some activity that is suggested just by looking at the objects associated with that activity.
It’s pretty obvious stuff: put together a duck decoy, a hunter’s cap, and a shotgun, and you can almost smell the marshlands where the mallards run. Shove a rubber ball, a doll and a set of blocks up against each other, and it’s “a day in the life of a child”. You don’t show the thrill of a baseball game; instead you suggest it with an antique bubble gum card, a torn stadium ticket, and a weathered ball. It’s Photography 101. When all else fails, throw three pieces of fruit in a bowl and park them next to a hunk of cheese. Inspirational.
By contrast, I don’t really think of what I assemble in a shot to be suggestive of a narrative in the traditional way. In fact, I have more fun shoving things up together which fight each other a little bit in terms of “why are these objects all here?” I’d rather ask the viewer to supply his/her own idea of what it’s all about instead of doing a Norman Rockwell number that leads them to an obvious association. In fact, every time I take a “typical” still life, I feel like I am making the props, instead of the photograph, supply the needed interest. It feels like set decoration.
In the above image, just as an example, I decided, for my own weird purposes, to do an alternate take on the typical surgical instrument tray, only using kitchen implements. In taking a look at the medical tools of just a century ago, many of them appear as if they are intended to peel or core instead of heal, anyway, and, similarly, some of the gimmicks in your kitchen drawer look as if they could inflict real pain. Strange? Probably. But, hey, I’m old, my mind wanders, and I’m sick of almost everything on TV. Except for that bit with Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory. Now that’s entertainment.
But I digress. Thing is,”still life” is too restrictive a term (or discipline) for lots of arrangements that you might find fascinating. Just pile stuff up and see what happens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this composition I’ve been working on with the baby grand piano is nearly complete.
If I can just get my hands on two quarts of motor oil and a kumquat.
THE DAY THE UNIVERSE CHANGED
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS NEARLY A GENERATION AGO that Professor James Burke was the most admired media “explainer” of history and culture on both sides of the Atlantic, largely as a result of video adaptations of his hit books Connections and The Day The Universe Changed. Burke, trained at Jesus College in Oxford, was spectacularly talented at showing the interlocking linkages of events and human development, demonstrating the way they meshed together to act endlessly upon history, like gears locked in one large rotation. The result for viewers on PBS and the BBC was better than an ah, ha moment. It was more like an of course moment. Oh, yes, I see now. Of course.
In Universe especially, he examined the specific moments when everything we “knew” was altered forever. For example, we all “knew” the earth was flat, until we knew the exact opposite. We all “knew” that the sun rotated around the Earth, right up until that belief was turned on its ear. Our ideas of truth have always been like Phoenix birds, flaming out of existence only to rise, reconfigured, out of their own ashes. Burke sifted the ashes and set our imaginations ablaze.
As photographers, we have amazing opportunities to depict these transformative moments. In the 1800’s, the nation’s industrial sprawl across the continent was frozen in time with photo essays on the dams, highways, railroads and settlements that were rendering one reality moot while promising another. In the early 1900’s we made images of the shift between eras as the horrors of World War One rendered the Victorian world, along with our innocence, obsolete.
I love exploring these instants of transformation by way of still-life compositions that represent change, the juncture of was and will be. Like the above arrangement, in which some kind of abstract artillery seems to have un-horsed the quaint army of a chess set, I am interested in staging worlds that are about to go out of fashion. Sometimes it takes the form of a loving portrait of bygone technology, such as a preciously irrelevant old camera. Other times you have to create a miniature of the universe you are about to warp out of shape. Either way, it makes for an amazing exercise in re-visualizing the familiar, and reminds us, as Professor Burke did so well, that truth is both more, and less, than we know.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF SLIDE FILM, I KNEW PLENTY OF PHOTOGRAPHERS who feared the unforgiving quality of the medium. The way that, with the educated guessing involved in many exposures, it was all or nothing. Prints. coming from a negative, could be created and re-created almost endlessly, but reversal film was, with few exceptions, a lot harder to massage. The processed slide was, for most shooters, the end of the argument. You either nailed it or….
Slide shooters became a kind of breed apart, since we had to work harder to coax good results out of our chosen medium. Slide film was, for the most part, a lot slower than daylight print film, so that, on some days, merely framing a shot in shade meant you could reduce your subject to a Dutch painting, mood-wise. A few of us played to that bias as well, deliberately under-lighting shots to boost color or isolate key subjects in the frame….making them “pop.” Others created strange effects by cross-processing, giving the lab instructions that ran counter to the recommended developing for a given film. And a lot of us became self-taught illumination geeks in a desperate attempt to get enough light to the film, causing our families to recoil at the approach of our monstrous flashguns. Their retinas died for our sins.
Now we’re at a place where the camera is really the film, and that film can be made immediately, accurately responsive to nearly any lighting situation. Digital sensors have all but eliminated the need for spot flashes at all, and, as for rendering mood, if you can visualize it, you can pretty much shoot it. At a recent visit to an apple orchard gift shop (hey, it’s autumn!) I came upon an immense table of green and red apple varieties arranged in ready-to-buy bags. The light in the place was pretty meager to start with, but there was still enough of it to over-crowd the shot with background clutter….jars of jams, counters of candies, jugs of cider, peeps, etc. I wanted the warm colors of the apples to carry the entire image, so I started to think like a slide photographer and deliberately under-exposed the shot. That didn’t mean shutting down the aperture beyond f/4, since the place was fairly dark already, but merely leaving my ISO at its lowest setting, thereby telling the sensor not to suck in any additional light. I didn’t have much depth of field, but the somewhat gauzy quality at the rear and sides actually added to the warm nostalgia of the shot, so I kept it.
Again, digital makes it possible to try a lot of approaches to a task within the space of a few minutes, while the moment is there to be seized. You don’t have to physically consume film, shooting twenty frames with different settings and bearing the cost of processing them all in the hope that “the one” is in there somewhere. Cause and effect are compressed into a shorter, workable space, and success increases. To an old slide man, this is salvation of the first order. Now we manipulate the medium instead of the other way around. Man.
PENCIL LINE, INK LINE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, AS A GRAPHIC ARTIST, USED TO WARN ME ABOUT COMMITTING MYSELF TOO EARLY. Not in terms of personal relationships, but as it applied to the act of drawing. “Always lay down all your potential pencil lines first”, he advised, “and then decide which ones you want to ink.” The message was that flexibility was as valuable a drafting tool as your 2H pencil or your Rapidograph pen, that delaying your final vision often helped you eliminate the earlier drafts and their respective weaknesses. I still value that advice, as it has a current corollary in the making of my photographs, largely as a consequence of the smartphone revolution.
Once phones began packing cameras that could actually deliver an image better than a Crayola shmear on a wet cocktail napkin, photographers who still chiefly relied on their traditional cameras suddenly had the luxury of a kind of optical “sketch pad”; that is, an easy way to pre-visualize a composition with a basic machine that you could use for a study, a dress rehearsal for a more precise re-imagining with a more advanced device. For many of us, the larger display area of a phone can often “make the sale” for a shot in a more compelling way than the smaller monitor on our grown-up camera, and, at the very least, we can judge how a photo will “play” less conspicuously than by lugging about more visually obvious hardware. It’s a fast way to gather a lot of preliminary ideas, especially in locales where you’re free to come back later for the serious shoot.
I especially like trolling through vintage stores, trying to find antique items that, in themselves, make for impromptu still-life subjects. Sometimes, to be honest, I go home with a pocket full of puckey. Sometimes, I decide to go back and do a more thorough shoot of the same subject. And sometimes, as in the above image, I decide that I can live with an original “sketch” with just a little post-tweaking. The exercise does one important thing, in that it reminds you to always be shooting, or at least always thinking about shooting.
I know people who have completely stopped even carrying DSLRs and other, more substantial gear in their everyday shooting, and, while I can’t quite get there yet, I get the idea on many levels. Hey, use a fine stylus, a sharp crayon, or a charred stick, dealer’s choice. Just get the sketch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE CAN’T BE A SINGLE PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTIFACT ELOQUENT ENOUGH to speak to all the human experiences of a mass migration, so any attempt of mine or others to sum up the journey of the Irish in even a series of images will be doomed to, if not failure, the absence of many voices. Those who prayed and went unheard. Those who leaped only to vanish into the air. Those who had their souls and stomachs starved to make freedom more than an abstraction. Those who kept faith and those who lost their way.
America continues, on this St. Patrick’s Day, to struggle with the issue of who is welcome and who is “the other”, so the trek of the Irish from despised newcomers to an interwoven thread in the national fabric should be seen as a template. See, we should be saying to the newcomers, it can be done. You can arrive to jeers, survive through your tears, thrive in your cheers. Wait and work for justice. Take your place in line, or better yet, insist on a place in line, a voice in the conversation. The country will come around. It always has.
For the Irish, arrival in America begins in a time of gauzy memory and oral histories, then blends into the first era of the photograph and its miraculous power to freeze time. And when all the emerald Budweiser flowing on this day has long since washed away, the Irish diaspora will still echo in the collective images of those who first crossed, those who said an impossible, final farewell to everything in the hope of everything else, and those who stepped before a camera.
In some families the histories are blurred, fragmented. In some attics and scrapbooks, the faces are missing. The recent American love affair with geneology has triggered a search for the phantoms within families, the notes absent from the song, and this has coaxed some of the images out of the shadows. So that’s what she looked like, we say. Oh, you have his eyes. We still have that hat up in the attic. I never knew. I never dreamed.
One thing that can help, in all families, whatever their journeys to this place, is to bear witness with cameras. To save the faces, to fix them in time. To research and uncover. Another is to recall what it felt like to be “the other”, and to extend a hand to those who presently bear that painful label.
So, today, my thanks to the O’Neills, Doodys, McCourts, Sweeneys and others who got me here. Due to the ravages of time, I may not have the luxury of holding your faces in my hand.
But nothing can erase your voices from my heart.
BALLET OF HORROR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE USED TO BE A MOVEMENT IN FINE ARTS CALLED THE “ASHCAN SCHOOL”, WHICH SOUGHT TO SHOW POWER AND BEAUTY in banal or even repellent urban realities. It posed a question that continues to stoke debate within photography to this day: how much should art engage with things that are horrible? Is the creative act vital when it shows us ugliness? More importantly, is it vital because it shows us these things? And, if we choose to depict beauty to the exclusion of the ugly, is our art somehow less authentic?
The whole matter may come down to whether you see photography as a constructed interpretation of the world, kind of a visual poem, or as a sort of journalism. Of course, the medium has been shown to be wide enough for either approach, and perhaps the best work comes from struggling to straddle both camps. A world of gumdrops and lollipops can be just as pretentious and empty as a world constructed exclusively of the grisly, and I think each image has to be defined or justified as a separate case. That said, finding a ying/yang balance between both views within a single image is rare.
Falling, as I did, under the influence of landscape photographers at a really early age, I have had to learn to search for a kind of rough ballet in things that I find disturbing. I’m not saying that it’s hampered my work: far from it. Look at it another way: as a missionary, you can plant crops and build hospitals for your village, but you still have to address the area’s cholera and dysentery. It’s just a part of its life.
The image above was pretty much placed right in my path the other day as I walked to enter an urban drugstore, and, as horrified as I was by the likely origin of this savage souvenir, I had to also acknowledge it as a Darwinian study of beauty and design. The virtually intact nature of the wing, contrasted with the brutal evidence of its detachment from its owner, made for an unusual transition from poetry to chaos within a single image. Many might ask, how could you make that picture? And it’s a hard question to answer. Another question that would be just as difficult to answer: how could I not?
Certainly, I won’t be entering this in Audubon magazine’s annual photo contest: it’s also no one’s idea of cutest kitty or beautiful baby. But it is one of the most unique combinations of sensation I have ever seen, and I did not want to forget it, nightmares and all. Because we live, and take pictures in, the world at large.
Not just the world we want.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE PROBABLY SCRIBBLED MORE WORDS, IN THESE PAGES, ABOUT OVERCROWDED SHOTS than about any other single photographic topic, so if I sound like I’m testifyin’ in the Church-Of-I-Have-Seen-The-Light, bear with me. If any single thing has been a common theme in the last five years of my photography (or a factor in my negligible growth), it’s been the quest to take pictures that tell just enough, then back off before they become cluttered with excess visual junk.
Composing a photograph, when we start out as young budding photogs, seems to be about getting everything possible into the frame. All your friends. All the mountains and trees. Oh, and that cute dog that walked by. And, hey, those clouds, aren’t they something? Then, as we grow grayer of beard and thinner of scalp, the dead opposite seems to be true. We begin looking for things to throw away in the picture. Extra visual detours and distractions that we can pare away and, not only still have a picture, but, ironically, have more of a picture, the less we include. It’s very Zen. Or Buddhist. Or Zen Buddhist. Or something. Hey, I ain’t Depak Chopra. I just get a smidge better, as I age, at not making every image into a Where’s Waldo tapestry.
Especially in an age of visual overload, it’s too easy to make photographs that make your eye wander like a nomad all over the frame, unsure of where to land, of what to fix upon. Unable to detect the central story of the shot. Professionals learn this before any of the rest of us, since they often have to submit their work to editors or other unfeeling strangers outside their family who will tell them where their photos track on the Suck-O-Meter. There’s nothing like having someone that you have to listen to crumple up about 90% of your “masterpieces” and bounce them off your nose. Humility the hard way, and then some. But, even without a cruel dictator screaming in your ear that you ought to abandon photography and take up sewer repair, you can train yourself to take the scissors to a lot of your photos, and thereby improve them.
The image up top began with the truck occupying just part of what I hoped would be a balanced composition, showing it in the context of a western desert scene. Only the truck is far more interesting a subject than anything else in the image, so I cropped until the it filled the entire frame. Even then, the grille of the truck was worthy of more attention than the complete vehicle, so I cut the image in half a second time, squaring off the final result and shoving the best part of the subject right up front.
The picture uses its space better now, and, strong subject or weak, at least there is no ambiguity on where you’re supposed to look. Sometimes that’s enough. That’s Zen, too.