By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S HARD TO BE ANGRY WITH ANY TREND THAT MAKES PHOTOGRAPHY MORE DEMOCRATIC, or puts cameras into more hands. Getting more voices in the global conversation of image-making is generally a great things. However, it comes with a price, one which may make many people actually give up or stagnate in their growth as photographers.
We may be killing ourselves, or at least our art, with convenience.
Cameras, especially in mobile devices, have exponentially grown in ease (and acuity) of use over the last fifty years, but they are actually teaching people less and less about what, technically, is happening in the making of an image. The nearly intuitive logic of smaller and easier cameras means that many people, while busily snapping away and producing billions of pictures, are being more and more estranged from any real knowledge of how it’s all being done.
This is a vicious circle, since it guarantees that a greater number of us will be more and more dependent upon our cameras to make the bulk of the creative decisions for us, more obliged to accept what the camera decides to give us. In some very real way, we are being shortchanged by never having had to work with a garbage camera. Let me explain that.
Being forced to do creative work with an unyielding or primitive tool puts the responsibility for (and control of) the art back on the artist. Those who began their shooting careers with limited box cameras understand this already. If you start making pictures with a device that is too limited or “dumb” to do your bidding, then you have to devise work-arounds to get results. That means you learn more about what light does. You learn what ideal or adverse conditions look like. You see what failure is, and begin to dissect what didn’t work for a stronger understanding of what may work next time. You learn to ride a bike without training wheels, and thus never need them.
The above image, taken on manual settings in a less-than-ideal setting, has about a dozen things wrong with it, but the mistakes are all my mistakes, so they retain their instructive power. If something was blown, I know how it can be corrected, since I’m the one who blew it. There is a clear linear learning process that benefits from making bad pictures. And if my camera had done everything itself and the picture still reeked, then I’d be stuck with both failure and ignorance.
Cameras that remove the risk of failure also remove the chance of accidental discovery. If you always get acceptable images, you’re less likely to ask what lies beyond….what, in effect, could be better. You accept mediocrity as a baseline of quality. And editing tools that consist mostly of corrective solutions, from straightening to sharpening, keep you from addressing those errors in the camera, and that, too, robs you of valuable experience.
Convenience, in any art medium, can either abet or prevent excellence. The amount of curiosity and hunger in the individual is the decisive factor in moving from taking to making pictures. For my money, if you’re going to grind out the process of becoming an artist, you can’t rely on equipment that is designed to protect you from yourself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AN ELOQUENTLY DETAILED ANALYSIS OF A POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPH, which I read in a recent edition of the New York Times, convinced me anew that, apart from a few compositional basics, no one really knows what makes an image “work”. Beginners love to sing the praises of the Rule Of Thirds as a guideline for composition, and, likewise, critics rhapsodize about Golden Ratios as a way to dissect how powerful elements occupy space in great photos. But the dirty little secret about composition is that there is no dirty little secret, no Laws of Gravity or Relativity that, if consistently obeyed, will yield consistent excellence.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t emotionally identify which pictures have power, as well as those that merely lie there. It merely means that there may never be adequate verbal artillery to reduce those feelings to a law, a handbook, or a credo. We arrive with our cameras at places where there may, or may not be, a picture. Our eye tells us that something important can be extracted, isolated, amplified, re-contextualized. Beyond that, it’s a matter of fate and luck.
Of course, the more we experience what works, the better we are at seeing it in the raw and extracting better and better examples of it. However, every ride of the bucking bronco is distinctly different from all the others. Photography has certain mechanical techniques that can be mastered, certainly, but we can’t learn emotional impact in a class. We can only pour something out into the camera from what is already inside us.
Try to imagine walking up to a chalkboard and reducing your favorite photograph to a series of shorthand symbols reminiscent of a mathematician’s equation. Could anything be more bloodless, more clinical? Critics and analysts sometimes come from the ranks of doers, but many of the very best doers resist the temptation to dissect their art as if it were a lab frog. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the acknowledged Moses of street photography, once recalled that it was seeing another shooter’s best work that made him say, “Damn It!”, grab his camera, and head outside, obsessed with making something of his own that could incite such a reaction.
Photographers seize instinct and emotion in the raw and forge them into a kind of sense-fired steel. Frame a picture with that steel and it will speak a thousand times louder than any mere dissertation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY YEAR AT THIS TIME, AS I HIT THE RESET BUTTON ON MY LIFE VIA SOME KIND OF BIRTHDAY RITUAL, I pause to wonder, again, whether I’ve really learned anything at all in over fifty years of photography. Surely, by this late date, the habit of shooting constantly should have assured me that I had “arrived” at some place in terms of viewpoint or style, right? And yet, I still feel as if I am just barely inches off the starting line in terms of what there is left to learn, and how much more I need to know about seeing. It’s a great feeling in that it keeps things perpetually fresh, but I often wonder if I’ll ever make it to that mirage I see ever ahead of me.
The aging process, and how that continually remaps your perception, is one of the least pondered areas of criticism as it pertains to photography. And that’s very strange. We track the evolution of technical acuity over a lifetime. We date ourselves in reference to a piece of equipment we acquired, an influential person who crossed our path, or a body of work, but we don’t thoroughly examine how much our photography is being changed completely because the person making the picture is in constant flux. How can we ignore what seems to be the biggest shaper of our vision over time? We don’t even want the same things in an image from one year to the next, so how can we take photos in our maturity anything like those we shot in our youth?
Looking back to my first images, it’s clear that I thought the mere opportunity for a picture plus the act of clicking a shutter would result in a good picture, a kind of “cool view+camera=art” equation. This is to say that, instead of thinking, “I could make a good picture from this”, I was actually thinking, “this would be a good picture.” I know that sounds like hair-splitting of the first order, but the two statements are, in fact, different. The first implies that the camera plus the subject will automatically result in something solid; it’s a snapshot philosophy. The second statement is made by someone who has been frustrated by so many snapshots that he knows he has to step into the process as an active player. That realization can only come with age.
As always, my father’s admonition that art is a process rather than a product emerges as my prime directive. When I look at the pictures made by a twelve-year old me, I can at least see what the little punk was going for, and I can measure whether I’ve gotten any closer to that ideal than he did. The trick is for old me to want it as badly as young me did, and when that happens, I forget how many candles are on the cake, and am just grateful that their light still burns brightly.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BORN INTO A PAINTER’S WORLD, PHOTOGRAPHY NATURALLY INHERITED THAT DISCIPLINE’S BIAS TOWARD SHOWING THE WORLD “AS IT IS“, and, in fact, the first fifty years of photographic images seem to be in a neck-and-neck race with painting for the best rendering of the world at large. Then the 20th century kind of dope-slapped humanity’s collective sense of “reality”, as a world war, the onrush of science, and the rise of secular thought combined to question what the hell we needed with reality, anyway. The arts were shaken to their foundations, and photography and painting spiraled off onto wild new side roads. All bets for what defined a “picture” were off.
That’s not to say that photography has remained visually unbound through the decades. It almost acts like the flow and ebb of the surf. Photos surge toward pure documentation, then pull back into pure effect. They roll forward into an absolute deconstruction of the real world, then clamber back into the safety of literal pictorialism. One day we’re trying to recreate a wilderness landscape with perfect fidelity; the next day we’re reducing all “subjects” moot, reducing everything to shape and light.
I have had to spend many years getting comfortable with abstractions in my photography. It’s not like I don’t have ideas that wander far from the visual mainstream. If anything, I’ve had to learn to trust those visions, to stop worrying about whether they have “value” versus some rigid, if invisible,standard. While some shooters started with an absolutely open attitude toward the camera, pointing, framing and living completely by whim or instinct (the Instagram and Lomo kids of my Stone Age), I was absolutely, unwaveringly serious about arranging or capturing things as I literally saw them. It was a very clenched approach, even if it did teach me the physics of the medium. I had to learn to hold things very tightly before learning to let anything go.
And it took a very long time.
The great gift of the digital era is that many “accounting” issues (how much film do I have left? where can I go to get these processed? do they sell my kind of film in this end of town?) are just plain gone, and, with them, a little of the constipated approach that they imposed on me. At my age, it no longer matters a damn how long I shoot, how many times I “fail”, or who does or does not choose to anoint the results. There are no teachers or parents left to show off for, no competition with anyone except myself. I am free to use surfaces as straight lines or use distortion as a design element.
The truth speaks with forked tongue: in some ways I am glad that I am no longer young, since I have finally lived long enough to “age” into my photographic niche. And it also makes me sad that I am no longer young, because I really want to run with this ball, and I realize that Time might knock my legs out from underneath me before I make it all the way down the field. Still, we are here, and here is where we have to concentrate our energy. It’s the only control we have. Or, in the words of Edna St.Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light.