By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PASS A VERY IMPORTANT MILEPOST when they first learn that pictures can be both reliable and unreliable narrators. As neophytes, we assume that the camera doesn’t lie, that it is a trustworthy tool for capturing the truth, a kind of optically-based lie detector. Later, we learn that, in certain hands, the camera can also distort, mislead, and, certainly, lie. It’s a heartbreaking moment for some, while it’s almost freeing for others.
Bearing witness with a camera is a noble calling, but, even among the most ethical or clear-minded image-makers, there are visual stories that can’t be plainly told, tableaux in which the scene itself is a reluctant witness. Call them pictures without ample evidence.
Shooters can certainly use their interpretive skills to play connect-the-dots in many a photo, but what can be done when there aren’t enough dots to connect? In such cases, merely starting a conversation is the best one can hope for.
I simply had to record the scene you find here. I was walking with some friends toward an urban sewer tunnel from which thousands of bats were guaranteed to emerge at sundown, when, with one of our party nearing the rendezvous, I spotted the abandoned wheelchair you see at left. Clearly this was a case in which no photograph could be expected to “explain” anything, but which was visually irresistible nonetheless. The mixture of object and place equals…what? Why would someone bring a wheelchair to a semi-remote location, and then just leave it? Did someone experience a miracle cure that obviated any further use for the device? If so, why go to the trouble of dumping it out in the sticks? How does one dispose of an unwanted wheelchair? Had someone upgraded to a better model, and thus turned their previous unit into roadside litter? Was some semi-ambulatory adventurer off on a brief stroll in the area, eventually returning to the chair to rest in before heading home? Would someone seeing a picture of my friend walking away from the chair assume he had been its occupant? If so, what would they assume happened? And, of course, was I being dishonest for even including him and the chair in the same frame?
You can see where this is all going. The frame is hardly a “gag” or “gimmick” shot, and it’s not unique among photographs (mine or others) in posing more questions than it can possibly answer. Moreover, I certainly don’t have any explanation for the chair’s appearance that makes any sense, at least to me. And yet, I wouldn’t dream of not shooting the picture, as it’s too much of an “A” example of what happens when the photo itself is a reluctant, even hostile, witness.
Seeing may indeed be believing, even if you can’t actually decide what it is you’re being asked to believe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES FACING OUR OWN PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK is less like dredging up memory and more like staring into the face of a complete stranger. Even seconds after the shutter snaps, a real distance widens between what we did in the moment and what we hold in our hands. Who did this? What were we thinking? Why did this work (or, in many cases, not work)?
Shooting quickly on the street worsens this feeling of alienation. We might not have even been so mindful of all the factors at work in a picture while it was being made, which makes learning from both the duds and the keepers that much more difficult. Learning to completely deconstruct a shot is, therefore, one of the most valuable skills for any photographer. It’s not always an easy thing.
In the above shot, there are a number of contributing factors at work, not all of them in play for any other single shot taken on the afternoon I made it. For starters, I was lucky enough to be about 200 feet above average terrain, so the golden light of early dusk is hitting the face of the church pretty hard, as well as adding to the deepening blue of the sky. Secondly, I am shooting with my camera set on “vivid”, building even more saturation into the shot. At the same time, I am shooting through a polarizing filter, which, while not working fully at this late hour of the day, is also deepening the sky. Finally, the church, which is already glowing from the sunset light, is also being floodlit with sodium lamps, amping up the orange tones and contrasting even harder against the sky.
The effect is a kind of “light sandwich” four layers deep, a combo that only works for this particular shot. One or two shots later in the same sequence, these same conditions rendered the colors over-rich and pretty unreal in appearance. Sadly, I can’t even take credit for having deliberately planned the shot in this way, since, if I had, I probably would have chosen a slightly faster shutter speed and avoided the softness in the passing cars. Still, as I dissect it after the fact, it’s good practice to be able to do a post-Sherlock to see exactly what happened, in case I ever do want to manipulate a photo in this general way.
Ot I could just say, “cool” and move on.
And, sure, I’ve done that too.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE A CERTAIN LOVE FOR LIVING AT THE EXTREMES, in seeing how far we can stretch the limits of light, or at least our ability to harness it. It’s strange: we have plenty of the stuff available to us during the meat of the day, but it’s where night and day perform a kind of “changing of the guard” where we really like to go stealing those renegade rays of near-dark and almost-bright. We love to go trapping along the seams of light, chronicling the nether territory where night and day get spliced together.
Lately I seem to have been lucky enough to do what I call “chasing” light, standing in deep shadow as the last rays of gold fade just ahead of me. There’s an expectant quality to it, a preciousness. Suddenly it’s undeniable that something unique is dying, that another measure of our mortality is about to be checked off the list, to be irretrievably gone. It’s only the promise of another day that makes this bearable…that, and our small attempts to, if you will, freeze the goodbye.
The contrast between light and shadow at this time of day is profound, and it’s easy to either blow out the highlights or lose a ton of narrative detail in the darkness, or both. There is also incredible minute-to-minute change in the balance between dark and light, making every frame you take a kind of all-or-nothing proposition. Seconds after you’ve tried a picture, you’re actually now after a completely different picture, and so the wonderful shoot-adjust-reshoot cycle made possible by digital is an even more amazing tool.
There are amazing opportunities for image-making in both pure day and pure night. But treat yourself to the nether world between the two, and freeze a goodbye or two, if you can.
It’s wondrous out here on the borderline.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY AKIN TO MY GRANDMOTHER’S COOKING METHOD, which produced culinary miracles without a trace of written recipes or cookbooks. Her approach was completely additive; she merely kept throwing things into the pot until it looked “about right”. I was aware of the difference, in her hands, between portions that were labeled “smidges”, “tastes”, “pinches” and even “tads” (as in, “this is a tad too bitter. Give me the salt.) I never questioned her results: I merely scarfed them down and eagerly asked for seconds.
Picture making can also be a matter of adding enough pinches and tads to create just the right mix of factors for the image you need. It’s frequently as instinctual a process as Gram’s, but sometimes you have to analyze what worked by thinking the shot backwards after the fact. In the case of the above image, what you see, although it was shot very quickly, is actually the convergence of several different ingredients, the combination of which would be all wrong for some photos, but which actually served this subject fairly well.
The five-decker sandwich of factors in the shot begins with the building, which is quite intense in color all by itself, yet not quite contrasty enough to suit me in this specific instance. So let’s see all the hoops the camera had to jump through to get this particular image:
First, it was taken during the so-called “golden hour”, just before sunset, in late fall in Arizona. That guarantees at least one boost of the building’s native intensity. The next factor is the camera’s own color settings, which are set to “vibrant.” Level three comes from a polarizing filter, which is juicing the sky from its hazy southwestern “normal” to a deep blue. For the fourth element, I am also adding a second filtering component by shooting through a heavily tinted car window (there’s no other kind in Arizona), which presents here as the gradation of sky from blue at the top of the frame to a near aqua near the bottom. And finally, I am way under-exposing the shot at 1/320, deepening the colors yet one more time.
The fun of this is that it all happens ahead of the click, and keeps your fingers off the Photoshop trigger. Grandma may not have spent any more time laboring over a photo than a quick snap of a box Brownie, but she knew how to take stew meat and morph it into filet. And, as with the making of a picture, you just keep adding stuff until the mixture in the pot looks “about right.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST FOR OVER FIFTEEN YEARS, I HAVE NEGOTIATED MY OWN TERMS WITH THE BLAZING OVERKILL OF MIDDAY SUNLIGHT, and its resulting impact on photography. If you move to Arizona or New Mexico from calmer climates, you will find yourself quickly constricting into a severe squint from late breakfast to early evening, with your camera likewise shrinking from the sheer overabundance of harsh, white light. If you’re determined to shoot in midday, you will adjust your approach to just about everything in your exposure regimen.
Good news, however: if you prefer to shoot in the so-called “golden hour” just ahead of sunset, you will be rewarded with some of the most picturesque tones you’ve ever had the good luck to work with. As has been exhaustively explained by better minds than mine, sunlight lingers longer in the atmosphere during the pre-sunset period, which, in the southwest, can really last closer to two hours or more. Hues are saturated, warm: shadows are powerful and sharp. And, if that dramatic contrast works to your advantage in color, it really packs a punch in monochrome.
This time of day is what I call “the envelope”, which is to say that objects look completely different in this special light from how they register in any other part of the day, if you can make up your mind as to what to do in a hurry. Changes from minute to minute are fast and stark in their variance. Miss your moment, and you must wait another 24 hours for a re-do.
The long shadow of an unseen sign visible in the above frame lasted about fifteen minutes on the day of the shoot. The sign itself is a metal cutout of a cowboy astride a bucking bronco, the symbol of Scottsdale, Arizona, “the most western town in the USA”. The shadow started as a short patch of black directly in front of the rusted bit of machine gear in the foreground, then elongated to an exaggerated duplicate of the sign, extending halfway down the block and becoming a sharper and more detailed silhouette.
A few minutes later, it grew softer and eventually dissolved as the sun crept closer to the western horizon. There would still be blazing illumination and harsh shadows for some objects, if you went about two stories high or higher, but, generally, sunset was well under way. Caught in time, the shadow became an active design element in the shot, an element strong enough to come through even in black and white.
If you are ever on holiday in the southwest, peek inside “the envelope”. There’s good stuff inside.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE WAS A BRIEF MOMENT, WHEN PHOTOGRAPHY WAS A NOVELTY, when it was thought to be in some kind of winner-take-all death match with painting. That fake war lasted but a moment, and the two arts have fed (and fed upon) each other to varying degrees ever since. Both painting and photography have passed through phases where they were consciously or unconsciously emulating each other, and I dare say that all photographers have at least a few painter’s genes in their DNA. The two traditions just have too much to offer to live apart.
One of my favorite examples of “light sculpting”, the artistic manipulation of illumination for maximum mood, came to me not from a photographer, but from one of the finest illustrators of the early twentieth century. Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) began his career as a painter/illustrator for fanciful fiction from Mother Goose to The Arabian Nights. Then, as color processes for periodicals became more sophisticated after 1900, he seamlessly morphed into one of the era’s premier magazine artists, working mostly for ad agencies, and most famously for his series of magnificently warm light fantasies for Edison Mazda light bulbs.
Parrish’s Mazda ads are dazzling arrangements of pastel blues, golden earth tones, dusky oranges, and hot yellows, all punched up to their most electrically fantastic limits. Years before photographers began to write about “golden hours” as the prime source of natural light, Parrish was showing us what nature seldom could, somehow making his inventions seem a genuine part of that nature. The stuff is mesmerizing. See more of his best at: http://www.parrish.artpassions.net/
During a recent trip to the high walking paths that crown Griffith Park in Los Angeles, I saw the trees and hills, at near sunset, form the perfect radiated glow of one of Parrish’s dusks. Timing was crucial: I was almost too late to catch the full effect, as shadows were lengthening and the overhanging tree near my cliffside lookout were beginning to get too shadowy. I hoped tha,t by stepping back just beyond the effective range of my on-board flash, I could fill in the front of the fence, allowing the light to decay and darken as it went back toward the tree. Too close and it would be a total blowout. Too far back, and everything near at hand would be too dark to complement the color of the sky and the hills.
After a few quick adjustments, I had popped enough color back into the foreground to make a nice authentic fake. For a moment, I was on one of Parrish’s mountain vistas, lacking only the goddesses and vestal virgins to make the scene complete. You’d think that, this close to Hollywood, you could get Central Casting to send over a few extras. In togas.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY MAJOR CITY AROUND THE WORLD THAT BOASTS BOTANIC GARDENS OR PLANT CONSERVATORIES HAS EXPERIENCED THE STRANGE MIXTURE of biology, art, and science created by the glass installations of Dale Chihuly. Beginning as a starving student in Venice in the late ’60’s, Chihuly has carved out a unique niche for himself as the premier maestro of art glass creations, marked by strange, venous bulbs, eerie tendrils, and massive towers of color, all wrought together in a psychedelic weave of texture and (frequently) enormous scale. If Peter Max blew glass instead of spewing paint, he’d be Dale Chihuly. Like Max, Chihuly has benefited greatly from the ever-hot debate over the permanence or value of his work. And if you don’t like it, he, in the words of Liberace, cries all the way to the bank.
For the botanical denizens of the non-profit universe, however, the Chihuly phenomenon does have one indisputable trait: it puts butts in the seats. Gardens the world over record insane increases in attendance far beyond their normal “fan base” when Dale’s gorgon-like creations hit town and go mano-a-mano with their daisies and daffodils. For photographers, the juxtaposition of the organic and the “alt-ganic” is irresistible, and, here in the southwest, where sun is all, the extreme effects of our desert light give Chihuly’s glassworks a supernatural quality.
The Arizona “golden hour” just before final sunset produces very deep and intense color, and the Chihuly works installed at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden catch it like neon prisms. Go a little further and add, say, a polarizing filter to this natural amplification of color, and the hues go into overdrive. It’s Golden Hour on steroids.
The three glass “bushes” in the above frame, installed permanently at the DBG’s guest arrival area, are high enough above average terrain to act as light blotters for the late afternoon light. The addition of the polarizing filter seems to double the effect, although it will deepen and darken shadows in other parts of the images, and so exposure choices become a mite trickier. In this case, the striated clouds overhead also benefited from the tweak as they stood in sharper contrast against the sky, but, full disclosure, that part was dumb luck.
But hey, even dumb luck can make you a little smarter. And buy you a bigger chunk of “luck” next time. Does Dale do it for me as an artist? Does it even matter? His stuff creates light opportunities, and you can serve me up a plate of that anytime.