By MICHAEL PERKINS
REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU CONSIDER YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY TO BE JOURNALISTIC BY NATURE, you will, over the course of your shooting life, have the visual evidence of other people’s stories dumped into your lap. In most cases, it’s the physical aftermath of some human event that you are arriving at after the fact. Leave-behinds from a mystery. Who left this here? What happened here? Who made this, and why?
Photogs regularly stumble onto other people’s secrets, or at least the litter of secrets. People abruptly break camp and move on from the site of their strangest whims, leaving clues that may or may not make their original intentions clear. And since we take just as many images of the things we don’t understand as those we think that we do, we snap away at the strange archaeological digs people abandon when they go on to the next thing in their lives. The fact that we don’t comprehend just what it is that they left behind doesn’t make the pictures any less compelling. In fact, quite the contrary.
This office chair was discovered just where you see it, under the golden canopy of a single enormous palo verde tree in full spring blossom. The shady seclusion of the scene seems to indicate a desire to shelter, to escape, to carve out a quiet spot of contemplation. And while that may indeed be the case, the whole thing invites a lot of other questions. Why this chair? Was it the person’s favorite, or, conversely, a perch so hated that dragging it here was the next best thing to lugging it to the town dump or pouring lighter fluid on it? What was motivating enough to transfer a chair from the nearest office suite (about a tenth of a mile away) and finding a place where it could be left with no fear of discovery? Was the site scouted, or merely happened upon? How many times did the person come to sit in the chair, and why and for how long? Was it the object of reward (in an hour I’ll be able to escape to the chair) or some kind of desperate relief (if I don’t get away from these people, I’m going to just lose it..)?
One picture conjures all of this, and more, additional plot lines which I’m sure even the casual viewer can supply without much effort. That’s the beauty of even the untold stories captured in photographs. They tell us enough to keep the seeker coming back for more. We think, as photographers, that we want to reveal everything, but, in reality, many of our most treasured images are of other people’s secrets, unrevealed, and, hence, irresistible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY, then film director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Fabulous Mr.Fox) must be blushing about five layers deep. His unique system of composition, even more than his overall cinematic style or subject matter, is currently the jumping-off point for a bumper crop of homages, parodies, websites and books, all celebrating the quirky look of the arcane locales he uses to stage his surreal and sweet comedies. As a result, there is now a recognizable signature image, a “Wes Anderson-like” shot, that occupies one of the more enjoyable wings in the Photo-Art gallery.
Anderson manipulates the real to appear unreal, by breaking certain accepted rules of composition, or, to be more precise, asking why they were accepted in the first place. For example, it’s typical for shooters to frame an object so that the illusion of depth is created…either by leading lines, side-angles, and off-center location in the frame. Wes frequently shoots what has been called flat space….that is, a head-on view of an object or scene (as in the above frame from The Grand Budapest Hotel) that is so nailed to the rear plane of the image that it could have been a 2-d poster pasted to a wall. There is no attempt to make the shot look “deep”, or to invite you eye inside it. Then there is the accepted no-no of placing the subject dead center in the frame, even allowing dead or open space around it. This isolates the subject, making it appear apart, alien, not of this world. Perfectly centered pictures of places with an obsessive amount of symmetrical detail (windows, ornamentation) are supposed to be boring, say all our teachers…except when they actually become hypnotic.
Anderson seeks the strange in his subject matter, design-wide and otherwise, and then amps up that strangeness with a saturation of primary colors and odd pastels. He makes real places look like table-top models (which he sometimes uses) and vice-versa. This assembly of techniques make his locales fairly scream “once upon a time” and, beyond his own work, have sparked admirers and imitators to see things in the same way, so that a Google search of “Wes Anderson look” yields thousands of pictures that he himself never actually made, such as my own shot of an old information booth at Los Angeles’ Union Station, seen above.
Old Hollywood dictated that directors have no discernible style or signature, while recent filmmakers insist on the dead opposite. In recent years, so many people were shooting their own “Wes Anderson” images that an entire Instagram feed, AccidentlyWesAnderson, began to attract a global fan base, recently resulting in Wally Koval’s sumptuous coffee-table book of the same name, a sampling of the best pictures from the feed, accompanied by detailed essays on locales new and old around the world that resemble the surrealistic perfection of Anderson’s own images. It’s art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating…?
Are all these images true tributes, artsy rip-offs, or an admission that photographic rules are meant to be broken? Can we even make pictures that are non-ironic or free of outside influence? Should we worry about it? While we sort all of that out, it’s just fun to try on Wes’ skin and walk around in it. Whatever we wind up with in our own work will, at least, come as a consequence of our observing, and questioning “how you’re supposed to do it.” Because in photography, tools matter less than what those tools eventually build.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A METHOD OF INFORMATION STORAGE, the human mind leaves a lot to be desired. We take comfort in the belief that our inner vaults contain flawless, “official” versions of our accumulated experiences, but, in time, we realize that our memories are, at best, unreliable narrators, and, at worst, bald-faced liars. Our master files, our records of “what really happened” are as riddled with drop-outs, jump cuts, and gravy stains as any other account that has been told and retold over time. Small wonder that the devices we use to aid our recollections, such as photographs, can, themselves either reveal or conceal varying editions of “the truth”.
When you pair imperfect beings with even more imperfect machines tasked with documenting the big deals in their lives, you get inaccuracy piled on inaccuracy. When we are feeling generous, we label the inaccuracies “interpretations”. When we more clinical, we call them “flawed”. Thing is, there are many parts of our lives that no longer exist in the physical universe, or are at least placed beyond our reach. Many of these parts have left no trace in the world except the images made of them. Our actual vacations, long gone, are supplanted in memory by our pictures of those vacations, eventually becoming that experience in a much more real sense than whatever fragmented mental archives exist of the true event. The pictures remain static, and thus seem permanent, fixed, but over time they will be judged against the changing context of our faulty inner files.
In the present era, when many of the things that we have captured in cameras are, for the moment, physically unavailable to us, the symbolic power of pictures of events past is amplified greatly. The image seen here, deliberately shot to be a bit dreamy, is open to multiple interpretations beyond the restricted scope of the original location. I know, mentally, that it was taken inside a Broadway theatre, but I can no longer swear to the name of the actual venue or what I saw there. In the absence of the fullness of my own memory, this picture has now become all theatres, in all cities, at all points in time. And while it looks like that’s what I was going for at the time, the point is that even the events that I believe I clearly remember are victims of my own brain decay over time, with the pictures I made of them expanded in their value, since they are now open to wider and wider impact as symbols. The pictures are less about what happened and more about the magic of what I prefer to have happened. The hard, clean line of reality is supplanted by the smudge of memory.
That is the amazing elasticity of a photograph. It is both truth and lie, symbol and substance. Photography is an art because it is so magically malleable, because an image can bear the personal stamp of its creator, no less than a statue or a painting. Designed to immortalize parts of our world, they do precisely that, often having a life of their own beyond the physical limits of the things they were used to depict. If that’s not art, what is?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME THINGS CANNOT BE MADE VISUALLY COHERENT merely by pointing a camera at them. That is, all subjects won’t give up their secrets to the mere act of photographic recording. And that’s when mere documentation must give way to interpretation.
A case study……
There is probably no denser concentration of immersive marketing on earth than in the yawning canyons of New York City’s Times Square, a cacophonous minefield of flashing, spinning, exploding LED overload. Messages aren’t simply or singly sent or received here: rather, they elbow past each other by the hundreds, desperately contending for the viewer’s attention in microbursts of insane color and absurd scale, in what actually amounts to the dead opposite of communication. Billboards, marquees and crass chunks of street theatre, from ersatz Miss Liberties to pose-with-me Batmen, all scream and stream at once, sending the senses careening from sensation to sensation like pinballs on ampthetamines. The irony: nobody wins the race: messages all eventually fail to register, cascading in a blur like a flipped deck of cards.
This is why, for a Times Square-type subject , “straight” photography is doomed to disappoint. It’s just not enough to convey the feeling of fragmentation created by the site’s sensory bombardment. Merely freezing the action with one’s camera is an attempt to “make sense” of a reality that is, by definition, non-sensical. We don’t need to slow things down so they’re recognizable…..quite the opposite. We need instead to capture and comment on the confusion in a visual language we ourselves improvise.
In my own case, I try to further amp up the broken, shattered quality of the information that meets the eye by breaking pieces of data into even smaller pieces….a kind of double-reverse chaos. In the image seen here, I’ve turned away from a bright cluster of signs on one side of the street to shoot their reflections in a split-panel office window, forcing all the messaging from the signs into splintered abstractions, some of which come from shadows within the office itself.
This is, of course, just an example and not in any way a universal template. The precise method for creating a distortion of an already distorted reality isn’t paramount, but what I don’t want is a literal representation of these streets. Reality is in short supply in the Times Squares and Tokyos of the world. Photographers intent on commenting on that condition have to stay one step ahead, to find the double reverse chaos lurking within.
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?”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THE EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL, then certain windows are an eye into contrasting worlds.
Photographers have devised a wide number of approaches when it comes to using windows as visual elements. Many choose to shoot through them with a minimum of glare, as if the glass were not there at all. Others use them as a kind of surreal jigsaw puzzle of reflected info-fragments.
To show these two approaches through the eyes of two great photographers, examine first Eugene Atget’s shots of 19th-century Paris storefronts, which mostly concentrated on shopkeeper’s wares and how they were arranged in display windows. Straightforward, simple. Then contrast Lee Friedlander’s 21st-century layered blendings of forward view and backward reflection (seen at left), which suspends the eye between two worlds, leaving the importance of all that mixed data to the viewer’s interpretation.
Much of my own window work falls into the latter category, as I enjoy seeing what’s inside, what’s outside, and what’s over my shoulder, all in the same shot. What’s happening behind the glass can be a bit voyeuristic, almost forbidden, as if we are not fully entitled to enter the reality on the other side of the window. But it’s interesting as well to use the glass surface as a mirror that places the shop in a full neighborhood context, that reminds you that life is flowing past that window, that the area is a living thing.
Thus, in an urban setting, every window is potentially two-way glass. Now, just because this technique serves some people as a narrative or commentary doesn’t make it a commandment. You have to use the language that speaks for you and to your viewer. Whatever kind of engagement serves that relationship best dictates how you should be shooting. I just personally find layered windows a fun sandbox to play in, as it takes the static quality away from a still photo to some degree, as if the image were imbued with at least the illusion of motion.
Sometimes it’s good to conceal more than reveal, and vice versa. The only “must”, for this or any other technique in photography, is to be totally mindful as you’re creating. Choose what you mean to do, and do it with your eyes fully open.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE OLDEST CONSISTENT ROLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS AS NARRATIVE, its storytelling ability borrowed from painting but later freed, as painting would also be, from representations of mere reality. Before the beginning of the 20th century, photographs held moments, chronicled events, froze people in time. Over the next hundred tumultuous years, every part of the narrative process for all arts would be challenged, shattered and reassembled several times over. We pretend there are still rules that always apply to what an image says to us, but that is really only sentiment. Some photographs simply are.
What they are is, of course, both fun and infuriating for creator and audience alike. We wonder sometimes what we are supposed to think about a picture. We take comfort in being led a certain way, or in a set sequence. Look here first, then here, then here, and draw such-and-such a conclusion. But just as music need not relate a story in traditional terms (and often does not) the photograph should never merely present reality as a finished arrangement. The answer to the question, “what should I think about this?” can only be, whatever you find, whatever you yourself see.
I love having a clear purpose in a picture, especially pictures of people, and it has taken me years to make such images without the benefit of a deliberate road map. To arrange people as merely elements in a scene, then trust someone else to see what I myself cannot even verbalize, has forced me to relax my grip, to be less controlling, to have confidence in instincts that I can’t readily spell out in 25 words or less.
What are these people doing? What does their presence reveal beyond the obvious? Is there anything “obvious” about the picture at all? Just as a still life is not a commentary on fruit or a critique of flowers, some photographed people are not to be used in the service of a story. They can, in the imaginations of viewers, provide much more than that. Photography is most interesting when it’s a conversation. Sometimes that discussion takes place in strange languages.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I THINK THAT, FOR YOUNG AND EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS, there’s a greater natural comfort in coloring outside the lines, bending or breaking rules of the medium just to see what happens, regardless of the warnings of user’s manuals or procedurals. This is completely normal, and is, in fact, healthy for the art overall, as every age’s young turks shake the process up and keep us more hidebound shooters from imprisoning photography in a crust of habit.
Phone-based apps play directly to this “what the hell, let’s try it” tendency in the newbie. By their very nature, apps allow people to achieve in a second what used to take years of formal training and painstaking darkroom effort to achieve. This creates the feeling that anything is possible, and that, with the instantaneous feedback loop of digital, there is nothing to be risked or lost by trying.
Whenever I get a new app, I try to figure out what it can produce when used completely counter-intuitively, that is, by going in the direct opposite of its “correct” use. Call it a procedural hack if you will, taking one of the most available effects, the iPhone’s on-board panorama app, as a prime example. Now we all know how the app is supposed to work. You pan evenly and slowly from left to right across a scene and a lot of separate vertical “planks”, all of which are individual exposures, are stitched together by the software to give the appearance of a continuous image. You are instructed by the app when to slow down, and given a guide arrow as you pan that keeps you pretty much on an even horizon. And that’s all you’re supposed to be able to do.
Of course things can go wrong, and watching how they go wrong is what started me on an experiment. If, for example, someone walks through your shot while you are panning, he may appear in only a few of the “planks”, as a warped, disembodied sliver of his leg or arm, or be stretched like taffy across part of the frame. Thing is, this gives you a neat interpretational option for panos that you want to appear surreal. The idea is to deliberately throw those individual planks out of alignment.
Here’s how it works: as you pan, shift your up-down axis either side of that arrow’s horizon guideline. Go gently if you want things to undulate in a smooth wave. Jerk it around a bit of you want to create a seismographic effect, with sharp high-low spikes in your subject. I should note here that this requires a lot of experimentation to get the overall look that you want.
In the top image, I wanted to suggest the kinetic energy of musical dynamics in a static image, so I warped the piano keys out of alignment with each other, as if Salvador Dali had painted the keyboard. In the second image, I used the camera to scan a mounted mall mural, allowing me to work with a still image that I could tweak to suggest a collapsing building or an earthquake. Either of these images are easy to do with nothing more than your iPhone’s pano tool, and the effects can be dramatic. So love your apps, but love them enough to imagine what fun it can be to make them misbehave.