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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAKING PICTURES, FOR ME, IS LIKE MAKING TAFFY. The only good results I get are from stretching and twisting between two extremes. Push and pull. Yank and compress. Stray and stay. Say everything or speak one single word.
This is all about composition, the editing function of what to put in or leave out. In my head, it’s a constant and perpetually churning debate over what finally resides within the frame. No, that needs something more. No, that’s way too much. Cut it. Add it. I love it, it’s complete chaos. I love it, it’s stark and lonely.
Can’t settle the matter, and maybe that’s the point. How can your eye always do the same kind of seeing? How can your heart or mind ever be satisfied with one type of poem or story? Just can’t, that’s all.
But I do have a kind of mental default setting I return to, to keep my tiny little squirrel brain from exploding.
When I need to clean out the pipes, I tend to gravitate to the simplest compositions imaginable, a back-to-basics approach that forces me to see things with the fewest possible elements, then to begin layering little extras back in, hoping I’ll know when to stop. In the case of the above image, I was shooting inside a darkened room with only an old 1939 World’s Fair paperweight for a subject, and holding an ordinary cheap flashlight overhead with one hand as I framed and focused, handheld, with the other hand. I didn’t know what I wanted. It was a fishing expedition, plain and simple. What I soon decided, however, was that, instead of one element, I was actually working with two.
Basic flashlights have no diffusers, and so they project harsh concentric circles as a pattern. Shifting the position of the flashlight seemed to make the paperweight appear to be ringed by eddying waves, orbit trails if you will. Suddenly the mission had changed. I now had something I could use as the center of a little solar system, so, now,for a third element, I needed “satellites” for that realm. Back to the junk drawer for a few cat’s eye marbles. What, you don’t have a bag of marbles in the same drawer with your shaving razor and toothpaste? What kinda weirdo are you?
Shifting the position of the marbles to suggest eccentric orbits, and tilting the light to create the most dramatic shadow ellipses possible gave me what I was looking for….a strange, dreamlike little tabletop galaxy. Snap and done.
Sometimes going back to a place where there are no destinations and no rules help me refocus my eye. Or provides me with the delusion that I’m in charge of some kind of process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC STILL-LIFES ARE THE POOR MAN’S PRACTICE LAB. All the necessary elements for self-taught imaging are plentiful, nearby, and generally cheap. As has been demonstrated perpetually across the history of photography, the subjects themselves are only of secondary importance. What’s being practiced are the twin arts of exposure and composition, so it doesn’t matter a pig whistle whether you’re assembling a basket of oranges or throwing together a pile of old broken Barbie dolls. It’s not about depicting a thing so much as it is about finding new ways to see a thing.
That’s why an entire class of shooters can cluster around the same randomly chosen subject and produce vastly different viewing experiences. And why one of the most commonly “seen” things in our world, for example, food, can become so intriguingly alien when subjected to the photographer’s eye.
Shooting food for still-life purposes provides remarkably different results from the professional shots taken to illustrate articles and cookbooks. “Recipe” shots are really a way of documenting what your cooking result should resemble. But other still-life shots with food quickly become a quest to show something as no one else has ever shown it. It’s not a record of a cabbage; it’s a record of what you thought about a cabbage on a given day.
Many books over the years have re-printed Edward Weston’s famous black-and-white shots of peppers, in which some people “saw” things ranging from mountain terrain to abstract nudes. These remarkable shots are famous not for what they show, but for what they make it possible to see. Food’s various signature textures, under the photographer’s hand, suggest an infinite number of mental associations, once you visually unchain the source materials from the most common perception of their features.
As the head chef around my house, I often pick certain cooking days where I will factor in extra time, beyond what it takes to actually prepare whatever meal I’m planning. That additional time is reserved so I can throw food elements that interest me into patterns…..on plates, towels, counters, whatever, in an effort to answer the eternal photog question, is this anything? If it is, I snap it. If it’s not, I eat it (destroying the evidence, as it were).
Either way, I get what I call “seeing practice”, and, someday, when a rutabaga starts to look like a ballerina, I might be ready. Or maybe I should just lie down until the feeling passes.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Is Food Art: Notes from a Food Photographer (okramagazine.org)
by MICHAEL PERKINS
CREATING FANTASY IMAGES ON A TABLETOP IS A LITTLE LIKE WATCHING YOUR GRANDMA IN THE KITCHEN, if your grandma (like mine) was the “I-don’t need-no-recipe”,a dash here, a pinch there kind of cook. Sometimes I think she just kept chucking ingredients into the pot until it was either the right color or the correct thickness. All I know is, when she was done, it “ate pretty good”.
I use the same approach when I am building compositions from scratch. You’re not sure what the proportions are, but you kind of know when you’re done.
One of the photo sharing sites that I recommend most enthusiastically is called UTATA, a site which promotes itself as “tribal photography” since it require a certain level of communal kick-in from all its members, posing workshop assignments and themes that take you beyond merely posting your faves. Operating in tandem with its self-named Flickr group, UTATA is about taking chances and forcing yourself, often on a deadline, to see in new ways. If it sounds like homework, it’s not, and even if you have no time to work the various challenges, you’ll still reap a vast wealth of knowledge just riffing through other people’s work. Give it a look at http://www.utata.org.
One of the site’s recent so-called “weekend projects” was to photograph anything that in any way depicted broken glass. No special terms beyond that. Cheap glass, wine glass, churchy stained glass, pick your texture, pick your context. I decided to so something with a shattered light bulb, but with a few twists. Instead of just breaking the bulb and shooting a frame, I opted to place the bulb in a food storage bag, then hammer it until it burst. Due to the sudden release of pressure when light bulbs are breached, they don’t just crack, they sort of explode, and, given the chemical treatment of the glass, there is a lot of pure white dust that accompanies the very fine glass particles. Breaking the bulb inside the bag allowed me to retain all that sediment, then make it more visible by pouring the bits out onto a black, non-reflective surface…in this case, a granite tile that I use to model product shots on.
I already liked the look of all the atomized white dust across that dull blackness, rather like a “star field”, or a cluster of debris, scattered across a vast void in space. The effect was taking shape, but the “garbage cook” inside my head was still looking for one more ingredient. The great thing about building a fantasy visual is that it doesn’t have to make “sense”….it just needs visual impact sufficient to register with the gut. If the micro-fine bits of the bulb represented some kind of space catastrophe, where was the cause? Inner stresses, like volcanoes, rupturing the Mother Bulb asunder like the planet Krypton? No, wait, what if something collided with it, some asteroid-like something that spelled doom for Planet G.E.? A quick trip out to the back yard gave me my cosmic cataclysm….I mean chunk of quartz, and the rest was just arrangement and experiment.
What does it all mean? Heck, what does beef stew mean? Making a picture can be like gradually adding random veggies and spices until something tells you it’s “soup”. And with tabletop fantasies, you get to play God with all the little worlds you’ve created.
Hey, over a lifetime, plenty of other people will take turns blowing up your work.
Why not you?
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.