By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS THE GREATEST SINGLE MOTIVATOR, FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, is the eternal attempt to narrow the gap between what is seen and what can be shown, a permanent sense of one’s pictures coming up short, doomed to mere actuality versus the grand visions dancing in our heads. We shoot, we lament having “missed it”, and we shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I’ve written before, here, on the most frustrating, if tantalizing, subjects within that overall challenge….scenes or objects that we are free to repeatedly, endlessly re-shoot in hopes of “getting it right”, chasing the same things year after year, camera after camera, lens after lens, like Ahab chasing the White Whale round the world’s oceans.
These inexhaustible things are usually a staple of our immediate environment, part of our daily drives or walks, our standard routines. The maddening thing is that such hyper-familiar things should, eventually, submit to our art, should finally be captured in some final, completed fashion. But, in many cases, they remain studies, rehearsals, sketches. Unfinished business.
The tree you see here is one of my personal White Whales. I must drive past it at least five times a week, mostly in a quick glimpse out the window of my car. I have seen it in every season, every type of light, every mood filter within my own head. I have thrilled as it billowed to its fullest flower and mourned when groundskeepers judged it too wild and rangy, pruning it in ways that threaten, for a time, to obliterate the tree’s identity. I have parked and stepped over to pay it closer tribute with this lens or that, shooting full-on, in macro mode along trunk grain or branch lines, in fisheye, sharp detail, selective focus, monochrome and color. Each rendition gives me something; no one image delivers all.
Your particular tree (or house, or face, or river, or..) can both energize and enervate your photography. Even your failures can be seen as a prelude to inevitable success, as rehearsals toward a final, finessed performance. That feeling of being on a conveyor belt to Paradise is the essence of art, with the journey teasing us that there is, actually, a destination. If you have no White Whale of your own, I recommend heading out to sea, and scanning the horizon until you see one spout. Then grab a camera and try to tell someone about it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO DOUBT WEARY OF QUESTIONS about the secret of his photographic technique, the late Lars Tunbjork once told an interviewer, “I try to take photos like an alien”, a statement which strikes me as the perfect description of the shooter’s viewpoint. We are steeped in our own humanity: we are swept along in its tidal swell. But being part of all life gives us a skewed perspective as commentators. Striving to renounce our membership, to become The Outsider, is an art in itself. And certain pictures simply can’t be made without it.
Observing a scene as if one were an “alien”, as if we were freshly arrived on a scene which possessed nothing familiar to us, forces us to make unbiased, instantaneous evaluations of what is picture-worthy, not from our memory or habit, but from instincts, even raw guesses. Like E.T., harvesting earth plants for the purpose of study, we are placing ourselves into the viewpoint of a Columbus or an Armstrong. If we succeed, our perspective is truly that of someone Who Has Never Been Before. These small stolen instants of what one photographer called the flash of perception free us, momentarily, from what we’ve learned or assumed over a lifetime of experience. They allow us to shoot things we don’t pause to understand or contexualize. We feel that something ought to be a picture, and so it becomes one.
Tunbjork often took shots of randomly selected people in office environments doing the daily mundane tasks of making a living. The pictures were certainly “real” in a sense, and can, in fact, convey the feeling that we are getting our first (fresh?) look at things so ordinary that they have become invisible. Just as in the case of the shot seen here, snapped as I took a shortcut through a busy restaurant, the sensation can be that we have just happened upon something previously hidden: a conversation, a short relaxed break, a backstage glimpse. We are intruding into a place where we normally are not admitted. We are stealing. Hopefully with a tale that, later, back on the mother ship, we can share with our fellow aliens.
I AM STILL IN PAIN, several days after the most aggressive photographic housecleaning I’ve endured in years, the ruthless removal of years of deadwood from a photo-sharing site on which I’ve parked way, way too many wayward pictures. This was, finally, the week to toss away the old moose head in the attic, the day to tearfully admit that you no longer fit into your varsity jersey. Hail and farewell, parting is such sweet sorrow. Goodbye and good riddance.
OVERHEARD DURING MY EDITING/DELETING PROCESS
Oh, My Gawd…
What even is that?
Well, that certainly didn’t work…..
Nothing wrong with this one…..except the lighting, aperture, and composition…
Seriously, what the hell is that?
Lots of this concentrated cringing over pix of yesteryear speaks to my old acronym SLAGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, the simple truth that what you believe is profound at the time of the shutter click will strike you as reeking fish wrap several miles down the pike. We do outgrow, update, and disown old ideas, hopefully replacing them with better ones.
To take it a bit further, if a significant number of your old images don’t make you want to reach for the bilge bucket, one of two things is true. (1) You are already God’s messenger, the one true Messiah of photography (unlikely), or (2) you are so mired in habit and false comfort that the way you shoot is the way you always shot and the way you will always shoot. Given those choices, it may be preferable to regard at least some of one’s work the way Jack Nicholson’s Joker riffed through Vicki Vale’s portfolio, i.e, “crap…..crap….crap…” It hurts, but it’s healthy.
Every binge must have a purge, and the gluttonous output of the digital age guarantees one sure truth: they can’t all be gems. I hate having to disown my kids as much as the next shooter, but part of learning is learning to fail, admitting that at least some of those kids will never Get Into A Good School, Settle Down With Someone Nice, and Start Giving Us Some Grandchildren. If for no other reason than to help us know excellence when we see it, we need to be able to fearlessly label all the loves we have lost.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MUST–HAVES during the golden age of component stereo was the graphic equalizer, a panel on the front of many hi-fi receivers that divvied up the audible spectrum into five zones, allowing the discriminating audiophile to create a custom low-midrange-hi mix of frequencies by adjusting each zone’s vertical slider switch. It gave a clear representation of the desired fidelity curve. It was visual. It was visceral. Most importantly, it was cool, man.
The “slider” is also, for me, a frame of reference for my photography, since it gives me a mental picture of where I’m at along the track from work that’s left-brained (precision-driven, analytical) and right-brained (instinctual, reactive, emotional). The slider almost never travels to either extreme in the making of pictures, but veers closer to one or the other in a custom e.q.’d mix between rational control and total abandon. This is becoming more common with photographers in general than at any time in the past. When it came to crafting an image, we almost always asked about the how of things. Now many more of us also ask about the why.
The above image is illustrative of this balancing act. In walking behind the two women emerging from a forest at the end of their dog walk, I was never going to have a lot of time to formally set up any one shot…..not unless I was willing to interrupt the ladies’ together time, which seemed counter-intuitive at best. Optically, I was shooting with a selective-focus lens, designed to be sharp at the center, then progressively softer at the edges. Additionally, I decided to under-expose both women, eliminating all detail and reducing them to silhouettes. This meant that I had to wait until they were fairly centered in the clearing at the edge of the woods, one of the only reference points I would have for sharp focus, the backlighting of their forms, and any suggestion of depth.
And so you have a shot which is neither all-rational nor all-instinctual but a mixture of the two, the slider’s mid-point between preparation and improvisation. Total adherence to the left brain can produce shots which are technically precise but emotionally sterile. Working too much on the right side can yield pictures that are chaotic or random. Learning to jockey the slider is at least as important a skill as either composition or conception.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN PHOTOGRAPHY IS PURELY REPORTORIAL, as it is in journalism or documentation, it sticks pretty close to the accepted state of the world. It tries to depict things plainly and without comment; it delineates and defines; it shows us the true dimensions of events.
But when the same technology is used interpretively, there is no absolute “real”, no pure authenticity, other than what we choose to show. It is in re-purposing the world visually, shaping and framing it as we choose, that we can confer meaning on it pretty much at our whim. That’s where the “art” part comes into what would otherwise be a merely technical measurement of light. We not only choose our subject….we set the conversation about it. Simply stated, what you shoot is about whatever you decide it’s about.
Even with hyper-familiar objects, things seen and re-seen to the point that they are iconic (think Empire State Building) images can re-set the way we take those objects in. And, in the case of what I like to call “found objects”, such as the image seen at the top, the photographer is completely unfettered. If your viewer’s eye has no prior mental association with something, you’re writing on a blank sheet of paper. You can completely dictate the terms of engagement, imbuing it with either clarity or mystery, simplicity or symbolism.
I have always been flat-out floored by photographs that take me on a journey. Those who can conjure such adventures are the true magicians of the craft. And that’s what I chose to play in this arena over a lifetime. Because, when photography liberates itself from mere reality, it soars like no other art.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE LONG SINCE ABANDONED THE TASK OF CALCULATING HOW MANY DIGITAL IMAGES ARE CREATED every second of every day. The numbers are so huge as to be meaningless by this time, as the post-film revolution has removed most of the barriers that once kept people from (a) taking acceptable images or (b) doing so quickly. The global glut of photographs can never again be held in check by the higher failure rate, longer turnaround time, or technical intimidation of film.
Now we have to figure out if that’s always a good thing.
Back in the 1800’s. Photography was 95% technical sweat and 5% artistry. Two-minute exposures, primitive lenses and chancey processing techniques made image-making a chore, a task only suited to the dedicated tinkerer. The creation of cheap, reliable cameras around the turn of the 20th century tilted the sweat/artistry ratio a lot closer to, say, 60/40, amping up the number of users by millions, but still making it pretty easy to muck up a shot and rack up a ton of cost.
You know the rest. Making basic photographs is now basically instantaneous, making for shorter and shorter prep times before clicking the shutter. After all, the camera is good enough to compensate for most of our errors, and, more importantly, able to replicate professional results for people who are not professionals in any sense of the word. That translates to billions of pictures taken very, very quickly, with none of the stop-and-think deliberation that was baked into the film era.
We took longer to make a picture back in the day because we were hemmed in by the mechanics of the process. But, in that forced slowing, we automatically paid more active attention to the planning of a greater proportion of our shots. Of course, even in the old days, we cranked out millions of lousy pictures, but, if we were intent on making great ones, the process required us to slow down and think. We didn’t take 300 pictures over a weekend, 150 of them completely dispensable, nor did we record thirty “takes” of Junior blowing out his birthday candles. Worse, the age’s compulsive urge to share, rather than to edit, has also contributed to the flood tide of photo-litter that is our present reality.
If we are to regard photography as an art, then we have to judge it by more than just its convenience or speed. Both are great perks but both can actually erode the deliberation process needed to make something great. There are no short cuts to elegance or eloquence. Slow yourself up. Reject some ideas, and keep others to execute and refine. Learn to tell yourself “no”.
There is an old joke about an airpline pilot getting on the intercom and telling the passengers that he’s “hopelessly lost, but making great time”. Let’s not make pictures like that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY CHANGE YOU MAKE IN THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE also changes every other element of the picture.
You can’t alter a single element in a photo in isolation. Each decision you make is a separate gear, with its own distinctive teeth, and the way those teeth mesh with all the other gears in the photographic equation determines success in the final picture.
As an example, let’s look at sharpness, perhaps the big “desirable” in an image. The term sounds simple, but is, in fact determined by an entire raft of factors, among them:
A) Choice Of Lens. How uniform is the sharpness of your glass? Is it softer at the edges? Completely sharp at smaller apertures? Does it deliver amazing pictures at one setting while causing distortions or inaccuracies at another?
B) Aperture. The most basic predictor of sharpness, whether you scrimped or splurged on Item “A”.
C) Choice Of Autofocus Setting. Are you telling your camera to selectively sharpen a key object in an isolated part of your image, or asking it to provide uniform sharpness across the entire frame?
D) Anti-vibration. On some longer exposures (for example, on a tripod) this feature may actually be costing you sharpness. Protecting your shot against the hand-held shakes is good. Confusing a camera with active Anti-vibe on a stabilized shot may not work out as well.
E) Contrast. Some people believe that the sharpness of lines and textures is actually the viewable distance between light and darkness, that contrast is “sharpness”. Based on what you prefer, other big choices can be affected, such as the decision to shoot in color or black and white.
F) Stability. Deals with everything from how steady you grip a camera to what else besides yourself, from shutter triggering to SLR mirror shifting, can cause measurable vibration, and thus less sharpness.
G) Editing/Processing. This is where miracles occur. Sometimes. Other times, it’s where we try to slap lipstick on a pig.
We could go on, and so could you. And then consider that this quick checklist only deals with sharpness, just a single element, which, in turn, affects every other aspect of your pictures. Photography is a constant juggling act between technique, experience, experiment, and instinct. What you want to show in your images will dictate how much (or how well) you keep all those balls aloft.
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
IN ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT IRONIES, YOU TRULY BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER the first time you consider chucking all your gear off a cliff and never taking a picture again. Just as you can’t understand faith until you nearly lose it, you can’t really become an excellent maker of pictures unless you’ve been paralyzed, even a little frightened, in considering the distance between what you know and what you need to know.
All visual arts, all arts in general, really, are pursuits. We are chasing something, either in our work or in ourselves. Maybe both. We don’t always know what it is, but we sure as hell know what it’s not. Calling forth an image from a mix of instinct, experience and light seems like an easy thing, since there are so many cameras that deliver acceptable pictures with a minimum of effort. Unlike the early days of the medium, it’s no longer an uphill struggle technically getting “a” picture.
Ah, but getting “the” picture…that’s the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes, that challenge seems glorious. A crusade. Other times, it’s a slog. And, occasionally, the wandering between what you see in your head and what you can deliver in a given picture is exhausting, and you will sometimes want to stop. For good. Many do, and many more ache to.
The technical part of photography can certainly be taught, just as there is not that much to the mere mechanics of hitting a baseball or driving a car. Getting to the excellence, however, is daunting. And if you’re hung up on destinations, on “getting there”, realizing that it’s actually about the journey can be heartbreaking. You want to arrive at perfection, and you realize that you never can.
You have to learn to live on little glimpses of the prize, those flickers of wow when an image starts to take on its own life. That’s the payoff. Not praise, or publication, or a million “likes” on Instagram. Because it really doesn’t matter a damn what others think of your work. If you don’t love it, all the applause in the world just becomes noise. The pictures have to be there. For you. The wandering has to amount to something.
Once you learn to find fault in even your favorite brainchildren, you can father better ones going forward. Even better, once you know what your work looks like when you’re lost, the closer you are to being found. Eventually, photography is like anything else you can care passionately about. The fire carries you through when the progress won’t.
So hang on. There’s light up ahead.
Go catch it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
URBAN PHOTOGRAPHERS ACT IN MUCH THE SAME WAY AS ARCHAEOLOGISTS in that they must try to supply context for objects, backstories that have been either altered or erased. Cities are collections of things created by humans for specific motives, be it profit, shelter, play, or worship. Often, the visual headstones of these dreams, that is, the buildings, survive beyond the people that called them into being. Photographers have to imply the part of the story that’s crumbled to dust. Like the archaeologist, we try to look at shards and imagine vases, or see an entire temple in a chunk of wall.
During the dreaded “urban renewal” period in the mid-twentieth century, my home town of Columbus, Ohio duplicated the destruction seen in cities across the country in the wanton devastation of neighborhoods, landmarks and linkages in the name of Progress. Today’s urban planners thumb sadly through vast volumes of ill-considered “improvements” wrought upon history from that period, with New York’s Penn Station, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and Columbus’ Union Station surviving today only as misty symbols of fashion gone amok.
In the case of Columbus’ grand old railroad station, there is at least a fragment of the original structure, its beaux-arts entry arch, left standing, serving as either stately souvenir or cautionary tale, depending on your viewpoint. The arch has been moved several times since the demolition of its matching complex, and presently graces the city’s humming new hockey and entertainment district, itself a wondrous blend of new and repurposed architecture. Better late than never.
Thus, the Union arch has, by default, become one of the most photographed objects in town, giving new generations of artists permission to widely interpret it, freed, as it is, of its original context. Amateur archaeologists all, they show it as not only what it is, but also what it was and might have been. It has become abstracted to the point where anyone can project anything onto it, adding their own spin to something whose original purpose has been obliterated by time.
I have taken a few runs at the subject myself over the years, and find that partial views work better than views of the entire arch, which is crowded in with plenty of apartment buildings, parklands and foot traffic, making a straight-on photo of the structure busy and mundane. For the above image, I imagined that I had recovered just an old image of the arch….on a piece of ancient parchment, a map, perhaps an original artist’s rendering. I shot straight up on a cloudy day, rendering the sky empty and white. Then I provided a faux texture to it by taking separate a sepia-toned photo of a crumpled piece of copier paper and fusing the two exposures (the HDR software Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” feature does this easily). Letting the detail of the arch image bleed randomly through the crumpled paper picture created a reasonable illusion of a lost document, and I could easily tweak the blend back and forth until I liked the overall effect.
Cities are treasure hunts for photographers, but not everything we find has to be photographed at, let’s say, face value. Reality, like fantasy, sometimes benefits from a little push.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CELL PHONE CAMERA’S IMPACT ON PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN SO SUDDEN AND FAR-REACHING that its full impact has yet to be fully measured. Within a decade, the act of making a picture has been democratized to a greater degree than at any other time in the history of the medium. It’s as if, overnight, everyone was given the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Goodbye, Superman, hello, Everyman. The Kodak Brownie’s introduction prior to 1900 gave the average human his first camera. The cell phone is like the Brownie on steroids and four shots of Red Bull.
It’s more than just giving millions of people the ability to take a photo. That part had been done before, dozens of times. However, no other camera before the cell has also obliterated the number one obstacle to picture-making on this scale: cost. The cost of film. The cost of marketing and sharing one’s work quickly, and with uniform quality. The cost of artistry, with support apps allowing people to directly translate their vision into a finished product without investing in gear that, just a few years ago, priced most people out of the creative end of the market.
Most significantly, there is the cost saved in time. Time learning a technique. Time speeding past the birth pains of your creative energy. you know, those darn first 10,000 hours of bad pictures that used to take years of endurance and patience. The learning curve for photography, once a gradually arching line, is now a dramatic, vertical jump into the stratosphere.
These insane leaps in convenience and, for the most part, real technical improvement occur across all digital media, but, in the cel phone, their impact is spread across billions, not mere millions, of users. Simulate a particular film’s appearance? Done. Do high-quality macro or fisheye without a dedicated lens running into the hundreds? Yeah, we can do that. Double-exposures, selective focus, miniature effects, pinhole exposures, even remote auxiliary lighting? Go fish. It’s all there.
And when cells raise the ante, traditional cameras have to up their game just to survive. The shot at the top of this page comes from a pair of Lensbaby macro converters up front of the company’s Sweet 35 optic, a shot that would only have come, a few years ago, from a dedicated macro lens costing upwards of $500. Lensbaby’s version? $49.95. And now, with less than a decade in the effects lens biz for DSLRs, Lensbaby makes macro, fisheye and other effect lenses for cells. A rising tide raises all boats.
I could make a list of the areas where the optics and outputs of cell phones are still behind conventional camera optics, but if this post is ever read more than a year past its publication, the future will make a liar out of me. Besides, that would put me on the same side as the carpers who still claim that film is better, more human, or “warm”, as the vinyl LP hipsters like to say. Your horse is nice, but it can’t outrun my Model T.
Part of photography’s appeal since day one has been the knowledge that, whatever era you live in, it’s a sure bet that some geek is slaving away in a lab somewhere, trying to make your sleek, easy, “latest thing” seem slow, clunky and over with. We’re never done. Which means that we’re always just beginning.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HER BRILLIANT 1979 BEST SELLER DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN, art teacher Betty Edwards, while obviously addressing the creative process chiefly as it regards graphics, also contributed to a better understanding of the same visualization regimen used by photographers. In its clear explanation of the complementary roles of the brain’s hemispheres in making an image, Ms. Edwards demonstrates that photographs can never be just a matter of chiefly left-brained technique or merely the by-product of unfettered, right-brained fancy.
And that’s important to understand as we grow our approach to our craft over time. It’s ridiculous to imagine that we can make compelling images without a certain degree of left-brained mastery, just as you can’t drive a nail if you don’t know how to hold a hammer. But it’s equally crazy to try to take pictures without the right-brained inspiration that sees the potential in a composition or subject even before the left knows how, technically, it can be achieved. One side problem-solves while the other dreams. One hemisphere is an anchor, a foundation: the other is a helium balloon.
When you develop a plan for your next shoot, selecting the lenses and tools you’ll need, scoping out the best locations, it’s all left brain. But, comes the day of the shoot, your right brain might just fall in love with something that wasn’t in the blueprint, something that just must be dealt with now. Fact is, neither side can hold absolute sway. When you are laboring a long time to get a particular picture, you can almost feel the two hemispheres arguing for control. But all that left-right-left toggling isn’t a bad thing, nor should you expect there to be one clear “winner” in the struggle. The pictures that emerge have to be an agreement, or at least a truce between “how do we do this?” and “why should we do this?”.
I have pictures, such as the one up top here, that I call five-minute wonders, so named because they go very quickly from conception to completion. They are like impulse items in the grocery checkout line. I’ll take some of this, a few of these, and one of those, toss them together in a bowl, and see what happens. Sounds very right-brained, right? However, none of these quickie projects would work if I simply don’t know how to make the camera give me what I want. That’s all left brain. The point is, the two factions must at least have a grudging conversation with each other. Right-brained creativity gets all the chicks and the cool clothes: it’s the flashy rock star of the photo universe, a sexy bad boy who just won’t listen to reason. However, Lefty has to take the wheel occasionally or Righty will crash the sports car and we’ll all die horribly.
It’s romantic to believe that all our great photographs come from blindingly brilliant flashes of pure inspiration. That’s where the lomography movement with its cheap plastic cameras and its “don’t think, shoot” mantra comes from. And impulse certainly plays its part. However, anyone who tells you that amazing images come solely from some bottomless wellspring of the soul is only telling you half the truth. Sometimes you can spend the day playing hooky, and some days you gotta stay inside and do your homework.
Left, right, left….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PERSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, MEASURED OVER A LIFETIME, can come to resemble a marriage, with all the occasional rifts, rumbles and repellents of living with anyone (or anything) nonstop ’til death. Just as any good golfer has thrown the odd club into the 7th hole lake, any shooter worth his emulsions/pixels will, at least once, consider pitching his gear into the nearest abyss, then setting a cheery bonfire of his accumulated work alight in the home driveway (after securing all necessary permits, of course). I dare you to deny it. We hate intensely because we have loved intensely, and fallen intensely short.
The fury eventually abates, however, and we resume the “on” portion of the on again/off again love of photography, not knowing when it next will toggle to “off”, or if switching back to “on” even has any prospect of success. The fact is, creative passion can generate emotional surges, microbursts of feeling so intense they could pop the top off a seismograph. This means answering “the questions” as they ring inside your skull:
Why did I ever start doing this?
What made me thing I’d ever be any good at it?
And where is that damned lens?????
In the interest of my own sanity, I never contemplate a total divorce from photography, but I avidly support the need for a trial separation from time to time. Every relief valve has to be opened and flushed out occasionally, and when the ideas, or the patience to execute them, seem to have gone south for the winter, you have to furlough the workers and shut down the plant. For a while. Hammering away at a problem with an image may eventually loosen what’s stuck, but it’s just as valuable to know when to lay down your tools and quit the scene. For a while. Once your brain is running on high-octane rage, all things beautiful and visionary will just be drowned out by all the screaming, so, really, I’m not kidding: accept the fact that occasionally you’ll announce to all your friends and family that you’re “over the whole photography thing”. And you will absolutely mean it.
For a while.
Here’s another thought: fake-quitting photography will provide the most severe test of how much you were into it in the first place. A trial separation is just that: a test to see if there was anything worth saving in the relationship. Scary process, but, if you come back, whether to a partner or a Nikon, you come back renewed and freshly committed to Make This Thing Work. All of a sudden, you’re bringing your Canon chocolates and roses, and arranging for a romantic candlelight dinner. And the work grows again.
For a while.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A YOUNG PIANO STUDENT, I NOTICED THAT MANY OF MY FAVORITE SHORT WORKS all bore the elegant, mysterious name of etude. It was somewhat later that I realized that this was merely the French word for a “study”, and that some of what I regarded as highly developed, final compositions were, essentially, first versions, practice runs by the masters in search of some eventual greatness. And, since I was an illustrator as well as a musician, the idea of an etude as a prototype, a first version of something dovetailed nicely with the idea of a sketch, or as my father called it, a “rough”. An etude was a work in progress.
Then came photography and, with it, the giddy short-term gratification of just snapping a picture, of crossing a visual item off one’s to-do list. We are, as humans naturally attracted to the process of completion, of turning out a finished product. Click. Done. Moving on….However, despite what the auction houses and gallery curators of the world might try to tell you, art is not a product, and just like those melodiously wondrous etudes, the best images are always in the process of being created. You can always take a picture to another level, but you can’t finish it.
Walk across to the painters’ side of the Art building every once in a while and look at how many preliminary studies Leonardo or Michelangelo made of their greatest works, or the number of “early” and “late” versions there are of these same masterpieces. Now, travel back to the photography wing and witness Ansel Adams taking one crack after another at the same stony face of El Capitan, often merely reworking the same master negative up to a half dozen times over decades. You simply have to make different pictures of the same subjects across a lifetime, just because your idea of what’s important to show keeps evolving.
Finally, look objectively at your own output and discover how many of your older images are “good pictures” and how many are good ideas for pictures. You’ll no doubt find your own personal “etudes”, the studies that can still become something better. In my own case, I have to walk away from floral subjects from time to time, then return to approach them with a different mindset, since I’m equally fascinated and clueless as to how to imbue them with anything approaching soulfulness. My eye struggles to make something magical emerge from buds and bouquets as others have done. But I’ll stay at it.
Digital processes make it possible to crank through a wide variety of approaches to the same subject in a very short span of time compared to film-based techniques. Think easy-fast-cheap. Or think good-better-best if you like. Either way, the layers of learning are stacked ever higher and deeper, allowing us to regard photography as process instead of product. So do your scales every day, keep your fingers high and curved, and stay curious.
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. —Dorothea Lange
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A REAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE “FIRST CAMERAS” OF A GENERATION AGO and those of people just entering the art of photography today. Of course, individual experiences vary, but, in general, people born between 1950 and 1980 first snapped with devices that were decidedly limited as compared to the nearly limitless abilities of even basic gear today. And that creates a similar gap, across the eras, between what skills are native to one group versus the other.
To take one example, if your first camera, decades ago, was a simple box Brownie, the making of your pictures was pretty hamstrung. You had to purposefully labor to compensate for what your gear wouldn’t do. A deliberate plan had to be followed for every shot, since you couldn’t count on the camera to allow for, or correct, your mistakes. With a device that came hardwired with a single aperture, a shutter button, and not much else, you had to be mindful of a whole array of factors that could result in absolute failure. The idea of artistic “freedom” was sought first in knowledge, then, much later, in better equipment.
But if, on the other hand, you begin your photographic development with a camera that, in the present era, is almost miraculously flexible and responsive, freedom is a given. In a sense, it’s also a restraint of a different kind. That is, with bad gear, you’re a hero if you can wring any little bit of magic out of the process. But with equipment that can almost obey your every command, the old “I left the lens cap on”-type excuses are gone, along with any other reason you may offer for not getting at least average results. Thus the under-equipped and the over-equipped have two different missions: one must deliver despite his camera, while the other strives to deliver despite himself.
The entire gist of The Normal Eye is that I believe that even remarkable cameras (and the world is flooded with them) will betray the unseeing eye that mans them. Likewise, the trained eye will create miracles with anything handy. Our thrust here at TNE is toward teaching yourself the complete basics of photography as if you were actually constrained by limited equipment. At the point at which you’ve fully mastered the art of being better than your camera, then, and only then, is it time to get a new camera. Then learn to out-run that one, and so on.
The promise made by cameras today is the same promise that’s always been made by ever-advancing technology, that of wonderful results with minimum effort. It’s the photo equivalent of “eat whatever you want and still lose weight”. But it’s a false promise; photography only becomes art when we ask things of ourselves that our cameras cannot provide by themselves. Anything else is learning to accommodate mediocrity, a world of “pretty good”.
Which, inevitably, is never really good enough.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST YEAR-END ROUND-UP LISTS, from rosters of hot-selling New York Times books to summaries of the most binge-worthy tv titles, tend, in our marketing-based society, to be “best-of’s”, rankings of what’s hot and what (since it didn’t make the list) is not. I’m certainly not immune to these sales-skewed tabulations, but, in strictly artistic terms, there should also be lists that are more like “most representative of” rather than “best”.
There’s a very human reason for this distinction. Creative people are often fonder of the their personal also-rans than their personal bests. We cherish the effort, as much as, if not more than, the race results. He who came in first and he who gave it the best go are often two different people (or two different works of art), and our hearts go out (especially in the case of our own work) to the stuff that shows our growth rather than our success.
And that’s where I find my head at the end of this photographic year.
Up top of the screen, starting today, there’s a tab for a new gallery page called Fifteen for 15. Now, quickly, guess how many pictures there are in it. Then guess what year they came from. Yeah, I’m really that dull. The images therein aren’t necessarily my technical best, perhaps not even the pictures that work the best for you as an audience. But they do comprise a pretty fair sampling of every direction in which I was attempting to stretch during the year, and maybe that’s more important than a mere brag-sheet of home runs.
I used to think my goal was to develop a style that didn’t, ha ha, look like a style (oh, these artists!) . Now, I actually want to try to create a chronicle of everywhere that I stepped outside my comfort zone, since that’s where both the spectacular wins and the astounding misses reside. And if I can finish out a given calendar year and point to at least a baker’s dozen of shots that show me at least trying to color outside the lines, I’ll call that year a success. With lists, “Best-Of’s” are great for the ego. However, “Representative-Of’s” may be better for the soul.
So, that happened.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CAN STILL HEAR MY LITTLE LEAGUE COACH’S VOICE, cured into a coarse hum by too many years of Lucky Strikes, hitting me in the back of my skull as I stood shakily in the batter’s box. If he had told me once, he had told me a thousand times: don’t try to hit every ball that comes across the plate. You swing like a rusty gate, he would tease me, or don’t eat their garbage. The main message, and one that I only intermittently received: wait for your pitch.
On those rare occasions when I didn’t fish wildly in the air for every single thing that sailed in from the mound, I took great encouragement from his voice saying, good eye. Strangely, I had earned praise for essentially doing nothing, but, hey, I’d take it.
Coach sometimes comes to mind when I view the results of some of my hastier photographic decisions.
There is, for photogs, a very real translation of “wait for your pitch”, and it’s more important in the digital era because it’s such an easy rule to adhere to. Simply, you must keep shooting long enough to get the frame you saw in your mind. There can be no, “I’ve already taken a lot of frames”, or “they’re waiting for me to finish up” or “maybe today’s not my day for this shot.” First of all, it’s your picture. If you want it, take it. Secondly, there is no such thing as “a lot of frames”. There is only enough frames. If clicking one more, hell, ten more, will get you your shot, then do it. There is no phantom film counter warning you that you only have four more Kodachrome exposures left.
I am preaching this particular commandment all too loudly today because I am kicking myself for not living up to it recently. In the top frame, I got every element of a quaint old Amtrak ticket window that appealed to me, including the patterned skylight, the bored agent, the square arrangement of the Deco-ish counter space, and the left and right details of an old archway and a marble wall. Everything except the intrusive passersby on the left. They are sadly out-of-sync with the time-feel of the rest of the shot, and, had I not felt that I had nailed the general exposure and feel of the image, I might have waited for them to move out of frame, and gotten everything I wanted.
But I didn’t. I settled for “close enough”, and moved on to the next subject. Later, in post-production, I could certainly crop my squatters out, but at the cost of the overall composition. I now had to make do with what was left. I managed to reframe for another square shot that included nearly all the same elements. But it was “nearly”, not “all”. And “all” is what I could have had if I hadn’t tried to swing at the wrong ball. You can’t make a good shot out of a bad shot, and when an opportunity is gone, there isn’t a piece of software in the world that can make a miracle out of what’s not in your camera.
Wait for your pitch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT LEAST TWO ACQUAINTANCES HAVE RECENTLY APPROACHED ME, knowing that I shoot with Nikons, to gauge my interest in buying their old lenses. One guy has, over the years, expertly used every arrow in his technical quiver, taking great pictures with a wide variety of glass. He’s now moving on to conquer other worlds. The other, I fear, suffered a protracted attack of G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the seductive illness which leads you to believe that your next great image will only come after you buy This Awesome Lens. Or This One. Or…
Perk’s Law: the purchase of photographic equipment should be made only as your ability gradually improves to the point where it seems to demand better tools to serve that advanced development. Sadly, what happens with many newbies (and Lord, I get the itch daily, myself) is that the accumulation of enough toys to cover any eventuality is thought to be the pre-cursor of excellence. That’s great if you’re a stockholder in a camera company but it fills many a man’s (and woman’s) closet with fearsome firepower that may or may not ever be (a) used at all or (b) mastered. GAS can actually destroy a person’s interest in photography.
Here’s the pathology. Newbie Norm bypasses an automated point-and-shoot for his very first camera, and instead, begins with a 25-megapixel, full-frame monster, five lenses, two flashes, a wireless commander, four umbrellas and enough straps to hold down Gulliver. He dives into guides, tutorials, blogs, DVDs, and seminars as if cramming for the state medical boards. He narrowly avoids being banished from North America by his wife. He starts shooting like mad, ignoring the fact that most of his early work will be horrible, yet valuable feedback on the road to real expertise. He is daunted by his less-than-stellar results. However, instead of going back to the beginning and building up from simple gear and basic projects, he soon gets “over” photography. Goodbye, son of Ansel. Hello Ebay.
This is the same guy who goes to Sears for a hammer and comes back with a $2,000 set of Craftsman tools, then, when the need to drive a nail arrives, he borrows a two dollar hammer from his neighbor. GAS distorts people’s vision, making them think that it’s the brushes, not the vision, that made Picasso great. But photography is about curiosity, which can be satisfied and fed with small, logical steps, a slow and steady curve toward better and better ways of seeing. And the best thing is, once you learn that,you can pick up the worst camera in the world and make music with it.
There is no shortcut.There are no easy answers. There is only the work. You can’t lose thirty pounds of ugly fat in ten days while eating pizza and sleeping in late. You need to stay after class and go for the extra credit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORST SOCIAL FAUX PAS OF OUR TIME may be the dreaded “TMI”, or the sin of sharing Too Much Information, creating awkward moments by regaling our friends with intimate details of our recent colostomies or carnal conquests. Funny thing is, much as we hate having this badge of uncoolness pinned to our chest, we commit its photographic equivalent all the time, and without a trace of shame.
I’m talking about the other TMI, or Too Many Images.
Let’s face it. Social media has encouraged too many of us to use the Web as a surplus warehouse dump for our photographs, many of them as ill-considered as a teenage girl’s hair flip. We’ve entered an endless loop of shoot-upload-repeat which seldom contains a step labeled “edit”. Worse, the vast storage space in our online photo vaults encourage us to share everything we shoot without so much as a backwards glance.
I’m suggesting that we take steps to stop treating the internet like an EPA Superfund site for images. I have tried to maintain a regular schedule of viewing the rearmost pages of my online archives, stuff from five years ago or longer, learning to ruthlessly rip out the shots that time has proven do not work. The goal is to force myself to re-think my original intentions and make every single photograph earn its slot in my overall profile. There are, by my calculation, three main sub-headings that these duds fall under:
A bad idea, well executed. Okay, you nailed the exposure and worked the gear to a “T”, but the picture has no story. There’s nothing being communicated or shared. Just because it’s sharp and well-lit doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside your stronger work.
A good idea, poorly executed. Hey, if you believe so strongly in the concept, go back and do it right. Don’t give yourself a pass on bad technique because it was a noble effort.
An incomplete idea, which means it wasn’t even time to take the picture at all. Maybe you didn’t know how to get your message across, for whatever reason. Or maybe if you got the conception 100% right, it still wasn’t strong enough to jump off the page. The litmus test is, if you wouldn’t want someone’s random search of your stuff to land on this shot instead of your best one, lose it.
Online stats make some of these tortured choices a bit easier, since, when you are looking at low figures on shots that have been available forever, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t lighting up anyone’s world. And as lame as view and fave counts can be, they are at least an initial signal pointer toward sick cows that need to be thinned from the herd. The cure for photographic “TMI” is actually as easy as shooting for long enough to get better. With a wider body of work viewed over time, the strong stuff stands out in bolder contrast to the weaker stuff. And that shows you where to wield the scissors.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS OF WRITING DAILY HUMOR MATERIAL FOR OTHERS IN THE RADIO RACKET taught me that comedians fall into two general camps: those who say funny things and those who say things funny. Depending on how you rate writing, your own independence, or even your career longevity, you may opt to be in the first group, flawlessly executing pre-written material, or the second, where the manner in which you put things across allows you to get laughs reading the phone book.
I make this distinction between technique (the gag reciter) and style (the ability to imbue anything with comedy) because photographers must face the exact same choices. Technique helps us deliver the goods with technical precision, to master steps and procedures to correctly execute, say, a time exposure. Style is the ability to stamp our vision on nearly anything we see; it’s not about technical mastery, but internal development. Two different paths. Very different approaches to making pictures.
Obviously, great shooters can’t put their foot exclusively in either camp. Without technique, your work has no level standards or parameters. Lighting, exposure, composition….they all require skills that are as basic as a driver’s-ed class. However, if you merely learn how to do stuff, without having a guiding principle of how to harness those skills, your work will be devoid of a certain soul. Adept but not adorable. This is a trap I frequently find myself falling into, as my shots are a little technique heavy. Result: images that are scientifically sound but maybe a trifle soul-starved. Yeah, I could make this picture, but why did I?
On the style side, of course, you need fancy, whimsy, guts, and, yes, guesswork to produce a masterpiece. However, with an overabundance of unchanneled creativity, your work can become chaotic. Your narrative ability may not be up to the speed of your “vision”, or you may simply lack the wizardry to capture what your eye is seeing. Photographers are, more than anything else, storytellers. If they fail in either grammar or imagination, the whole thing is noise.
Like comics, photographers are both technicians and artists. Even the most seasoned among us needs a touch o’ the geek and a touch of the poet. Anything else is low comedy.