By MICHAEL PERKINS
CBS TELEVISION FIRST AIRED A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965, creating an instant seasonal classic. It got its first tenuous viewing despite the network suits’ fears that the modest little story, voiced by children(!), sporting a jazz soundtrack(!) and gently suggesting that the holiday may be about more than greed and glitz, would lay a giant Yuletide egg. They needn’t have worried, as it turned ou. The show nobody wanted became the tradition without which no Christmas could be thought to be complete.
One of the show’s main plot points involves Charlie Brown’s fear that the holiday has been hijacked by hucksters, so much so that the hottest selling Christmas trees in his neighborhood are not verdant firs but pastel-painted, neon monstrosities. There was a lot of that nonsense going on in those days.
The photograph you see here was taken just days after that first airing of ACBC, but I can’t really claim to be channeling its energy or trying to echo its sentiments. The picture isn’t so much a comment on commercialism (nothing that formal) so much as it is a question.
I was a very young thirteen in December 1965, and had only wielded my Imperial Mark XII box camera on a few occasions prior to the day I found myself wandering around Northern Lights shopping center in Columbus, Ohio, specifically past the display window of the Cussins & Fern Hardware Company. Like Charlie Brown, I thought that some holiday novelties, like the recently introduced aluminum Xmas trees were odd, even though I liked the included rotating wheels that projected ever-changing colors onto the silvery sticks in a kind of robotically cold imitation of gaiety. However, unlike Charlie Brown, I don’t think I regarded these abstract Future Trees as an affront to decency. I just thought they were weird.
I do remember thinking that the window showed a Christmas that was just kind of……off, a Christmas in which you got a whole television set or a food freezer as a present, a Christmas filled with Strange Trees From The Future, a Christmas where you could always buy….money orders? I knew, in that era, next to nothing about how to formally frame a shot or a visual commentary. I didn’t have the pictorial vocabulary to make an argument. I couldn’t interpret. I just pointed at things that interested me and trusted those things to carry their own narrative weight. I was point-and-shoot before point-and-shoot wiz cool.
This Christmas, both the holiday and I are still in flux. I continue to point my camera at shop windows, and continue to wonder what the whole mad mix of beauty and banality means. I still don’t have the answer. Alas, as a photographer, you often have to be content with merely learning better ways to ask the question.
Now, if I can just find someplace to buy Uncle Ed that money order he asked for…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE PEOPLE YOU PHOTOGRAPH BECAUSE THEY ARE IMPORTANT. Others are chosen because they are elements in a composition. Or because they are interesting. Or horrific. Or dear in some way. Sometimes, however, you just have to photograph people because you like them, and what they represent about the human condition.
That was my simple, solid reaction upon seeing these two gentlemen engaged in conversation at a party. I like them. Their humanity reinforces and redeems mine.
This image is merely one of dozens I cranked out as I wandered through the guests at a recent reception for two of my very dearest friends. Given the distances many of us in the room traveled to be there, it’s unlikely I will ever see most of these people again, nor will I have the honor of knowing them in any other context except the convivial evening that herded us together for a time. Because I was largely eavesdropping on conversations between small groups of people who have known each other for a considerable time, I enjoyed the privilege often denied a photographer, the luxury of being invisible. No one was asked to pose or smile. No attempt was made to “mark the occasion” or make a record of any kind. And it proved to me, once more, that the best thing to relax a portrait subject is……another portrait subject.
I assume from the body language of these two men that they are friends, that is, that they weren’t just introduced on the spot by the hostess. There is history here. Shared somethings. I don’t need to know what specific links they have, or had. I just need to see the echoes of them on their faces. I had to frame and shoot them quickly, mostly to evade discovery, so in squeezing off several fast exposures I sacrificed a little softness, partly due to me, partly due to the animated nature of their conversation. It doesn’t bother me, nor does the little bit of noise suffered by shooting in a dim room at ISO 1000. I might have made a more technically perfect image if I’d had total control. Instead, I had a story in front of me and I wanted to possess it, so….
Susan Sontag, the social essayist whose final life partner was the photographer Annie Liebovitz, spoke wonderfully about the special theft, or what she called the “soft murder” of the photographic portrait when she noted that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Melt though it might, time also leaves a mark.
Caught in a box.
Treasured in the heart.
- Susan Sontag Musings Where You Least Expect Them (hintmag.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE END OF A CALENDAR YEAR MEANS BUSTING OUT THE “BEST OF” LISTS, and, certainly,for people with a certain level of skill, that’s a normal instinct. I am always far too horrified by how many losing horses I put in a given year’s race to try to find the few who didn’t go lame, wander off the track, or finish last, so I confine my year’s-end computations to lists of what I tried, and whether I got close to learning anything. For 2013, one bulletin emerges:
I like the dark. A lot.
That is, a simple head count of shots taken this year reveal that I was outside, after supper, at nearly every opportunity. And yes, with mixed results. Always and forever will them results be mixed, amen. If my results were in a Waring blender, going at full “puree” speed, they could not be more mixed, okay?
But for some reason, the quest took me back into a renewed appreciation of shadows, shades, a lack of light. I probably embraced the missing information and detail that the dark represents more joyfully than I have in many years. And that’s something of a journey, since, if I had any kind of post-processing crack habit recently, it was the mania to rescue more and more of that detail, whether in High Dynamic Range photos, Exposure Fusion photos or Tone Compression photos. For a while, I was acting like your Grandpa the first week he owned his new Magnavox (“…hmm, needs a little more green….no, now the horses look purple….let’s add some red…”).
Maybe 2013 was the year I pulled back a bit and just let darkness be, let it express the unknown and the unknowable. Photography is always at least partly about what you don’t show, not depicting the world as a giant Where’s Waldo overdose of texture and detail. In ’13, I spent a lot more time shooting night shots at the technical limit of my camera, but did not fiddle about much further afterwards. I was interested in “getting as much picture into the click” as possible, but what couldn’t be achieved with faster lenses or mildly enhanced ISO just got left out of the pictures. I feel like it was a year of correction, with me playing the part of a new teen driver has to learn to correct for over-steer.
The whole thing is about remembering that technique is not style. What you have to say is style. The mechanical means you use to get it said is technique. Learning to execute a technique is like mastering the workings of a camera. It does not guarantee that your results will be revelatory or eloquent. That means that falling in love with the consistent polishing of processing is a danger, since you can begin to love it for its own sake. Technique says “Look what I can do!”. Style says, “but, is this what I should be doing?”
Anyway, whatever I presently think is essential for my growth will, eventually, become just one more thing that I do, and will be supplanted by something else. That said, a good year in photography should not end with the collection of a pile of hits, but an unafraid assessment of the misses.
That’s where the next batch of good pictures will come from, anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU HAVE BEEN ON THE PLANET FOR MORE THAN FIFTY CHRISTMASES, your holiday memories (at least those frozen in family snapshots) will include more than a few black and white images. Some families made the switch to color photography earlier than others, but, at least until the mid-1960’s, for millions of us, more than a few “our best tree ever” photos were shot in monochrome. A little web research or family album-browsing can illustrate just how well beloved memories were captured by millions of us, long before Kodachrome became the visual currency of family folklore.
It’s interesting to note that, with the universal availability of not only simple cameras but post-processing apps, there’s been a sort of retro-fed love of b&w that’s refreshing, given that we are, once again, admitting that some subjects can be wonderfully rendered in a series of greyscale tones. Certainly the general marketing and depiction of the season is a color-drenched one, but many new photographers are re-discovering the art of doing more with less, or, more properly, seeing black and white as an interpretation of reality rather, as in the case of color, as a recording of it.
Observing the season out in the American West, thousands of miles from loved ones, I find that my holiday shots are increasingly journalistic or “street” in nature, since I am viewing and interpreting other people’s Christmases. The contours and designs of retail become a vibrant source of stories for me, and black and white allows me to shoot at an emotionally safe distance while calling special attention to texture and detail.
Depending on whether you’re showing the splendor of food and presents or evoking some Dickens-era urban grit, some subjects will come up flat or drab in black and white, given our very specific memory cues as to what Christmas should “look like”, so getting the desired result may be elusive. But, of course, if photography was easy, everyone would do it.
Oh, wait, everybody does do it.
Thing is, you always add another voice to the creative conversation. That’s the best part of both photography and the holidays.
No way is best but your way.
- Photography 101: Shooting in Black and White (dailypost.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN OUR USUAL HUMAN PROPENSITY FOR USING PHOTOGRAPHY AS A LITERAL RECORDING MEDIUM, most of our pictures will require no explanation. They will be “about” something. They will look like an object or a person we have learned to expect. They will not be ambiguous.
The rest, however, will be mysteries…..big, uncertain, ill-defined, maddening, miraculous mysteries. Stemming either from their conception or their execution, they may not immediately tell anyone anything. They may ring no familiar bells. They may fail to resemble most of what has gone before. These shots are both our successes and failures, since they present a struggle for both our audiences and for ourselves. We desperately want to be understood, and so it follows that we also want our brainchildren to be understood as well. Understood…and embraced.
It cannot always be, and it should not always be.
No amount of explanatory captioning, “backstory” or rationalization can make clear what our images don’t. It sounds very ooky-spooky and pyramid- power to say it, but, chances are, if a picture worked for you, it will also work for someone else. Art is not science, and we can’t just replicate a set of coordinates and techniques and get a uniform result.
There is risk in making something wonderful….the risk of not managing to hit your mark. It isn’t fatal and it should not be feared. Artistic failure is the easiest of all failures to survive, albeit a painful kick in the ego. I’m not saying that there should never be captions or contextual remarks attached to any image. I’m saying that all the verbal gymnastics and alibis in the world won’t make a space ship out of a train wreck.
The above image is an example. If this picture does anything for you at all, believe me, my explanation of how it was created will not, repeat, not enhance your enjoyment of it one particle. Conversely, if what I tried is a swing and a miss, in your estimation, I will not be able to spin you a big enough tale to see magic where there is none. I like what I attempted in this picture, and I am surprisingly fond of what it almost became along the way. That said, I am perfectly fine with you shrugging your shoulders and moving on to the next item on the program.
Everything is not for everybody. So when someone sniffs around one of your photographs and asks (brace for it), “What’s that supposed to be?”, just smile.
And keep taking pictures.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS AN OLD STORY ABOUT AN IRISHMAN WHO FINDS AND RUBS A MAGIC LAMP. Upon emerging from said lamp, the genie tells the boyo that he can have three wishes. For his first, he asks for an everlasting pint, a beer glass that will endlessly refill every time he drains it, forever. “Try it out”, says the genie, whereupon the lad gulps down several draughts, each one replenished in an instant. “This is grand!” he shouts. “All right, now”, reminds the genie, “what about your other wishes?” “Oh, that’s easy”, says the Irishman, “just give me two more of these.”
High Dynamic Range, or HDR processing is a little like those two unused wishes. You can fall in love with the effect of using it without pausing to see if it makes sense to use it, or see what else is out there on the horizon.
HDR can be the photographic equivalent of a crack habit, especially when you first test-drive it. Rescuing information from shadows, accenting detail to ever-crisper levels, tweaking colors to Peter Max-imums…..it’s all pretty stunning, and, like the 98-pound weakling in the Charles Atlas ads, the drama is best seen in “before and after” comparisons. And then there follows The Great Period Of Overcompensation, that heady phase in which you turn everything you shoot into a psychedelic fever dream. It’s garish, sometimes cartoonish, but eventually you get to a point where you want to throttle back and just use HDR as a tool instead of a magic paint box. It can’t be a style all by itself, but it can amplify your own style, extend your reach. Ground Control To Major Tom….
This blog has always been a discussion of why we do things rather than a tutorial on how to do them. It’s the decisions that we make with technology that matter, more than the technology itself, so we talk about judgements, motivations, intentions. In that vein, I’ve updated the HDR gallery tab of the blog with all new images, in an attempt to chronicle where I am with this process today. I originally intended the galleries to do this….to be a visual track on what I thought important to try in a given period. We are,literally, different photographers every day we wake up, so it’s absurd to think that any technique, approach, or magic wish will work for us equally well forever. The patient still has needs, but he requires a periodic change in prescription.
So settle back with an endless pint and give us a look.
The pictures may not work for you, but, hey, if the beer’s cold, it’s not a total loss.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @Mpnormaleye.
- HDR Photography: craze or crazy? (homesandlandofmontreal.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE LIVE IN AN AGE IN WHICH MOST OF OUR LIVES ARE EXHAUSTIVELY OVER-DOCUMENTED. We are, compared to our recent ancestors, photographically bitmapped from cradle to grave with a constellation of snaps that practically draw an outline around us and everything we do.
Globally, we will take more photographs in two minutes today than the entire world took over the entire 19th century.
That said, it’s amazing how few photos taken of, or by, us really look deeply into our souls, or whatever it is that animates us, makes us truly alive. It’s not that there aren’t enough pictures of us being taken: it’s how inarticulate so many of them are.
But go back just a generation or two, and observe the contrast. Far fewer images of most lives. And, with their increasing rarity or loss, more and more value attached to each and every one of those images that survives. Grandfather is gone, leaving only a handful of curled, cracked, and browning snapshots to mark his passing. But how rich the impact of those remaining pictures. The thirst for more, for a greatest number of clues to who this person was!
How to increase or deepen his spirit without having him here?
Explore the things he left behind. The tools he touched. The places where he invested his spirit, his aura. The parts of the world that he deemed important.
And I say: if you love someone, and have to let them go, use your camera to sniff around the found objects of their lives. It may not conjure them up like a holograph of Obi-Wan, but it will focus your thoughts about them in away which is nearly, well, visual.
I fell in love with the worn little instrument case you see at the top of this page. It belonged to my wife’s father, a man whose life was cut short by illness, a life under-represented in photographs. He made his living with his wits and with his hands. The compass which was carried in this case was a tool of survival, something he used to make his living, to measure out his skill and art. It’s a treasure to have it around to look at, and it’s a privilege to be able to photograph its worn corners, its tattered grain, its rusted buttons. Time has allowed it to speak, louder than its owner ever can, and to act as his visual proxy.
I’ve explored this theme in past posts, because I feel so strongly about the expressive power of things as emblems of lives. Long before our every action could be captured in an endless Facebook page of banal smartphone snaps, images had to work a lot harder, and say more. I’m not saying you should spend the next six months of your life raiding your closets for Ultimate Truth. I am saying you might be walking past a chunk of that Truth every day, and that it might just be worth framing up.
And thinking about.
(let’s help each other find amazing images! Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)
by MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN SPEAKS LOUDER IN A SOFTER VOICE. Think about it. If you accept the idea of visual information as a sort of “sound”, then it’s easy to see why some images don’t make a direct connection with viewers. They are busy, overloaded with information, or, in this metaphor, noisy, loud. Cachophonous. Chaotic. Too many “sounds” competing for attention. In a visual image, “noise” can be anything that keeps anyone from hearing the “voice” of your image. To be seen more clearly, pictures need to go soft, in order to be heard louder.
That usually means simplifying the image. Shaping its tone, its framing, its central message. In photography, we all make the mistake of trying to show everything, and, in the process, creating an overdose of data that sends the viewer’s eye wandering all around the picture, trying to find something, anything, to focus on. We present a three-ring circus where just one would be more than adequate.
On a recent trip to an art studio in Paradise Valley, Arizona, I was lucky enough to be present when artisans were pouring molten bronze into decorative molds for all us green “touristas”. Capturing the scene “as is” was easy, as I had plenty of time to calculate exposure and lighting. As a result, I got a lot of “acceptable” pictures good enough for the average postcard, but their storytelling quality was only so-so, since they were almost too full of color, detail and people/props. In the moment, I merely recorded a group of people in a crowded shop doing a job. The tonal balance was “perfect” according to the how-to books, as if I had shot the images on full auto. In fact, though, I had shot on manual, as I always do, so where was my imprint or influence on the subject? The pictures weren’t done.
Back home, when my brain had time to go into editor mode, I realized that the glowing cup of metal was the only essential element in the pictures, and that muting the colors, darkening the detail and removing extra visual clutter was the only way that the center of the shot could really shine.
With that in mind, I deepened the shadowy areas, removed several extraneous onlookers and amped up the orange in the cup. Seems absurdly simple, but as a result, the image was now a unique event instead of a generic “men at work” photo. The picture had to use a softer voice to speak louder.
Great picture? Not yet.
But, hey, I’m still young.
Best thing about the creative process, unlike banking, building or brain surgery, is the luxury of do-overs. And doing over the do-overs, over.
- On the Nature + Purpose of Photography (statenislandstories.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THESE PAGES, IT WAS NEVER MY VISION TO MERELY POST PICTURES. Not, at least, without some kind of context. Just meeting a regular deadline with the “picture of the day” held as little interest for me as maintaining a diary, an oppressive regularity that I have resisted my entire life. For the most part, the images on THE NORMAL EYE are here to anchor my thoughts about what it feels like to be enticed, seduced, enthralled, and, yes, disappointed by photography, to caption the frames with some semblance of the creative process, at least as I had the poor power to see it at the time.Like all blogs, it is written on my own very personal terms. I am always thrilled to harvest reaction and comment, since, as Ike Turner once sang, “was my plan from the very began”. But the important thing is to get the thoughts right, or at least to use them as a guide to the shots. Thus, the mission is neither words nor pictures, but some kind of handshake symbiosis between the two.
However, since day one, I have reserved several gallery pages on which visual info is pretty much all there is, since I also believe that it is important to react to photographs on a purely visceral basis. If the blog is the main hall in the house, think of these as the rooms down the hall that you never thought to explore.
I have tried to give each gallery its own general feel, since there are different “themes” which motivate our taking of pictures, and I thought, for this post, it might be helpful to underscore those themes just enough to justify how they were organized. I have now also given them specific names instead of the A-B-C tags they had previously.
Here’s the new rundown:
Gallery A is now “HDR”, since I think that this process affords very specific benefits for reproducing the entire range of visible light in a way that, until recently, has been impracticable for many shooters. No tool is suitable for every kind of shooting situation, but HDR comes close to reproducing what the eye sees, and can enhance detail in fascinating ways. There is a lot controversy over its best use, so, like everywhere else on this blog, your opinions are invited.
The former B gallery is a collection of impulse shots. All of these images were taken in the moment, on a whim, with only instinct to guide me. No real formal prep went into the making of any of them, as they were the product of those instants when something just feels right, and you try to snag it before it vanishes. We’ll call these “SNAP JUDGEMENTS”.
And finally, the photos formerly known as Gallery “C” are now renamed “NATURAL STATE”, as these portraits are all shot using available light, captured without flash or the manipulation of light through reflectors, umbrellas, or other tools.
Let me state here that your participation in this forum was always the centerpiece of my doing it in the first place, and your ideas and suggestions have always inspired me to try to be worthy of the space I’m taking up. I also have enjoyed linking back to your individual sites and visions. It’s a great way to learn.
So please know that, when you click the “like” button at the bottom of these posts, or take the time to type a comment, it does help me see what works, as well as what needs to be done better. I don’t believe that art can grow in a vacuum, and I thank everyone for giving these pages shape and form.
And thanks for exploring all the rooms in my house.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES I LOSE MY WAY, CREATIVELY. Given that cameras are technical devices and not creative entities, we all do. We have been given, in today’s market, wonderful aids to seeing and interpreting what we consider noteworthy. Technological advances are surging so swiftly in the digital era that we are being given scads of pre-packaged effects that are baked into the brains of our cameras, ideally designed to help us calculate and fail less, succeed and create more. To that end, we are awash in not only genuinely beneficial shortcuts like programmable white balance and facial recognition, but “miniature”, sketch, selective desaturation, and, recently, in-camera HDR options as well. Something of a tipping point is occurring in all this, and maybe you feel it as strongly as I do; more and more of our output feels like the camera, the toys, the gimmicks are dictating what gets shot, and what it finally looks like.
Here’s the nugget in all this: I have been wrestling with HDR as both a useful enhancer and a seductive destroyer for about three years now. Be assured that I am no prig who sees the technique as unworthy of “pure” photography. Like the old masters of burning and dodging, multiple exposure, etc., I believe that, armed with a strong concept, you use whatever tool it takes to get the best result. And when it comes to rescuing details in darker patches, crisping up details in certain materials like brick and stone, and gently amplifying color intensity, HDR can be a marvelous tool. Where it becomes like crack is in coming to seem as if it is the single best gateway to a fully realized image. That is wrong, and I have more than a few gooey Elvis-on-black-velvet paintings that once had a chance to be decent pictures, before they were deep-fried in the conceptual Crisco of bad HDR. Full disclosure: I also have a few oh-wow HDR images which delivered the range of tone and detail that I honestly believe would have been beyond my reach with a conventional exposure. The challenge, as always, is in not using the same answer to every situation, and also to avoid using an atomic bomb to swat a fly.
Recently, I am looking at more pictures that are not, in essence, flawless, and asking, how much solution do I need here? How much do I want people to swoon over my processing prowess versus what I am trying to say? As a consequence, I find that images that I might have reflexively processed in HDR just a few weeks ago, are now agonized over a bit longer, with me often erring on the side of whatever “flaws” may be in the originals. Is there any crime in leaving in a bit more darkness here, a slight blowout in light there, if the overall result feels more organic, or dare I say, more human? Do we have to banish all the mystery in a shot in some blind devotion to uniformity or prettiness?
I know that it was the camera, and not me, that actually “took” the picture, but I have to keep reminding myself to invest as much of my own care and precision ahead of clicking the shutter, not merely relying on the super-toys of the age to breathe life into something, after the fact, that I, in the taking, could not do myself. I’m not swearing off of any one technique, but I always come back to the same central rule of the best kind of photography; do all your best creative work before the snap. Afterwards, all your best efforts are largely compensation, compromise, and clean-up.
It’s already a divine photographic truth that some of the best pictures of all time are flawed, imperfect, incomplete. That’s why you go back, Jack, and do it again.
The journey is as important as the destination, maybe more so.