PRECIOUS LITTLE THEFTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR BOTH ARTIST AND AUDIENCE, operates like all the other arts, in that it affords us entry into a million worlds beyond the narrow confines of our own. The camera is both reporter and thief, a kind of mechanical pack rat that comes back to home base bearing treasures from other people’s lives. Like poetry, painting, literature, and music, the art of making images is an act of purloining pieces of things that do not belong to us. And that’s a good thing?
The question mark at the end of that sentence is needful, as are further inquiries. Are the things we nick from the stores of other people’s experience thefts, or are they an innocent sampling of wonder, like a bunch of wildflowers carried home from the field? Obviously, such questions can only be settled one picture at the a time. Photographers have, indeed, hooked themselves, worm-like, onto the hearts of people who are both content and suffering, of those who deserve some kind of baseline privacy which the very existence of the camera has placed at risk.
In making pictures of children at play, I make no bones about the fact that I am, certainly, eavesdropping on their experience. It can’t be expressed any other way. I am using a machine to freeze slices of their joy in an effort to enhance my own. But it’s not a predatory activity per se: I have no criminal motive in stealing a fragment of their carefree game, which is both private and public property in a strange see-saw that photographers must always struggle to keep in balance. The photograph shown here, for example, is more benign, even respectful, than the work of a reporter, say, who, under deadline, must extract loss or grief from the aftermath of war or disaster to earn his daily bread. But is my invasion only a friendly one because I have told myself it is? This is all to be discussed further, and by “further”, I mean “endlessly”.
In other arts, the audience comes into contact with a variety of lives, and yet, in novels or movies, those lives are largely invented to illustrate the creator’s point of view. In a photograph, the subjects are actual people, and our parking ourselves near them for our enjoyment dictates different rules of engagement. Appropriating someone’s story makes you, as its next translator, responsible for its truth.
MYSTERIES SOLVED AND UNSOLVED
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY DISPARAGED as some kind of intrusion, the visual equivalent of picking someone’s pocket or peeping through their bedroom window. And while some shooters certainly invade, even steal, privacy from people, there are many more gentler practitioners, artists compelled by curiosity rather than predation. I think the difference between these two approaches shows in the work. At least I hope it does.
The photographic street scene is greatly altered in this Year Of The Great Hibernation. Making pictures of people is severely hampered when there are, literally, fewer full faces in view. Our choice to purposely avoid personal contact cuts that crop down yet again. And without faces, the street is only, well, the street. Faces provide photographers with that divine mix of solved and unsolved mystery. It is, after all, our inability to absolutely plumb the inner thoughts of others with our puny cameras that make our little acts of emotional eavesdropping so addictive.
In recent months, I have been giving myself a refresher course on what it is about street work that “works” for me. I keep coming back to images very similar to the one you see here, the instinctual capture of a moment on a pier in Ventura, California some three years ago. Something about the exchange between the woman and the two males continues to fascinate me. Maybe it’s because the woman, whose face is the only one of the three in clear view, is in such a position of dominance. She clearly seems to be in charge of whether the conversation continues, and on whose terms. She looks, at once, impatient, engaged, weary, cold, contemptuous, even maternal. I can’t nail her down, and that’s intriguing. The males are almost certainly boys, or are at least servile in the way that only boys can be in the presence of an adult woman. Either way, their energy is greatly diminished in comparison to hers. The picture does, then, what street work does best…at least for me, in that it starts conversation, but cannot end it.
Of course, some street photography is not “about” anything but itself, that is, a random momentary arrangement of props and shapes. And it would be a mistake to label such images as any less or more “meaningful” just because no clear intent is implied in them. A sunset is, for some, symbolic of many things, but for others, it’s just a picture of a sunset. As to whether it’s somehow wrong to spy on the feelings or interactions of passersby with the intent of trapping them inside a box, I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Me, I’m thinking about the grand parade of lives passing before me, which I regard as the grandest feast since the invention of Hot Pockets…
THE GUESSING GAME
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS, AT BEST, a frustratingly imprecise method of, well, eavesdropping. In such unplanned documentary images, the photographer is cast as a kind of sneak-thief, bent upon prying into the unguarded moments of an unsuspecting quarry. But unlike the practice of listening at the keyhole, of course, unposed pix provide no sound, no dialogue to accompany the streetie’s stolen views, and so the resulting pictures often conceal as much as they reveal about What Is Going On Here. We see, but we don’t discern. At least, not solely on what is shown.
Of course, that is the delicious element of the process of street. We supply the missing pieces of the puzzle, assigning our own “meaning” to what we think we have seen. Line up a handful of viewers to interpret a photographed interaction between people and note the incredible variety of “answers” or “solutions” to the image. Part of the allure of photography is that we think as much about what a photo doesn’t show as what it does. In some ways, it’s like the relationship moviegoers had with silent film. Certainly the title cards provided the essential story points or pivotal bits of dialogue, but we also had our minds to conjure what those longing glances, those missing voices, those unseen details were really all about. And so, even in an art form in which we prize the miracle of preserving moments unmoored from time, we agree, along with our audiences, that these moments are incomplete, that, in fact, the finishing of them, in our eyes, is part of the wonder, part of the art.
And so perhaps the best street photographs are special not so much for what they show, but for how successfully they spark that urge within us to know more. Our speculations and guesses, are, in the absence of important information, as valid or “true” as anyone else’s take on the thing. That again demonstrates that photography is a creative process for both taker and viewer. It’s a cooperative enterprise, a divine guessing game with no final resolution: a circle.
THE MANDATORY MASK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth —The Undisputed Truth
One can smile and smile, and yet be a villain…..William Shakespeare
THE GREAT ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, writing in her wonderful treatise on technique, At Work, confesses that she never asks her subjects to smile, leaving their most natural expression to emerge (or even remain hidden) as they choose. I love this idea, since I believe that smiles have forever been the mandatory mask we reflexively profer to the camera in nearly every setting, to the detriment, occasionally, of trustworthiness in our pictures. We smile at birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, weddings, perhaps occasionally even at funerals. We gamely grin our way through every occasion that calls for a photographic record, freezing our faces into rictuses amid toothy recitations of the word “Cheeeeeese“, as if any other response to a lens is incomplete, or, worse, rude. Ironically, when the grimace becomes too strained, we may even urge the shooter to “hurry up and take the picture”, lest our face freeze that way. Nevertheless, smiles are the social default, the unspoken civil grammar of portraiture.
And yet, consider how many astounding, revelatory portraits are virtually smile-less, or how we can sometimes view an image with outright suspicion if the smiles within it strike us as forced or contrived. More importantly, we might ask ourselves, what the hell is everyone so happy about? The urge to smile, darn you, smile in photographs is certainly a deeply rooted one. Perhaps the first person to beam for the camera was also the first person who didn’t have to pose stock-still for a full minute just to be recorded by the slow media of the 1800’s, a rod jacked up his back to keep his head immobilized. Who knows? But whatever the original motivation was to “look pleasant” (as early shooters often instructed), it stuck, and is now, in the age of the social-media-fed fueled selfie, practically an article of faith. We’re all so damned overjoyed to be here. Just take the picture, willya?
Have we all become slaves to the mandatory mask? Dare we have our picture taken when it’s not “a beautiful day in the neighborhood”? Are we doomed to endlessly emulate Alfred E. Neuman’s “what, me worry?” smirk? Can’t there be more to a portrait than just a simulation of jollity? Certainly we need not consistently present ourselves as dour grumps before the camera, but there must be some kind of happy (content? beneficient? neutral?) medium. Is the boy in the shot seen here any less “real” or interesting just because he forgot to say the “c” word? Or did we happen upon something closer to his real self that the mandatory mask might have concealed?
Every portrait is different, since every person’s face is a different and unique set of stories. Might it not take more than a mere smile to get all those stories told in an authentic way? Without a doubt, happiness, real happiness, is an experience that every photographer aspires to capture. But, emotionally, happiness is not the only arrow in the shooter’s quiver. If we’re really about truth-telling in our pictures, we have to get comfortable when something other than the mask shows up in the final product.
I am a member of the blank generation. – Richard Hell
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY HAS LARGELY BUILT ITS TRADITIONS on the truths and tales of the human face. The art of illustrating urban narratives on the fly relies chiefly on how those stories register on those faces. It’s a visual drama that no shooter can resist.
But the story of how, for good or ill, modern cities affect people….the way they process, channel, contain or empower them as moving props……that kind of story can be told without clear or readable facial features. This doesn’t mean that “humanity” doesn’t matter in these pictures: it means that some images are designed to show how it’s impacted that humanity en masse rather than one person at a time.
There is one other singular thing that happens when a photograph renders a face as a blank canvas. It means that, for the interpretive viewer, that face can now contain whatever he/she wants it to. In such pictures, both photographer and audience are in a kind of coded conversation about what the image “says”.
To illustrate this point: the above photo may or may not be about anything more dramatic than three men in the act of riding an escalator, headed for lunch/a meeting/the parking lot. However, since their features are shrouded in shadow and presented in a softer focus, I can intend a message of my own devise, and outside eyes can supply subplots that either complement or derail that narrative. That’s the kind of chat that keeps an art throbbing along. It allows everybody on either side of a photograph a chance to paint portraits based on their own eye.
BIG STORIES, LITTLE STORIES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT ISN’T THE EASIEST THING, upstaging one of the world’s key postcard views. And yet, in final analysis, people should rank higher, in the photographer’s eye, than the things people build for their use. So it should come as no surprise that, to the patient eye, human-sized scene stealers abound everywhere, big setting or small.
This view of the southern side of the Brooklyn Bridge certainly needs no additional context, and yet, the nearby Pier 17 promenade, repaired and re-imagined as all-new public space near the Fulton Street market region in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (and shown here), provides a daily flood of people-watching opportunity. Indeed, almost any other framing along the deck at the moment this shot was taken would show just how much company the ladies seen here actually had on this particular Saturday evening. The word throng definitely applied, with just about any other composition revealing hundreds of singles, couples, and families crowding the Pier’s restaurants, bars, kiosks, tour boats and viewing rails……however, we have decided, for the moment, to concentrate on these two ladies, and the bond of friendship that is more than enough story to power a photograph.
What you can’t hear, and they clearly could, is the incredible music beat being pumped throughout the pier. What you can certainly see is that you don’t have to be standing, or even using your entire body, to dance…to feel….to be one with that beat. In truth, given that the woman at left is sporting a pair of crutches, “dancing” becomes the living embodiment of the motto work what you got, with mere hand claps getting the job done. As for the lady in purple, a single, upraised hand and a bowed head testify, yes, I’m feelin‘ it. They are both sitting, but they are in no way sedentary. It’s on.
And while all this is going on, just like that, the Great Bridge has dropped to second billing. A backdrop. Atmosphere. Which is something that can happen anywhere, but especially here. For as they know all too well on Broadway, on any given night, the understudy can take stage instead of the star.
And steal the show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NOWHERE ELSE IN PHOTOGRAPHY does the conflict between mere recording and deliberate interpretation manifest itself more than in the portrait. We love the spontaneity of the unposed snap, with its potential for capturing the innocent, unguarded moment. However, snaps are a random thing, and by nature undisciplined, raw. The control of the studio, with its calculated exposure and modulated light, has its allure as well. It’s not like we want it both ways: no, we definitely want it both ways.
Hence the emergence of the Plandid.
Recent trends on social media have given rise to a new portrait hybrid called the planned candid, or “plandid”, formalized shots that are designed to create the illusion of a spontaneous snap. In fact, people have been faking “happy accidents” like these for as long as there’ve been cameras. What distinguishes plandids from earlier versions of faked reality, however, is that most of them are self-portraits and the majority of them are created primarily on mobiles.
In some ways this was inevitable. Everyone, but everyone has already done the trombone-arm, face-only selfie, the wide-screen lenses on our phone cameras distorting our heads into ovoids and ballooning our noses into sausages. Enter the plandid, which feeds into two dearly held articles of human faith; one, nothing is more worth pointing a camera at than us; and two, the only person who gets us well enough to turn us into something even more fascinating is….wait for it……us.
And thus arrives the age of Selfie 2.0, in which we employ tripods and timers and pull the typical headshot back, to reveal entire bodies, props, and atmosphere. However, doing that much advance prep is way too much like conventional photography, and thus anathema to the hipster within, so the trick becomes faking the look of having “just stumbled upon” a great picture. Huh?
Of course, I’m exactly like the school dietitian who guiltily sneaks fries on the side, because of course I have absolutely hopped into this narcissistic playpen, doing my own plandids with a DSLR for that extra degree of control. Add my own patented, wistful away-from-the-camera look and you get the perfect moment in which I’m caught by some discerning, lucky amateur (me) in a stolen moment of quiet (fake) contemplation.
Diane Arbus once called a photograph a lie that tells you the truth. But there’s something to be said about just flat-out lying, just for fun.
OTHER KINDS OF FACES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A SON, I am extremely aware that my parents are in the final innings of their particular ballgame, a journey they began nearly sixty-seven years ago and a pairing that has defined their lives along with those of countless others. And, as a photographer, I have come to realize that every phase of Mother and Dad’s time together has produced its own unique visual treasures and challenges.
The images that are made of them these days….congratulatory parties, miraculous birthdays, mythic anniversaries….are repeats of similar occasions spanning decades, even as they are also emotional re-castings of old roles. Such pictures are both records of what has been and chronicles of what remains. For both Mother and Dad, steps do indeed come slower these days, but memories still move at light speed. Physical age and emotional wisdom conduct an ongoing tug-of-war across all their days. Making photographs of this process is tricky.
I know that, when my camera is too visibly present, it creates discomfort for them. For a variety of reasons that may include merely being over it all, they are not keen on the idea of “sitting for portraits”. I can best respect this by seizing other kinds of moments, in other kinds of ways.
Recently, I caught a very lucky break, when they both went to their kitchen window to look over their beloved back yard, the acre lot resplendent with the tree plantings, deck buildings, and family events they’ve staged in it over more than a third of a century. Certainly, I don’t always instantly comprehend the value of a shot in the moment, but this one was obvious enough for even me.
There, in the moment, was the entire marriage in miniature: two people seeking, dreaming, discovering in tandem. No shy faces or self-conscious “say cheese” moments were needed to photograph their twinned hopes, their linked optimism. You can’t see their features, but these two people are unmistakably my parents.
Faces are remarkable documents, but they aren’t the only ones available to a photographer. That’s because there are a million tiny ways for humans to visually register emotional truth, a universe full of little grace moves that, singly or collectively, convey identity. My parents, like everyone’s, are eloquent, even when they do not stare into the camera to make their testimony.
THE WHATS OF WHOS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RENDERING THE HUMAN IN THE FULL CONTEXT OF THE WORLD is, for me, the one true way to produce a photographic portrait. Sitting someone in a nice room with flattering light and a serene atmosphere might be a formalized way to record a person’s features……but….
Yeah, that’s always the problem with pictures, innit? That insistent but. The part left unspoken. The case left unmade. The squirmy essence of personhood that stubbornly resists imprisonment in our little boxes. It’s quite revealing that, in trying to compliment someone on a portrait, we used to actually say, “I really think you’ve captured him”, as if “he” were a lightning bug in a jar. But such statements miss the very point of portraiture, even photography itself.
Photographs of people can’t be “one and done”, or “official”, or, God help us, “the last word”, any more than sunsets can. We aren’t making a document of a static thing, only serving up a time-slice of something that, by virtue of being in the world, is in constant flux.
To illustrate, the shot you see above is, for me, every bit as much a “portrait” of my wife (the one on the right) as any organized or traditional rendering of her face, because it shows her in the context of a world she inhabits: a world defined by nature, friendships, and animals. I don’t need her face to tell a story about her.
What people do is as telling as what they look like, and so it has to enter into any image-making about who they are.
WITNESS IT, DON’T WORK IT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN AND ANIMALS OPERATE IN WORLDS DIFFERENT ENOUGH FROM OUR OWN that they merit a special viewpoint when being photographed. Composing an image designed to enter into their special realities should facilitate that process, giving the viewer the idea that he has gained entry to their realms. The camera’s eye needs to seem to inhabit their actual living space.
I’ve felt for a long time that the formal K-Mart studio method of making a child’s portrait is stiflingly inadequate for plumbing that young person’s real animating spirit. And as for pets, the sheer daily deluge of animal snaps posted globally are served just as badly from over-formalizing or staging. Intimate insight into the self can’t be achieved by generic backdrops, tired props or balanced flash alone. If anything, such systems push the real child further away from view, leaving only a neutral facade in place of the true human. Personality locks eyes with the lens in unguarded, not choreographed, moments.
I’m not saying that no preparation should go into animal or child pictures. I am suggesting that a “snapshot mentality”, backed by lots of shooting experience, can yield results that are more organic, natural and spontaneous. Shoot in a moment but apply what you have learned over a lifetime.
Even the simple practice of shooting on your subject’s level, rather than shooting like a grownup, i.e., downhill toward your subject, can create a connection between your line of sight and theirs. If your kids and kitties are on the floor, go there. Another simple way to create an intimate feel is to have the child or pet dominate the frame. If there is some other feature of the room, from furniture to other people, that does not rivet your audience’s attention to the main subject, cut it out. Many, many portraits fail by simply being too busy.
And, finally, catch your dog, cat, boy or girl doing something he’s chosen to do. Don’t assign him to play with a toy, or ask him to stand here, here, or here. Wait like a professional, then shoot fast like a snapshotter. The more invisible you become, the less distraction you provide. Looking at a child or pet enthralled by something is a lot more interesting than watching him watch you. If you do happen to lock eyes during the process, as in the case of the rather suspicious house cat seen above, steal that moment gladly, but don’t try to direct it.
Don’t draw your portrait subjects into your energy. Eavesdrop on theirs. The pictures will flow a lot more naturally, and you won’t have to work half as hard.
ALONE IN A CROWD
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHOICE OF TIME, PLACE AND APPROACH IN THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT is as individual as the human face itself. No two photographers have quite the same process for trying to capture the essence of personality with a camera. Moreover, having chosen a preferred path to making these most personal of images, we often are tempted to stray off of it. As with anything else in the art of creating photos, nothing, from formal studio settings to street candids, works all the time.
Just as one example, the key to portraits, for me, is to always be as fully mindful, in the moment, of the changes that a face can display within the space of a few seconds. You seem to be presented, from start to finish, with a different person altogether…..some other person that showed up, uninvited, to the shoot you’re doing for..someone else. Thus, it’s never a surprise to me when a subject views his/her image from a session, and immediately remarks, “that doesn’t even look like me”, which is, for them, quite correct. It’s as if their face showed something, just for a second, that they don’t recognize as their “official” face. And the photographer sees all these strangers blur by, like the shuffle of a deck of cards.
In photographing my wife Marian, I battle against her native resistance to having her face recorded, well, at all. It’s a rather invasive procedure for her, and, since the finest qualities of her face are revealed when she’s least self-conscious. That rules out studio settings, since all her “danger, Will Robinson” triggers will go off simultaneously the more formalized the situation becomes. I have to use that momentary mindfulness to sense when her face is ready….that is, when she is least aware of having her picture taken. That may mean that many other people are around her, since interaction is relaxing and distracting for her. In the above image, I got particularly lucky, since several factors converged in a moment that I could not have anticipated.
Listening to a history guide on the streets of Boston, Marian’s face set into a wonderful mix of serenity, focus, studiousness. Her finest qualities seem all to have coalesced in a single moment. Even better, although she is in a crowd, the arrangement of people surrounding her kept all other faces either out of focal register or partially hidden, rendering them less readable as full people. That gave the composition a center, as hers was the only complete face in view. Click and done.
Portraits are certainly about anticipation and preparation. But they also have to be about the reactivity of the photographer. And with something as mutative, and mysterious, as the human face, flexibility is a far more valuable tool than any lens or light in your kit bag.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIRLY EASY TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAMERA if you are trying to visually depict a vibe of peace and quiet. Landscapes often project their serenity onto images with little translation loss, and you can extract that feeling from just about any mountain or pond. For the street photographer, however, mining the most in terms of human stories is more particularly about locations, and not all of them are created equal.
Street work provides the most fodder for storytelling images in places where dramatically concentrated interactions occur between people. One hundred years ago, it might have been the risk and ravage of Ellis Island. On any given sports Sunday, the opposing dreams that surround the local team’s home stadium might provide a rich locale. But whatever the site, social contention, or at least the possibility of it, generates a special energy that feeds the camera.
In New York City, the stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the eastern side of the Empire State Building is one such rich petri dish, as the street-savvy natives and the greener-than-grass tourists collide in endless negotiation. Joe Visitor needs a postcard, a tee-shirt, a coffee mug, or a discounted pass to the ESB observation deck, and Joe Hometown is there to move the goods. Terms are hashed over. Information slithers in and out a dozen languages, commingling with the verbal jazz of Manhattan-speak. Deals are both struck and walked away from. And as a result, stories flow quickly past nearly every part of the street in regular tidal surges. You just pick a spot and the pictures literally come to you.
In these images, two very different tales unfold in nearly an identical part of the block. In the first, bike rickshaw drivers negotiate a tourist fare. How long, how far, how much? In the second, two regulars demonstrate that, in New York, there is always the waiting. For the light. For parking. For someone to clear away, clear out or show up. But always, the waiting. These are both little stories, but the street they occur on is a stage that is set, struck and re-set constantly as the day unfolds. A hundred one-act plays a day circle around those who want and those who can provide.
Manhattan is always a place of great comings and goings, and here, in front of the most iconic skyscraper on earth, those who haven’t seen anything do business with those who’ve seen it all. Street photography is about opportunity and location. Some days give you one or the other. Here, in the city that never sleeps, both are as plentiful as taxicabs.
(JUST BEFORE) THE SHOW MUST GO ON
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALMOST WITHIN MINUTES OF THE INVENTION OF THE CAMERA, we humans countered by inventing the camera face.
You have one. I have one. It’s the layer, the mask, the official story, the press release, the prepared consumer product. And while we often associate the making of a photograph with the creation of a document, a frozen slice of actual reality, that has never really been true, especially when it comes to capturing the raw essence of our fellow homo sapiens. It’s not that we don’t occasionally manage to glimpse the real person within: it’s that such glimpses are anything but easy.
And if our regular life is something of a performance, at least where a camera’s concerned, what of the acknowledged manipulation of an “official” performance….a play, a concert, a naked poetry slam? In such cases, the amount of artifice presented to the camera is amped up even more, so that the actual show may reveal nearly nothing of the person staging it. Total opacity.
It’s enough to make a photographer sneak backstage, minutes before the lights go down and the curtain goes up.
And that’s the kind of performance image I look for. The jangled nerves. The last-minute tunings and scales. The features that betray the anguish of going out there and putting your whole self on approval before strangers. In effect, the story that plays out on faces despite the prep, beyond the skill, behind the mask.
As seen here, the girl hurrying to the stage for her string solo is trustworthy. She’s nervous, a little embarrassed at being late, desperate to hold, onto her music, literally by the skin of her teeth. Above, the string of young people at an amateur fashion show are busier being kids than being pros. Their take on modeling is not cold or detached, although in seconds, out on the catwalk, they will affect that “look”. But now, in this moment, they are friends, co-conspirators, partners in a commonly weird process. They relax. They laugh.
In both cases, these are people. Without the polish, minus the artifice, their striving visible, if just for a second, as our own.
And that’s when the magic happens.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
I SEE MANY, MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE THESE DAYS. Sometimes on
the streets of my home city. More occasionally on the streets of other towns. And every single day, without fail, on every photo upload site in the world. Many of the uploaders think this is “street photography”.
Many of the uploaders need to think again. Hard.
The mere freezing in a frame of someone whose lousy luck or bad choices have placed him on the street is not, of and by itself, some kind of visual eloquence. Not that it can’t be, if some kind of story, or context, or statement accompanies the image of a person driven to desperation. But not the careless and heedless snaps that are, I will say, stolen, at people’s expense, every day, then touted as art of some kind. The difference, as always, is in the eye of the photographer.
Many millions of people have been “captured” in photographs with no more revelatory power than a fire hydrant or a tree, and just catching a person unawares with your camera is no guarantee that we will understand him, learn what landed him here, care about his outcome. That’s on you as a photographer.
If all you did was wait until someone was fittingly juxaposed with a row of garbage cans, a grimy brick wall, or an abandoned slum, then lazily clicked, you have contributed nothing to the discussion. Your life, your empathy, your sense of loss or justice….all must interact with your shutter finger, or you have merely committed an act of exploitation. Oh, look at the poor man. Aren’t I a discerning and sensitive artist for alerting humanity to this dire issue?
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Photographs are conversations. If you don’t hold up your end of it, don’t expect the world to pick up the slack. If you care, then make sure we care. After all, you’ve appropriated a human being’s image for your own glory. Make sure he gave that up for something.
YOU’RE GREAT, NOW MOVE, WILLYA?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONGS FROM THE ’40’s, especially when it emanates from the ruby lips of a smoking blonde in a Jessica Rabbit-type evening gown, conveys its entire message in its title: Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out! The hilarious lyrics speak of a woman who acknowledges that, yeah, you’re an okay guy, but don’t get needy. No strings on me, baby. I’ll call you when I want you, doll. Until then, be a pal and take a powder.
I sometimes think of that song when looking for street images. Yes, I’m aware that the entire sweep of human drama is out there, just ripe for the picking. The highs. The lows. Thrill of victory and agony of de feet. But. I always feel as if I’m cheating the world out of all that emotional sturm und drang if I want to make images without, you know, all them people. It’s not that I’m anti-social. It’s just that compelling stuff is happening out there that occasionally only gets compromised or cluttered with humans in the frame.
Scott Kelby, the world’s biggest-selling author of photographic tutorials, spends about a dozen pages in his recent book Photo Recipes showing how to optimize travel photos by either composing around visitors or just waiting until they go away. I don’t know Scott, but his author pic always looks sunny and welcoming, as if he really loves his fellow man. And if he feels it’s cool to occasionally go far from the madding crowd, who am I to argue? There are also dozens of web how-to’s on how to, well, clean up the streets in your favorite neighborhood. All of these people are also, I am sure, decent and loving individuals.
There is some rationality to all this, apart from my basic Scrooginess. Photographically, some absolutes of abstraction or pure design just achieve their objective without using people as props. Another thing to consider is that people establish the scale of things. If you don’t want that scale, or if showing it limits the power of the image, then why have a guy strolling past the main point of interest just to make the picture “human” or, God help us, “approachable”?
Faces can create amazing stories, imparting the marvelous process of being human to complete scenes in unforgettable ways. And, sometimes, a guy walking through your shot is just a guy walking through your shot. Appreciate him. Accommodate him. And always greet him warmly:
Told ya I love ya. Now get out.
TELLING THE TRUTH
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PICK ANY PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA YOU LIKE, and most of the available wisdom (or literature) will concentrate on honoring some arbitrary list of rules for “successful” pictures. On balance, however, relatively few tutorials mention the needful option of breaking said rules, of making a picture without strict adherence to whatever commandments the photo gods have handed down from the mountain. It’s my contention that an art form defined narrowly by mere obedience is bucking for obsolescence.
It’d be one thing if minding your manners and coloring inside the lines guaranteed amazing images. But it doesn’t, any more than the flawless use of grammar guarantees that you’ll churn out the great American novel. Photography was created by rebels and outlaws, not academics and accountants. Hew too close to the golden rules of focus, exposure, composition or subject, and you may inadvertently gut the medium of its real power, the power to capture and communicate some kind of visual verity.
A photograph is a story, and when it’s told honestly, all the technical niceties of technique take a back seat to that story’s raw impact. The above shot is a great example of this, although the masters of pure form could take points off of it for one technical reason or another. My niece snapped this marvelous image of her three young sons, and it knocked me over to the point that I asked her permission to make it the centerpiece of this article. Here, in an instant, she has managed to seize what we all chase: joy, love, simplicity, and yes, truth. Her boys’ faces retain all the explosive energy of youth as they share something only the three of them understand, but which they also share with anyone who has ever been a boy. This image happens at the speed of life.
I’ve seen many a marvelous camera produce mundane pictures, and I’ve seen five-dollar cardboard FunSavers bring home shots that remind us all of why we love to do this. Some images are great because we obeyed all the laws. Some are great because we threw the rule book out the window for a moment and just concentrated on telling the truth.
You couldn’t make this picture more real with a thousand Leicas. And what else are we really trying to do?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT A PARTY, THERE ARE DISTINCT ADVANTAGES TO NOT BEING AN “OFFICIAL” PHOTOGRAPHER. You could probably catalogue many of them yourself with no strain. Chief among the perks of being an amateur (can we get a better word for this?) is that you are the captain of your own fate. You shoot what you want, when you want. Your arrival on the scene is not telegraphed by stacks of accompanying cases, light fixtures, connecting cords or other spontaneity killers that are essential to someone who has been “assigned” to an event. Your very unimportance is your license to fly, your ticket to liberation. Termed honestly (if unkindly), your work just doesn’t matter to anyone else, and so it can mean everything to you. Yay.
One of the supreme kicks I derive from going to events with my wife is that I can make her forget I’m there. I mean, as a guy with a camera. She has the gift of being able to submerge completely into the social dynamics of wherever she is, so she is not thinking about when I may elect to sneak up and snap her. Believe me, when you live with a beautiful woman who also hates to have her picture taken, this is like hitting the trifecta at Del Mar. At 20 to 1.
Free from the constraints of being “on the job”, I enjoy a kind of invisibility at parties, since I use the fastest lenses I can and no flash, ever, ever, ever. I do not call attention to myself. I do not exhort people to smile or arrange them next to people that they may or may not be able to stand. The word “cheese” never leaves my lips. I take what the moment gives me, as that is often richer than anything I might concoct, anyway. Working with a DSLR is a little more conspicuous than the magical invisibility of a phone camera, which people totally ignore, but if I am cagey, I can work with an “official” camera and not be perceived as a threat. Again, with a woman who (a) looks great and (b) doesn’t like how she looks in pictures, this is nirvana.
Candid photography is all about the stealth. It’s not about warning or prepping people that, attention K-Mart shoppers, you’re about to have your picture took. The more you insert yourself into the process (look over here! big smiiiiile!) the more you interrupt the natural rhythm that you set out to capture. So stop working against yourself. Be a happy sneak thief. Like me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CONSISTS MOSTLY OF SHOWING PEOPLE in the full context of their regular worlds.
In terms of portraits or candids, it’s usually sufficient to showcase those we know in controlled environments….family gatherings, special occasions, a studio setting. However, to reveal anything about the millions of strangers we encounter over a lifetime, we only have context to show who they are and what they do. To say something about these fascinating unknowns, we truly need the “props” that define their lives.
I never thought it was that profound to just snap a candid of someone walking down the street. Walking to where? To do what? To meet whom? Granted, a person composed as part of an overall street scene can be a great compositional elements all by him/herself, but to answer the question, who is this person? requires a setting that fixes him in time, in a role or a task. Thus pictures of people doing something, i.e., being in their private universe of tools, objects, and habits…now that can make for an interesting study.
We now have successful reality TV shows like Somebody’s Gotta Do It which focus on just what it’s like to perform other people’s jobs, the jobs we seldom contemplate or tend to take for granted. It satisfies a human curiosity we all share about what else, besides ourselves, is out there. Often we try to gain the answer by sending probes to the other side of the galaxy, but, really, there’s plenty to explore just blocks from wherever we live. Thing is, the people we show make sense only in terms of the accumulations of their lives…the objects and equipment that fill up their hour and frame them in our compositions.
The legendary Lewis Hine made the ironwalkers of Manhattan immortal, depicting them in the work of creating the city’s great skyscrapers. Others froze workers and craftsmen of every kind in the performance of their daily routines. Portraits are often more than faces, and showing people in context is the real soul of street photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OKAY, I JUST REALIZED HOW GROSSLY MISLEADING THE TITLE OF THIS POST COULD SEEM, but, trust me, I never meant it the way it sounds. I was just struggling to find a phrase for the kind of photograph in which a person is as private as possible while on full display to the world at large. There are behaviors that are intensely personal and astonishingly public at the same time, and such events in a human being’s life are rife, for the photographer, with a very singular kind of drama.
We like to think of ourselves as sufficiently camouflaged behind the carefully crafted mask that we present for the public’s consumption, all the better to preserve our sense of privacy. But there are always cracks in the mask, fleeting signals at the raw life underneath. Learning to detect those cracks is the talent of the street photographer, whose eye is always trained beyond the obvious.
Mourning, Joy, Discovery…all these things provide a teeter-totter balance between public display and private truth. The primal basics of life bring that juggling act into view, and, as a photographer, I am often surprised how much of them is in evidence in the simple act of nourishing ourselves. Dining would seem, on the surface, to be all about simple survival. Eating to live, and all that. But meals are laden with ritual and habit, the most hard-wired parts of one’s personality. Food gathers people for so much more than mere sustenance. It is memory, community, religion, friendship, negotiation, reassurance, replenishment. It is a symbol for life (and its passing), a trigger for shared experience, a talisman, a consecration.
Case in point: the man and woman in the above image were seen in a Los Angeles restaurant late on a Saturday night. Their relationship would seem to be that of mother and son, but it could be grandmother and nephew, son-in-law and mother-in-law, or a dozen other arrangements. A sharp contrast is provided by their comparative ages and physicality. One sits upright, while the other sits as well as she can. There is no eye contact….but does that necessarily mean that they do not want to see each other? There is no conversation. Has everything already been said? Are they grateful to still be there for each other after all these years, or is this the fulfillment of an obligation, a visitation occasioned by guilt?
Eating is a microcosmic examination of everything that it means to be human. So much for a single photographic frame to try to capture. So many ways of looking into the publicness of privacy.
STREETER THAN THOU
When people are mere compositional components in a scene, is that still “street photography”?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE JOKES ABOUT HOW HUMANS END TO OVER-THINK THINGS involves a farmer standing by the side of the road with a herd of cattle, who is greeted by a passing urban tourist. “Excuse me”, says the visitor, “are those Herefords or Guernseys?” “Gee”, replies the farmer, “I just call ’em ‘moo-cows’!”
Similarily, I sometimes think that the weighted term street photography is more distinction than difference. City, country, street, pasture…hey, it’s all just pictures, right? Yes, I know….”street” is supposed to denote some kind of commentary, an interpretive statement on the state of humanity, an analysis on How We Got Here. Social sciences stuff. Street work is by nature a kind of preachment, born as it was out of journalism and artists like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who used images to chronicle the city’s ills and point toward solutions. For these geniuses and so many that followed, those street scenes rested fundamentally on people.
And by people, we mean discernible faces, unposed portraits that seared our souls and pricked our consciences. Street photography came to focus almost solely on the stories within those faces: their joy, their agony, their buoyant or busted dreams. In my own work, however, I am also drawn to street scenes where people are not front and center, but blended into the overall mix of elements, props, if you like, in an overall composition, like streetlamps, cars or buildings. There can be strong commentary in images that don’t “star” people but rather “feature” them. Walker Evans, one of the premiere shooters working for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, and creator of many classic depictions of the Great Depression, remarked that folks, as such, were not his aim when it came to street shots. “I’m not interested in people in the portrait sense, in the individual sense”, he said in 1971. “I’m interested in people as part of the pictures….as themselves, but anonymous.”
There is always a strong strain of competition among photographers, and street photography can become a wrestling match about who is telling the most truth, drilling down to the greatest revelation….a kind of “streeter than thou” mentality. However, just because something is raw and real doesn’t make it interesting, or else we could all just shoot the inside of garbage cans all day and be done with it. Compelling is compelling and boring is boring and if you know how to make a picture that grabs the eye better than the next guy, then subject matter, even motivation, doesn’t matter a damn. The picture is all. The picture will always be all. Everything else is noise.
January 7, 2017 | Categories: Americana, Commentary, Composition, Conception | Tags: Candids, documentary photography, Street Photography, Unposed | 3 Comments