By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DAYS, MAKING PICTURES IS A LABOR OF LOVE.
On a few days, however, it’s just….labor.
Just as it’s harder, on occasion, to manage a radiant smile for everyone you meet, there are days when photography can, for a short while, become a chore. Homework. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but, as I experience it, making pictures is a deliberate mutiny against the forces of despair. And while despair itself seems never to weaken or abate, my own armor against it can occasionally buckle or crack. That’s when pointing a camera at anything can seem, just for a time, to be a worthless exercise, something too frivolous to be of value in a world that seems bent on ugliness.
Thankfully, I eventually recall that making pictures, at least for me (standard disclaimer), is an act of faith. Faith that the world will continue. Faith that there are things within it that ought to be praised, sung, celebrated. In returning to the role of photographer, I also return to a new sense of what kind of photographer I am, and must generally be. I can’t fixate on the horrible, although sometimes my pictures will show traces of it. I can’t marinate in misery, or use my images to do so. I have to seek beauty, and not just the cute-kitty or pretty-flower varieties. It’s a careful balance. My work is biased toward the affirmation of things, and yet I do acknowledge that some things and some people in life are, simply, no damned good. But beauty isn’t a denial of ugliness. It’s an answer to it. An alternative. And on different days there will be different ways to fight that fight.
Photography came into my life as a kind of magic trick, as something so amazing on its face that I felt drawn to learn something about how the trick was done. Having passed that purely technical point, I now see it as perhaps the most important tool available to me in trying to craft a world I long for, as important in its way as my writing or music or graphic work has always been. It gives me a distinct voice. Other times it just gives me an extra eye, or opens the two I already possess. And while there will always be times when we all think the most intelligent response to life is to shut all the doors and windows, we will, eventually, recall that making pictures is about opening those things back up…..and that a house full of light is one hell of a lot easier to live in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO TWO ARTISTS view the human condition of solitude in quite the same way. In photography, there are scores of shades between alone and lonely, between the peace of private reflection and the terror of banishment, shades which define their images as everything from comforting to terrifying. Thoreau hangs out solo in the woods and finds fulfillment. Hansel and Gretel, stranded in the forest, feel only dread.
The argument might be made that modern society at large fears solitude, that there is nothing more horrific than being alone left with one’s self. And, if that is your viewpoint, then that will eventually be reflected in how you depict people in isolation. Conversely, if you see “being apart” as an opportunity for self-discovery, then your photographs will show that, as well. You can’t “sit out” commenting on a fundamental part of the human condition. Some part of your own outlook will be stamped onto your photography.
That’s not to say that you can’t shade your “alone” work with layers of mystery, even some playfulness. Is the young woman shown here glad to be away from the crowd, or does she feel banished? Is her physical attitude one of relaxation or despair? The photographer need not spell everything out in bold strokes, and can even conspire to trick or confound the viewer as to his true feelings.
To make things even trickier, images can also convey the feeling of being alone in a crowd, lonely in a crushing multitude. That’s when the pictures get really complicated. With any luck, that is.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ARTIST MUST KNOW WHICH CANVAS (or platform) is best for his particular work. And while photography is so rangy and wide, trying to find an area of speciality is no great challenge, so long as you are honest with yourself as to what your eye can effectively deliver. Do portraits alone help your vision pour forth? Then move in that direction, certainly. Drawn to minimalism as a way of expression? Then simplify, my son, simplify, and go in peace.
In fact, my own visual bias, if that’s the word, runs counter to my earliest influences. The first photographs that made me gasp in awe were, in fact, landscapes, since, as a boy, I collected many travel slides and magazines which emphasized life in the natural world. However, my second great influence was that of the great urban photographers, both journalists and poets, whose medium was the man-made, and not the organic, type of mountain. And even though I continued to marvel at the stunning statements made by naturalist shooters, I came to know that I did not have anything particularly wise or wonderful to contribute in that area.
I love nature. It is restorative, contemplative, and any other “ive” you choose. However, I cannot, personally, produce anything poetic or glorious in depicting it. I envy ecumenical writers like Walt Whitman, who reveled in both mountain and city street alike, describing both with incredible passion and power. As a photographer, however, I decided long ago to shoot where my eye is most organically excited…and that’s the city. I can never completely abandon scenic subjects, since I continue to hold out hope that one or another of them will make my heart leap to my throat, and, in turn, make a great vision leap into my camera.
Of course, the longer you make photographs, the more universal your purely technical competence becomes, in that you can deliver a serviceable picture regardless of the assignment. But a photograph is never merely a recording, and simply making an adequately composed, reasonably exposed frame is no greater an achievement than waiting the requisite number of minutes to soak a tea bag. It’s not so much knowing how to make the picture as wanting to, since that desire is the principal difference between acceptable and exceptional. Of course, passion is also not enough, any more than technical acumen is. But when the two meet, they will produce your best work.
As in the author’s mantra “write what you know about”, “shoot what you feel” must surely be a kind of aspirational prayer for better pictures. Can anyone say if a tree is less beautiful than a skyscraper? Not with any true authority. Point that camera where your heart points, and it’s hard to go far wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JOHANNES GUTTENBURG, THE MAN WHO DEVELOPED THE FIRST PRACTICAL SYSTEM FOR MOVABLE TYPE, is also said to have invented a kind of periscope, the better to peer over the teeming throngs at the local virgintennial festival. And while there is no record of what he was trying to see (or, more importantly, if he actually did see it), the longing to extend one’s vision around blind corners is one of the tantalizing mysteries of photography. The fact that we can’t make that 45-degree turn infuses many an image with a delicious kind of suspense.
Often when we compose a photo we imply the existence of a certain hidden something that the still image will forever shield from our detection. We photograph shadows that have no progenitors, streets that are halfway concealed by our shooting angle, and, always, the continuation of patterns and dramas that continue outside the boundaries of the frame. That frame has to be drawn somewhere, after all, and no matter how complete we attempt to make our stories within it, the imagination wants to stray toward whatever was “composed out” of the final product.
And therein lies one of the superb teases of our art. We can select scenes that deliberately torture the eye by denying access to What’s Over That Way or Where Does That Lead. We can abruptly rob the eye of the visual payoff for a conundrum that we ourselves have created. We can lie, cheat and steal. That is, I mean, who says you have to play fair with your viewer? Oh, you want me to tell you everything about this picture? Nuts. Figure it out yourself. Was it Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the study, or….?
The master shot of the above image was a fairly typical out-the-window view from a hotel room, and originally ran a lot wider. Then it occurred to me that I could almost see something between the two buildings, and I re-cropped to make that “almost” the main part of the picture. Remaking the landscape view into a square introduced a little claustrophobia into the process, forcing the view exactly where I wanted it to hit. And finally, I desaturated all the colors in the shot except the orange of the sodium street lamps to amp up the glow in the aperture between the buildings.
I’m not suggesting that you intentionally make pictures with the sole purpose of messing with people’s minds. But, hee hee, you totally can. What’s around the corner? What’s up the street, beyond the curtain, just out of frame? Your picture, your game, your intentions. Take your audience’s eyes where you want them, and leave them there….between one choice and another.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I OFTEN FANTASIZE ABOUT STANDING UP AND OFFERING A TOAST at a banquet hall crammed with photographers, just because it’s fun to play with what it might sound like….to see if I could strike some verbal chord that would resonate equally with everyone in the room, from the noobies to pro’s. I constantly change the exact wording, but the sentiment in my head is always something like:
May the best picture you took today be your worst picture ever, ten years from now.
What did he say? Does he hope the masterpiece I captured today will someday be regarded by me as garbage?
Well, yes, of course I do. At least I hope that for my stuff. If I still love today’s work ten years from now, it will mean that I stopped growing and learning, like, well, today. Consider: I can’t ever know everything about my craft, and can’t hope to “top out” or reach perfection within my lifetime. And why would I want to? If today is the best I’ll ever do, why not save time and money, smash my cameras, and consider myself done?
The entire point of artistic expression is that it is an evolutionary process. If I still took pictures the way I did at twelve, that would be like having been on a Ford assembly line for half a century, with one indistinguishable cog after another coming down the belt, and me adding the same screw to it, every day, for eternity. Photography appeals to us because, like any other measure of our mind, it will be in flux forever. It’s divinely uncertain.
And I want that uncertainty. I want the good shots that come on lousy days. I need the images that I made when I had no idea what I was doing. I crave the betrayals that camera bodies, lenses, changing weather conditions or cranky kids will hurl at me. Edward Steichen often referred to the act of refreshing one’s work as “kicking the tripod”, and, like that seismic shock, your own morphing ideas of how to do all this will benefit from an occasional earthquake.
Do great pictures always come from adversity? Of course not, or else my morbidly depressed friends would be the greatest photographers on earth. However, the sheer careening instability of life pretty much guarantees that the things that thrill you about today’s shots will make you shake your head ten years down the line, and devise different ways of solving all the eternal problems.
And so, a toast…to the great pictures you made today, and to the day that you can barely stand to look at them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH PAINTING AS ITS INITIAL INFLUENCE, THE YOUNG ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY spent its first years trying to record transcendent scenes of the world, from landscapes to portraits, in much the same elegant, poetic way that such subjects were translated to the canvas. Partly due to the limits of early exposure media, the task of making a picture was slower in those first years, almost a contemplative act. And so, in pace and mood, the strange new machine seemed intent on imitating its painterly elder, at least in part to make the argument that even a machine could be imbued with an artist’s eye.
Then came faster film and faster events. The images of war and the advancing grind of city life coincided with the introduction of more responsive films. The snapshot, the ability to catch an accelerating world on the fly, became commonplace. Photography took on a new role as reporter’s tool, a way to visually testify to human problems and their impacts. Photojournalism, in turn, gave way to commerce, which created an image bias in news coverage that persists to the present day. Photos take their tone from the needs of the marketplace. Tragedy outsells beauty. If it bleeds, it leads. Pulitzer prizes aren’t awarded to people who make pictures of daffodils.
And yet, there is a greater need for pictorial beauty than ever before, simply so that our visual diet doesn’t consist solely of red meat and blood. Certainly, the sensational holds tremendous sway over what gets published, re-printed, re-tweeted. The images that stamp themselves on our brains hold many traumas and dramas. Admittedly, some have sparked outrage, which in turn spurs action, and that can be a good thing. But photography can make us hard and jaded as well, and we dare not squeeze beauty into the margins of our consumption. Pictures shape feelings, and they can also condition us to feel less and less about more and more.
From Lewis Hine’s harrowing pictures of children in cotton mills to present-day iPhone dispatches from the latest repressions or riots, photographs are the seismograph of our collective consciences. But just as man cannot live on bread alone, he cannot subsist solely on nightmares. Beauty, harmony, aspiration, hope….we need to capture all these as well, lest, under the barrage of the shell and the bullet, the butterfly is blasted into extinction.
It’s a question of balance.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SAY THE WORD “MINIMALISM” TO SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS, and you conjure visions of stark and spare compositions: random arrangements of light blobs, stray streaks of shadow, or scattered slivers of light, each conveying mood more than content. For some, these images are a kind of “pure” photography, while, for others, they are, to use a nice word, incoherent. Part of us always wants a picture to be, in some way, about something, and the word minimalism is charged, positively or negatively, depending on whether that “narrative thing” happens.
I actually associate minimalism with the formal storytelling process, but doing so with the fewest elements possible. It seems like a natural evolution to me, as I age, to make pictures talk louder with fewer parts. Simple cropping shows you how much more you can bring to an image by taking more of it away, and, with closeups and macro work, the message seems even clearer. Why show an entire machine when a cog carries the same impact? Why show everything when suggesting things, even leaving them out entirely, actually amps up the narrative power of a photograph?
Of course there are times when mere shape and shadow can be beautiful in themselves, and it doesn’t require a lot of windy theorizing to justify or rationalize that. Some things just are visually strong, even if they are non-objective. But minimalism based on our impressions or memory of very real objects, from a pocket watch to a piece of fruit, can allow us to tell a story with suggestions or highlights alone. If something is understood well enough, just showing a selectively framed slice of it, rather than the thing in its entirety, can be subtly effective and is worth exploring.
In the above image, you certainly understand the concept of a tape recorder well enough for me to excise the device’s chassis, controls, even half of its reel mechanism and still leave it “readable” as a tape recorder. You may find, upon looking at the picture, that I could have gone even farther in simplifying the story, and in your own work, you can almost certainly suggest vast ideas while using very small bits of visual information. Knowing the cultural cues and clues that we bring with us to the viewing process tells you how far you can stretch the concept.
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
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CAN VIEW THE MAIN FUNCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY AS TWOFOLD, with the deliberate creation of a vision as one path, and the arresting of time in its motion as the other. In the first case, we plan, conceive and execute at our leisure until the image that is behind our eye emerges on the page. In the second, we are hastening to capture and cage something that is in the act of disappearing. In one instance we compose. In the other, we preserve.
Sometimes the two purposes come together in one picture, although you seldom know it until after the image is made. Take the example below. In the moment, I was struck by the light patterns that bounced across the empty space of an event room at the visitor center for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I wanted to do everything I could, exposure-wise, to dramatize the play of light in this special space. In addition to trying to create an image, however, I was also scurrying to keep a special number of factors from vanishing. I was both creating and preserving.
Obviously, the light you see would have had a dramatically different effect had the room been packed with, say, bodies or furniture, so its unobstructed path was one temporary condition. Another fleeting factor was the late afternoon light, which was, in addition to being extremely changeable, also one of the rare moments of pure sun the area had seen during a severely overcast day. It was as if the heavens opened up and angels were singing a song called, “Take The Picture, Already, Dummy”(perhaps you have heard this song yourself). Everything pointed to immediacy.
Full disclosure: getting this shot was not something that stretched me, or demanded exceptional skill. There was not one technically difficult factor in the making of this picture. You yourself have taken pictures like this. They are there and then they’re gone. But, they don’t get collected unless you see how fragile they are, and act in time. It’s not wizardry. It’s just acting on an instinct which, hopefully, gets sharper the longer you are in the game.
I often state one of my only primary commandments for photography as, Always Be Shooting. An important corollary to that rule might be, Always Be Ready To Shoot. Spot the potential in your surroundings quickly. Get used to the fact that many pictures will only dance before you for seconds at a time, flashing like heat lightning, then fading to oblivion. Picture-making is sometimes about casual and careful crafting of an image. And sometimes it’s a race of inches.
And sometimes it’s both.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITORS TO THE FACTORY HEADQUARTERS OF BEN & JERRY’S ICE CREAM in Stowe, Vermont, upon completing the standard tour of the works, are encouraged to climb a small hill out back of the building to view the company’s Dead Flavor’s Graveyard, an actual cemetery, complete with elegantly epitaphed tombstones and dedicated to such failed B&J varietals as Turtle Soup, Fossil Fuel, White Russian and Sweet Potato Pie. It’s a humorous way to point out that, even for talented startups, there’s no such thing as a direct shot up the mountain of fame. We duck. We detour. We change direction. It’s a process, not a product.
Photography is, in this way (and in no other way that I can think of) much like ice cream.
As we clear the 500 mark on posts for The Normal Eye, I want to (a) profoundly thank all those who have joined us on the journey, and (b) restate that, as our sub-head reads, it really is about a journey, rather than a destination. This small-town newspaper began because I had met so many people over the years who had become suspicious of their camera’s true intentions. Sure, they admitted, the automodes do pretty great on many pictures, but what if I actually want some say in the process? Can I be an active agent in the making of my own pictures?
Now, these weren’t people who wanted to purchase $10,000 worth of gear, sell their houses, abandon their children, and become photo gypsies for NatGeo. These were simply people whose photographic curiosity had finally got the better of them. What would happen, they asked, if I were to, all by myself, make one little extra choice, independent of the camera’s superbrain, before the shutter snapped? And what if I made two? Or three? Other questions followed. What is seeing? How do you learn to value your own vision? And what tasks from the era of film still apply as solid principles in the digital age?
The Normal Eye has spent the last four years trying to ask those questions, not from a top-down, “here is how to do it” approach, since so many of these solutions must be privately arrived at. This is not, and will never be, a technical tutorial. I reflect on what thoughts went into a particular problem, and how I personally decided to try to solve it. The results, as are all my words, are up for debate.
It’s humbling to remember that, in photography, there is always more than one path to paradise. And when I find myself being crushed under the weight of my own Dead Flavor Graveyard, I take heart in those moments when your feedback has made a difference in my motivations, or methods, or both. Recently, I received what I still cherish as one of the best comments over the entire run, with one gentleman proclaiming:
I’m not a fan of words, but the ones in this article are in a tolerable sequence.
Hey, that’s enough to hold me for another 500, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS INSTINCTIVELY SEEK OUT VARIATION. We spend so much time looking at so much of the world that a lot of it starts to sort itself into file folders of things, patterns, or places, pre-sorting our pictures into this or that category. Sunsets: see Nature. Famous Buildings: a sub-set of Travel. And so on, until we are fairly starved for some visual novelty to shock us out of our slumber and spur us on to new ways of seeing.
One of the things that settles most readily into sameness is the human dwelling. Most of us live in some kind of basic four-walls, bedroom-kitchen-bath sequence, making our living spaces fairly predictable as subject matter. By way of awe and admiration, the real geniuses of, magazine illustration, to me, have always been the “house beautiful” photographers, since they must spend year after year making Mr.& Mrs. J.D. Gotmore’s McMansions seem unique and bold. That said, there is something about nearly everyone’s castle that might be distinctive, even revelatory, about the people who live within. It’s all in your approach.
I love to explore the places where people are forced to improvise living spaces either near or as part of their work, places that usually exist in stark isolation as compared to the crush of crowded urban centers. In the above image, I was allowed to climb to a small viewing angle of the beacon room atop a coastal lighthouse in San Diego, and, perhaps because I was limited to a shooting stance below the surface of the room’s floor, the resulting photo further exaggerated the confined, angular working space, which sits above living areas further down the house’s twisty central staircase.
These areas pose more questions than they answer. What is it like to have this building be your entire world for long stretches of time? What kind of person can do this work? What is the center of this unusual story? The blurring of boundaries between working and living areas is among the most novel material a photographer can tackle, since it contains one of the things he craves most….mystery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POPULARLY-HELD VIEW OF THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY makes the claim that, just as video killed the radio star, camera killed the canvas. This creaky old story generally floats the idea that painters, unable to compete with the impeccable recording machinery of the shutter, collectively abandoned realistic treatment of subjects and plunged the world into abstraction. It’s a great fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
There just is no way that artists can be regimented into uniformly making the same sharp left turn at the same tick of the clock, and the idea of every dauber on the planet getting the same memo that read, alright guys, time to cede all realism to those camera jerks, after which they all started painting women with both eyes on the same side of their nose. As Theo Kojak used to say, “nevva happennnned…”
History is a little more, er, complex. Photography did indeed diddle about for decades trying to get its literal basics right, from better lenses to faster film to various schemes for lighting and effects. But it wasn’t really that long before shooters realized that their medium could both record and interpret reality, that there was, in fact, no such simple thing as “real” in the first place. Once we got hip to the fact that the camera was both truth teller and fantasy machine, photographers entered just as many quirky doors as did our painterly brothers, from dadaism to abstraction, surrealism to minimalism. And we evolved from amateurs gathering the family on the front lawn to dreamers without limit.
I love literal storytelling when a situation dictates that approach, but I also love pure, absolute arrangements of shape and light that have no story whatever to tell. As wonderful as a literal capture of subjects can be, I never shy away from making an image just because I can’t readily verbalize what it’s “about”. All of us have photos that say something to us, and, sometimes, that has to be enough. We aren’t always one thing or the other. Art can show absolutes, but it can’t be one.
There is always one more question to ask, one more stone to turn.
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
CITIES ARE A CONTINUOUS POST-GRADUATE COURSE IN THE MILLIONS OF DIFFERENT WAYS TO SEE. They not only afford an endless array of things to visualize, but offer up just as many vantage points or angles to frame, select, show, or conceal them. It’s just as much about how you shoot something as what you selected to shoot.
My favorite images in urban environments are essentially stolen glances. Brief shards of light arrowing past a subway car window. Slanted slashes of sun crawling up an alley wall. And, more recently, views of the street that hide as much as they reveal, teasing winks of the city in all its rhythm as viewed from the inside out.
It might be the tension, or the anticipation of a scene that is not, but is just about to be, cracked fully open. People pass by framed by windows, distorted by warps and reflections, amputated and edited by panels, shadows, partially eclipsed by walls. It’s a visual striptease. Now you see life, now you don’t, now, here it comes again. Sometimes standing just inside the entrance of a building can feel like viewing life at a distance, as anonymously as you might watch surveillance video on a giant screen or a movie in a dark theater.
Photography is one part content and one part context. We have all been surprised when someone standing right next to us points a camera in the same general direction that we do and comes away with a completely different kind of image. That surprise is the shock-reminder of our very individual way of framing and selecting information, and cities offer a remarkable laboratory for sampling all of those variances.
Inside looking out or outside looking in, the view is the thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, IF IT TRULY IS AN ART (and I’m assuming you believe it is), can never get to a place where it’s “done”. There is no Finished, there ain’t no Clock Out, and there shouldn’t be any Good Enough. There is only where you are and the measurable distance between there and where you want to be. And, once you get there, the chains get moved down the field to the next first down, and the whole drill starts over again.
That means that, as photographers, we are always just about to find ourselves uncomfortable, or need to try to make ourselves that way. Standing still equals stale, which, in turn, equals “why bother?” Sure, the first step toward a new plateau always feels like walking off a cliff, but it needs to, if we’re to improve. If your work feels like something you’ve done before, chances are it is. And if a new assignment or challenge doesn’t come from outside yourself, then you’ve got to do something to put the risk back in the process.
You can write your own prescription. Shoot all day with a limited camera. Do everything in b&w. Make yourself compose shots that are the dead opposite of what you believe looks “right”. Use the “wrong” lens for the assignment at hand. Force yourself to do an entire day’s work in the same aperture, shutter speed, or white balance. Just throw some kind of monkey wrench into your routine, before the routine becomes the regular rhythm (spelled “rut”) of your work. The words comfort and create don’t fit comfortably in the same sentence. Be okay with that.
We can’t always count on crazed bosses, tight deadlines or visionary mentors to nudge us toward the next best version of ourselves. Learn how to kick yourself in the butt and you’ll always be in problem-solving mode. That means more mistakes, which in turn means a speedier learning curve. You never learn anything repeating your past successes, so don’t curl up next to them like some comfortable chair. Put it all out there. Make the imperfect day work for you, and pray that there’s another one waiting after that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE SPEED, ECONOMY AND EASE IT HAS BROUGHT TO NEARLY EVERYONE, has allowed an incredible acceleration of the learning curve for shooters, a temporal shortcut that has effectively enabled people to master in years what used to take a lifetime (not to say a personal fortune). Without the lag time and cost baked into the film medium, photographers can shoot a lot. Like, a lot.
Problem is, this skyrocketing learning curve for shooting skill has not been accompanied by an accompanying curve in editing skill. As a matter of fact, the two skills are going in opposite directions. And that is a bad, bad thing.
In the film era, there was limited admission to the “photographer’s club” at the pro level, and all pros had some way of winnowing out their weaker work. They had editors, publishers, or some kind of independent eye to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only the best work was printed or displayed. Not everyone made the cut. Some of us had to admit that we didn’t have “it”. There was more to photography than the mere flick of our shutter fingers.
Now enter the digital age, and, with it, the ersatz democracy of the internet age. Suddenly, all of everyone’s photos are equal, or so we have come to think. All images go to the infinite shoebox of the web: the good stuff, the not-so-good stuff, the what-the-hell stuff, all of it. Accounts on Flickr and Instagram allow posters a massive amount of upload space, and there are few, if any strictures on content or quality. But here’s the ugly truth: if all of our photos are special, then none of them are.
You can take most of the formalized schools on photography and sink them in the nearest bog with no damage to any of us, with one singular exception: those tutorials which teach us how to objectively evaluate our own work. Knowing how to wield the scissors on one’s own “babies” is the most important skill in all of photography, because, without that judgement, no amount of technical acumen matters.
If you don’t learn what is good and how close or far you, yourself have come to that mark, then how can anything become exceptional, or excellent? If your work has never had to face real critical heat, there is no incentive for you to change or evolve. This is increasingly important for the millions of self-publishing shooters and scribblers like me who presume to pronounce on what photography is. Just cause we’re in print don’t mean we’re right, or even honest.
Art cannot grow in a vacuum, and so, I say again, if we can’t self-edit, we can’t claim to be photographers, not in any real way. The curve of honest self-evaluation must soar alongside the curve of technical acuity, or the whole thing’s a joke.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE MANY INSTANCES IN WHICH IT’S HEALTHY TO HAVE A LITTLE HUMILITY, and the biggest one probably is in the decision to depict a human face. It’s the most frequently performed operation in all of photography, and many of us only approach perfection in it a handful of times, if ever. The face is the essence of mystery, and learning how to draw the curtain away from it is the essence of mastery.
Nothing else that we will shoot fights so hard to maintain its inscrutability. It is easier to accurately photograph the microbes that swarm in a drop of water than to penetrate the masks that we manufacture. Even the best portrait artists might never show all of what their subject’s soul really looks like, but sometimes we can catch a fleeting glimpse, and getting even that little peek is enough to keep you behind a camera for a lifetime. It is everything.
Yousuf Karsh, the portraitist who can be said to have made the definitive images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other notables, said “within every man and woman. a secret is hidden, and, as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can.” Sounds so simple, and yet decades can go into learning the difference between recording a face and rendering its truths. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to photograph people who are strangers to us. How can that ever happen? Other times I fear that it’s beyond our power to create images of those we know the most intimately. How can we show all?
The human face is a document, a lie, a cipher, a self-created monument, an x-ray. It is the armor we put on in order to do battle with the world. It is the entreaty, the bargain, the arrangement with which we engage with each other. It is a time machine, a testimony, a faith. Photographers need their most exacting wisdom, their most profound knowledge of life, to attempt The Reveal. For many of us, it will always remain that….an attempt. For a fortunate few, there is the chance to freeze something eternal, the chance to certify humanity for everyone else.
Quite a privilege.
Quite a duty.
It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual. –lyrics from the Oscar-winning song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ERRONEOUSLY BILLED, EARLY IN ITS DEVELOPMENT, as a mere recording of reality. This was, of course, an attempt to characterize the picture-making process as more bloodless, less artistic than painting, which was an interpretation of the world. What early haters of the camera failed to realize, of course, was that photographers were just as selective in their depiction of life as painters, since their medium too, was an interpretation…..of isolated moments, of preferred angles, of temporary actuality.
If you look at individual frames within a strip of motion picture film, it becomes perfectly clear that each still image is a self-contained world, with no way to intuit what has come before a given moment nor what will come next. Thus, no one frame is “reality” but a select sample of it. In daily photography, our choice of angle, approach, and especially light can allow us to create an infinite number of “realities” that only exist in the precise moment in which we see and freeze them.
Let’s look specifically at light. As it’s jumbled in multiple reflections, light is particularly precious to the photographer’s eye, since a captured image may recall an effect that even people within inches of the shooter could not see. In the above photo, for example, this mosaic of reflections inside the vestibule of a high-ceilinged building was visible from several specific positions in the foyer. Move yourself three feet either way, however, and this pattern could not be seen at all. In other words, this photographic “reality” came briefly into existence under the most controlled conditions, then was gone.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography for the New York Museum of Modern Art, dedicates an entire section of his essential book The Photographer’s Eye to what he calls “Vantage Point” and its importance to a mastery of the medium. “Pictures (can) reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things…and these mysterious and evasive images can also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”
Photography is about viewing all of reality and extracting little jewels from within it.
That’s not mere recording.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE HAVE A LIFETIME OF HEART-TO-HEART TALKS with ourselves, seeking the answer to questions like “what’s this I see?”, or “what do I want to tell?” Tricky thing is, of course, that, as time progresses, you are talking with a variety of conversational partners. As we age, we re-engineer nearly every choice-making process or system of priority. I loved Chef-By-Ar-Dee as an eight-year-old, but the sight of the old boy would probably make me gag at 63. And so it goes with clothing, choice of good reads, and, of course photography.
One of the things it’s prudent to do over the years is to take the temperature of present-day You, to really differentiate what that person wants in an image, versus what seemed essential at other stages in your life. I know that, in my case, my favorite photographers of fifty years ago bear very little resemblance to the ones I see as signposts today.
As a boy, I was in love with technical perfection and a very literal form of storytelling. Coming up in an artist’s household, I saw photos as illustrations, that is, subservient to some kind of text. I chose books for their pictures, yes, but for how well they visualized the writing in those books. The house was chock full of the mass-appeal photo newsmagazines of that day, from Life to Look to National Geographic to the Saturday Evening Post, periodicals that chose pictures for how well they completed the stories they decorated. A picture-maker for me, then, basically a writer’s assistant.
By my later school years, I began, slowly, to see photographs as statements unto themselves, something beyond language. They were no longer merely aids to understanding a writer’s position, but separate, complete entities, needing no intro, outro or context. The pictures didn’t have to be “about” anything, or if they were, it wasn’t a thing that was necessarily literal or narrative. Likewise, the kind of pictures I was interested in making seemed, increasingly, to be unanchored from reference points. Some people began to ask me, “why’d you make a picture of that?” or “why aren’t there any people in there?”
By this time in my life, I sometimes feel myself rebelling against having any kind of signature style at all, since I know that any such choice will eventually be shed like snake-skin in deference to some other thing I’ll deem important. For a while. What this all boils down to is that the journey has become more important than the destination, at least for my photography. What I learn is often more important than what I do about it.
And some days, I actually hope I never get where I’m going.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST SELLER LIST IS THE FASTEST WAY to cement a notion in the public’s mind as indisputable “fact”. We are great at quoting a concept captured in print, then re-quoting the quote, until the “truthfulness” of it becomes plausible. It’s basically a version of the statement, “everybody knows that..” followed by a maxim from whatever hardcover pundit is top in the rotation at a given moment. And it’s about as far from accuracy as you can get.
Ever since pop-psych guru Malcolm Gladwell’s hit book Outliers arrived on shelves a few years back, its main thesis, which is that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become excellent at something, has been trotted out a thousand times to remind everyone to just keep nose to grindstone and, well, practice will make perfect. Gladwell cites Bill Gates’ concentrated stretch of garage tinkering and the Beatles’ months of all-night stands in Hamburg as proof of this fact, and, heck, since it ought to be true, we assume it is.
However, it’s not so true as it is comfortable, and, when it comes to photography, I would never hint that someone could become an excellent artist just by putting in more time shooting than everyone else. If my method is wrong, if I never develop a vision of any kind, or if I merely replicate the same mistakes for the requisite practice period, then I am going to get to my goal older, but not wiser. Time spent, all by itself, is no indication of anything, except time spent. Evolving, constantly learning from negative feedback, and learning how to be your own worst critic are all better uses of the years than just filling out some kind of achievement-based time card.
The perfection of photography is about time, certainly, and you must invest a good deal of it to allow for the mistakes and failures that are inevitable with the acquiring of any skill. But, you must also stir insight, humility, curiosity and daring into the recipe or the end result is just mediocrity. Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, a quantity measurement, is only miraculous when coupled with an accompanying quality of work.
There are people who know how to express their soul on their first click of the shutter, just as there are those who slog away for decades and get no closer to imparting anything. It’s how well you learn, not how long you stay in school. It ain’t comforting, but it’s true.