By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES I THINK THAT PHOTOGRAPHERS, especially beginners, needlessly hem themselves in by “pre-editing” their work. Being human, we all care, to some degree, about how our images “play” to various viewers, and so it’s understandable that we can be scared away from attempting certain things that are too jarring or disorienting to our intended audiences. We work to hard to avoid the attachment of certain labels to our pictures.
The “a” word, “abstract”, is one such label. It’s a scare word. And it can spook us out of truly innovative image-making.
Sure, we may know that, strictly speaking, abstraction really just means extraction, pulling a visual shorthand of essence out of a more complex subject. Rather than merely recording the full detail of an object in a photograph, the abstract photographer reduces it to its most effective basics. A baseball loses its stitches and writing and becomes just a sphere. Abstraction can also yank something out of its familiar context, forcing the viewer to regard it on its own merits, so that an entire salad is reduced to the sensual curvature of one section of a single vegetable.
Okay, so that’s what we know about abstraction. However, what we feel, even about just the word, can cow us into conformity. We fear being called “artsy”, avant-grade, pretentious. And we gradually adjust our images to reflect what others regard as “real”. It’s tough: learning to trust your own vision is the single hardest lesson in any art. But what’s the alternative? Cranking out the same systematic execution of a flower for the next forty years just to curry favor with the mob?
If you observe an orchid (like the one above), and see, not merely a flower, but a winged creature taking flight, why not take the extra step and reclaim the “realness” of that object for your own purpose? The camera is an interpretative tool, not a video recorder.
Anytime we are tempted to restrict our pictures to what the world at large regards as “real”, we should listen for abstraction’s quiet but persistent question. “Real” according to whom?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST VALUED ARTIFACTS OF ANCIENT TIMES might not be considered so magnificent if they were not also so rare. The shards of pots found within the burial chambers of the Pharoahs seem remarkable because they are some of the only things that survive the age of their owners. However, were there hundreds, thousands of such sites around the world, these broken bits of pottery might be of less value than the discarded cigarette butts that litter the world’s highways.
Hey, isn’t this blog supposed to be about photography? Well, yeah, give me a little room here.
Photographs are thought to be documents, that is, a literal recording of reality. In fact, almost all of them are interpretations of reality, one person’s individual take on what’s “real”. In the beginning of the medium, pictures were more purely documentary, in that very few people took very few pictures of things unlikely to be photographed by anyone else before they vanished. It would be great to see dozens of different shooters’ interpretation of the battlefield of the Civil War, but, since the medium was not generally in use in the 1860’s, the work of Matthew Brady and his team of field photographers serves as our only record….in fact, as a document.
In the modern day, it is virtually impossible for your photograph of, say, the Empire State Building to be a “document”, since it will never, ever serve as the official or historical record of that structure. Once everyone’s picture is a document, then nobody’s is. You can interpret the building to endless variation, but you have to avoid thinking of the resulting images as “real”, since your own sense of that state defines how you make the picture. The edifice may be public property, but the vision is all yours.
Which brings us back to the Egyptians. Show a chamber filled with burial booty to a 21st-century archaeologist and he’ll exclaim, “let us carefully preserve this living record!”. Show the same room to the average Tut-era housewife and she might say, “get me a broom so I can clear all this junk out of here.” Photographs are your view of “reality”. Only when yours is the only eye on something vanished can it be documentary. Saying that a picture is great because it “looks realistic” is our way of admiring the photographer’s interpretation. That is, we agree with it. But images are more “istic” than they are “real”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE USED TO BE A CARTOON THAT SHOWED A MAN WITH A LITERAL HOLE IN HIS HEAD, described by the caption as being “open-minded”, as if that were a negative, rather than a positive, quality. Regardless of what this says of the popular notion regarding the intellectually flexible among us, it actually reminds me that the best approach to some of the best photography in the world can be, as near as possible, no approach at all.
Okay, everyone sit back down. The old village crank isn’t proposing that one should not be mindful, or operate from a plan, when tackling a photo shoot. Merely pointing out that, if you’re honest, you can certainly point to pictures that you’ve over-thought to the point of sterility, draining the results of anything reflexive, impulsive, or instinctual. Moreover, it’s all too easy to map out a procedure for what you hope to do, then fall into desperate love with said procedure for its own sake. My, what a lovely, lovely little blueprint. Let’s not deviate from it an inch.
This little comic book of mine doesn’t have but a few meager themes, but one of them is that the best pictures land on your nose like an errant butterfly while you’re busy planning something very different. You may not select from your favorite phrase for this process, including Dumb Luck, Serendipity, Being At One With Your Chakras, or Accidentally Stepping In Roses. Point is, there are pictures to be extracted everywhere, not just where you feel like looking. Being open-minded doesn’t mean you have a hole in the head.
One really cheap and easy way to remind yourself of this idea is to compile, right here and now, a file of your images that were great in spite of the fact that they were not what you were initially after. Things that distracted you, with delightful results. Things that began by feeling wrong, then turned wonderfully right. Keep that file, label it Who The Hell Shot This?, and add to it over a lifetime to remind you that a stranger sometimes comes into your process and leaves you golden eggs.
Artists love to see themselves as flautists making beautiful music, when, actually, we are, in our luckiest moments, the flute itself, the wind rushing through us to facilitate melody. Now, translate that concept to photography, and ask: what does it matter whether you take the picture or the picture takes you?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A DECIDED BIAS IN THE CONCEPT OF THE NEW YEARS’ RESOLUTION TOWARD THE NEGATIVE. Since we often define ourselves in terms of what we haven’t yet perfected in ourselves, many resolutions revolve around losing something (weight), stopping something (binge-watching Ren & Stimpy) or rooting something icky out of our personality or habit structure (insert your own wish list here).
Fair enough. But, in order for us to grow, we also need to resolve to add, to enhance, to amplify the best part of ourselves. And, for photographers, I can’t think of a single more compelling resolution than the pledge to see better and develop our expressive vocabulary in the new year. We already have the toys, God knows. It has never been easier to get your hands on image-making gear or to disseminate the images that you manage to create. Photography has reached its all-time high-water mark for democratization, with 2013 showing us that gasp-inducing, heart-stopping pictures can and will be made by anyone, anywhere. There is no longer an artificial barrier between pro and amateur, just a subtler one between those of us who have practiced eyes and those of us (nearly all of us) that need to tone our seeing muscles a bit tighter.
Photography can obscure or reveal, defining or defying clarity as we choose. A resolution to keep seeing, to open our eyes wider, is more important than resolving to “take more interesting pictures”, “do fewer self-indulgent selfies” or “try all the cool filters on Instagram”, since it goes to the heart of what this marvelous art can do better than any other in the history of mankind. What can be better than promising ourself to always be hungry, always be shooting, always be straining ourselves to the breaking point?
For me, a good year is when I can look back over my shoulder during the last waning moments of December 31st and see at least some small, measurable distance between where I’m standing and where I stood last January 1st. Sometimes the distance is measured in micro-inches, other years in feet or even yards. There are no guarantees, nor can there be: human experience, and what we draw forth from it, is variable, and there will be years of no crops as well as years of bumper harvests.
But let us resolve to see, and see as fearlessly as we can. The Normal Eye has always been about its stated journey from “taking” pictures to “making” them, acknowledging that it’s seldom a straight-line path to perfection, and, in fact, we learn more from our failures than our successes. Happy New Year.