THE GREAT GIFT OF NOT UN-SEEING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE THANKED MY WIFE SEVERAL TIMES IN RECENT YEARS for the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am consistently, consciously aware of birdsong. This is no small thing, developing an acuity for something which has been all around me, largely undetected, for my entire existence, and which, at this late point, is suddenly, miraculously obvious to me all the time. Of course we didn’t just move our house to where the most birds are, nor did Marian suddenly give them a power that the Creator somehow overlooked. Instead, she has facilitated a change in me, something I am not even consistently to do for myself. And that’s huge.
And, as all things will, this stands as yet another metaphor for photography.
Training the eye to see the world beyond the fundamentals is the most important element in making an image, far outranking any merely technical consideration. Once you learn to see critically, curiously, your pictures, and the process of making them, operate on a completely different level, with even your “imperfect” shots taking on a distinct character. Often, when someone witnesses something horrible, they remark that they “can’t un-see” the event in question. However, vision in photography makes that condition a blessing. Shooting thousands of images over years broadens the scope of how you evaluate what you see, as well as how you plan based on that knowledge. You become a better and better shooter the more you can’t “un-see” the world.
Shooting happens faster and easier once you’ve cultivated the habit of seeing better, because, even in rushed or difficult conditions, you already have a basic pre-conception of what you want your pictures to be. You develop a mental sketchpad of sorts, placing you steps ahead in bending the performance of the camera to your will. That’s not a guarantee that you’ll always get what you went for, but it is a guarantee that you’ll know more clearly what you’re after, and that moves you closer to getting it. The image seen above is an example of my eye having evolved to a certain level at a certain point in time, and thus being able to convert some of my perception into a picture. I could not have made the same picture the same way ten years before, and, ten years hence, I will not make the same choices I made here.
Birdsong existed before I learned how to listen for it. Likewise, the things revealed in your best pictures is not composed of things you invented, just things you learned how to see. More precisely, it’s a smorgasbord of things you no longer can un-see. And the better your own vision, the better the chance that you’ll convey something amazing to your camera.
THE DREYFUS REFLEX
By MICHAEL PERKINS
This is important. This means something….
Roy Neary, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
I HAVE NEVER TRIED TO SCULPT THE MASHED POTATOES FROM OUR NIGHTLY DINNER into a replica of Devil’s Tower, but, as a photographer, I have experienced plenty of Roy Neary “a-ha” moments, marveling as a seemingly bland tableau pops into something very, very different in my mind’s eye. It’s the transformational moment that, when it occurs, justifies all of the sit-and-wait and close-but-no-cigar moments associated with making pictures. It is so invigorating that it re-enlists the weariest of us for yet one more tour of duty. Even the chance for experiencing a Roy Neary moment, what I call the Dreyfus Reflex, will shore up our courage and refresh our dedication. Hey, magic happened that one other time, we say. It might happen again.
But learning to see creatively is not merely a matter of being willing to receive a visual message from the great beyond. Seeing is an exercise, no less than a push-up or a jumping jack. It’s a matter of perfecting yourself as a receptacle, as a kind of pipe through which ideas can flow freely. The pipe has to be constantly widened and re-opened, and the exercise of learning to see ensures that, once an idea is at the entry point to the pipe, its path is unobstructed. Thus, the photographic concept is not coming from you so much as it is flowing through you. Learning to see photographically means, then, being “open” to a perception that, without practice, might never become apparent, but which, having become so, urges a photograph.
It means, in a sense, getting out of your own way.
Going back to our Close Encounters metaphor, Roy doesn’t start out thinking his dinner spuds resemble a mountain top. He gradually learns to accommodate ideas that are so un-obvious to everyone else that he seems crazy. Effectively, Roy has become an artist, in that he can look at one thing and see something beyond its mere surface appearance. In that moment, he is every poet, every novelist, every painter, and, yes, every photographer who ever lived. Similarly, any subject matter, such as the stalk of wheat seen here, can take on endless new identities, once we’ve become comfortable with it being more than one thing, or one version of a thing.
I once had a friend tell me that his favorite compliment as a photographer occurred when he was comparing pictures that he and a friend had taken from the very same trip, passing by identical sites and locations. “Where did you see that??” his companion remarked, indicating that while the two men’s sets of eyes were physically pointed in many of the same directions. they had come away with vastly different impressions. Does this process make one set of pictures “better” than another? Certainly not. But it does illustrate that there is more than one level of seeing, so that, even if my friend were to visit all those places alone, on different days, very different things would emerge in the pictures from varying shoots. What accounts for this variance? The light and the subject could be made to match: the gear and its settings could be replicated: even the precise time of day could be re-created, and yet the pictures of the same things by the same person would probably contrast noticeably with each other. And knowing all of that, when you set out as a photographer, means you’re aware of, and eager to exploit, the Dreyfus Reflex. What you see is just the first step of the journey: how you see it determines where the journey will eventually lead.
COMPOSING ON THE RUN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOTS OF OUR BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE, EXCUSE THE EXPRESSION, snap judgements. Sometimes a composition simply seems to come fully formed, ready to jump intact into the camera, with no reasonable way to improve on a shot that is 99% pure impulse. Some of these gift moments are so seductive that we may not think to keep shooting beyond what we’ve perceived as the ideal moment. But more shooting may be just what we need.
Images that involve very fast-moving events may only have one key instant where the real storytelling power of the shot comes to a climax, with everything after seen as progressively less dramatic. The second after a baseball is hit: the relaxed smile after the birthday candles are blown out. Think, if you will, of a straight news or journalism image. Every second after the Hindenburg explodes is less and less intense.
But many images can be re-imagined second-by-second, with additional takes offering the photographer vastly different outcomes and choices. In the series shown here, I originally fell in love with the look of sunset on a wooded trail. My first instinct was that the receding path was everything I needed, and I shot the first frame not thinking there would even be a second. My wife, however, decided to walk into the space unexpectedly, and I decided to click additional frames every few seconds as she walked toward the shot’s horizon. She starts off in the lower right corner and walks gently left as she climbs the slight rise in the path, causing her hair to catch a sun flare in the second shot, and placing her in central importance in the composition. By the last shot, however, she is a complete silhouette at the top of the frame, taking her far enough “up” to restore the path to its original prominence with her as a mere accent.
Which shot to take? Anyone’s call, but the point here is that, by continuing to shoot, I had four images to choose from, all with very individualized dynamics, none of which would have been available to me if I’d just decided that my first shot was my best and settled. There will be times when the fullest storytelling power of a photograph is all present right there in your first instinctive snap. When you have time, however, learning to compose on the run can force you to keep re-visualizing your way to lots of other possibilities.
BREAKING THE GEOMETRY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CONTRAST IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT JUST ABOUT A COMPARISON BETWEEN DARK AND LIGHT VALUES. The word contrast also applies to things placed next to each other in a composition that fight for dominance. Happy faces next to sad. Images of wealth and opulence juxtaposed with poverty and misery. Some of it can be a kind of forced irony, and, as such, can produce pictures that get a little preachy, or appear deliberately staged.
I love urban architecture because many of its design elements are enough to create a compelling image all by themselves….that is, without the larger context of what’s around them. They don’t have to be about anything; they just are. Contrast isn’t needed in many cases, because I’m not trying to show mankind’s place versus the space of a building…..I’m just seeking absolute patterns. No comment, no message.
Occasionally, however, it’s great to invade all those clinical lines and angles with a bit of humanity, to break the geometry and inject something warm or whimsical. It doesn’t have to be deliberate and it doesn’t have to be amped up with busy staging. The best contrast shots between disparate elements are the ones that you simply witness.
In the above image, the boy on the scooter is neither a “bad” nor “good” subject, but he gains a little amplitude because of his odd placement amongst the more antiseptic surrounding textures. The shot also worked a little better in monochrome because, in the original shot, the boy’s shirt was so vivid that it drew too much attention to that part of the picture.
Photographers benefit from a million tiny collisions between seemingly opposed subjects every single day. Learning which ones to isolate and massage into pictures can be an enjoyable detective game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY CONSISTS OF SELECTED SLICES OF TIME, thin shavings of moments forever taken out of their original contest and preserved as separate, miniature realities. This thing, these people, this time, the camera says, once were. Our mechanical act has yanked them out of the full flow of life and turned them into mere symbols of it.
Time, in photographs is shown in three main ways: just before something happens, as it happens, and just after it has happened. Amazingly, our mind easily keeps these categories distinct. When we read images we immediately know if an action was pending, ongoing, or complete at the time of its taking. To put it another way, think of these three phases as images of, say, the last chop taken at a standing tree, the tree toppling over, and the tree on the ground. But here’s a question; is our photographic style a preference for one of these three very specific time-states?
On a conscious level, probably not. But if we start to edit our output purposefully into three piles…..marked about to be, is, and was, we may see that the bulk of our personal work falls into one of these categories. Again, this happens below our waking mind most of the time. Still, when I am deliberately looking at the process, I find that the moments before something emerges, be that something a sunrise or a gunshot, pack the most impact for me as a viewer.
As an example, in studying an important event (a news story, let’s say) as it’s shown in a photograph, I’m more interested in what the Hindenburg looked like the second before it exploded than I am in the disaster that followed. I’m keener on the sunlight that is about to burst into a dark room than I am in the fully lit space. The second before everyone jumps out and yells “surprise” can possess as much drama (even more, I feel) than the shocked look on the birthday boy’s face a moment later. Or take the case of the above image from several years ago. I no longer actually remember what it was that had tickled this young man so. But that little moment in which he was about to discover something wonderful is a miracle to me forever.
The reason I mention this lies in the fact that, whenever I try to show something that is actively occurring, right now, I frequently find another thing, elsewhere in the picture, that is about to occur, and often that emerging event holds more interest. At least for me. We traditionally think of photographs as preserving the past, and so they generally do. But they are also testimony to something that may, or may not be, about to become something unique. That uncertainty, that mystery, is another element of what makes photographic art so rich, so endlessly tantalizing.
FULL HEART, EMPTY HEAD
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
FAR BE IT FROM ME TO DO A HATER NUMBER on photographic post-processing. We often pretend that the act of photo manipulation began at the dawn of the pixel age, when, of course, people have been futzing with their images since the first shutter snapped. We love the idea of “straight out of the camera” as an ideal, but it’s just that…an ideal. Eventually, it’s the way processing is executed in a specific instance which either justifies or condemns its use.
With that in mind, I do find that too many of us use faux b&w, or the desaturation of color images, long after they’re snapped, as a kind of last-ditch attempt to save pictures that didn’t have enough force or impact in the first place. Have I resorted to this myself? Oh, well, yeah, maybe. Which means, freaking certainly. Have I managed to “save” many images in this way? Not so much. Usually, I feel like I’m serving leftovers and trying to pawn them off as a fresh meal.
The further along I lope through life, however,the more I tend to believe that the best way to make a black and white image is to set out to intentionally do just that. An act of planning, pre-visualization, deliberation. It means looking at your subject in terms of how a color object will register over the entire tonal range of greys and whites. Also, texture, as it is accentuated by light, is particularly powerful in monochrome, so that part needs to be planned as well. Exposure, as it’s effected by polarizers or colored filters also must be planned, as values in sky, stone or foliage must be anticipated. And, always, there is the use of contrast as drama, something black and white does to great effect.
You might be able to convert a color shot into an even more appealing b&w shot in your kerputer, but the most direct route, that is, making monochrome in the moment, is still the best, since it gives you so many more options while you’re managing every other aspect of the shot in real time. It all comes down to a major philosophical point about photography, which is that the more control you can wield ahead of the click, especially with today’s shoot-it-check-it-shoot-it-again technology, the better your results will be.