Portland, Maine

The book Portland is now out. This is the 4th in the series of small books that  highlight my series works from the 80's and 90's.

These are available by emailing me directly (nrantoul@comcast.net) or they will be for sale at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Portland is also on the website: here.


Topics: Books,Series,vintage

Permalink | Posted July 22, 2017

Bodies in Motion

He packed up his gear along with a tripod and headed out to make pictures. Nothing specific in mind, nowhere to go, just driving and looking, as he'd done throughout his now long career of being an artist using a camera. 

It took him awhile to get out of the city he lived in, stopping for coffee along the way. This was a day trip so he knew his "range". Like spokes on a wheel, he would drive out, explore and photograph and drive back late in the day. He felt he was in the business of "making miracles". Not really, of course, but the metaphor held true in that he would work to imbue ordinary things with something special, to endow his pictures with infinite care and respect for the placement and content contained within the frame. No accidents here, or at least that was his intention, to find subjects that resonated with his sensibilities.

Often on those day trips to photograph, his mind wandering while behind the wheel, looking, thinking about various unrelated things he would find himself pulling over and stopping without the idea fully formed in his head what it was that he was going to do here. Was this years of training doing this hundreds or even thousands of times, the behavior ingrained now? Or was it somehow more instinctual, his intellect being superseded by his genetic makeup and biology? At any rate, getting out of the car, looking around, hauling his camera out, deciding which lens to use, whether he needed to use a tripod or not, what ISO to set, all practiced and repeated movements for over 40 years. And yet, knowing too that this was a genuinely odd thing to do, to commit attention to something like the back wall of a warehouse, the woods at the edge of the railroad tracks, the bridge going over the river, the stone wall after the last headstones in the back of a rural graveyard. The sheer audacity of the premise that one could drive or walk around, randomly find things to photograph, ascribe significance by the sheer fact of clicking the shutter, pour time, effort, training and expertise into making the print then put it in front of a curator or gallery director and assume they would be impressed and want to have it, show it, acquire it.

By now, he was too much the veteran to assign ratings to these and other approaches. He was just working, that's all. He had learned that qualitative judgment was premature at inception and far more appropriate down the road, after working the image in the darkroom or the file in the computer. And even then, this was not fixed as reactions to the work were invariably different than his own. 

Amongst his colleagues, his photographer friends, there was the universally held belief that "making the work is what's important", meaning, of course, that even though the gallery or museum shuns you, even though the publisher won't print your book, even though the press preview is bad, it doesn't matter. This is implied nobility, that the work you make in complete anonymity is a gift to the world. That your public (sic) believes in the inherent superior quality of your work and that you are doing the world a favor, suffering multiple rejections in silence. As if there were a "your public" because, for the most part, there wasn't one.

He looks back at his earlier years, effectively distanced now that he is so much older. So much simpler then, it was the making of the pictures, and that was all, and enough too. Now, infinitely more complex, not only due to his age and having so many years of experience but also as the discipline of photography is so diffused, and yes, sad to say, diluted. He believes that no image has great force and weight, no picture shakes the foundations anymore as it is hard to find in all the noise, in all the clutter of our inundation of imagery. Would we know it when we saw it? Doubtful.

As he puts the camera and the tripod back in the car, settles himself behind the wheel and drives off he is acutely aware of the fact he's done this countless times and also that it is an increasingly meaningless thing to do. Sigh. While his methodology has changed little, his discipline has been completely transformed. He realizes, as he confronts this reality, that he is at the same time looking for the next place to make a picture and where to pull over, for the hunt never stops. This is habit pure and simple, just as his hand knows where the razor needs to go as he shaves his face in the shower, no mirror needed.

Tired and pleased with the day, he pointed his car back home, looking forward to downloading the files to see what he got. This is really no different than 20 or 40 years ago when he would look forward to developing his film to see what he had. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted on by an external force. He is no exception.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 21, 2017

Back to Iceland

I am headed back to Iceland in about a week. This time to teach. Last time was as an artist in residence at the Baer Art Center in Hofsos in 2013. We will be at the Art Center for the class.

My time in Iceland was just as special, magical and wonderful as you would expect. It was a transformative experience in that it shifted my sense of the landscape and how to photograph it. Because it is such a "scrubbed clean" country with few trees, objects, scale and content float in the space of the picture differently. My New England-based sense of scale was skewed by tremendous clarity at great distances. In fact, my first two days at the residency, I shut down, didn't photograph and wrestled with just what it was that I could do while there.

This is an aerial of where I lived for 5 weeks in 2013, one of five artists, each with our own studio, our meals prepared by a chef, with frequent trips into town or on day trips to different places. 

Behind the main house you can see the long building where we lived with the large barn-like annex to the right where we often met, projected slides of our work and had our end of the residency open house and reception. 

I have longed to return to this place since leaving in 2013 and here I am going back. I will work to assess my students' level and their proclivities in our early sessions and then address the manner for their improvement. We will take field trips and a morning for the now famous "boat ride" that takes us around the cliff face on the left side of the Cape (seen in the top photograph) where this is:

This is what it looks like from the air:

One magnificent hunk of rock.

My students will work towards a final body of photographs for the class and then return home with RTP (ready to print) files. I will teach with Mercedes Jelinek, my teaching assistant at Penland for three summers. She will be along to assist but also to head sessions on portraiture and perhaps lighting as well. 

After the week of teaching, I am off in a rented car to drive the ring road for a week before flying home.

I will post from Iceland while there. 

Back to Iceland! I can't believe my good fortune.

Permalink | Posted July 16, 2017

Like Vs Love

I submit that we are in a somewhat chaotic state of affairs right now in our chosen field of making art by using photography.

Most would agree that we make work people like. The too broad analogy is that our tastes may be roughly similar, by the time we've framed it and hung it (or submitted it), there is practically universal agreement on the image's appeal. Often, as a characteristic of this appeal, the image goes into the viewer's realm of perception and just as quickly goes right back out, soon forgotten, not rising to a higher level of awareness. Viewers will say, "nice work" without lying or subterfuge, as they mean it. Everybody is pleased and not offended. But the work is quickly forgotten.

But love it? Be really passionate about it so that it is inescapable, in fact, gets under their skin and won't let go? Rare, most rare. This "must have it", the level of commitment that someone must purchase it, be it a collector, someone walking by on the street, a curator, a colleague?  Actually put down cold cash for it? Almost never happens.

Most of us live in the "like it" world. Our work is accepted into shows and competitions. Our work fuels the need for huge quantities of imagery in this country.  It is not unusual for work to be accepted, shown on line and then never seen again, having no physical manifestation whatsoever. After all, photography is very big these days and this huge machine needs massive amounts of pictures to keep itself fed.

But "nice" pictures, those that make no real statement, that carry a "pretty, beautiful or colorful" tag, those that don't extend, push or evoke a visceral response can so easily fall into wall hangings designed to fit in with the decor or color match the sofa. Honestly, photography can excel at this. Beauty prevails here, breathtaking scenes in nature, with utopian intent, are "art" to many. 

I'll walk out the plank a little farther, as I know there is controversy in what I am writing. I would further venture that the beautiful imagery, that which has this near universal appeal, is most effective to a very large public out there, particularly now that many more can and are making these kinds of photographs.

Of course, there are other reasons to be passionate about the work. A photographer's work could be hot, a commodity, a genuine necessity on a collector's wish list. Then, it doesn't matter so much about the image, although it must've been deemed at some point to be "collectable". But now it becomes something to have, like a rare car. I just saw the Picasso show at the Clarke Museum in Williamstown, MA a couple of weeks ago and must admit I felt this way about the work. Okay, I admit it, I've never been that big a fan of Picasso's work anyway. Did I love this show? Not one bit. Too much overt ego for me, too loud. But genius? Absolutely.

Another reason there might be serious buzz about someone's work is politics.  Say you're Native American and a museum in Idaho is embarrassingly deficient in their permanent collection of NativeAmerican photographs. You may receive a very warm welcome there.

Of course, this can backfire. I am an old American white guy, not a good race or age to be these days. Collections overrepresent us by a wide margin and are playing catchup in their efforts to represent photographs across a broad spectrum of races, nations, continents, cultures and ethnicities, as they should.

At any rate like versus love plays a big part in how our work is viewed, deemed worthy for acquisition in collections, be it in someone's home or in a museum. 

So, where does that leave us? To consider our goals, to weigh the reality of our ambition and to make our work without too much consideration of whether it is purchased or not. Using sales as approbation or validation for our work is probably not such a good idea. Making our work for purchase is a business and is something quite different than what most of us do.

Let's all remember why we do this. We do this because, for some reason, we most likely need to. We are born to create, if you will. Plus, it feels good. So, go ahead, make photographs and never, I repeat, never, compromise your own standards.

Permalink | Posted July 11, 2017

Richard Benson

I think the first time I actually met Richard(Chip) Benson was at Wellesley College in the 80's. It was at an opening reception and Chip and Lee Friedlander were being honored as they had both just received MacArthur grants. I knew the Bensons were from Newport, RI and were friends of my sister and brother-in-law Marc Harrison, an industrial designer and chair of the ID Department at RISD.

Richard Benson died June 22, 2017 at the age of 73.

From time to time I'd hear that Chip had done something extraordinary and knew he was printing his 8 x 10 negatives on aluminum with the result being these incredibly flat prints that seemed to go on forever. He was friends with John Szarkowski, the photo curator at MOMA and I remember seeing his work on display once at the museum. During those years Chip was heavily invested in making separations for photo books. An example is the four volumes on Eugene Atget produced for the Museum of Modern Art.

By the late 80's and early 90's digital was beginning to be the hot topic. Kodak built a research center for all things digital in Camden, Maine called the Center for Creative Imaging. I wrote grant applications to allow me to take classes and do research and found, of course, when I arrived, that Chip was already there. I was struggling to understand how to move a mouse around and what this thing called  Photoshop was all about and Chip was scanning his 8 x 10's with a drum scanner and writing back to 8 x 10 film in a special restricted "cold room"on the Center's single large format LVT.

A large format LVT (Light Valve Technology) recorder

By 1992 or 93 I had asked for and received "special status" at the Center, which gave me free reign over all the Center's operations.  I had also been given a show the next summer in the first floor gallery. That year I was up there every time I got a chance, hanging out in classes, now scanning and film writing my own 8 x 10 negatives and occasionally running into Chip, who was always doing something incomprehensible, reinventing photography. 

In the early summer of 93 (I believe) I loaded up the car full of framed prints and drove up to Camden to install my show at the Center. We hung the show over a weekend. Chip came to the opening and invited me to a lecture he was giving the next day on the "History of Photography". I decided to hang around.

I thought I knew something about the history of photography myself.  After all, I was teaching it back at my university, along with a course in contemporary directions every other year. 

But Chip changed all that, as his lecture, given without notes, to a mostly Camden summer tourist crowd, was a revelation. I came from the Beumont Newhall school of the history of well-off western white guys inventing the medium, with an occasional Dorothea Lang or Bernice Abbott thrown in the mix for good measure. Chip revealed that, amazing as it seems, photography was taking place in the mid 1880's in places like India, Asia, South American and Africa. Of course, much of it was brilliant. His perspective and the depth of his research and knowledge was mind blowing. I have never quite looked at my chosen discipline the same way since that day.  It was clearly evident that I was in the presence of a genius as well.

I wanted more of Chip's brilliance but by this time he was regarded as a real resource.  Most years at Northeastern I taught a view camera course and inevitably we would head off in a school van for field trips. I would tend to head us toward Newport, RI where Chip lived.  I would call up Chip a couple of days in advance and ask him if he could join us for lunch. Mostly, he would dodge me as he had some fierce deadline for something and didn't want to be diverted but I convinced him a couple of times to meet with us.

I remember one day. We'd been out at Fort Adams in Newport in late March in spitting snow and rain trying to take pictures. After, we piled into a restaurant and Chip arrived. There were probably 8 of us. We sat at a big table in a mostly empty restaurant in the late afternoon. Me, these students who didn't know who Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, or Alfred Steiglitz was, let alone Richard Benson, and Chip. We settled in and  Chip said, "well, Neal, what do you want me to talk about?" Oh my God, caught speechless. Then I thought, selfishly, this isn't going to be such an important thing for the students because this is way far above where they are, but it could be for me. So I asked Chip to talk about what he was working on right now. That's all it took. I got another blast of genius. All you needed to do with him was to prime the pump. Separations, masking, and some sort of hybridized system of film and digital capture, stochastic curves, tweaking dynamic range, some stuff about optics, and working with the limitations of present day technology, predictions of short range and longer term challenges and solutions, some chemistry, enough to fill my teeny tiny brain in five minutes and he went on for what must have been an hour.

I have no recollection of anything else, driving us back to school, what the students thought or even said to me the rest of that day. 

I know this is a long blog as they're meant to be short but the final story and the last time I saw Chip was in the late 90's. He was by then the dean of the Yale Graduate School of Design (1996-2006) and had invited Frederic Sommer to give a talk (for more on Fred search the blog for "Sommer"). I drove down to New Haven that afternoon for the presentation. When I got to the hall where Fred was to speak, I found a couple of my students had made the trip as well. Chip introduced Fred, Fred gave his talk and then the two students and I went nearby for a beer and maybe a slice before driving back to Boston. Soon, in walked Fred Sommer and Chip Benson, with  a few graduate students, there to do the same thing. They walked by me and didn't take any  notice. But there were two of the most brilliant people I'd ever known, hanging out, having a beer and pizza after a talk on a weeknight at Yale. Damn.

Thank you, Chip, for your huge contribution to photography.

Want to know more about Chip Benson? His work is represented by Pace MacGill Gallery and he created a website that explains much of his research: here.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted June 26, 2017