Topic: Commentary (112 posts) Page 1 of 23

SABBATICAL

More accurately: sabbatical leave. As a professor for thirty years I was fortunate to have four one semester sabbaticals and a year-long one.

Very often people outside of academia don't know how it works to be a professor. Sabbatical leaves are commonly awarded to professors in universities to conduct research free from teaching responsibilities. Eligibility is determined by rank, therefore adjuncts are usually not able to apply. Applications for leaves are handled by a committee which reviews applications and awards sabbaticals on merit. They are one of the perks of the job. Frequency varies but commonly, it is every seven years.

Outside of academia sabbaticals also occur occasionally in business and, of course, some people give themselves a "sabbatical" to take a leave to do something they can't do while working. The traditional sabbatical, however, is different in that it includes getting paid while you do it. Like I said, one of the perks.

It is difficult for me to express what these leaves meant for me for the years I ran the Photography Program at Northeastern University. Having the sabbatical in the fall or spring semester meant that I was only at school one semester for that year as it butted up against the summer when I usually didn't teach. Making pictures, practicing my discipline, was always a struggle while I was working. Squeezing in the time to go photographing or the endless hours needed in the darkroom was hard when the job and my family needed my attention. Sabbaticals freed me from one whole large component of my life and were proposed and awarded to support my making art.

Got something you'd like to do? Someplace you're dying to go? Feeling hemmed in by work? Part of being the creative person you are is to be creative in all aspects of your life, not just in the art you make.  Think about how you can make things happen, get a project funded and/or supported, there are many ways. My first sabbatical was called a "pre-tenure" sabbatical in that it was designed so support assistant professors in their efforts to publish or do their research before applying for tenure, a critical time. I applied, got a one semester leave but was not awarded a grant I applied for. So I had no funding to support my rather elaborate plan to travel around England and Northern Scotland with an 8 x 10 view camera making pictures. So, I ended up driving through the American West in my parents motorhome for two months. Although I did fine and made good pictures I learned from that one that a sabbatical leave with no funding isn't so great. Work out the support for your sabbatical before you take off.

As I got tenured and became more senior and knew the system at my university better I was able to be away  more on various projects. It helped that my daughter was away at school by then as well. No longer married, I was free go more often. Funded research trips to study other photo programs, or study new technologies, give lectures, talks, presentations, have exhibitions of my  own work and go to conferences became things I did more. In each of these situations I would photograph wherever I was. I had a discretionary budget, travel stipend and a network of internal grants I could apply for, and did succeed frequently. This meant I needed to have someone back at school holding down the fort that I could trust. Luckily, I had someone for many years in Andrea Raynor in that she exuded capability and excellence in all that she did. In fact, she's still at Northeastern and is the Department Chair.

Did I work the system? I did. Did it benefit me and my work? Yes, it did. Was I dishonest, lining my own pockets with my school's funds, or travel elaborately off the school, buy gifts on their dime or provide these perks to colleagues? No, I did not. 

I also learned this lesson. One of my colleagues, a senior graphic designer, told people she would be in Hawaii the whole time she was on her sabbatical. In reality she stayed home and worked on new projects. She knew she'd get called in to avert some crisis in her discipline if people knew she was close by. Smart. I learned that you must go away in order to cut the thread. 

My first big trip away to photograph was in 1979. I wasn't a professor yet, and told NESOP (New England School of Photography) I wouldn't be teaching in the spring. As I was  teaching at Harvard too, after the fall semester finished  in January I was free to take off for the Southwest. This was a self imposed sabbatical of indeterminant length to go make work. I needed to get south from Boston as it was winter and I had friends I could stay with in places like Santa Fe and Houston as this was a trip on a shoestring. 

Can you picture this? A 33 year old 6'2" Neal crammed into a loaded and aging bright yellow mid engined 2 liter Porsche 914, with rusting heater boxes and paint peeling off the hood, gone for three months, driving endless hours first to New Orleans, then to Houston meeting with Anne Tucker, then Santa Fe staying with my friend Ed Ranney, then Tempe and Tucson to visit with Harold Jones and Todd Walker,  Prescott to see Fred Sommer, photographing daily, back home again with a few days in DC. Me, a box of prints, camera gear, tripod and some clothes. And bags and bags of exposed film when I got home.

Want to see some of the work I made from that trip? On the site: here.

Sabbatical. Take one if you can.

Topics: Road Trip,Black and White,vintage,Analog,Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 2, 2017

Robert Pirsig 1927-2017

Dead at 88 years old. One of my heroes, as he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read in about 1977. Perhaps you read it too. I didn't understand some of it, but the idea of turning a road trip across America on a motorcycle into to an existential pursuit of self and the meaning of life sure did appeal.

Along with Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and a few others, including Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski and On Photography by Susan Sontag, these books formed a foundation of pursuit, enquiry and aesthetic maturation for me and, I am sure, many others from my generation.

Because of this blog and the need to go back into my creative life and its projects, I am able, for the first time, to see my own development taking place in my work. This is now reflected in the talks and presentations I give and in my writing for the introductions to the series works books we are making.

But Pirsig rocked my world. I remember this wonderful description he gave us of assembling his 4 x 5 view camera, placing it on his tripod and trying to capture the grandeur of the expanse of a Kansas field with 360 degrees of open sky and flowing wheat, then packing it up and riding away with no pictures made, understanding the medium's limitations and his struggle to put his feelings into photographs. 

That story from his book certainly was in my mind as I was making this picture in 2009 in the Palouse in SE Washington.

Apologies for this odd sort of eulogy but I offer it in the spirit of the loss we have suffered in his passing. I owe Mr. Pirsig a debt of gratitude for his generosity in sharing his thoughts and experiences and am thankful for the richness of what he wrote. 

Rest well, Robert Pirsig.

Topics: Books,Commentary,eulogy

Permalink | Posted April 26, 2017

The Responsibility

The responsibility of preserving quality. The responsibility of knowing that people are reading and seeing what you are presenting. The responsibility that some know the projects well, have read about their genesis, progress, culmination, maybe even the ensuing criticism. Not something you want to overtake your thoughts and, to be honest, not on my radar when I began the blog several years ago.

Be careful what you wish for, Neal.

This is what I think. Whatever exposure and success the work has had, it resides in some very small room in a very large house. The end game of the process, this public part of the trajectory of work invented, researched, made and then somehow put out there was never seen by me as something much to think of. Because, to be truthful, for much of my career there was little consequence to my work being shown and seen. So is this because the work is large in importance, deserving recognition? I'd like to think so but this isn't for me to determine. Or is it because my work has been swept along in the increasing ubiquity and importance of photography in general? Probably a little of both.

This is what I know. These days meeting another photographer it's not uncommon to hear them say "oh, I know your work, I read your blog". This freaks me out, for I've poured my heart into the blog, explaining, questioning and wrestling with my work's issues, only to find a complete stranger is coming along with me every step of the way, as though we are partners in these projects. But here is the disconnect, most aren't referencing the work from shows or looking at prints. The blog and perhaps the series on the gallery page are it, all they know of it. While I appreciate their role, it is essentially passive, an audience choosing to read my piece, clicking to something else if I am not holding their attention. It is telling that when I offered to show the actual prints to anyone interested a few months ago, one person took me up on my offer. One person! It has not escaped me that we consume this kind of content on the same type of screen as we do our 337 channels of TV, switching channels after a second or so, searching searching but seldom  fulfilled.

This is what I feel. I have worked hard throughout my career making photographs. It has been my all consuming passion. It still is. But so much has changed around that constant. Traditional models no longer pertain. For instance, photography is no longer a print-based medium. For artists, print-based photographs play a key role for the sheer fact that they are then used as a commodity, something salable, collectable, marketable, purchasable. But most of photography will never be seen in print form.

I will stop here as I've thrown out quite enough. I am now in Baltimore on the last leg of this one week road trip.  This is a driving trip and the car becomes home when you're in it hour after hour, every day. I like cars. What you drive can predispose your reaction to your surroundings on a trip like this, your decision to stop or not stop to photograph, your mood and your outlook on life, even. I am driving a 2016 Audi TTS and it is wonderful; small, reactive, fast and very comfortable. I bought it for its sports car handling and because I like to do track days. I never dreamed it would be a wonderful road trip car. But it is. I've learned that it is simply one of the best cars I've ever owned. 

Postscript: I wrote the above a couple of weeks ago and am only posting it now. I just signed up for a track day in the TTS at Pocono Raceway in PA in early May. I have done many track days on many tracks but never Pocono and never in a car like the Audi. Zoom Zoom.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 20, 2017

I Love Art

I have a confession: I Love Art.

A blog about how art invigorates, inspires, teaches and can share the very best of humanity.

I am just back from a short road trip with stops overnight in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Lots of driving, some serious rain. I went the other day to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Glass entrance to new a wing, white walls, a city-funded policy of free admission, classes of kids with docents explaining and showing; old art, new art, ancient art, book art, video art, 3D art and, strangely, very little photo art but nevertheless, wonderful, transcendent really.

Hit it right and you can be empowered in the presence of art.  So very much vitality springing off the museum walls, thoughts, passions, ideas, travails and triumphs, history and freshness. Imagine Trump wanting to defund the arts. Clueless. What an asshole. 

Want inspiration? Go look at art. Just the thought that my work is somewhere in this mix, this cauldron of creative expression throughout the ages makes me feel proud, if perhaps humbled too.  You too if you make art, what an esteemed thing to do. 

Back to Baltimore and its museum. Excellent representation of a broad array of art, well displayed and not too teacherly. I took pictures, sorry about no indentifications,

although this one of the columns is by Anne Truitt.

Your day got you down? Are the skies dawning gray and life is hard? Lost your positive outlook, lost that Joie de vivre? Go look at some art.

In yellow, Any Warhol's Last Supper silkscreens.

This last one, these school kids getting being taught about some art making process by the male docent while in the presence of this looming and glowing vibrant red Mark Rothko on the left.  How great is that?

Baltimore Museum of Art... worth going. Looking at art made my day. It will make yours too.

Topics: Commentary,museums

Permalink | Posted April 9, 2017

Three Amigos 1

Last month we had our first of 3 Three Amigos parties this winter at my studio in Allston, MA. If you've read this blog for awhile you might remember we are: Fred Sway, John Rizzo and me. We had two Three Amigos exhibitions a few years ago; one in Harvard, MA and another the following year at the New England School of Photography Gallery in Boston. 

Our recent evening was to gather friends and family for a winter supper of chili and cornbread with a glass of wine to look at work we'd hung that displayed each of our photographs and then to highlight the work of one of us. This one featured Fred Sway's work.

These above are recent works  from a show Fred had at the Brookline (MA) Library in the fall of 2016.

After an hour or so of talking and socializing we quieted the group of about 25 and Fred showed some work from another series at the big table in the center of the studio.

Fred is retired now but very active photographically. He comes from a background of doing his gradate work with Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design in Chicago, was a teacher for many years and was the director at the New England School of Photography in the mid 70's and 80's. From there he was head of Boston University's Photo Services until he retired in 2008.

We had guests from all over. Many were friends or family that weren't in the photo community. Didn't matter. Some of the best questions Fred got were from people who didn't know photography that well. Fred enjoyed himself and the guests did too.

This was a wonderful evening and a great way to share work with people in a personal and informal way. People really enjoyed their time with each other, looking at Fred's pictures, having something good to eat (and drink) and getting a break from the stress of our new president's first weeks in office.

Finally, I think this is a perfect way to look at art. Personal, easy, informal and amongst friends and colleagues. Our Three Amigos party might serve as a model for you in your community. Hope so.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 20, 2017