Topic: Commentary (114 posts) Page 1 of 23

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 Or was it somehow more instinctual, his intellect being superseded by his genetic makeup and biology?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

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


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