Topic: Commentary (108 posts) Page 2 of 22

SOLO

Going shooting. Out photographing. Photo road trip. Meaning the act of photographing, usually outdoors. It's what I do and many of you too. But I wonder how many of the photo trips you make, whether they be day trips or longer ones, are done solo.

I just ended a ten day trip to SE Washington to photograph, incessantly, the fields in the area, and working alone is much on my mind. I have a theory about this, this solo approach: it allows you to get inside the work better. Maybe another way to say that is a solo trip gets you looking at decisions you are making and cutting through noise to allow you to be in synch or in unison with the pictures you are making. On this most recent trip I didn't have a conversation longer than a couple of minutes with anyone since I left home. Long days driving on farmers' dirt roads makes for much thought: about the pictures I have made, am making and will make. Long nights when the light has left the day were spent biding my time sleeping, waiting for dawn, recharging myself and my batteries, downloading files, writing blogs, occasionally going out for a meal or a beer. But my myself, solo. 

 Working solo is immersive, as it should be. 

I learned a long time ago how to make pictures in a group or with a friend. I don't have a problem with that as some do. After all there were countless field trips, hauling students in a van to various places to shoot, on class day but also on weekends. I would photograph on those trips as well.

But the solo photo trip, the road trip where time is spent on the prowl for pictures by yourself, day after day, getting completely into the act of photographing regularly, establishing a routine of shooting, looking, assessing, discriminating, rejecting, accepting, waiting, hurrying up, making decisions, missing opportunities, screwing up, succeeding, being jubilant, being crestfallen, talking to yourself, being bored, needing to take a leak, getting in the car, getting out of the car, setting up, tearing down, taking a break, looking at files, day after day. That's the kind of trip I am talking about. 

To many outsiders this all looks like a vacation. And in some ways, of course, it is. Certainly it's a vacation from sitting in an office doing stuff you don't want to do. But it is work too. I think of it as what I do, my work, what I have done my whole career. It is an essential part of my process, my methodology as a career artist, intrinsic and as intuitive as making my prints in a darkroom for 25 years or working the files and inkjet printing the results. 

It is also something more of my adult students should do, photograph alone. Often there is a non photo partner along. Not so good. Distracting and conflicting, as supportive as they may be. Look, this thing photography is hard, not as easy as going "click" with a camera up to your eye. Photography is amazingly illusive, to do really well. It takes all we've got and then some to make truly significant photographs. Truly great work is almost impossible, a few in a lifetime, I figure. So, work hard and increase your chance for success. Think! Concentrate! Look! Research! Discriminate! 

What does that say to you, to your family and friends if you make a trip just to photograph? It implies a level of commitment and dedication. Ultimately it doesn't matter where, the exotic and gorgeous (which, as you probably know, has its own problems) or the run down and/or ordinary. It's a "frame of mind" thing, isn't it? To flip it a little, think about going to say, Albany, NY to photograph. My choice of cities is arbitrary but for most of us we wouldn't ever have any reason to go to Albany, let alone photograph there. How freeing is that? Pick a place and don't go for touristy things only. Go for pictures. 

And try photographing  solo.

        •••

This blog is provided to you as a public service, to increase awareness and understanding of artistic process, visual communication and my creative career. While I shamelessly promote my own work, I frequently look at others' as well and try to write posts that improve our knowledge of this discipline we all love. I accept no advertising and do not endorse for compensation any products used in the making of my work. 

If you read the blog and believe it a worthwhile addition please let me know:

nrantoul@comcast.net

Thank you.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted November 11, 2016

Robert Frank: Sideways

Drove up to Brunswick, Maine last week with colleague and friend Michael Hintlian to see the Robert Frank show called Sideways. The exhibit was at the Museum of Art at Bowdoin College. I urge you to go. It's up til January 29, 2017.

I would describe this as a modest showing of Frank's works, mostly pictures made before the mid 50's Americans work and some after. On the other hand, can any exhibit of Robert Frank's photographs be called "modest"? What the show does is flush out what Frank was seeing and thinking about before he made the epic "Americans" and also after. Fascinating.

The logistics of the show is that it was pulled together by two Bowdoin professors teaching two classes and the students in those courses. We are in their debt. 

My first impressions in coming into the gallery and scanning the prints is that this is truly old work, seen now in the context of the medium's history: 11 x 14 black and white analog points, 4 -ply over matts, black Nielsen frames and Frank's photographs; often grainy, muddy, shot in extreme light and needing spotting. Signature Robert Frank. Doesn't matter, their weight and power are self evident. Everything you've heard and read about Robert Frank's significance is true. The work in "Sideways" only serves to verify this is one of the powerhouses of a medium that had never seen anything like what he did in the mid fifties. No wonder he couldn't get "The Americans " published in the US and had to go to Europe to get it printed. I've seen the work prints he submitted for publication: grainy, muddy, shot in extreme light and needing spotting. Hell, I've failed students for submitting work as bad as that! Again, doesn't matter.  His work is amazing.

Criticism of the show? Not much. The wall plaques are a little over the top... I chose not to read them, which is typical for me. Remember this is a museum on a college campus. There is an educational role to fulfill here.

The show looks a little "pieced together" to me but doing this was a most monumental effort, I am sure. You try finding works like these, getting them from foundations, private owners and collectors, perhaps on loan from other museums. Not easy work.

Curious about the Pennwick Foundation, where a lot of the prints for the show came from? Me too as I'd never heard of it before.

http://www.pennwick.org/pennwick_home.htm

The Pennwick Foundation is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to broadening public awareness of art. In addition to publishing a variety of books, catalogues, and electronic media on topics including, but not limited to, fine art, photography, and film, the Pennwick foundation seeks to create educational opportunities and increase access to the arts through the development new methodologies of exhibition. 

Worth over four hours of driving up and back from Boston to see the the show? Absolutely.

Highly recommended.

Closes January January 29,  2017.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 4, 2016

Sitting Around

Sitting around after dinner with friends the other day we got into a discussion that hit home for me. This concerned career development, connections made and lost and how many times I've been screwed by the dreaded "curator changeover".

I don't have any knowledge of business practice but it has to be true in that world too. 

In a career that is based on showing museum curators my work towards purchase for their permanent collection and/or exhibition there have been many times where my work has been mishandled, poorly represented and misunderstood.

Let me give you a few examples. I studied at the RI School of Design in Providence, RI and it seemed logical to keep up contact with the RISD Museum of Art in the years after finishing. The Museum is the art museum for Rhode Island, not just for the school. So I did. Eventually, I was showing portfolios of new work every year or two to Diana Johnson, the museum's director. For whatever reason, Diana "got me" and had a strong sympathy for the work I was making and the direction my career was taking. Without my specifically asking she committed to showing my work in a one person show two years down the line. I was ecstatic. Much thinking and planning went into what I would show, how I would juxtapose one body of work against another, even the artist statement I would write, the size of the prints and so on. About a year before we were going to schedule the show, Diana abruptly left the museum, to return to her original career, which was wealth management! All this history with her was now gone, all the trips to Providence to show her work, all the long conversations we had about intent and result, all now irrelevent. My show was quickly assigned to a new curator, just out of graduate school, another Johnson, this one named Deborah. Deborah and I had no history so I started over. The first time we met, I showed her some work and she excitedly told me she'd found a date and location in the museum for my show. I knew at this point in my career I wasn't thought of as an A list artist, or someone to be headlined.  But to be given space to show my work on a lower floor in a room that was just outside the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department felt like being given a table next to the kitchen in a restaurant.  Furthermore, the show was now going to open in early August the next summer. For most museums, August is the graveyard shift, when attendance is low and foot traffic almost non existent. We did the show, I was very pleased and proud of the installation, the work looked great but practically no one saw it. End of story number one.

Story number Two. A few years  after getting my MFA in the early 70's and moving to Boston I had begun to show work to the logical museums and venues for exhibition in the area: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Decordova Museum, Vision Gallery and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA, among others. Perhaps my strongest connection was with Don Snyder who was the head curator at the Addison. Again, Don understood my pictures, my intentions and the level at which I worked. This was fairly early in my career so my ability to be verbally coherent about my work was hampered by shyness and a lack of eloquence (still true today) but the pictures spoke to Don and so he committed to exhibiting my photographs after two or three years of showing him work. In his heart, Don wanted to be teaching not curating so when Ryerson Institute in Toronto offered him a full time job he jumped at it. Me?  I inherited a young new curator at the Addison, tasked to curate my show, who had some progressive ideas about exhibiting my work, including "informalizing" it. The show was schedueled at a better time than in Story Number 1 and was a moderate success but I didn't like the presentation very much. Unmounted prints covered with glass and pinned directly the wall, butted quite close to each other?  Fine for a hallway gallery, or maybe a cafe' but not a prestigious museum. The lesson here? Watch out for the curator who wants to bend your work to his or her goals and aspirations. End of second story.

Having your work curated can be very good, of course, a melding of two minds on  what work will be shown, how it will look and what it means. To be fair, I have had that, both with museums (a show at the Danforth Museum curated by Jessica Roscio comes to mind) and with galleries (Susan Nalband at 555 Gallery, which represents my work). But relinquishing control of your work to someone else is never easy. This is very much like working with an editor, of course, or a music director or a conductor. For me the characteristic of working with someone over years only to find they've moved on and left you to work with a stranger seems to pervade my career. I am sure it does many others as well. I call it curator changeover and it sucks, big time.

Last story, this one with a decidedly unhappy ending. For probably fifteen years I showed work to a curator at a nearby museum. While my career was ascending, so was hers. We did a few small things together over the years, a print or two of mine in a group show, a couple of things purchased for the collection. In what turned out to be her last year there I made the museum an offer they couldn't refuse and they bought a whole portfolio of work, a series of mine. Now we were getting somewhere. Then, suddenly, she was gone. I never knew details but the museum had a big shakeup when a new director came on board. Not only did I lose all those years of showing the curator work, when I met with her replacement, there was no chance of anything happening. It was clear to me my work was not the new person's idea of what the museum should be showing or collecting.  

I am hoping you will keep these three stories in mind as you work to gain increased exposure for your work. 

Just saying.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted August 31, 2016

Nobody Cares

Ted Forbes, on the site called "The Art of Photography" states that "Nobody Cares About Your Photography". No one likes to hear this but this is a realization that  leads him to say that "photography that matters" is what counts.

The essay is called

Brutal Truth: Nobody Cares About Your Photography

and can be found here.

This can serve as a wake up call, putting us on notice that the world moves on and no one knows or notices your hard work.

Photography that matters can mean all sorts of things, of course; news, reportage, events, prominent people, disasters and global changes. But art  can matter too, a seminal Cartier Bresson, the kid with the hand grenade in Central Park by Diane Arbus, even Ansel Adam's Moonrise as it has become so iconic, a picture from Robert Frank's The Americans, all those matter.

Go on that photo trip. Shoot a lot. Get home. Print a lot. Make the work into a portfolio or perhaps a book. What've you got? Work that no one cares about. As viewers we are callous and while it is wonderful you had such a great time and made pictures so unusual of such exceptional things, we really don't care that nuch.

Let's look back to shooting film and/or slides. Same thing. Someone went on a trip, shot a lot of slides, got home, made a slide show, invited friends over, looked at the slides. I don't know about you but I was subjected to this kind of abuse when I was a kid by my dad and those were some deadly boring evenings.

In that sense Mr. Forbes is correct: nobody cares about your photography. In the world of still imagery these days no one is going to slow down and consider your work, judge its redeeming value, place it on a pedestal of praise and awe, make the necessary connections to link it with other works of yours, to place it in your oeuvre.

First of all they don't know you exist, secondly they aren't going to spend enough time with your work to get it, third, they're not going to pat attention unless they've been told by some authority they read or know about who tells them how   wonderful your work is. Even then, no guarantees.

So where does that leave you? Well, one way to differentiate your work from the masses posting on Instagram is to make your work into prints and display them somewhere. Just that separates you from most. A print is a real thing, something you can stand in front of and look at for a while. But also build a website, make it very good and direct people to go and see it, perhaps use the site to promote your shows. Make your prints extraordinary, learn your craft and excel at it. And own your pictures so that they are not derivative.  That seems hard I know, but listen to your own inner artist, follow your own instinct in your work. Pay little or no attention to "influencers," or "mimickers"that are so prevalent on line. And don't travel to "great locations" for photography or get trapped into believing you need the great picture of any given place. It blows me away to see a row of workshop attendees standing in a line with cameras making the same picture. Is this what you want? Make work that stems from real projects, not just an hour out with a camera. Scratch deeper and learn to use the medium to say something, be it it actual as in a story or a narrative or more figurative or emotional, a dream, a setting, or to, as Ted Forbes says, make pictures of things that matter.

And, oh yes, good luck. You'll need it. Photography is now so very tough, no longer a small thing, but a ubiquitous thing, with so very many vying for attention that almost no one gets any. Facing the realization that no ones cares about your work is that splash in the face with ice water we need as a wake up to the situation we are all in now. Face reality. If you want to be a player, figure out a way to differentiate, stand apart, make a distinction. These days, good work is nowhere near enough. Try to figure out a way to make work that matters. 

With thanks to Ted Forbes.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted August 5, 2016

One Person's Take

This post will be just one person's perspective: mine. I don't know if there are other characteristics in other people's lives as artists, I suspect there must be, but I can only reference mine. I am going to try to write about my life as an artist.

Note: I'm just going to share some of my past work that I believe embodies some of the things I am writing about.

Some ground rules. One is that the base of my creative life has been as a photographer. If you can't cope with that then no need to read further. I would cite that there are more similarities to the conventional arts like painting, sculpture and drawing for the photographer than differences. Second, is that we're not all crazy and emotional wrecks, although I certainly have been those things at times in my past. Finally, that we all drink from the common well of needing to express ourselves visually. That making our work comes from where are are at our core, a need, a requirement and that, in effect, our work is our life.

The essential element of what I hope to convey is that we are, for the most part, private people working in a public sphere. Photography tends to be a little unique here in that we need the exterior to make our work, at least most of us do. I live in the real world and am thankful that my discipline makes me be out in it, for if it didn't I would be more reclusive than I am now, not a good thing. There is an element of loneliness to what we do, or at least aloneness, for artists need to be comfortable in that private place, where their thoughts are theirs and only theirs.

Private people working in a public sphere. Noble, honorable, consistent, satisfying, heroic? Not so much, usually. More like coming out of a need to create comes a sharing of common human experience. Can I convey this in a picture I make standing in a field pointing my camera at a line of trees?

Can a picture like this resonate with you? I can't know this nor should I try to predispose its outcome. I simply need to make photographs that connect for me in the hope that my experience (or hopefully, my expertise) will also allow them to connect with you.

As a private person, words mostly fail me at times like these.  I wish that it weren't true. I can remember trying to convey to a large class, students asked to sit in a circle, after I came back from Prescott, Arizona listening to Fred Sommer for three days tell me everything, sharing with me his core philosophy that was informed by people like Einstein, Nietzsche, Blake and Stravinsky, and of course, his own desert explorations, how it all worked, to answer the primary questions about why you would embark upon a life as an artist. This was a total failure, me dissembling into incoherent ramblings and stories. I always thanked the higher powers that my students were incredibly forgiving of this teacher's incomprehensibilities.

I think that many people do get it, that artists are reaching down into something deep within them that is then shared. My own out is that my primary vehicle isn't words at all, it is photographs and I apologize for outright ineptitude in trying to write about this in this forum.  I hope for at least an A for effort.

Since a couple of key posts this past spring my readership has gone from very small to quite large (20k) so I am aware I am speaking to a great many. This loads what I write certainly, but also is immensely rewarding in that so many are now viewing my work, admittedly in a poor fashion due to small screens and not looking at my actual prints, but far better than knowing nothing of it at all. I am very grateful to you for  coming along for the ride.

The private part is mostly around what my thinking process is like. How I can work off a reaction to a place, a piece of music, something I've read or even some art I've seen to find the beginnings of an idea or a project. To initiate that spark of curiosity that questions things as in "I wonder what it would like if I...?" That's a fundamental thing but also a trained thing, a response to surroundings that is lubricated by experience, devotion, and yes, at least for me, single mindedness. Can I, or you, springboard from that beginning curiosity into a force to be reckoned with, a picture making machine that uses all it has to make a powerhouse body of work? That's probably why we have to practice, to be fluid in our knowledge of what we have to use, for to be in front of the best thing ever with a camera and to be inept, rusty and not fully conversant is tragic and we only have ourselves to blame.

This is the back of a postcard Harry Callahan wrote to me after I failed yet again on a Guggenheim Fellowship application in 1983. I'd asked him to write on my behalf and believe he did his best, several times as it would turn out. I was devastated but didn't stop photographing.

I have written about success and failure in this blog, things that can move us up or down on our own register, but really they should mean very little. These are external things, outside influencers and pressures that mostly take us away from our inner guide, which is our work. I used to tell students who were up against the artist's version of "writer's block" that "pictures make pictures". At times I have to remind myself of my own words as I am as capable of wrong turns, dead ends, laziness and an inability to see the forest for the trees as anyone else. 

I don't know that I have a firm conclusion for this post I've written.  Perhaps I can end with the thought that I have found artists to be consistently misundertood, under respected, maligned and biased against my whole adult life. Recently I am dealing with the concept that no cares about my work.  In fact that no one cares about most work.  Facing that is sobering, humbling, frustrating and mostly true. 

Enough.

I am off for a short road trip west from Boston for a couple of days in a sports car.  Me, a couple of cameras, my eyes, my keen mind (I hope), my perceptions, my past experiences all packed up and ready to find things to photograph. Who would have thought that this would still be an adventure after all these years. But it surely is.

Thank you for reading my blog.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 15, 2016