Topic: Portland (4 posts)

Portland, Maine 1996 Four

This is the fourth and last installment about the Portland, Maine pictures I made in 1996.

There are three more photographs in the series. Here is the next one:

With the numbers 35 and 33 this one makes me think about: serendipity, chance, similarities and differences, and, a recurring theme for me, the same but different. Serendipity as if you lived in No. 33 you'd be fortunate not to have this big hole in your front steps. Why is one side in worse condition than the other? "Similarities and differences" in this case is much like the "same but different" in that these two sides, these two apartments were made presumably exactly the same, with mirror image rooms and entrance doors. But time has modified them, individualized them, differentiated them. Look closely and you can see many differences. Decay and  atrophy are persistent themes in my work, so it comes as no surprise to me that I was attracted to these crumbling concrete steps.

And now for a change, the second to last photograph in the series. For the first time we are looking over a fence into a backyard, and one that is chaotic. There is still some containment and convergence too, notice the fence on the left and the steps on the right. There is also a filthy snow bank, lots of junk and a difficult path to the building in the mid background which is being threatened into obscurity by the tree branches. Imagine leaves on those trees in mid summer. They might block the house from view completely. What else? Rather than moving in close to eliminate the fence in the foreground I chose to leave it, with its sharp points looking like spikes that would gouge you if you tried to jump it.

So here we are at the last picture in the series, this one showing real depth as we skim along several backyards. This is the first time we've seen a picture like this in the series. There are some obstructions to our release out of the picture, some junk in our way, but for the most part the path is easy. If you've looked at other series of mine you'll know that very often there is either an opening out to the rest of the world in the last picture or a barrier to that leaving. Take a look at the last image in Yountville, CA or Nantucket, MA as examples.

Here at at the end you might ask if there was some big point to these pictures, some conclusion to be drawn from the series that speaks to a more fundamental message. Another way to phrase this question is to ask if I went into it with a purpose in mind, a goal to achieve, some ulterior game plan perhaps to use these pictures to make a broad statement about something? Very simply, I did not. A series like this is an evolving process, made intensively over a short period of time and involving discoveries, trials, false starts, attempts and misdirections as well as successes. The Portland, Maine pictures do speak to the place, to where I photographed, to the light that was present those two days, to the time of year I made the pictures, to the issue of selectivity, how a photographer chooses to bring something to prominence, to photography and yes, to the width of the lens I used to make the pictures. But they do not dictate outcome, the viewer's interpretation of just what these pictures are about. This answer may irritate you, seem devious or that I am shirking my responsibilities as the person who made them. I don't believe I am. 

Long ago, some years after I was finished with my graduate studies, I went to an opening at a gallery along Lansdowne Street in Boston, on the back side of Fenway Park, at a gallery called, if memory serves me, Enjay. The work was by Harry Callahan and, as he'd been a teacher of mine, I went to see the show and also him as I knew he was going to be there. Openings weren't Harry's favorite thing to do and I remember late in the evening, Harry leaning up against the counter in the back room while a drunk European man was verbally assaulting him with questions about what his work meant. He was standing right in front of Callahan and was screaming at him:  "What's that mean?"he yelled, pointing at a picture of Harry's hanging on the wall and then, he pointed at another and yelled, "What's that mean?" By this time Harry had given up trying to reason with the guy. Although Harry could take care of himself, I went to his defense, pushing the man back away from Harry and yelling at him to leave Harry alone.

Forgive me, but I've never felt it was incumbent upon the artist to explain the work.

Before I close this post I wanted to touch on a couple of more points in regards to this group. One is result based coming from the conditions and circumstances I found myself in while making the Portland pictures. Were you to have the actual prints in front of you and were comparing earlier series to these and some series that follow this one you 'd notice right away, of course, I was working under brighter and contrastier light. If you know photography you know that alone usually makes for more depth of field, meaning I was able to use a hand holdable shutter speed with a smaller aperture. This is very apparent in the Portland pictures due to their being sharper from foreground to background. 

The other point is that this was about to be an incredibly productive time for me. While I still continued to work in 8 x 10, that is a device that tends to produce pictures in a more measured manner and this was as true in the mid 90's as it had been for the previous ten years and also would be over the next ten. But having this Hasselblad SWC in my hand again, after a moratorium of many years, would also allow me to make many new pictures, series like the Oakesdale Cemetery series the following summer or the Hershey, PA series in the early spring of 1997. These, along with Portland,  have proven to be seminal pieces in my oeuvre, shown frequently in various shows, some of which are in the 2006 monograph American Series. In fact, the Portland series are in the permanent collection of the Boston Atheneum and the Peddocks Island series is in the collection of the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA. 

And lastly, my printing by this time was well practiced and fulfilled a very clear set of objectives. The Portland series, while now shown as inkjet prints, were originally printed in the darkroom on Kodak 14 x 17 inch Polymax F surface paper and toned with selenium. The prints are about 12 inches square and printed in a very straight and undramatic way, meaning that they run from the D-max of a full black on up  the scale to a Zone VIII and IX white while I made a clear effort to contain detail in both shadows and highlights.

If you're read through all four of these posts I thank you for hanging in with me. Sometimes these posts are a lot of work, but they also bring me back to where I was and what I was at the time I made a group of pictures. I am appreciative of both the opportunity to share them with you and also the challenge implicit in doing a good and thorough job.

Topics: Series,Portland

Permalink | Posted June 27, 2013

Portland, Maine 1996 Three

This is the third part of a description and analysis of a group of pictures I made in Maine in 1996.

The full series of Portland, Maine is at: Portland

Depth and convergence. That's what's going on here. You can almost see this photograph swirling around the central core of where the lens is pointed. This is the fifth picture in the series and is an assertion that I am not documenting anything here but using the place, the streets, the houses, the buildings in Portland for my own design as a kind of canvas. We will see this again on down the line in the group. For me, this picture is a celebration of the light spreading across the scene, modeling the forms in ways that are dynamic and powerful. In the first post I compared this series of photographs to those I'd made earlier in the 80's.  This is another that reinforces those differences as I find this picture and, in fact, the whole set, far more assertive than the earlier work.

This one, with its white fence making a clear triangle, establishes another way in which I photograph. Pointing down with a wide angle lens makes a sort of "reverse convergence" in that the top of the frame bows out. In this case it ends up making quite a radical picture. Almost incidental but something we will see again soon, there is snow in the lower left. This places the photograph in the time of year it was made, late March. Also, I wanted to slide the viewer's eye to the right, up along the fence into the intricacy of the banister on the steps, then to the  back railing on the porch and then to the boxed-in section of the side of the next door neighbor's house. And finally, on the opposite edge, there is a slight escape out of the frame to the sky behind that is rendered a middle gray, sliding down the clapboards on the side of the house that never looked like that in reality.

Here's much more snow, in the next photograph. Why? I liked being able to use the snow mound here, although this in no way is a core picture. It is simply an unusual and different form than I would normally have to work with so I used it. If I break  down these two and the next one it is clear I was interested in depth, not so much parallel plane pictures in these three.

In this group of three, this is the last and reaffirms the previous triangle picture at the start with the white fence, in a reverse priority of placement, putting the shadow in the foreground to accentuate the building and its new rendition, never intended by any archtitect, however long ago. I am using the lens to convey the building here as a caricature of itself. The dark form on the pavement inside the large shadow speaks to something a little more ominous or foreboding, at least to me. It's difficult not to think of it as some big stain and blood looks black in black and white photography. It's actually a patched repair in the street. I have, once again, as I did in the first photograph, used vehicles to edge the photograph on the left and right. This is a tactic to contain the picture, to end it definitively rather thean just let the picture slide off at the edges. But also they are there as a kind of visual aid, as we know how big cars are and they are ubiquitous in our present day world. I like how large the one on the right is and how very small the one on the left. This is that wide angle lens doing its thing again.

This picture brings us back to rough planality (don't know if this is a word. Planalness maybe? The characteristic of the camera being in the same plane as the subject). We are also brought back to the sheer quantity and brilliance of light present that day. There's a little ambiguity too about doorways here. The entrance appears to have been to a duplex of some sort in a former life, with what had been another door now being replaced by  a window on the left. We will get to another somewhat enigmatic doorway again in a few more pictures.

This is a core picture in the series. A road to nowhere? A pathway to a wall? Forgive me, but this was just really fun, to be able to do this. Shooting this way, walking along a street in a city or a town is a challenge in answering the question: "what else can you do?" In order for this to work in the context of being able to line this up, to slide the picture from foreground left to background right, to contain it so, to keep the camera level, to print it tonally light and mostly flat was simply a rarity and a pleasure. How something so modest looking can be such a simple and complex thing at the same time, with its shadow lines of the wires criss crossing the picture like a dance, is simply one of the reasons I keep photographing. I regard this picture as a gift.

Remember earlier I wrote about how the square would do things not only to the edges of the frame that are to the left and right but also up and down? Take a look at the top edge of the picture and notice what the wide angle lens does to the building. Like the bow of a ship and very sharp.

Flat, planal and deceptively simple looking. Two buildings pressed close together but not necessarily getting along too well. Some serious work done to keep them separated from each other too. Different taste as well, one grounded in tradition and one not. But also on the left things are kept up far better. The big slash of a shadow from the telephone pole right over my left shoulder reinforces all this.

As you may have been able to tell we're in the substantive center of the series here, with each picture having real weight, perhaps being referenced by something that came before it, as this one is, but making its own statement as well. Clearly this stairway refers back to the other fence picture but I've worked to keep the camera level which limits convergence more. Have you ever seen stairs go higher or be bathed in more gorgeous light than this? The stairs lead from shadow to light and I  feel lighter as I climb up them. Then there is the simple rectangular box of the garage. Not so simple, actually, as the lines formed by the edges of the clapboards are zinging all over the place, shooting at us, several going over my right shoulder like laser beams. Can you tell if I love this picture? I do and am proud of being its author. But I would categorize this picture as a success mostly due to being aware of its inherent possibilities and being in the right place at the right time. Very few photographers know how to use a wide angle lens well and the lenses are often referred to as being "for experts only" as if handled badly or haphazardly, the results can be a disaster. I know, I've made my fair share. But this one works for me. Why did I place this one next to the one preceding it? Because the first is flat and this one is about depth and distance. Also the shadow from a telephone pole is repeated here, used again, although less emphatically, to allude to things going on outside the frame. Finally, I regard this picture as a study in perspective.

Were these stacked prints in a portfolio we'd know the stack is getting smaller by the time we get to this picture and so I am going to close this section after this image but want to draw attention to a few things about it.

The obvious reason for the picture is the closed off windows in the center. Makes you wonder a little. Opening up an older house with smaller rooms? Or making more rooms on those two floors, so there's a wall there now? I have no idea. But there are other things going on too. First, snow makes another appearance, there's the shadow of a sign on the right leaning into the frame and this picture too is planal but not square on at all, as I am turned to the left to make the picture. Snow makes a  reappearance, with a band of melting snow in the foreground too.

What's next? The last section in the blog series on this series. There are only three more to go. Portland 4 is: here

I hesitate to remind you, but you may respond to this post or any other by emailing me at: Neal Rantoul

Topics: Series,Portland

Permalink | Posted June 24, 2013

Portland, Maine 1996 Two

This post follows and continues a post called Portland, Maine.  In this one I will take us through the images and write about the sequence.

I don't know if this is akin to grandpa sitting on the porch telling a story to kids formed in a half circle around his rocking chair, but it feels a little like that. From my perspective it is very rewarding to be able to write about this work. It helps me relive the experience of making these pictures. Forgive the indulgence. If you can't take it you know you may leave at any time, right?

So, the series from Portland shot in March, 1996 starts here:

Because it can. This is straight out and flat out an affront on the viewer's eyes. A symphonic blast from the brass instruments proclaiming that this is different, new and brash. A slap in the face saying "wake up". Bright and glowing but contained by the perimeters of the trucks both left and right and further by the car in the front as well as the telephone wire shadows, the picture is my way of saying that I am working in a new way. It is frontal, confrontational and loud.

There is also something else going on here and I apologize for belaboring what the camera does but it is doing a very unusual thing. The building, being straight on to the camera is rendered relatively accurately and it wouldn't occur to someone to doubt this. But look at the two trucks. See how we're seeing the sides of them? It is almost as though they are turned sideways to us but they are parked back to front from us at the same time. Is this perhaps slightly Cubist? It is the severe width of the lens on the SWC doing this and it is unique the way it does it, so clean and crisp on the far edge of the frame.  I want the viewer to know this at the outset as I don't really care about conventional rendering, meaning staying within prescribed traditions, rules and boundaries. Finally, while it isn't apparent in this picture, the lens is doing exactly the same thing to the top and bottom of the frame. We will see this shown more prominently later.

Where the first picture was frontal and difficult to escape out of this picture is an effort at a visual opposite for it is really intended to accelerate the viewer right out of the front and into the very far background. The Plymouth on the right, of course, sets this up for it is a surface that you slide past to get to the railing, then through or maybe over the railing, along the house's siding on the right, through the tree branches and out. As a teacher I used to describe to students the difference between "fast" and "slow" pictures. This is a fast picture.

As we are in a sequenced series, I am now setting us up for what is coming next where we will go closer and tighter. The next one is a core picture in the series, meaning it is a picture in a subset that other pictures revolve around. There will be two others later in the series.

 I wrote about this one in the first Portland post, but suffice it to say that it grounds the two others in the group in a complex and intricate way of looking. It is also planal in that the subject sits roughly parallel to the camera. This is important, as you will see.

The above picture continues this trilogy of pictures and also finishes it by allowing some slight depth and even a brief path up the stairs. All these pictures are a little off in that they don't quite seem straight or level or lined up. This is intentional and one of the things I was known for in my series work (and, in fact, something I still do). Jeff Hoone, in his intro for my book American Series wrote: 

Working almost exclusively with a square format camera, his photographs begin off-center from our normal panoramic field of vision. Square photographs give us more information on the top and bottom of the frame, hide things that are on either side, and distort perspective in a way that is uniquely photographic. His interest in looking at things photographically as opposed to simply rendering a scene with a camera develops its own visual language complete with syntax and punctuation. As our eyes move around his pictures various objects lead us outside of the frame and like the page-turning process of reading a story, they lead us to the next image which feels familiar yet not quite the same as the picture we just left.

So, here we are at the end of four pictures in the series and it is a good time for us to stop. If you've looked  at the full set you know what's next. If you haven't, take a guess.

Next up: Portland 3

Topics: Series,Portland

Permalink | Posted June 21, 2013

Portland, Maine 1996

These are on the site at: Portland.

In this post I will take us through some of the background to the set of pictures and provide some context for them as well, then in a post or two, I will discuss each photograph and try to place them in perspective as a whole. This is another tightly sequenced series of pictures.

The Portland series was made in March of 1996 on the start of a spring break from teaching at Northeastern.

By the mid eighties I had sold the camera I used to make series pictures, the Hasseblad SWC, in order to buy a Toyo Field 8 x 10 camera and lens. While this was painful, I was so excited to be finally working in 8 x10, and it was so very difficult to master, I didn't really miss the SWC that much. Plus my personal life about the same time was so chaotic I was fortunate if I made any good pictures at all. I was teaching two days a week at Harvard and the rest at Northeastern, I was under the gun of tenure consideration, my marriage had split up, I was looking after my 4 year old daughter half time, I went from a very nice house in Cambridge to a basement apartment in a complex filled with partying singles in Somerville that had olive green carpeting, and on and on. 

But by 1996 things had calmed down a little. I was tenured, had my own place, was teaching most summers in Italy, the 8 x 10 had become a well oiled picture making machine for me and at Northeastern we had a sweet deal where faculty and students could get Hasselblad equipment directly from the company at cost or below. My friend Andrea Greitzer was a student at the time. She still has two of them. I bought a brand new Hasselblad SWC.

I had it in my mind that I would make pictures much like I had made in the early eighties, as in Nantucket and Yountville, as well as a few others. But I wasn't really the same person or the same photographer now almost 15 years later.

At any rate, I left home one day early in a ten day spring break from teaching and headed to Portland on a gray morning with just the SWC with me, no 8 x 10. Along the way the sky cleared and by the time I got to Portland, a couple of hours from home, I had bright blue skies on a cold late March weekday. This immediately presented some challenges for me as all the older series work I'd made was shot under gray skies using very flat light. Simply put, back then if it was sunny I did not make a series. What did I do on this clear blue sky sunny day inPortland? I made a series.

It took me an overnight stay as I didn't get everything done that first day and I was excited enough with what I had done to book into a motel that night and get back at it the next morning. For consistency the weather needed to stay clear and luckily it did.

So, what was I up to? How could I change the way that I worked and make the pictures fit, be consistent to what I'd done before and be relevant? Simply enough, the pictures had evolved and now had extended the structure I'd created earlier into imagery with depth; shadows and highlights. This new chapter in my series work opened up a new definition for me. This was very exciting.

Look how far more complex this picture is when compared to some of the earlier work. For instance, compare it to this from Nantucket made in 1981:

The Portland picture is so very convoluted, intricate and enigmatic when compared to the very straightforward rendering of the Nantucket picture. All those highlights and shadows in the Portland one break up the space into a kind of patchwork and make the picture ambivalent about where things reside in the frame and what is background and what is foreground.

Of course, there were technical things to consider and to think about and, in fact, this is exactly what I did that night in my motel room. I planned a strategy for exposure (over) and developing (under) to contain a far too broad dynamic range from the shadows in what I was shooting to the highlights. It was good I went back and reshot some of the frames the next morning as it turned out these were better handled than the day before. This is standard Zone System stuff, modified slightly to handle roll film with 12 exposures per roll, rather than individual sheets as in  working with a view camera.

This would seem a good time to end this post as I am conscious to keep them not too long as no one wants to read a book here. But let me finish by saying that a rather narrow and confining way of working had been broadened certainly by it  being a sunny day in 1996 in downtown Portland, Maine instead of cloudy, but also by the intervening 15 years where I'd grown and expanded my view of how I thought pictures made by me could look.

I am thankful the skies cleared that day.

Next up, I'll break down the sequence or path I took.

Hope you stay with me.

Next up? Portland 2

Topics: Portland,Series

Permalink | Posted June 18, 2013