Topic: Prints (5 posts)

Nantucket 1980 Part 3

This is the third installment where I take a look at the first series I ever made called  Nantucket.

Picking up where we left off with Nantucket Part 2, Part 3 has us looking at things a little differently and working to drive points home with some repetition as well as comparing and contrasting as I wander the back streets of the island's one town.

This one is a deliberate comparison to the first picture in the series with a fence pulling back in the frame. Here, the hose fills that position, seeming to be connected to the front fence although it is just because of where the picture is taken from that it looks attached. Also here the strong perspective of the house on the edge of the frame is on the left instead of the right. Finally, this is a much more open picture, with more sky that any of the others so far in the series. I read this as allowing us out more, or perhaps giving us a breather from the oppressive nature of the previous ones in the series which are predominantly closed in and contained. 

Clearly, in the way I took the previous one, this one and the next one, I am drawing attention to the nature of the fences, either as barriers to further progress or perhaps as gates through which one enters. This photograph does look as though it invites us in with the gate being partially open. But look towards the back. Is that a place you want to go back there where it gets darker? Notice how things are a little tilted or skewed in the picture. This is all a little unsettling. You go ahead back there if you like but I think I'll pass.

We're back here in the land of the light and this one even hints at activity and life. This is known among my friends and family as the "single sock picture" and makes a connection to laundry on the line, which is in back and to someone carrying it to hang on the line and dropping a sock along the way. The gate is wide open, inviting us to look back and through. This picture also mimics the structure of the darker gray one that is #3 in the series: two buildings, one on either side pulling back to form an alley. Lastly, look how light and open the image is. There are no dark shadows or mysteries here. 

So, here we are already, ending my analysis of the third part of the Nantucket series with the tenth picture in the set and it looks very conventional. 

Description: 

-A brick sidewalk off of which a walkway goes back to a fence with a gate.                  -Three prominent visual elements in the frame: part of a big dark bush, part of a gray shingle home and a light gray sky.

Okay, simple enough. And relatively straightforward as a single picture, living on its own with no context. Boring, right? Now think of this picture in relationship to the others in the series and see if you remember it in the sequence we've been looking at. Hopefully you've come to this: Bingo! Bam! Yes! How can something so benign and reductive have any meaning at all? Because I have altered the structural foundation of this picture into a new paradigm in comparison to the ones that preceded it. I've found a fence that spans the frame in the mid background and I am pointing the viewer to it using the brick walkway like an arrow. Why? For just that reason. To indicate and demonstrate that, while there is a conventional subject shown, I am interested in getting the viewer to see it in a new way, to think of this picture in the context of the others in a kind of flow, to ask the viewer to relate to the work by seeing both the reality being depicted here but to also acknowledge the manner in which I have worked to alter its meaning through pictures placed before it and after it. Hopefully, you now can understand why this series is placed so high on my "series meter" and why I believe it deserves this much scrutiny. 

Because it was the first where I made these realizations and connections.

Next up? Nantucket Part 4, of course.

Please know this: you may subscribe to this blog. That's the best way to get it as it will pop up on your in your "In Box" as soon as I post it. To subscribe, go to the blog and sign on in the column on the right where it says "subscribe". And yes, I will not write you any other emails or bother you in any way and yes, you may unsubscribe at any time.

Finally, feedback is welcome and appreciated. My email is: Neal

Topics: Black and White,Prints,Analog

Permalink | Posted February 4, 2014

Nantucket 1980 Part 2

This blog continues a description and analysis of a series of photographs I made in 1980 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. If you are  just starting, I recommend you begin with Nantucket Part 1.

Here we go: There is something to the feeling you get when you know you are about to do really important work, but haven't done it yet. That's where we left me in the fist part.

I knew I was about to make pictures that would be important to me in my career. We're talking of career forming pictures, seminal work that will be poked at and prodded by analysis later, forty years on, as the very foundation of my life's creative output. OMG! I know, once again, hyperbole rears its ugly head and runs amok, but seriously, this was big.

Onwards. We are now headed into the second phase of the series after looking at the first three pictures in Part 1. Very often in my work there are subsets or, perhaps "chapters", that add up to a full series. We are starting now with the fourth picture in the group and it does just that, starts a new area of interest.

This picture diverges from the first three.

It's angle is very different, as it is taken as an oblique. It is also "straight" in that clearly the camera was held almost level in this one. By the way, the Hasselblad Superwide, being a fixed lens camera, had a 38 mm Biogon lens. This was very wide for the format and the camera was provided with a  bubble level and a prism to see it with while you were looking through the viewfinder. Primitive by modern day standards but effective in allowing one to hand hold it and still get straight lines straight. I remember I sweated bullets on this print, wanting it dark but full in rendering the information on the negative. Behind the brick wall the sun is trying to break through and spreads its light on the sidewalk. This was key to me. I used a chemical called potassium ferricyanide, which acts as a bleach, to lighten this one area. This was the same chemical W. Eugene Smith used famously in his Minimata series in 1972, published by Life Magazine:

(Please, I am not making a direct comparison from my work to this picture of a mother bathing her child who has been ravaged by chemical pollution on the island off of Japan called Minimata. This is one of the greatest photographs of all time. I am just using it as a way to show the effects of chemical bleaching.)

The next one was the darkest in the series:

and puts whatever content is in the picture in front of a large backdrop, as if this bush and tree were on a stage. We are right there, inside the picture, which is part of my point, to push the camera into the picture. Also, what happens at the point of intersection of the two clapboard walls on the right? Does the tree trunk do something there to the space? And finally, we have a large wall that serves as a backdrop to the foreground. But it also serves as a barrier to seeing anything beyond it. I focused the lens on the plant/bush on the lower left and the detail in there is like a whole world. I remember being pleased with the decision.

The third photograph in this subset, actually 6th in the series,

allows a little space to get out and is less closed in but draws us into a kind of conversation with the space. Look at what is going on with the top of the house towards the left side of the frame. The square format combined with the acute width of the lens allows us to be standing in front of something but also to see practically straight up too. This is in itself a lesson in perspective, convergence, divergence and is also pretty twisted if you really look at it. I was very interested in this characteristic, this "photographic seeing", at the time. By photographing something so mundane and ordinary and using the camera progressively, I could draw attention to this dichotomy. It is totally unique to be inside this space but seeing up as well as down without moving our head. This is photographic vision and one of the reasons I love photography. You too, probably, as you are reading this. 

In Nantucket 3 we will continue to seriously freak with reality as we work with the weird and wonderful world of the SWC camera with a lens designed by Carl Zeiss himself, who then brought it to the young Hasselblad company in Sweden in the mid 50's and said "here I've made this lens, care to match it with a camera?" Hence the camera I had nestled in my right hand as I walked around these bizarre back streets. 

Next up: Nantucket 3

Like I said: riveting

Topics: Black and White,Prints,Series,Analog

Permalink | Posted January 29, 2014

Nantucket 1980 Part 1

First off: there is new work on the site: Chartreuse Rocks. Iceland doing its thing with color that's amazing.

Nantucket

This is big. This time we will look at the body of work that started me working in series, one of the ways I continue to make photographs today. Note the date: 1980. Nantucket is the first real series I ever made. I am going to devote some time to it here as I look forward to reliving it (and testing if I remember it well) and, although the work looks surprisingly modest today to me and and mostly likely to you, it is a seminal body of work in my career's output and very important as such. 

Here we go.

Let me place the series in context. It is 1980, I am teaching at Harvard, have stopped teaching at the New England School of Photography in Boston and will begin teaching at Northeastern University by 1981. I am single but not for long as I will meet my wife to be in a few months. By this time I have been teaching for a summer or two at Martha's Vineyard in something called the Chilmark Photography Workshops, started by Carol Lazar. In the summer of 1980 I am running the workshop, handling logistics, working with a TA, lecturing, presenting others' work with slide shows and am teaching shooting, camera controls, darkroom and heading the class towards a final project in a three week workshop. I think I had about 15 students. Field trips were frequent but, by the time we're starting our third week, we were all a little burnt out on shooting on Martha's Vineyard. Islands have their limitations. I found that there was an early morning ferry that would take us from the Vineyard to Nantucket, leave us there for the day and return us to the Vineyard by early evening. We decided to go.

We arrived in Oak Bluffs where we would catch the boat for Nantucket in the early morning in mid July and it was hot, the air was stagnant and there was thick fog.  I made a few pictures in the fog while we waited to board.

Fog is so wonderfully dislocating and this one of the three boys fishing on the ferry pier has been shown frequently over the years. To me it seems from a different era, clearly coming from a sensibility different than today's. It looks optimistically at the mystery of our world with a sense of wonder and is quite naive, I believe. I am far too jaded to make a picture like this now. By the time we're on the boat the fog is beginning to burn off. Over an hour later we get to Nantucket and disembark. We mill around for a little bit, then I pull the group together to tell them we are here to photograph, give them a couple of things to work on and set them free, asking them  to be back at the boat for the return trip late in the afternoon. Off they go and so do I, with no real thought in my mind as to what I will do. It is hot, the kind of day where you don't really know the direction of the light as it is bright but flat, your shirt sticking to your back and where you'd  prefer to be sipping something cool under a tree or maybe be in the ocean riding the waves. I had a pouch on my belt with several rolls of 120mm Kodak's Tri-x and Plus-x film in it, a Hasselblad Superwide in my hand, a Pentax Spotmeter hanging around my neck and a baseball cap on my increasingly bald head. I was 34 years old.

I started to wander around the town, avoiding the main street as it was far too touristy for me. Soon I found myself walking along back streets. It was quiet with an occasional car and few people. I began to see things that looked interesting to photograph. If I go back through the rolls I shot that day 33 years ago I can see a few frames at the start where I was beginning to form an idea about pictures existing next to pictures. I made this one:

Such a benign looking picture now, but this actually shook my world in a fundamental way back then. Why? What did I care about? The accelerated space of that fence pulling back in the frame, the bifurcated image, sliced in two with the railing receding fast, the triangles of the roofs stacked on top of eachother in the mid background, the planar quality of the house with windows on the right compared to the straight-on house in the far background, which is parallel to the foreground fence, the tree on the left with its rough texture, knotted and looking like warts with branches heavy with leaves hanging down into the sky in the center of the frame. This soft flat light so perfect for this work with almost no shadows elevates this picture to the wonderful combination of the outright banal and the supremely sublime at the same time. As far as photographic aspirations go this one hit it out of the park for me.

What freaks me out now so long after is that I knew it. This picture, and the next couple got my attention, made me wake up and stay focused and, as has happened so many times since, I found myself saying to myself, "Neal, do not blow this." I didn't. I got serious, stayed on track, held the camera steady and proceeded to go to work. In fact, I had a little help. I was in familiar territory. A couple of years before I had completed a two year project called "Fences and Walls"  which was of fences and walls (no big surprise) but also dealt with depth, foreground to background relationships and layering. Of course, you never know whether something you've done will provide support for what you are doing now but you hope so. This was one of those times.

This one, the second in the series, establishes that I am looking in between the homes and also that the angle of view is extreme. Much of this work addresses the photographic seeing involved, the character, which is unique, of the optic and the special and spacial relationships that are formed by the way the lens sees these domestic scenes. By standing on a wall across the street I was able to diminish the street and put the back of the truck in the lower left of the frame, while keeping the verticals essentially straight and parallel. I am referring, of course, to convergence, what a lens does when pointed up. Odd that this is so easily corrected now with software. Software? I had no idea any of that was coming when I made these pictures. Finally, there is a strong connection from this picture to the previous one. The centering prevails in both but this one centers in a negative space as opposed to a positive space. We will see this same thing repeating throughout the series.

The third in the Nantucket series moves in far tighter, but maintains the sense that we are looking down an alley created by two buildings.

It is a study in grays and is an acutely flattened tonal scale. I made very flat and gray negatives by over exposing the film and then under developing it. This limits the contrast and builds density in the shadows. Normally, with flat light like this, working in black and white, you would do just the opposite. It is the primary reason there is some density to the gray sky in these photographs.

Jeffrey Hoone, in his introduction to my book "American Series" writes that I  consciously tilt the camera to skew the perspective and put things a little off center. This picture is a good example of that.

Harry Callahan, who was one of my teachers, said a truly elegant thing and that was that he believed we pretty much always make the same picture. Looking back at these now I see it is true for, despite looking like they are very much made in the past, I find them somehow essential for me.  Of course, they also are developmental in that they were made when I was still learning and growing photographically. 

BTW: This work's exhibition lineage is extensive as the series has been shown numerous times. Peter MacGill (now of Pace MacGill) chose to show the full series at Light Gallery in NY the following summer and the work was in a one man show at the the RI School of Design Museum in 1981. Later on, I would show either a few of the series or the whole series in shows to reference the start of the concept of working this way. In the RISD Museum show, I printed the whole series on 16 x 20 inch paper to fit with the other island-based work of mine from Bermuda in the show. The original Nantucket series is printed on Kodak 14 x 17 inch Polymax paper and is toned with selenium. The prints are about 12 inches square. Finally, although I had a few offers over the years to sell individual prints, I never did. The original series is intact and in excellent condition. Please note: I am willing to show it by appointment.

I am going to stop here, three in to a series that is 16 prints in all.  But stay tuned as we continue with Nantucket Part 2. It  will be riveting, I promise.

Topics: Series,Black and White,Analog,Prints

Permalink | Posted January 25, 2014

Cabelas Story


Is it true? I've never told the Cabelas story? Yes, it's true.

I am going to now.

Let your mind drift into a "what if?" category. Let it range through the world of no restrictions, no restraints, the "do whatever you like" that you use to go into when you were a kid. This is like daydreaming, of course, and something I did far too much of in Latin class in the 8th grade.

Okay.  Let me set the scene: a friend and I are driving through rural PA on one of those late summer just before going back to teaching trips. It is maybe 2006 or 7. We approach a large billboard announcing that a Cabelas store is coming up. He asks if I'd ever been to one and I respond by saying no, that I'd never heard of it. We stop and go inside and I am confronted with a sports outfitting store built on a huge scale. In the middle is what I can only describe as a taxidermy mountain of animals arranged in situ and several  smaller areas where we are transported to the Serengetti in Africa with lions and elephants and giraffes. The displays are like dioramas. They are over the top wonderful, bizarre, a little twisted and I want to photograph them. I mean really want to photograph them!

I ask at the information counter about photographing and am told to go ahead take all the pictures you want as long as there is no flash and no tripod. Good but not so good. I take some snapshots with a point and shoot digital camera.

I get back home, start teaching again, am in meetings meetings meetings all the time but Cabelas pulls at me. After several false starts I find myself on the phone with a marketing guy at the home office in Nebraska. He's asking me why I want permission to photograph in the stores when they are closed, why I need to work with a tripod and what I want to do with the pictures once made. I am prepared for that and am using my title as a professor at a prominent university to validate my intentions to make pictures that are cultural research that is based in the USA and  that I am really interested in this "museum quality experience" the company promotes about its displays. Oddly enough, he says okay. Just like that. Then he tells me how it'll work.

I am to email him a few days before I want to photograph in a given store, then I am told to arrive about 6 am at the staff entrance, sign in and go about my business until the store opens at 9 am and then clear out.  I try it out first with the closest store to me at the time which is outside Hartford, CT and it works fine. I shoot for three hours while the employees are stocking shelves, sweeping floors and having a sales meeting that is very rah rah rah just before they open.

I am shooting with a Nikon D200 which is a far cry from equipment we use today. I am using the lights that are on in the store and I am way out of my comfort zone, dealing with white balance issues, areas that are too hot due to the floodlights in the ceiling, difficulty in getting access to some of the displays due to not being allowed over the railing, not having the the right lenses, etc. Over the next several months I make some upgrades. I move up to the new Nikon D300, the first digital camera that gave me usable files.

I am now planning the first of two dedicated trips.  My first one is early March while on spring break. I fly to Chicago and work stores in the Illinois, Indiana and lower Wisconsin region. There are about 50 or so stores in the chain. I drive, get close to a store, stay in a motel, arrive at the staff entrance at 6 am the next morning and, well, you know the rest. Each store's employees are wonderful, helping me move stuff and offering me coffee. After I am done at about 9 am I drive most of that day to the next store and repeat the same process. It being early March I hit some weather and have a not my favorite adventure with my rented minivan with no snow tires in a snow storm of epic proportions but I soldier on. In that trip I shot in four stores.

I've written about this before but I am now accruing real work. I am no longer a novice, I am becoming experienced in the topic of my interest and I am making increasingly knowledgeable pictures. All to the good. Each store is the same but different, some on a scale that it is difficult to comprehend; 250,000 square feet of store. Others are far smaller with fewer displays that interest me.

I complete that trip and the following summer fly again to shoot more stores. This time I start out in Boise, ID and hit stores in Nebraska and South Dakota. It is August and it is very hot. In all I photographed in 17 stores and to this day I cannot pass one by without going in with a camera.

We did a book of the pictures: Cabelas

The work's been shown and published quite a bit over the years. 

When I began the Cabellas projet I had no idea what the outcome would be. I didn't really even know why I wanted to do it. I believe we are just as novice as anybody else when we start out. It is important to acknowledge that and to face up to the fact that you will make mistakes and have false starts. But, soldier on and trust your instincts as they're probably the best thing you've got. 

Cabellas is on the site: Cabelas

Topics: Color,Prints,Series,Digital

Permalink | Posted January 20, 2014

PRINTS

If you've been reading this blog over the past two months or so you'll know my feeling about prints. By this I mean the making of photographic prints and why they are necessary and why it is an important skill to be able to make your own. 

Before I dive into this somewhat loaded topic,  let's look at past and present practice in photography. Over its history photographic prints have been, for the most part, the common currency in art photography. They were made either by the photographer or a skilled lab under the photographer's direction and they could be exhibited and traded as valuable objects and indeed, many of them were. An original Frederck Sommer or W. Eugene Smith print is a sight to behold. Lustrous, luminous, detailed and glorious, it can stand on its own against the best paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc. Just as important, fine vintage prints are a tactile and visceral connection to the artist that made them.

Then along came digital about 10 years ago and inkjet printing and Graham Nash Productions and terms like gliceé (a really a bad idea) and it was clear there was a struggle to try to grasp the concept that once a file is finalized an exact duplicate could be produced at the push of a button today, tomorrow or ten years from now. At the same time, the art of printing was fractured by new and emerging technologies combined with many false starts, digital gurus sprung up out of nowhere, each with their own rules for master printing (and frequently screwing things up) and many photographers gave up the idea of printing their own files, or indeed, printing the work at all. Add to this the compounding effect of the web, individual websites, and now tablets and it seems as though the need for a print of a photograph is peripheral at best and unnecessary at worst. For most of the world a photographic print is not needed and undesirable. And yet, it is impossible to escape the fact that really good printing, while unusual these days, is the best it has ever been. This gets me going as fine printing is about as fundamental to me as a career photographer and artist as can be. However, the screen has become the primary way I present my work to the masses. And its good, particularly if you look at the site on a good monitor, but prints it is not. Then don't get me going if you're  looking at my site on a smart phone! ARGH!

Okay, let's try to be rational and calm down a little and move beyond hyperbole and rhetoric. And let's be clear, the dust has settled considerably. Contemporary inkjet printing is a reasonably mature technology  and much of the complicated parts are below the surface as it isn't something most people "need to know". Nevertheless, printing for  yourself can be daunting , whether it is is conventionally using a darkroom or making digitally sourced inkjet prints.

Let me state my case:

The photographic print, in art circles, is still the object of choice for collectors, archivists, gallerists and curators. It also has proven marketable, relatively stable, and of long lasting worth. The print functions as "currency" in that something like a Fred Sommer print can be thought of as rare (he only made about twelve prints a year), valuable (prints are currently selling for from $15,00 on up to over $125,000 each) and as likely to accrue in value.  To bring it back to earth, will a print of mine ever be thought of in those terms? I doubt it, but that is out of my control for the most part and probably determined after my death. But what I can do now and can control is how I realize my work as an artist while I am living and that is to make excellent prints of what I photograph. You should too.

Why?

Because (here comes the point), beyond all the reasons written above, the print is the thing that shows how good you are. It levels the playing field in that your work, printed well, shines. It is instant credibility and puts you in contention in the big leagues. Your work, printed poorly, simply eliminates you. And worse, marks you as an incompetent for possibly all time.

Sorry for so much writing and no pictures but some imagery here seems like it would go against the point of the post: learn to print well to present yourself at your very best. Even if you don't print your work yourself, because you've learned how to make excellent prints, you will do better at getting the best out of whomever is printing for you. You want to be higher up the food chain of expressive, art photography? Have your work shown, reviewed and talked about? No matter how good your shooting is it won't matter unless you are making the best prints possible from your work. Make excellent prints of your work. 

A sampling of prints, from  1976 to 2012.

Topics: Prints

Permalink | Posted January 15, 2013