Incidental Photographs

Incidental Photographs

My term for photographs made as single pictures, not referencing other works, made as "stand alones".  Sometimes made while making "series work" but often just coming on their own. I have made a boatload of them over the years.

We'll look at a few, chosen at random.

Let's start off with this one, made in 2009 while photographing in Italy for three months, not far from Bologna near a little town called Marradi:

Driving up the valley, stopping to look across to the opposite hillside, a farmer burning off dead branches from his chestnut trees, smoke filtering up to remind me of the smell of burning leaves in the fall as a kid growing up in southern Connecticut, the green intense and the sense of being in paradise inescapable, the only sound the crackling of the wood burning in the fire behind the tree. Caught in a timeless beauty that felt like it went on forever. Knowing even though many wonderful things have happened to me in my life that this one moment, this place was one that was special beyond all the others, just before heading to have lunch with my trainer's parents in Marradi, three Americans meeting in a small Italian hill town.

Or this one:

From the top of Cannon Mountain in NH

Ride the tramway to the top in the summer and hike up to the observation tower. Climb the stairs to the top and head for the very farthest right corner on the observation deck and wait for a moment when there are no people shaking the deck with their footsteps. Trip the shuter, the camera being on a tripod and jammed tight against the railing to hold it steady. 
I have probably made this same picture fifteen times over fifteen seperate trips to photograph.

And this:

Near Highlands, North Carolina 1988

While an artist-in-residence at the Applachian Envronmental Arts Center. Made in  8 x 10, a brown paper bag caught in the branches off the side of the road. Spent three weeks driving through this kind of country, listening to a new album by Joni Mitchell, probably a couple of months before the foliage came in. Dark and ominous sky, dirty looking hills in black and white, the 8 x 10 negative conveying vast amounts of information and showing an extraoridnary transparency to the air that we look through.

Or this:

In the early 90's, rural NH

Also in 8 x  10, playing with sharpenss through space, swinging the front of the view camera to prescribe a thin slice of sharpenss from the left tree trunk along the rope to the left side of the dock, to the sailfish in the water to the oppoite shore. Why? To own the picture, to suggest what the path through it is. To determine emphasis to things, to direct the picture, to de-emphasize parts less important.

Or this:

During our most amazing of winters in 2015 in New England with actual mountains of snow piled up in mall parking lots.

Photographs that sit outside of mainstream work. Found as gifts and realized as part of an overall practice that relies on a lifetime of seeing with an acute and trained awareness of a thing's potential to become a picture, to be art.

I used to carry around a box of 14 x 17 prints. I would show it to anyone that would look. I still have the box, battered and beat up. 

In it were black and white prints from all over. No "series" or precisely edited photographs, just images that were interesting, indicative, current, or on my   mind at the moment. Europe, American West, South, New England, Martha's Vineyard, Canada, Cambridge (where I lived), mostly 120mm but some 8 x 10 too, maybe  40 or 50 prints. The idea was that the imagery was informed by some overall aesthetic, a demonstration of interests, perhaps, as much as by what it showed. Trying to blur the distinction placed by viewers on place or subject and my intention to draw away from that.  

Incidental Photographs

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 19, 2019

Old Trail Town

Old Trail Town. Cody, Wyoming, summer of 2005. I spent a few weeks in Cody that summer, renting a little place above a garage on a side street in town. I'd spent time at a ranch outside of Cody as a teenager and I went back to see what it was like, almost 50 years later. This was the last big shooting trip I made with the 8 x 10 view camera. The good 8 x 10's came fewer and farther between on that trip. I was experimenting with early digital capture. But I did make a series in 2 1/4 (120mm film format) handheld that has lasted well and has been shown frequently. 

I made the pictures of Old Trail Town with an Agfa black and white film, processed the rolls, then made inkjet prints of the scanned negatives. By that time I no longer had a darkroom and didn't print using an enlarger and chemicals. 

Old Trail Town is a rather spare tourist attraction that tears down and reconstructs shacks, corrals, saloons, jails,  barns, hotels from all over the American West and puts them in one location in Cody, making a town that never really existed at all. I found it bizarre and wonderful. It is here on the site.

I shot it just when it opened on a weekday. I'd been the day before when it was filled with people, not at all what I wanted.

These were incredible, these structures. It felt, in an odd way, that it wasn't really there for tourists but all there for me with my camera. I know, presumptuous, right? I was very excited, feeling the pressure of time and changing light to get these pictures on film. Work fast, but clean and right. "Don't fuck up" is often the refrain in times of making pictures like these.  Here I was working with film so couldn't review files that night. In fact, I wouldn't see the developed film for weeks, and make prints weeks later.

Ever felt that it, whatever "it" is, clicks with you and your sensibility on such a fundamental level that you just need to be there and shoot it, that this is not complicated or difficult at all? Old Trail Town had an inevitability to it that day.

It is a big series, 29 or so and takes us from the entrance of the town to the final picture at the town's edge, now emphasizing the landscape more than the buildings.

The Old Trail Town photographs always remind me of  "Music for Eighteen Musicians" by Steve Reich, an exceptional piece. The concept of repetition and derivation on a theme play large in his piece, which is really a symphony. Look at the photographs as thumbnails here on the back cover of my book American Series and you'll see what I mean.

This is how they ended up in the book, at a very late stage in the design: 

After I'd made them that summer, the following fall we were working on the book. Big bucks, a wonderful designer, getting well-placed people to write on my behalf,  making the scans (I made the scans for the book, a whole other story), approving proofs, printing in China; all the myriad details that go into making a monograph. Late in the design, I brought 3 x 3-inch square prints of Old Trail Town to Providence to show the designer Paul Langmuir and pitched the idea of including the series in the book. We revised the book and added pages to allow Old Trail Town to be in the book. 

Old Trail Town serves for me as photographs emblematic of an approach a little like a rock stuck in the tire of a car. Round and round the wheel goes as you drive, every time the rock hits the pavement it makes a noise, over and over, changing in tempo as you accelerate or slow down. My point being driven home through repetition. If you've read this blog for a while you know my philosophy behind the idea of "the same but different". The Old Trail Town photographs are just that.

The last frame I shot that day, winding film out of the camera while walking back to the rental car I saw a family at the gate and another behind them. My revery at Old Train Town was over just in time. The photographs were in the can and I was done.

I've written this before but I have often been lucky that way throughout my career. 

Note: We seem to be emphasizing work from my past lately. If this grates on you, please accept my apologies. Recovering from major surgery always takes longer than one expects and to be fully healed longer still. I am on the mend and working almost daily, but have not dug into anything substantial yet. There are travels ahead and new work will come. You will be the first to see it, have no doubt.

Stay tuned.

Topics: Black and White,Analog,West

Permalink | Posted April 14, 2019

Boys On A Dock

(This one's for my daughter, Maru, as she has always loved this photograph I made in 1980.)

It was 1980

1980! Thirty-nine years ago.

Maru would be born two years later.

Three boys on a ferry dock, two looking down over the edge, to what, I never did know, a mystery, something down there on a hot and languid Sunday morning in late July on the island of Martha's Vineyard, in the town of Oak Bluffs. One says to the other, "did you see that?". The moment passes quickly but is held now, 39 years later, by the simple click of a shutter.

I was standing there, light meter hanging around my neck, Hasselblad SWC up to my eye, as we waited to board the ferry to Nantucket from Martha's Vineyard with 20 or so of my workshop students, headed off to photograph for the day, the fog burning off, the day ahead of me, that day that would prove to loom large in my career, the day I found a system for making pictures that changed my life. 

Click goes the soft shutter of the SWC. The ferry comes, we boarded and then part two, the big part, started when we arrived in Nantucket a couple of hours later. 

Little did I know.

Nantucket 1980

The story goes like this:

Nantucket 1

Nantucket 2

Nantucket 3

Nantucket 4

The Nantucket series is here.

Boys on a Dock. Made before the students and I started our day, then, when we got to Nantucket, I sent the 20 or so students off to photograph and I went off and made the Nantucket pictures, seminal work for me and made so long ago.

A year later the Nantucket pictures were shown in a one-person show at the RI School of Degin Museum in Providence, RI and at Light Gallery in Manhattan.

Boys on a Dock. Shot with Tri-X 120mm film. At asa 400. It was grainier than I liked but sometimes we needed a faster film. Later on that day, in Nantucket, I would get to use Plus-X, at asa 125 or so, my favorite film. Smooth as a baby's ass, we used to say. 

Boys on a Dock. Weird, making one picture on a hugely significant day that sits outside the main body of work I made. I love that, how the primary group of pictures gets made that is important, but also, on the same day, sometimes, just one is serendipitous.

Inspires faith in the whole system. The "making art" system. 

Boys on a Dock is like that. It sits outside as an anomaly. It is now about 36 inches square, as I made a high-resolution scan of the negative on the Scitex scanner years ago. 

This is what the print looks like leaning up against the wall in my studio.

Soon, this framed print will head to Maru's home to hang on her wall. As such, this is a family story, a sharing of something from an older generation to a younger one, a telling of something that happened a long time ago to me, the head of the family. I am pleased to be able to share this with you.

Topics: Nantucket

Permalink | Posted April 12, 2019

Flawed Logic

Cynic: No point in photographing the landscape in Iceland. It's all been done before. Optimist: Maybe, but not by me. Love the challenge to bring something fresh to the table.

From Finnur's Trip, Iceland 2013

Cynic: Why would you assume interest in a whole series of the same thing, shot over and over, from different angles, distances and perspectives when even one is boring? Optimist: I can convey depth, sequence, tell a story or a narrative, take the viewer farther and share an emotion far better with work in series.

From Portland, ME 1996

From Arizona Castle Dome Museum,  2012

Cynic: It's all been done and to death. Photography is over as a fine art, at least landscape photography. No one wants to see pretty pictures of our planet. Art is about seeing things in new ways and there is no new way in photography anymore. Optimist: It is better to work to innovate, to approach the conventional with fresh eyes, to contribute to the overall canon of art in the world. The glass is half full, always.

From Iceland Landscape 2017

Okay, this game of the cynic versus the optimist can only go so far. As photography improves, as little knowledge is necessary to make superior pictures technically, as resolution increases, as there are more and more photographers, there is a seismic shift in the definition of the medium taking place. We are approaching the end of "craft" in our medium, the requirement to become masters of all aspects of the medium, from its history, to exposure, to optics, to developing and printing. Group shows of contemporary photography are increasingly weighted towards work that uses photography as part of its result but isn't beholden to "straight photography" at all. Blended in are a wide variety of alternative processes, including antique and older analog systems, imagery based in the use of software and even efforts to take the flat 2 dimensional paper print of tradition off the wall and into 3 dimensions. What did you expect? For the medium to stand still? This is a maturing of a revolution that started in the 90's when digital fist appeared. I find it exciting, although increasingly it puts me into the"old boy" category. It's what I am, after all. This makes my present day imagery irrelevant? This isn't really for me to decide as I will do what I do regardless, it just becomes an issue when I seek to get exposure for my work. Plus, I do have an extensive library of my own archivally processed and printed vintage works, for instance, that I have stored well, and that are filed and sorted for all to see.

From Bermuda Portfolio 1982

On the gallery page of the site, everything from the late 70's to about 2000 are shot on film and made in the darkroom by me.  Just email me to take a look.

Flawed logic? To interpret that because it's all been done, to not photograph because it's useless to do so? Watch out for the tendency to be influenced by what else is out there. We see something, we think how it either does or does not relate to our own sensibilities and then what: adapt to conform? I don't think so. I don't think a real artist would ever be capable of adaptation.We can only be true to ourselves in making art.  This cynical outlook on making art using photography? That seems like flawed logic to me. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 3, 2019

Thompson Spring, Utah 5

The last of an analysis of some pictures I made in Utah in 2010.

Know the music of Sufjan Stevens? It is wonderful. He's probably some kind of genius. At any rate, I often thought that he had difficulty with the ending of his songs. I sympathize as the endings of my series are difficult for me too.

Let's see what you think. 

We have, in effect, looped back to an earlier place, the barn seen in #11. The sun is flooding in to the inside of the structure, implying  no door door at the left end of the barn. This is another oblique angle photograph just as the first barn picture was.

Yes, we're reviewing some of the discoveries from earlier in the series, in this one, the motel. The open and black hole of the door is key here.

These photographs as we draw to a close are recapitulations.

  • Recapitulation (music), a section of musical sonata form where the exposition is repeated in an altered form and the development is concluded*

*Source: Wikepedia

Here we are referring to frames #5,#6 and #7, the same side of the house we saw earlier, here moved in tighter to allow closer study, just we did with frames #13 and #14

And last,

this is the back of the earlier house and, for the first time, a photograph looking the other way showing what has been behind us for most of the others. In effect here we've retraced our initial progression, but now from behind. 180 degree turns loom large in my series work. And we've revisited some of the key sites seen earlier, but shown a different perspective on them. Why this one as the finish to the series? Because it contains both the reference to the earlier frames from the house in the series and that it faces the other way. And finally, this last photograph also shows us a blank face, with an off center dark hole of an open door on the left, probably evoking more questions than answers. I am okay with that. I wonder if you are. 

Thus ends the Thompson Spring series. My own summary of this work places it in a "mature" period, in both execution and concept, meaning that in earlier digital days there were quality issues. This is no longer true. What was captured nine years ago holds up well in comparison to the files I am creating now.  Conceptually, the Thompson Spring series fits in the mainstream catalog of works to date as opposed to being anomalous (of which there are many). If you work long and hard over a career at something, what you have done will reside as a hierarchy. For me, Thompson Spring lives in the "A List"of series works. They have not been shown or published. So it goes.

It has been a real pleasure to bring these five short essays to the blog and therefore to you. I am grateful for your readership and numerous comments. Two things: please subscribe to the blog (and confirm when you get an email ), and secondly you can always reach me at: Neals email

Topics: Color,Digital,Southwest

Permalink | Posted March 30, 2019