Photo Education

William Henry Fox Talbot circa 1846

I am a career photo educator. Before retiring from my position as a full professor and head of a photography program I had taught photography for 41 years. Does that qualify me to write about the state of photographic education? At least it allows me to weigh in.

First, let me define where I taught. My first teaching was with Harry Callahan at the RI School of Design while I was a first-year graduate student. My 2nd year in the MFA program I taught at the Providence Country Day School in 1972/73. From there I moved on to teach at Northshore Community College, New England School of Photography, Harvard University (for 13 years) and Northeastern University (for 30) where I initiated and headed the Photography Program. I continue teaching today at various workshops and have been a regular at Penland School of Crafts iNorthth Carolina for several years.

Why all this history? Hopefully to validate the following: single track photo programs and photo departments at the university level are dead or dying. Photography is no longer legitimate as a single-discipline academic pursuit. Photography Departments in large universities? No longer does photography stand out as a beacon of new cutting-edge anything. With present day cameras making video, with our smart phones doing the same, still photography looks positively prosaic in the context of social media and a broad array of ways to disseminate imagery.

Locally, last year's demise of Mt Ida College killed an active and vibrant photography program that was working hard to teach a curriculum of professional practice. But even more telling is the news that the New England School of Photography has been struggling to survive, laying off faculty and suffering under low enrollment. In fact, NESOP will close as of Aprill 2020.

Were I still heading the program at Northeastern I could not effectively argue for funding for new faculty or increased resources to a dean or a provost for just photography. I would have to include more multi-disciplinary, broad-based visual and artistic disciplines in my request.

Why is all this? Why are photography departments and programs that were formed in the 60's and 70's facing such difficult times? Because the demand has changed and is far less. No student coming out of a 4-year school or 2 or 3-year graduate program is going to be well prepared either professionally or artistically having just studied still photography. The idea is practically laughable. Students moving into professional or artistic practice need to be taught a wide-ranging set of skills in still and moving imagery.

The craft has changed too. It used to be an art to make a good print. Now well exposed and well crafted still images are easy, a dime a dozen. Furthermore, take a look at what art photography looks like now. The single photograph, straight and unmanipulated, is rare in a field of imagery that looks more like fantastical paintings, imagery from imagination, dreams, and fantasies. In this respect, in making art, straight photography is practically dead.

Of course, there are programs that are a little different. These are programs that maintain strength in teaching analog photography, are staffed either by aging faculty or those that love the darkroom and silver-based imaging. Fine. This retro, craft-based avoidance of where photography is and is going makes these alternative process programs. But these aren't in any kind of mainstream of photographic education.

One more observation. Although the history of photography is still taught in university-level courses, outside of academia there is less interest in knowing what preceded current practice. In my teaching and interaction with today's photographers, I find far less knowledge or motivation to look at what came in earlier times. I often find younger photographers don't have a clue what was done even twenty or thirty years ago. This can cause someone new to repeat past statements or discoveries.

William Herny Fox Talbot circa 1846


Finally, I have been very very fortunate to have had a career as a teacher at a time when the university-level study of photography was in its heyday. Clearly, it no longer is. Ironic, as more and more still photographs are created every day and yet the study of the medium is in decline.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted September 13, 2019

Robert Frank Dead at 94

September 10, 2019: Robert Frank died yesterday in Novia Scotia. He was 94.

 I didn't know him personally although we met a couple of times. My only real connection was through my father-in-law in the early 80's, Fernando Garzoni, who was Swiss and had grown up with Robert in Zurich before Robert moved to the states.

Robert Frank made some of the most important and incisive photographs of the 20th century. The "Americans" is his most well-known work, a book published in the mid-50s that looks critically at the United States.

Dodo Jim Ming

This from the NY Times obituary:

Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose visually raw and personally expressive style was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography, died on Monday in Inverness, Nova Scotia.
Mr. Frank’s photographs — of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals and odd spoors of cultural life — were cinematic, immediate, off-kilter and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period. They would secure his place in photography’s pantheon.

Robert Frank: 1924-2019

 We've lost one of the great ones.

Permalink | Posted September 10, 2019

Wheat Four 2019

This will finish the series I've been writing on the photographs I made in June of the wheat fields of the Palouse in Eastern Washington.

I am pleased to report that the portfolio is almost complete and that it just needs a few more reprints and a final edit to be ready to present.

If you would like to see the prints you can come to my studio to see them. Email me at: nrantoul@comcast.net

This is a small thing, but big if you are a printer and make portfolios. My prints in this series are on Red River San Gabriel Baryta paper in 17 x 25 inches. Archival Methods makes portfolio boxes, among other things. They now make a 17 x 25-inch drop-front box, seen here and also a 17 x 25-inch folio case. This is good news for those of us that like to use this slightly larger paper over the more standard 17 x 22-inch size. As a benefit, the DSLR full-frame fits this size paper better as well.

The last few days in Washington followed the already familiar pattern of getting up, driving, photographing, driving, photographing, on and on.

The latter part of Day 9 I started working in Pullman and this carried over to the next morning, which was my last:

These connect to a project I did in 2009 called Mallchitecture (here).

2011 Yuma Palms Mall, AZ

Rhode Island, 2009

I finished the trip with a few hours photographing the greenhouses at the University of Washington campus in Pullman:

That concludes this four-part series. I have been photographing in the area for 25 years, with trips every year or two. Am I finished? Hard to say. I feel like maybe I am, but in a year or two the Palouse will pull at me, just as it has many times  before. It is a peculiar place, charming and very beautiful. The area has purity and honesty to it in a world so lacking in integrity and so perverse as to be defeating at times. 

If you go, you could take a workshop, as there are several. Personally, I would hate that, being carted along to "choice spots" by a guide. I like the freedom to choose my places, my own time of day and time of year. 

Topics: Color,Black and White,Digital,West

Permalink | Posted September 9, 2019

Wheat Three 2019

(Apologies: the blog was delayed as I took off for a week or so, first to the Cape and then to Martha's Vineyard. Just escaped the big winds from the edge of Dorian yesterday as I left the island. The ferries shut down after I left in the late morning.)

In the last post we looked at work fom Day 3 and 4. For this one we'll move on to Day 5 (the aerials) and Day 6.

For the past fifteen years or so I have included photographing aerially in most of the locations I go to. While some projects are aerial only, the Wheat pictures combine aerials with photographs made on the ground.

Day 5

There are so many variables in working aerially that you can't always predict the flight's success. To name a few: turbulence, clarity, time of day, time of year, temperature, where you choose to fly. With the prevalence now of consumer drones I often get asked if I use drones to make my pictures. I do not. In an hour or so over the Palouse I can cover a massive amount of territory. A drone is much more limiting and has to be landed, put back in the car and then driven to a new area.

Although I got a few from this year's flight that will remain in the portfolio, my success rate was lower than in past years.

Sometimes the photo gods ignore you and sometimes they shine down on you.The day before from the plane I'd made this one:

Day 6

Then, on Day 6 I came across this:

Day 6 was good, clear and calm. Wind can be bad, it makes it difficult to hold the camera steady making for unsharp photographs. Tripods can lose their effectiveness as they shake too in the wind.

After now many years of making pictures in the Palouse, I know that some of my photographs will sift down to be iconic in support of the overall work, standing as symbols for the work made that year. For instance:

1996  (from the permanent collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

or:

2009

or:

2010 (from the permanent collection of the Houston Museum of Art, Houston, Texas)

Back to my original intent with this series of blogs: experience counts. Got something you feel passionate about? Does it have an element of time to it? Is it something you could go back to and photograph again and again, building the  quality of the work over multiple trips, taking months or perhaps years to complete? Stick to it. Who says the first time you see something is the best time to photograph it? Different seasons, different days, different light, different times. Excellent landscape work is often improved through a deep knowledge of what is in front of you and the camera. Want substance, subtlety, nuance and emotion from your landscape photographs? Don't go for the cheap shot: over saturated colors, fake skies, cliche, enhanced, over cooked, super sharp. Fake Fake Fake, I say. Keep the long view on your work, don't go for cheap thrills.

This one, above, and the one below will, I am sure, serve as iconic photographs for this year's trip

End of summary of days 5 and 6.

Next up, we'll finish. with my final photographs. Stay tuned.

Topics: Aerial,West

Permalink | Posted September 7, 2019

Wheat Two 2019

This is the second in a series of posts about some new pictures I made in Washington in June.

They are here.

By Day 3 I was in a groove. Get up and go shoot. Simple enough. I made good work over the next couple of days.

I was there to make pictures of the rolling wheat fields and that's exactly what I was getting at the end of each day.

The type of rental car is important as I spend all day in it, schlepping equipment in and out of it in an endless succession of setups and tear downs, day in and day out. This time it was a Kia Soul, a little box of a car that was perfect: great visibility, fun to drive and no fear about getting stuck or centered on back farm roads:

By Day 4 I was feeling as though I had begun to accomplish what I was there for.

I wasn't finished or completed by any means but I could afford to try some different approaches and stretch the principles a little. Hence this; the "Wheat Suite" as I call it, the effort to distill the work by photographing one area extensively

In this sub group there are 14 pictures, all made from the same vantage point. 

We play such a "selectivity" game as landscape photographers. What we choose to include in the frame verses what we exclude makes all the difference. Using a couple of longer lenses I varied how much was in and how much was out, longer for more        distance with more compression of the visual space. For much of my career I never used longer focal length lenses. Most view camera work doesn't use anything very long. It wasn't until I started working digitally in about 2006 that they came into play.  I was working on the Cabela's project (here) and I needed more reach to get at the taxidermy displays.

This one was a long reach across the store's showroom floor, compressing the mannequins into the same space as the taxidermy mountain in the background. This picture is one of the reasons I find photography so rewarding. 

By Day 4 I also started working with other subjects in the Palouse. This is rare as I usually stay mostly on topic. But some things just hit me and the acute islolation

of something like this corrugated barn, with the light modeling it so perfectly just stood out.  

Next up? We will continue with this series looking at the remaining days I had left to photograph and I will include some of the aerials I made on Day 5.

Your comments always welcome: Neal's Email

Topics: Color,Wheat,New Work,Digital,West

Permalink | Posted August 27, 2019