Sometimes

(Note: This is a post that's been sitting in the archive of posts written but not published. You can tell it is a little out of date, but I believe it is still relevant.)

Sometimes you know when you make some new work you are going to lose some fans. Either the new work is so different you've crushed their expectations or you just have to make it and the hell with what others think. 

Case in point: San Jose Squares, 02.2018

Downtown San Jose, CA, shot square, hence "Squares", mid-February. Black and white. Of stupefying quality, really first-rate, in a flat tonality reminiscent of my 80's and 90's square work in black and white (Oakesdale, Portland, Hershey, Yountville, Nantucket, etc). The new Nikon, feeling familiar but foreign too. A subtle but perceptual shift in rendition,  so natural and neutral as to be transparent.

I am writing this soon after seeing the Sally Mann show at PEM and clearly, it had a powerful effect on me. How anyone can cut through the surface like that is beyond me. She's like a hot knife through butter, or a cut from a razor; fast but no pain til later.

But today at the studio I went through the San Jose prints and this is hard work to get behind. Flat and quiet, you've got to work at these before they become available. Fred Sommer's "short attention span" comes into play here and they are easy to ignore. But slow down and look in there and they are relentlessly rewarding.

Hm. I seem to be making work that no one gets or no one cares about. San Jose,  Shrink Wrapped, winter 2017, the Spruce Pine work (2012, 2013,2014, 2018) on the Road to Pinnacles,  2018. Maybe I'm just making bad work, but I don't think so.

At the Sally Mann, Sara Kennel, the curator, spun the work so well, confirming its substance and genius with every breath. No dispute, this is hugely important work. What an opposite, though. I know, who am I to compare myself to Sally Mann? Well, someone who's been doing this longer than she has, so perhaps I qualify. But if I do go there, I look at her ability to cut through, to essentialize a photograph compared to mine, which are sharp and clean and precise and cold(?). Beautiful seems to reign supreme in mine but she will kill conventional renderings and use the materials to get what she wants, rough and edgy and visceral. Jesus, go through that show and you leave needing a bandage. Know of the work she did of the decaying bodies? Look at her pictures of her husband and they seem to forecast his end.

So San Jose Squares? Deserves another look, some serious perusal perhaps. Maybe you're moving too fast, doing too much and it's affecting the quality of your life. Slow down, take a longer look at some work that contains... a lot. You'll walk away richer, I  guarantee it.

See the full series here.

Topics: Black and White,Digital

Permalink | Posted August 4, 2022

How About This

How about this: a group of photographs connected by geography, day, time and year, proximity, mindset, intellect, experience, ambition, a sense of irony, and perhaps humor.

Hm.Too much? Incomprehensible?

Let me see if I  can unpack this a little. (Note: this won't work very well if you are casually passing through this post. To get where I am going you'll have to open the links to look at the referenced series. Apologies, for I am a career teacher. Perhaps you'd allow me to place you in my classroom for a short time.)

I was visiting friends who are down a peninsula aways in rural Maine in mid-summer. Off I go with my friend and we come across Small Point, Maine about 7 a.m. on a late July morning. Walk and photograph. Just as in countless times over a now-long career. Look, point the camera, acquire frames like stacking cards, one influencing the next, the previous conditioning what next to look for over 30 minutes or so. 

The pictures are about where I am but also what I think and what I am selecting and making. Sequencing and juxtaposition playing a key role at the same time as light, color, texture and form. 

In my work, I have always been interested in sharing why I make a decision to make a photograph and also in what I do to it to own it. My pictures have seldom been just about the thing itself, even though I am as reliant as we all are for great content.

The morning had great content.

Back to these new pictures, with a disclaimer or acknowledgment that my sense of what a series is and what it takes to make a series has changed definition throughout my career with now being no different. In early days, pretty rigid, as in Nantucket and Yountville: flat light, wide lens, close in with dense content that is urban. Later, as in Grain Silo or Salton Sea: unfolding interest in color, spacial depth, making internal statements while working with a far more open landscape. Embracing digital tools and inherent quality and flexibility. On to late mature works like Field in 2016, very pure black and white and all the traditions that embraces, but with some very contemporary concepts contained within. Or San Jose Squares in 2018, with consummate photographic quality aligned with truly unusual ways of seeing an ordinary city landscape.

To now, the concept of series work having percolated and morphed through a physical move to a new home, a family in crisis, some deaths, a pandemic, and a country in real disarray over three years or so. How could the pictures I make not change? Well, they have. If our art is not a reflection of who we are and what we think and feel I would question the honesty of the art.

Yes, I am getting to the pictures.

First up, an arbitrary and manufactured interest in doubling up, to form a structure or containment, for we can't aimlessly photograph everything. Later this all fading out, going to triples and then that fading away too. Again: early days rules and rigidity. Today? In mid-2022? Not so much.

So, where does that leave us? Some new pictures and some sense that things are different, at least in intent. I believe there is less baggage in my photographing now. Freer from past positions and responsibilities, released from the effort to make "significant work" and free now to just photograph. 

I would very much appreciate your thoughts. Is this a post that is clear and concise or garbled and meaningless? 

The effort to imbue our pictures with meaning beyond just an impression of what is in front of the camera is one of photography's great challenges. We know people have done it and their genius is commendable. But one method that has traction is in sequencing, juxtaposing, contrasting, and framing. I learned a lot from Nathan Lyon's Notations in Passing and I suggest you would too.

Have I struck a chord in your efforts to be better or to make work that has staying power?

Let me know at: nrantoul@comcast.net. Or comment below.

Topics: Color,Digital,Northeast

Permalink | Posted August 2, 2022

Almost Not Photo

Summer and 18 years old. On the Vineyard. My soon-to-be girlfriend Cindy left the party one night in July to get more beer. Off she went in the used 1957 BMW Isetta she had bought that afternoon. 

Not exactly a photo post but a good story.

This was an unusual mode of transportation

with two wheels in the rear that were closer together.  It was something of a cross between a motor scooter and a car. They were not known for their ability to take corners at speed. I had spent a few moments with her earlier explaining that corners were not her friend. She didn't pay much attention.

At any rate, off she went in a hurry to get down island ( 20 minutes away) before the liquor store closed. I couldn't go with her as the party was at my parent's house (who were away, of course) and I was worried people would trash the place.

The Isetta was a little different in terms of getting in and out of it. The front was a door that opened

with a steering wheel that moved out of the way so you could get in.

I didn't see Cindy for a bit but then she arrived back at the party with no beer and a bloody forehead. Turns out she was going a little fast at the big corner at the bottom of the hill on Middle Road about a mile from the house. A tree stopped her foreword movement and her head hit the steering wheel. She was shaken up and not pleased that her new car was toast. We went down to look at it the next morning and the whole front was pushed in by the tree. It was towed away later that day. I figure she owned that car for about 10 hours.

What got me into this line of thinking and remembering? I was at the Newport (RI) Car Museum yesterday photographing the cars and they had an Isetta. Photography played a part here as I wouldn't have much to share with you without an Isetta being there and getting me thinking about that night in the summer of 1965.

I hope you're having a good summer. Stay cool.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 19, 2022

Nantucket 2010

Long time since my last post. Mid-summer now.

Long, hot, and bright summer days. A family reunion on Martha's Vineyard last week with a graveside speech at the family plot in Chilmark eulogizing my sister who died two years ago. 

I've been spending most days in the new studio enjoying its solitude and its central air. 

In 2010 I made a set of pictures from Nantucket on a visit to see friends. This way of working-walking, looking, positioning myself, wide lens, black and white, flat gray daylight-an often practiced system well-oiled over the years.

Started really with Fences and Walls 1979 but polished and fully realized with the Nantucket pictures from 1980:

©Neal Rantoul 1980

Of course, it makes for an unusual shoot, holding one set of pictures in your mind while shooting the same way in the same place 30 years later.

Clearly, the same but different.

Nantucket 1980: Hasselblad Super Wide. Plus X film and not printed till three months later. My career ahead of me. The next year I would marry and start the tenure track job at Northeastern. These pictures an epiphany, showing a path for a whole lifetime.

Nantucket 2010: Nikon D3X, 14-24 mm Nikkor  Free as a bird, wrapping up a teaching career of almost 40 years, soon to retire. 

Photography is firmly established in a digital realm. 

Apologies for going there but my ex-wife, Micaela Garzoni, died suddenly a few weeks ago, at 66 years old. For a brief time, she was into photography, studying at the New England School of Photography and then getting her Master's degree at MIT. The next year she showed her thesis work at the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art). My daughter Maru and granddaughter Skye struggling to deal with the loss. Hard to lose a parent.

A thirty-year span of time, these Nantucket pictures. A couple of people that are no more. As constant as things can seem, the same year after year, it's a lie for time marches on and we end. Simple enough. A lesson learned? You bet. Do it now. Write it now, make some epic pictures, compose it, paint it, whatever it is that you do,  do it now. And don't keep it in. If it's good, get it out there, make sure others see it and wrestle with it. Tomorrow is no sure thing.

Have I hit a chord? Tell me: nrantoul@comcast.net

Topics: New Work

Permalink | Posted July 14, 2022

My RISD Graduate Portfolio

1973. I'd wager this is before many of you were born. Graduating from the RI School of Design with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Photography. We were told to make two copies of our thesis portfolio, one for the Department and one for the library. I did just that, although many did not.

I drove down to Providence a few weeks ago and got to look at mine for the first time since 1973.

Now housed in the library's archive, mine was mounted prints on 16 x 20-inch museum board sitting in a portfolio box.

(forgive the roughness of the imagery. I had to shoot the prints with my iPhone. and then square them up in Lightroom).

These were made 50 years ago. 

All shot with the Rollei SL 66 and the Carl Zeiss 80mm f2.8 Planar lens. 

Photography in those days seemed to be, for me, a large dose of high-end craft combined with imagery that was primarily graphic with strong blacks.

There were 14 photographs in the portfolio.

I can remember thinking after I'd graduated and the portfolio was finished, I might try shooting with more distance. I think this was developmental, learning perhaps, in the early days, to move in tighter then later I could let more air in my pictures. As it turned out, I did just that, shooting landscapes in northern Scotland one summer four years later that were expansive.

And so it goes. Of course, I would have been offended should anyone suggest in 1973 that I wasn't fully formed as an artist. Little did I know how much there was still to do.

Topics: Black and White,Analog

Permalink | Posted June 28, 2022