Topic: black and white and color (7 posts) Page 1 of 2

Big Change

This is a blog post about the big change that has taken place in photography. After now a long career as a photographer and a photography educator I can now say that craft matters very little and that the age of making beautiful photographic prints is over.

Let's go back a few years, to students studying film-based photography at the university level. Craft was king then, as it was hard to learn to shoot film, to know how to adjust various settings on the camera, to make pictures that conveyed things beautifully. Hell, even after learning to load film in the tank and develop, it took weeks to learn how to make a good black and white print, often a whole semester. Good craft was the foundation of making pictures that looked good, conveyed intent, communicated a certain emphasis or point of view that was expressive and intelligent. All gone now, of course. The advancement of technology has eliminated all that. A good analogy is learning to drive a car. This is a skill, learned over time with the necessary training and discipline to become good at it. Same with photography, or used to be. Autonomous cars are coming and you'll no longer need skill behind the wheel to get someplace.  With photography to some extent we are already in an age of autonomous photography, for the devices are really doing just fine on their own, making well-exposed files of pictures that practically print themselves at very high quality. Look at the sheer quality of smartphone photos today. Great skills at the helm of the computer, the conduit to the inkjet printer, are no longer required. The process has become so highly automated that a great intellect combined with years of experience is no longer needed. The people who are truly great printers have been obsolesced by great advances in automatic everything. Of course, there are lapses in all this. People still do make terrible prints. Through some brain fart or no knowledge whatsoever really terrible photographs are made every day. But with a modicum of knowledge, great prints are easy and can be practically assumed. 

It's tough to be obsolesced.

This makes looking back to a Stieglitz, or a Weston or even an early color street photograph from the early 70s by Joel Meyerwitz look like they were making a bloody miracle. And they were. Spend some time with some original Adams or Weston prints and they will blow you away, as for them to be making prints of that high a quality in the time they were making them was unbelievable.

Now, shoot RAW, let the camera make the focus and exposure settings, load the file into Lightroom, adjust it with sliders to your liking, export it as a TIFF, send it off to be printed or print it yourself and what have you got?  A well exposed and excellent print.

Did I at times rely upon my technical skills in analog days to outweigh anything else? 

Yes.

 Many of us did that. Point an 8 x 10 camera at something inane and inconsequential, develop the film and make the print with consummate skill, frame it beautifully and show it with the presumption that it is hugely important. Great significance and weight based on the device that made the picture, often nothing else. Paul Krot, a teacher of mine at RISD and the inventor of Sprint Chemistry, once said to me that anything was fantastic if shot with an 8 x 10 camera and its true. The format seduced me for 25years.

Now, I am shooting with a 61 MP mirrorless camera that handheld can do very well when compared to the 8 x 10, maybe even better. Making a big print 40 or 50 inches across is easy these days, you just need a big printer.

All of those technical concerns, the skill of printing and handling the materials knowledgeably, being practiced and respectful of what could be done are now, for the most part, over. 

When working with analog materials my objective was always to make the perfect print; the widest tonal range, the best sharpness, the deepest blacks and the most luminous highlights that I could. Remember Ansel Adam's adage that the "negative was the composition but the print was the performance"? This took great skill, years of experience and yes, often some luck to succeed. It was very difficult to do. Now, these things are easy, almost assumed. Those very values and high standards are often lost on those younger, brought up in a digital era. This is partly progress but also makes me a little sad too. The idea, now, of spending a whole day in the darkroom going through many sheets of paper to make one consummate print seems laughable. 

To quote Kurt Vonnegut once again, 

"and so it goes."


(All images reproduced here are ©Neal Rantoul and are from 8 x 10 negatives and transparencies and may not be reproduced without specific permission by the photographer.)

Topics: Commentary,8 x 10,black and white and color

Permalink | Posted October 20, 2019

Salton Sea 2 Part 2

Continuing and finishing a look at the Salton Sea 2 series made in 2012. 

The Salton Sea, a simply incredible place, as if from another planet. The soil crunching under my feet and turning to powder at my step.

The "sun behind the pole" trick used here with some slight band of color where there's water in the background.

The first photograph in the series with a preponderance of color, some kind of fetid and polluted pond that stunk. The lens is now taking a larger role here. Push a wide angle lens down and verticals bow out.

Back to our original structural device... long, blacked-out rectangular windows and here just a hint of the pond through the building, in color. This is one of those where the actual the print (at 22 inches across) makes a huge difference. Everything is probably too small here to see the subtlety.

Moving on we turn to the right and find another expanse of what looks like devastation:

and 180 degrees:

showing the mountains in the far distance.

This photograph brings us to another abandoned structure, shot square onto the   pointed edge of the building, a clear divergence from all the others which were made as parallel plane photographs. Another pond coming up, seen through the window, is shown full frame next.

I think of this image as being the most brutal, as this pond filled with some unimaginable liquid that looks viscous, fills the frame.

Then next to the series only vertical, back to where we started from

Then to the last two images in the series, when exhibited put side by side to each other, the same file printed twice:

with the black and white image conforming to the rule that says water is color, over there on the far right of the frame, a judgement call on my part and not without controversy as some feel the print should be all black and white.

I didn't so much mind breaking my own convention as I wanted to try to prove the efficacy of the device I used. 

By showing these two in this way I wanted to present the series as yes, from the otherworldy Salton Sea and its altered reality but also to drive the point home that I was using this work as a vehicle to make a statement about contemporary photography and how the rules ordering the use of color and black and white are no longer in effect. Photography has advanced in maturity to a "no rules" system where anything goes, much as all art has. So much of present-day photography either ignores precedent or its maker is unaware of what was made before or doesn't care.

On a more personal level, although often thought of as a conventional landscape photographer, I am not. In this case, I sought to use this place as a canvas. My palette is black and white and color. I've chosen to make my painting."Take em or make em", we say. Let your photographs come out the way the tools and technology choose or impose your own ideas and construct in your work.  Salton Sea is not a conventional landscape series of photographs for I am using where I was as a vehicle or platform for what I chose to do to it. 

Topics: Southwest,Digital,Color,black and white and color

Permalink | Posted May 17, 2019

Utah Day 6

I've referenced the last time I was in Moab in 2010 during this trip in a couple of my other posts. But I was in Moab before then too. Back when we all used film, in 1998, to make our pictures, I made a series I called "Moab, Utah". They were of the railroad tracks along a mining spur on the way south from Moab along the river close to Potash. I made the prints in my darkroom.

They are on the site: here. I also wrote about them: here.

I drove by there yesterday, now twenty years later. And thought about whether it made sense to reshoot. I chose not to. Mostly I don't do that, relying on the pictures I made to stand. Much here in the Southwest  is timeless, of course, or seems it. Or perhaps it is that rock is less susceptible to perceived change than our frenetic need to make things that are new. 

At any rate, I also was back at Thompson Springs off of I 70 the other day and found what had been where I made the first picture in that series (here).

A favorite of mine, made eight years ago. This time things had changed quite a bit:

I was told by a neighbor the roof caved in and the town deemed it a safety hazard so tore it down. 

I can't forget my first experience with things ephemeral. I was making the pictures for my MFA thesis while a student at RISD in the early 70's. My subject was cars in a junkyard. I'd made a picture of the tail fin of a 1957 Buick that I liked. A week later I went back to photograph it some more only to find out that not only the fin was gone but so was the whole car! Lesson learned.

Programming note: Please don't assume I am not susceptible to what has gone on this week: Tuesday's election, Trump's bizarre press conference, Session's firing and subsequent threat to the Mueller investigation, another shooting, this time in California, only two weeks after the last one in Pittsburgh and the wildfires in Paradise, CA. All that in the past two days! I am as influenced by all this as you are, unable to escape it even here in Moab. In many ways it seems it is the worst of times. This makes my pictures taken here in a Utopia of rock and river and blue skies seem like escape. On the other hand, maybe we need a little beauty in our lives right now. 

I hope you can find a little Utah in your day today.

Topics: Southwest,Digital,Analog,black and white and color

Permalink | Posted November 9, 2018

Italy 3

Let's move up into more recent times. Since I finished teaching in Venice I've been to Italy a few times: 2009, 2012, 2014. The 2009 trip was photo specific and produced some wonderful work.

In 2012 I was able to get back to the area around Latisana not far from Trieste to photograph stands of trees. The trees are grown as a crop and are for making wood pulp.

And in 2014 on a trip to both France for  Paris Photo and to Italy I made pictures in Noli, along the Italian Mediterranean

This ends the series of several posts on my time teaching and photographing in Italy. There is far more than I've represented here. I linked a few series at the bottom of this post. Very often series represented in the gallery page on the site are backed up with blogs about the same series. Easy, just go to the search function in the blog and type in the series and a list of posts will populate on the left side of the page.

Thanks for following along. 

Finally, I feel blessed to have had so many opportunities to photograph in such an incredible country as Italy for so many years. I am the beneficiary of its warmth, its wonderful people, and its beauty.

Topics: Foreign,Italy,black and white and color,Digital,Analog

Permalink | Posted January 31, 2018

The Right Picture at the Right Time

Perhaps because I am a senior photographic  person I find I have been thinking about the concept of what pictures we make at what periods in our lives. Looking at something I made in my mid 20's (Take Me Back) and comparing it to something I made recently (Spring and Fall) I can safely say that there was no way I could build a structure around a body of work back then like I do now. It was far simpler when I was young.

Photography was a lot simpler back then too. Besides all the technical changes photography has had, it is a medium much more aware of itself now than it was in the mid 70's. We know more about it and what it can and cannot do than we did then. It would have to be, after all that we've seen coming out of it in the past 40 years.

Of course, what perspective does someone have at 20 years old? Certainly little on himself/herself, but for most people none on much of anything. 

This then leads me to the core concept: making art that is age appropriate. By age appropriate I really mean something a little larger, that it is emotionally and intellectually age appropriate. Can this be boiled down to developmental changes? i.e. when we are younger we make work that is impulsive, reactive, intuitive, often simpler, emotional and self centered. When we are older we make work that is contemplative, intellectual, considered, knowledgeable, refined, careful. Simple enough, right? I mean that we should use what we've got and at my age I have a great deal I can use for I've been doing this so long. On the other hand, I can't go out and on an impulse make a huge body of work of a brand new idea, putting life and limb at risk and hang over the edge, so to speak. While I am physically constrained due to my age, I just can't because I don't think that way now.

As usual, I am thinking of a photograph I made that references my point. This below is at the Grand Coullee Dam in Washington.

I made this in the 80's. I am standing at the top of the dam with the tripod of the 8 x 10 view camera leaning up against the wall and the camera tilted over the wall and pointing straight down. My left foot is pushed up against the back tripod leg, keeping the camera from plummeting down the dam into the water and I have stretched myself tall as I can to see up at the ground glass to focus the image under the dark cloth before inserting the film holder to take the picture. This is high risk stuff. This is a photograph made a long time ago.Would I do this now? I think you know the answer.

Finally, how does one take a passion that is still as deep and resonate as it was when  younger and make art that is relevant and meaningful today? There is a catch, of course, and that is to not make the same pictures over and over again. Without moving on and relegating our done work to past work we fall into one of many traps, but the trap of repetition is to be avoided at all costs. Move on!

Also, as a rule it appears that later work may be as ambitious as earlier work but perhaps more thought through, in that the artist seeks to use the materials to his/her purpose as a device to make the point. In earlier years I would come across a place or an area and think to make a series of pictures from it that could compose a whole, be it a story or a thread or a concept. I would photograph the place, putting all my eggs into one basket, to focus whatever insight I had into a cohesive group of pictures to make a complete set in a short period of time. While I still do that occasionally, much of my work now is done over longer periods of time, with perhaps multiple shoots to get to the end. Slower because of being older? Yes, partly, but also slower  because I am aware of more things going on, more subtleties inherent in something I am photographing.

So, are you making pictures now that are symphonic? Large in scale, grand and extroverted? Or are you making more modest pieces, intimate and reflective, emotional and heartfelt? And does age play a role here?

I for one am still making the latter but am also involved in larger pieces too, assembled bodies of works that span time and often place. Why? Because I am thinking less and less of single pictures existing on their own. Maybe laying out and making books has taught me ways of connecting pictures to pictures more. At any rate, I am now involved in three larger series:

The Route 2 Trilogy:

a look at Massachusetts Route 2 as it heads from the suburbs west of Boston to the border with New York State in three parts.

Hofsos Trilogy:

a look at the small town of Hofsos, Iceland from inside and outside perspectives.

and Spring and Fall, a body of work of Martha's Vineyard that encompasses pictures made of the same area made on the ground and also made from the air:

Not to get morbid, but there is the phenomenon of classical composers final and unfinished bodies of work becoming their own requiems after they are gone: Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Faure' to name a few. You probably know others. 

Just saying.

The right picture at the right time.

Topics: black and white and color,Analog,Digital,Iceland

Permalink | Posted May 6, 2014