Topic: Commentary (153 posts) Page 1 of 31


I confess. I wrote this post a while ago and it has sat in my "to finish" list. Here it is.

I am going to write about cards: meaning photo cards I created that combined a note or text with pictures, sometimes my own and sometimes not.

About 2000, inkjet printing was evolving as were ways of sharing imagery. My skills were also improving as I moved through generations and iterations of printers. Various companies were also making do-it-yourself substrates and one of those was photo cards. I used one made by Kodak. I started with thank you notes and/or Xmas cards. These were a picture printed on a folding card with a note scribbled in my illegible handwriting. This then progressed to found photographs, family snapshots combined with some text, usually fiction, that made a story, or a commentary on the image.

This was a snapshot I'd found at a flea market. And here is the text I wrote to go    with it:

As time went on I'd make a card, perhaps sending it but also keeping a copy for myself. I still have most of them.

This one, of my dad, making a movie of some bizarre hunt in the backyard:

An Easter Egg hunt? I have no idea. And the text I wrote to go with it:

That's just two of them. There are many more.  Sometimes we forget the skills we have, the abilities that we have worked so hard and long to obtain are usable for far more than just making our prints for exhibition. I made cards at the time  as I was just learning how to make photographs and combine them with  type. It was early days and my abilities as a graphic designer are still wanting. These two above are just because I could. I encourage you to stretch out, to increase your range and breadth. It is far too easy to think of yourself in just one category as a visually creative person. 

Topics: Black and White,Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 19, 2020

Try Something

I've been writing this blog for a little over seven years. For the most part it has been an extremely rewarding experience. To be able to have a place to share your work and your thoughts about your discipline is a privilege and one I do not take lightly.

As the years have progressed, photography has changed in powerful ways, becoming larger, ubiquitous and far more diverse. You, the group that are subscribers, have grown steadily. In fact, even though we are just a few days into 2020, there are several newcomers to the blog. Welcome.

I have found you, as subscribers, to be a fairly passive group. You prefer, it seems, to read the blog but not be participants in its content or players in what I choose to write about. That's fine. 

But I would like here to ask you to plug in a little, to write your ideas, your thoughts about photography early in this new decade. What questions do you have that remain unanswered as you read my posts? Are there topics or suggestions that someone like me might address? If you are younger and newer to a creative life, how can my years of experience be beneficial? Or, as you look over a career's worth of bodies of work on the gallery page of the site, what questions form in you? Why did I make those pictures that way? What went into my process? Or perhaps you are not a practitioner yourself but follow along in the blog: all good. But what can I write about that will answer your questions or clear up things for you? Are there topics or concerns of yours that you wish I'd addressed? Ask me. Finally, I have, over a 50 year career, met a wonderful and diverse group of people in all parts of my process: professors, curators, gallery directors, critics, reviewers, fellow artists, students, colleagues, friends and on and on. We could play the "Do you   know?" game or the "Have you met?" game.

Easy: email me. 

Neal's email:

If you wish to remain anonymous I will honor that in the blog, of course.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 11, 2020

Photography's Hard

Photography's easy, right? Your phone makes great pictures. You don't really need a real camera anymore.

But photography's really hard if you want to use it knowledgeably, substantively, if you want to make art, if you want to extend it beyond the everyday concerns we all have to record our lives and share them with others. It is particularly difficult now that photographs are universal, infused into our lives in every aspect, filling every nook and cranny of our existence with their presence. Photography is now ubiquitous. 

When I studied photography in the early 70's, photography as a means of creative expression was fairly new and certainly not universally understood. That meant that innovation was relatively easy. There was much to explore. Double expose, turn pictures upside down,  superimpose, juxtapose, blur and scratch an emulsion, etc. Making statements that hadn't been made before wasn't so hard.

But if you want to make art with your camera now. If you want to avoid the insignificant, trite, banal, done-to-death and cliche, it is harder.  If you want to innovate, make things never seen before, to rock the world with imagery that is breathtaking, aggressive, beautiful, and extraordinary.

Well, you're screwed, my friends, for photography as an art has somehow become something else, well over the era of being a new and exciting form of expression. Take landscape: impeccable and exquisite pictures of faraway lands glorified with the perfect time of day, the perfect light and the perfect resolution? Irrelevant and done to death. Why would a beautiful image shot in the mountains of, say, New Zealand have any possible relevance in today's world except in a "National Geographic" kind of way? When a "Google Images" search produces literally hundreds of the same kinds of pictures as yours, or worse, better than yours.

Let me remind you that these examples, obtained through a Google Images search, are usually anonymous, free for the taking. The only possible reason I can see for this kind of photography is to "put one in your quiver", to take the photograph yourself, to make a photograph that is right up there with the competition, to call it your own, to bask in the accomplishment that you went there, captured that with your camera, had the print made or made the print yourself, framed it or had it framed and hung it over your mantle in your living room for your family and friends to see with predictable oohs and aahs.

But art? I don't think so. Something else entirely. 

I know this might provoke some controversy around the definition of "art" for art is used in all kinds of contexts, most of them making art more pedestrian. I also know I have opened the door to push back for there are many who believe

(Source: Google Images)

there is a place in art for this kind of photography. And no doubt, there are some very beautiful images being made in this way. But art? More like elegant description, enhanced documentation or interpretation.

So photography is hard because this is is simply not enough, to record our surroundings with fidelity. Yes, there's a place for this but real art, art that says something, that propels us forward, that does not confine itself to convention, that becomes significant historically, that is far more difficult and daunting and entails a higher level of responsibility.

The big mistake, of course, is this: assuming, because you like it and are proud of it, your friends and family like it and have urged you to enter the contest, to meet with the gallery director, the book editor, the museum curator, that these professionals will be impressed and moved to purchase your work, show it, publish it. But, from their point of view, please, tell me, what are they to do with your pictures? 

In earlier times, perhaps as a holdover from the era of Edward Curtis and William Jackson that showed us the frontier of the American West in the late 1800s for the first time, you could get away with impressing this way. But not now, not when these below are right there for the taking:

Endless blue-sky landscapes, glorifications of existing places, postcard-perfect, idealized and beautifully rendered. Is that what you aspire to? Or do you want to go deeper, share your unique take on the world, use what is in front of your camera to comment, display and render with heart and intellect, to use photography's amazing abilities to convey with relevance, timeliness, and perspective? 

What do you think? What do you want to say? What do you believe? 

What's key here is this: it is all too easy to make pictures that are generic, cookie-cutter photographs that simply meet the norm, the contemporary conventional. Our job as artists is to go farther, to push our medium into forms of expression that extend ours and our audiences' understanding of this medium we choose and to signify our unique place in the world.

Cabela's, Nebraska, 2005

back cover American Series, Cody Wyoming, photographs by Neal Rantoul 2005

cut Xmas trees, Spruce Pine, NC

Museum of Health and Medicine, Bethesda, MD

Paradise, CA 11/2019

More reading: This article references my work circa 2011 and hits on some of the same themes:

MV Arts and Ideas

Topics: Commentary,Digital

Permalink | Posted December 14, 2019

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? 


 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


Last month I juried a photography competition. Since I know many of you submit to these I thought I would share with you how it works.

The one I judged was an "open call" meaning simply that there was no theme or  definition, you could submit anything you wanted. The structure was set up through the Cafe system:

This allowed me to see each submitted image as a jpeg on screen, along with an artist statement and the size of the photograph. The use of Cafe is ubiquitous across the industry. This is important as you will be lumped together with everyone else's submission in each competition with no way for your photographs to stand out, be regarded individually or regarded as something special in any way. It matters little whether you make platinum prints, print on the best of water color papers, or emboss your photographs so they have actual depth. The Cafe system democratizes all submissions, universalizing all applications into one thing and one thing only: the image. Work in large format, make prints of excrutiating quality 5 feet across? It doesn't matter. Gold-tone your analog prints with a proprietary formula that adds spacial depth and a haunting hue to your prints? It doesn't matter.

As a judge, I got fatigued and sloppy after a long session looking at hundreds submissions. It became difficult to value each one, to regard it separately from others, to respect the artist's intent, to judge on its own merits, to avoid categorizing it as another portrait, landscape, collage, night picture, wildlife, etc. I found I needed to take a break, go do something else and come back to the task fresh. It would be easy just to blow off the job, pick images randomly and disregard any effort to determine a hierarchy of photographs, from superior to inferior.

In the past, I have judged many photography competitions, but always in an actual space or a gallery with framed prints unwrapped and leaning up against the wall or sitting on tables. This allowed me to position them, to basically curate a show with photographs I'd chosen.

Looking at real prints allows a judge to see the quality of the image, to evaluate the artists' craft. With the Cafe system that is effectively gone. Grainy, unintentionally blurry, streaked or camera shaken, poorly printed, oversaturated or over sharpened? It would be difficult to tell using Cafe. 

Let me make this statement so I am not misunderstood. It is clear there is a need for judging to be streamlined but the Cafe system (or any other that reduces your work down to a jpeg file) is terrible. To take a process whose very core is individuality and universalize it is just plain wrong. You aren't making your art to become anonymous, are you? The expressive medium of photography reduced  to just a jpeg representation on a display is a travesty. This is art, being boiled down and  smoothed over by digital means to 72 dpi on your screen. This is no way to determine the inherent quality of photographs.

As an applicant I understand your predicament, either conform to the system or do not submit. Photography has become very big, hundreds or thousands of applicants, many competitions to submit to and prestigious judges reviewing your work. The Cafe system is a poor substitute for actual eyes viewing your prints. This makes portfolio reviews stand out as being far better.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 11, 2019