Topic: Commentary (135 posts) Page 1 of 27

Since Then

This blog has been a steady fixture in my life and on this site since November 2012. Thanks to you my readers and photography itself I have never run out of things to write about. In the earlier years of the blog when I was more active in the photography community in the New England area, I wrote about other photographers, shows, books, and events more than I do now.

Age has a way of forcing retirement even if that is not the chosen path and I am no exception. Older and wiser? Maybe a little. While still strong and vibrant there can be no doubt there is less output from this artist than in earlier days. As I write this there is snow on the ground and freezing rain falling from the sky. January was always a time to process and print for me. For 25 years or so this meant long hours in the darkroom, now it means long hours in front of a computer screen. I have concurrent projects I am final printing now, from Utah made in November


and from wildfire damage in Paradise, California in early January. 

My daughter Maru and I are working together to promote, market and sell my work. We have formed an LLC called: Insight Arts Management (IAM). Although I am her first client she will represent others as well. There is a new site   ( that will launch in the next few months. We also plan an invitational evening event that will showcase my work and others in March. Maru has made sales already. I am very excited at this new venture.

Ahead, as I view the state of my affairs in this place and time? I can report that the state of Neal Rantoul is excellent. I currently have infrared work shot in the early 80's hanging at the Boston Society of Architects on Congress Street through June. 

The reception, open to the public, is January 30 from 6-8 pm. I have work from the Shrink Wrapped series

 that has just been accepted into the upcoming exhibition at the RI Center for the Arts that will open February 21, juried by Aline Smithson (thank you, Aline). And will be exhibiting in a one-person show at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston this coming spring.

I am of an age where being unaware of one's own impending demise would be irresponsible and, as you know, I travel often to make my work. Travel will continue and has been particularly worthwhile this past year. High on the list is another trip to the Palouse, the extensive wheat growing country in eastern Washington that I have been photographing since 1996. For an artist who makes work in series that can need as brief as an hour the Wheat series is truly exceptional, for it is ongoing and begun in 1996! This time I hope for a trip there in mid to late June. There can be great worth to the same content re-approached and the Palouse is a remarkable constant for me, continuing to produce work that is fresh, innovative and qualitative. Palouse crops are first planted in April so June is a "first harvest" period as well as triggering a second planting. Late June is wheat fields at its most glorious and lush.

Since then, meaning since I started writing the blog in 2012, you and I have been on many journeys, both physical and emotional, intellectual and metaphysical. I don't think of blogs as having much staying power, meaning readership after they are written and read.  But they are all still there, contained in the "Archive" heading on the Blog page. If you subscribe and follow along, great, I appreciate that. But there are more posts that, no doubt, you haven't read, back in the archive. I encourage you to take a look.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments and criticisms: here

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 21, 2019

Pictures Make Pictures

A blog post about making photographs with no photographs.

One of the classic problems for students studying photography is figuring out what to photograph. They are, after all, learning a whole new language. We wouldn't expect eloquence when first learning a new language, but somehow students think they need to be good in photography right out of the gate. After all, a photograph made by a novice can look very much like one made by an expert.

Most semesters in the study of photography end with a final project, and usually a thesis is required at the end of a student's major in college. The topic is self-defined and there was always a period of doubt, perhaps a few trials and then some re-evaluation and re-definition before arriving at the subject, the content of the project.

I liken the process for students to being "armchair invention". Sit in your armchair usually the night before you have to tell your teacher what you're going to do (I made them write out a proposal so we could discuss it), think up an idea, then share it with  your teacher in class. Often there were no pictures to go along with the idea. Then, meeting with me 1:1 we would flush out the concept, perhaps talk about the logistics, location, lighting, model releases and, oh yes, whether or not they had my approval to go ahead. The idea versus the reality was that they were most often very far apart. It wasn't unusual for me to let them fall into the trap of envisioning something truly grand and magnificent that there was no way they could realize. I tried to give them enough time to fail, pick up the pieces and re-approach their topic, humbled but now knowing why it had  gone so badly the first time. This fell into the understanding that look,  you're not going to compose a symphony in three weeks, so let's scale this back to something you can actually accomplish.

In all this, in the ongoing conversation of trying to help them arrive at a good project that used their new found skills, investigated multiple themes and had a point of view, I would often say, "Pictures Make Pictures". This addressed their inevitable "writer's block", the characteristic of being frozen and not photographing because they didn't know what to photograph. Pictures makes pictures simply means activity (in this case shooting) is always better than inactivity (not shooting). I would urge them to take the final project out of the question, not be driven by the 15 or so final prints they needed for the grade in the class but to go out with camera in hand and make pictures, to hell with the outcome.  Another way to deal with this is to ask, "when was the last time you went out to photograph and you didn't become interested in what you were photographing?" If nothing else, you would be better informed about what not to do than before you went shooting. If I could just motivate them to get in the car, on the bus, on the subway, walk around the block with their camera I could practically guarantee the beginnings of a project would rear its head, an idea would occur, a photograph would show them something, lead them to another and another and so on. Photographs make photographs, pictures make pictures. 

I wonder if there is something of value here for you, those of you that are reading this that are practitioners of photography. Cramped up? Feeling the malaise of the short days and the cold temperatures? Everything look ugly and surrounded by trash? Call yourself a photographer? Go photograph. Seeking inspiration, motivation to go back out again with a camera? Worry less, think less and do more. Count on past experience to lead you to new ideas and perhaps new projects or ways of photographing, new ways of seeing, new insights.

Pictures make pictures.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted December 20, 2018

A Personal History #6

This will finish (for the time being) the Personal History series I've been posting for the past month or so. If you're just starting on these you might go back and read #1,#2,#3,#4 and #5 first.

By 2015 my methodology was a well-oiled machine and these years, post my teaching position, have been some of the most productive as well as lucrative of my career. Although technically retired I have been anything but.

In the fall of that year, I made a quick trip to Salt Lake City, Utah to make aerial photographs of the potash evaporation pools in Great Salt Lake.

These were some of the best aerial files I had ever made as there was so much light reflecting back from the ground I could use a lower ISO and had more depth of field too. By this time I was using the Nikon D810,  which was a favorite as it corrected all of the problems inherent to the D800. I make prints from these files 40 x 28 inches. As I write this I am headed in late October 2018 back to Salt Lake this weekend. Can't wait. 

Later that fall of 2015 and over the winter of 2016 I got a little sidetracked as I had both my hips replaced. My experience was completely positive and I would recommend this to anyone with worn-out hips. By the spring I was back at it, although not traveling so much, and made a new series of pictures called "Zinc Apartments" of a new apartment complex in Cambridge, where I lived.

These are an anomaly in my oeuvre and perhaps might have something to do with residual drugs in my system as they are certainly unusual pictures for me. I made some of them while still on crutches.

Over the winter 2016/2017 I had a new obsession: I photographed boats in boatyards that were shrink wrapped. 

These bizarre and very abstract photographs have not been shown. They should be. They are here.

By the summer of 2017, I was back in Iceland teaching for the Baer Art Centre. This new work was shown in January at the New England School of Photography.

I spent much of the winter of 2018 on the West Coast and photographed, both aerially and on the ground, damage from the firestorms in both Southern and Northern California.

I also made a new series of photographs from downtown San Jose that pay homage to a way of working I started in 1981.

and aerially photographed the Salt Evaporation Ponds at the southern edge of San Fransisco Bay

and photographed mannequins at a rental warehouse in Oakland...and, last, made pictures called "On the Road to Pinnacles"a state park.

So, now relatively up to date and in conclusion we have looked at a long career in overview. Please do not presume I am done but allow me a few thoughts on what has been many decades and an overwhelming preoccupation. First, on working this hard for this long in one discipline: many cannot, of course.  Friends and colleagues have spun out of still photography on to other fields and I get that. But I still have great love for the medium and believe we have not seen all that it can do. I certainly still find it hugely challenging and, with less frequency, rewarding too. My goal way back in my early days was to make a contribution to photography, in whatever form; for my pictures to be regarded as somehow important enough or significant enough to be thought of as adding to a very large whole of truly important work.  Of course, the medium is so very different now. It was impossible to conceive of where it would go in the late 1960's when I first met Harry Callahan, and took my first class, almost 50 years ago! 

What's in my future? To continue to travel and photograph and write as I have done for so long, as long as I am able to; to exhibit and publish and to promote my work and to teach. My daughter Maru and I  have formed an LLC which will market my photography and she will represent other artists as well. We are called Insight Arts Management (IAM). More on this soon. 

Some housekeeping issues: All of the works I've cited in all of the Personal History Series are represented on the gallery page of my website and most are searchable through the search function of the blog.

As always, I am most appreciative of your readership and hope that by sharing my experiences I can assist you in yours, at least shedding some light on one person's narrative.

Stay tuned.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 30, 2018

Step Up

This is the teacher in me coming out but if you call yourself a photographer and/or artist you need to step up. Photograph occasionally? Pick up a camera and take pictures when the scene is right, the light is right, when you "feel like it"?

I don't think so.

We are better if we shoot frequently, daily. We can reach a level of familiarity, fluidity, excellence and a pace that has rhythm when we photograph daily. Feeling rusty and out of it? It's because you're not thinking about it and making pictures constantly. Think about what a concert pianist does. Practice.

People can think they are in the big leagues, are contributing significant work by photographing occasionally or rarely, but they mostly they aren't. I don't know of anyone that's really good who isn't photographing constantly. I know, this makes for too many pictures. Photography for a long time has been a medium of too much, quantity run amok. This is where skilled editing should prevail. Editing is teachable, a discipline driven by lack of acceptance for anything but the best. A person's aesthetic, on the other hand,  not so much. This seems to be somehow ingrained into our genetic code. Good to look at it, though, try to decipher where it comes from and how it came about. At my age I do this quite a bit, look over my past to see where I came from artistically. 

This a hobby, a casual interest in making a few good pictures over a career or lifetime? Not me. This is what I do, make pictures. Not messing around or approaching this with less than a total commitment. That makes sense. To be really good you'd have to do it all the time with complete conviction.  Confidence isn't bravado, a conceit or placing yourself on a pedestal. It is just the knowledge that you are good because you've applied every lesson learned, worked your butt off, used every experience you've had, everything you've got to be this good. 

So, step up. Commit and invest. Give it all you've got. Don't compromise or accept less than perfection. Why should you? The plan is to make the absolute best pictures you can at the level you're at. Aspire towards greatness, why wouldn't you? Fail a lot, because you're pushing it then accept your failure only to redo, re-approach, figure another way and try again. Don't give up, ever. Be tenacious. Whoever said making art would be easy? It is one of the very hardest things to do, to be really good. So, go for it.

Talent is for amateurs. I hear this all the time: "She/he is so talented". So? It's what you do with the gift that matters. So you have a natural inclination towards visual expression? Great. Now go to work and make some art.

Don't worry about what others think, don't try for acceptance or fitting in. Don't pay attention to what others do, who wins what contest or best of show. Don't bother with all that crap. Go your own way, but with determination and yes, even some humor thrown in. Learn to laugh at yourself, because you will be ridiculous. A grown man or woman standing in front of some wall, some house, some landscape, some street with people streaming by, with a camera up to his/her face and taking a picture? Of course this is foolish. 

Also, you need to make your life centered around this thing called photography. It needs to be your priority. Not fitting it into your existing study or office, not shoved on a few flash drives or a few developed rolls of film in the back of your desk drawer. Get organized, file your pictures so that you can find them in the future. Back shit up. Hard drives will fail. Store your finished works like the gold that they are, precious and valued and something to behold. This work will be your lasting legacy, how you are remembered in future generations. How can someone else take your work seriously if you don't? And last, never apologize, never accommodate. That's for losers. You're an artist, not someone struggling to get another "job" another honorable mention. Remember, you are making your best work ever. Share it, show it, get it seen. A gallery director's position, a museum curator's job, an editor's role is to show great work. Magnificent work never seeing the light of day is nothing, doesn't exist.

And in conclusion, enjoy the ride. You are among the elite, the top of the heap in choosing to devote your life to this thing called art. You're not like regular people, just trying to get along. Not an easy path, but the rewards are deep, everlasting and powerful. 


This is a version of a lecture I used to give to graduating seniors at Northeastern University where I taught for thirty years. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 26, 2018


White Sands, NM 1979

Welcome to my blog! 

Since so many of you signed up at the Allston Open Studios earlier this month I thought I would say hello and acquaint you a little with the blog. You are now subscribed and will get an email each time I post a new one. You can unsubscribe from this any time you want and I never share or sell email addresses, period.

Topics are primarily my own work, but the blog also serves as a vehicle for announcements of talks I give, shows my work is in and, occasionally, interviews of other artists.

Since I've been writing frequently for over 4 years there are a lot of posts. The blog is searchable and this can be helpful for finding things that interest you. Type in "Southwest," for example, and all sorts of  posts that relate to the South west will come up. 

Finally, there are many posts that serve as an analysis or guide through specific works of mine, usually as series or as a narrative group of pictures.  These usually go "Oakesdale Cemetery, Oakesedale Cemetery 2, Oakesdale Cemetery 3" and so on. These too are searchable.

As always I am happy to respond to your questions. My email is:

Santa Fe, NM 1979

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 23, 2018