Topic: Commentary (171 posts) Page 1 of 35

Warm Day

The winter of 2021 has been hard. Day after day in the teens or twenties, gray and a foot or more of snow lingering. Massive numbers getting Covid and too many dying. Relentless. Add in a scare I had a couple of weeks ago where I thought I had it, no travel, a sameness day after day. In December we understood this was a winter to get through, to keep our heads up and power through, and we have. As have you, I sincerely hope. 

But here we are towards the end of February and we are in a day from heaven: clear skies, little wind and in the mid forties. What a treat!

So I went out to shoot this morning, nothing specific, just to see if I could see. It felt like life out there, the sun on my face, the air clear and bright. 

Bright white, deep blue, shadows, highlights, always good. 

An old pro, out in the field, bringing the camera to his eye, thinking settings, moving around, looking up, looking down, going through motions for the umpteenth time. Has been too much nothing, too little to see, too long, too cold. I know it is still February and it will all close in again, for March pretty well sucks in New England, but to have the one day, sitting on the back deck in the sun, eating my lunch with a dog basking next to me hoping for a crumb from my sandwich. I ask for no more.

An artist, a real artist, shouldn't separate his/her life, categorize and specify interests and activities into categories. It should all mix together, the  mundane the exceptional, the daily and the once in a lifetime, the good ones and the not so good. This mix, this amalgam is what spurs us and what makes up a genuinely creative person, I believe. 

I've just been learning of "habituation" and"individuation", liking the analogy of first learning to drive a car and then it becoming second nature. That is habituation. For in that mode we don't notice much, or we subsume things in order to pay attention to what's on the radio or to carry on the conversation with a colleague at work.  Individuation is singling out, having an acute awareness of all that you see, all that surrounds you. I was always telling my students to notice stuff, to be aware of everything around you, to be a "trained observer". As visual artists that is our stock in trade. For if we don't notice and pay attention we will miss things and we cannot afford to do that. Some  people go through their lives missing a great deal.

I  hope you have enjoyed this one good day, for I am confident that there will be many more in the days ahead.

Get something from this blog? Let me know, your email can spur me on, encourage me to keep this many-year effort going. 

Neal's Email

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 24, 2021

PhotoWork 2

Continuing with a second post on the questions asked to photographers in the book: PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice (Aperture,  edited by Sasha Wolf).

7. How do you know when a body of work is completed?

In earlier days this was very tough for me. Mostly I didn't and often was so into a particular way of seeing and working I didn't want to give it up. I also often was depressed when a series was done and hadn't found something new yet. This is better now as I am more disciplined and also more familiar with the ups and downs of my particular way of making art.

8. Have you ever had a body of work that was created in the editing process? 

Yes, perhaps this is most pervasive in editing aerial work. Over hundreds of frames shot each time I go up, it isn't until I am editing files that I get to see what I've done then work to bring cohesion by choosing various streams or series.

9. Do you associate your work with a particular genre of photography? If yes, how would you define that genre?

Modernist and minimalistic. I was born just post-WW II and much of that era's design, architecture, art and music had a large influence on me.

10. Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published to shoot more and add to it?


11. Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published and reedit it?


12. Do you create with presentation in mind, be that a gallery show or a book?

Sometimes. It can't help play with your head when a prestigious show is on the books a year or two down the line.  Will this be in, will this new work make it into the show, will I need to print these differently, larger or smaller? Often, with my work, I can't make a book that shows all of each series for it would be too big. 

Again, thank you to Sasha Wolf for her editing of PhotoWorks and to Aperture for publishing it.

If you enjoyed this post check out the first one: PhotoWorks

and you can always reach me at: Neal's email

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 3, 2021


I invite you to join me on a new project. Several years ago Sasha Wolf edited a book put out for Aperture called: PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. She sent out a questionnaire with 12 questions to photographers, some of whom I've heard of and seen their work and some I have not. I was not invited to be a part of this project. 

Many names you'll recognize: Robert Adams, Dawoud Bay, Lois Conner, Todd Hido, Abe Morell, Alec Soth.

But what a great idea! To provide access to photographers' methodologies and practices. It is a wonderful book and I am grateful to Aperture and to Ms. Wolf for bringing it to us. 

But I got to thinking: what if I had been asked to reply to the same questions? And, perhaps as a model for you, what if you were asked to do the same?

That's just what I am going to do. It may take me a few posts but I am going to reply to the same twelve questions she asked for her book.

Here  goes:

1. What  comes first for you: the idea for a project or individual photographs that suggest a concept?

I don't know that formulating a project and then executing that idea is a good way for me to work. Although I have cooked up ideas for things to photograph and then gone out to realize the idea the project has never come out as planned. Mostly I like to react to surroundings and make it up as I go along.

2. What are the key elements that must be present for you when you are creating a body of work?

The quality of light stands out for me; contrast, quantity, color but also, as I photograph outdoors, what air I am looking through as I make a picture of something: the atmosphere. After all, it is the light that allows me to make the picture. But equally important is my own frame of mind. This feels almost like collusion, between "it" and "me". One of my core beliefs is if I can just see it, then whatever I am in front of with a camera can become a series.

3. Is the idea of a body of work important to you? How does it function in relation to making a great individual photograph? 

Much of my work is made in series and time plays a large role as I use the sequence to make work that is a narrative. So, yes, the work is made conceptually to tell a story.

4. Do you have what you might call a "photographic style"?

This isn't so conscious and I am not driven by a perceived reaction to my work. My approach is internal and, if I look back at decades of work, I can see some consistency in design.

5. Where would you say your style falls on a continuum between completely intuitive and intellectually formulated?

I need both. I can't just make my work with just how I feel as I need intellect to research, to figure out a path, to find a precedent, to refine and improve my projects before they are complete. 

6. Assuming you now shoot in what you would consider your natural voice, have you ever wished your voice was different?

This is like asking someone if they'd like to be someone else. I do know I can't emulate or approach content with another sensibility. This is means I must self respect as I know what I can do, what I can contribute and that to try to do what someone else does will never work for me. 

Let's stop here for the first post. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 2, 2021

Cold Wet


Darkroom prints. Black and white from the late 70s and 80s.  All on 14 x 17 inch Kodak Polymax paper. Over a thousand or so. 

All of them printed by me in my darkroom in Cambridge. Each one from a negative loaded into the negative stage of the enlarger, focused, a contrast filter inserted, the timer set, the paper put into the easel, the exposure made, the sheet slipped into the developer, the print agitated for 1minute 45 seconds, slid over to the stop bath, then fixed, then rinsed, then added into fixer remover which had rapid selenium added to it, and then final-washed for an hour or so, squeegeed, and placed on drying screens overnight. Print after print, year after year: literally by the thousands. 

Now headed for the dumpster. I kept maybe 5%  of what I went through. I found that for the most part, I could place where each image was from and what I was up to when I made it.  Amazing that we don't lose that. 

I am of two minds. One, it's all bullshit; the compulsive, maniacal work ethic that drove me to make countless images of things insignificant and unworthy of my or anyone else's attention. Boring and banal. Two, that the sheer quantity and constant activity was necessary to see through to things there were substantial. That all those prints, all that shooting made me fluid and fluent, that I was completely immersed in seeing and therefore going deeper when it all did work. That the quantity was necessary to get the quality.  

I don't know, from this position it all looks futile. And such a waste! 

My conclusion? I find myself admiring in retrospect those that weren't so obsessive about the medium, colleagues that were more laid back and open to other impulses and influences, to those that looked at other forms of creative expression that would serve as excellent input into their education and progression as artists. And perhaps have more fun or enjoy their time more. Smell the roses, so to speak.

As an addendum, let me add that the prints I just threw away from the 70s and early 80s were made during a time when I knew I had a problem. I was shooting roll film, often handheld, in 2 1/4. By 1984 I had stopped this practice, selling cameras to be able to afford to buy an 8 x10 camera to slow the process and me down, to put an emphasis on a more contemplative and meditative single image. Did it work? Yes, I  believe it did.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted November 13, 2020


Audience: a broad term, of course. Evokes all kinds of responses. Since this is a photoblog I am referencing the audience that sees our work. In this very odd and terrible of times, I find that having no audience for my photographs is very difficult.

In my teaching, I always told students that photography was a process of communication. That making photographs but having no one see them was missing a critical part, the follow-through if you will. But here we are in a                  time where there is no one to see our work. Yes, I know, there is online and remote, "virtual". But, really. In no way is that real, in no way can I expect anyone to get my imagery on a screen. What present-day photography is capable of is a far cry from what we see on our screens, be it 30 inches on a high-end monitor or 2 inches on a phone.

As a career artist and exhibitor, I find it hard to find my sense of purpose. Make a picture: what for? I know, for myself as that is what drives me, my need to make work. True. I am doing that. But having other eyes see it, as a physical thing, in a portfolio, on a wall or in a book is what completes it. Not for praise or only to purchase, just to see it. After all, I've made the photograph in the first place to share an insight, to put out a perception or something I believe is worth communicating; be it beauty, irony,  texture, depth, my aesthetic, perspective, a comparison, empathy, tranquility, chaos, solitude, humor, quality of light and so on. The craft of the thing is important to me too, what materials I have chosen and what decisions I have made in terms of tonalities and contrast and yes, the size of the print.

Combine all this with the inability to travel and I find myself effectively shut down. For many years I have been, for the most part, an artist dependent on travel to make my work. Since I can't fly (or won't: no way am I sitting in a metal tube for hours with strangers breathing each other's air) I am stuck, watching the hours and days slide by, my life clock ticking, wondering if our world will ever go back to some semblance of what it was before. I know: wait, be patient. I definitely understand "COVID fatigue".

Duino, Italy 1990. From an 8 x 10 negative, print: 40 x 30 inches ©Neal Rantoul

So here we are today in this country finding ourselves in deep shit: increasing numbers of cases of COVID, a staggering number of deaths, a massively disturbed president who could be re-elected in a couple of weeks, and no vaccine right around the corner. I know: hang in there. And I will, as will you.  Hard times. 

Stay strong, try to stay healthy, and let's hope we all see each other on the other side.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 22, 2020