Topic: Commentary (146 posts) Page 1 of 30

Photo Education

William Henry Fox Talbot circa 1846

I am a career photo educator. Before retiring from my position as a full professor and head of a photography program I had taught photography for 41 years. Does that qualify me to write about the state of photographic education? At least it allows me to weigh in.

First, let me define where I taught. My first teaching was with Harry Callahan at the RI School of Design while I was a first-year graduate student. My 2nd year in the MFA program I taught at the Providence Country Day School in 1972/73. From there I moved on to teach at Northshore Community College, New England School of Photography, Harvard University (for 13 years) and Northeastern University (for 30) where I initiated and headed the Photography Program. I continue teaching today at various workshops and have been a regular at Penland School of Crafts iNorthth Carolina for several years.

Why all this history? Hopefully to validate the following: single track photo programs and photo departments at the university level are dead or dying. Photography is no longer legitimate as a single-discipline academic pursuit. Photography Departments in large universities? No longer does photography stand out as a beacon of new cutting-edge anything. With present day cameras making video, with our smart phones doing the same, still photography looks positively prosaic in the context of social media and a broad array of ways to disseminate imagery.

Locally, last year's demise of Mt Ida College killed an active and vibrant photography program that was working hard to teach a curriculum of professional practice. But even more telling is the news that the New England School of Photography has been struggling to survive, laying off faculty and suffering under low enrollment. In fact, NESOP will close as of Aprill 2020.

Were I still heading the program at Northeastern I could not effectively argue for funding for new faculty or increased resources to a dean or a provost for just photography. I would have to include more multi-disciplinary, broad-based visual and artistic disciplines in my request.

Why is all this? Why are photography departments and programs that were formed in the 60's and 70's facing such difficult times? Because the demand has changed and is far less. No student coming out of a 4-year school or 2 or 3-year graduate program is going to be well prepared either professionally or artistically having just studied still photography. The idea is practically laughable. Students moving into professional or artistic practice need to be taught a wide-ranging set of skills in still and moving imagery.

The craft has changed too. It used to be an art to make a good print. Now well exposed and well crafted still images are easy, a dime a dozen. Furthermore, take a look at what art photography looks like now. The single photograph, straight and unmanipulated, is rare in a field of imagery that looks more like fantastical paintings, imagery from imagination, dreams, and fantasies. In this respect, in making art, straight photography is practically dead.

Of course, there are programs that are a little different. These are programs that maintain strength in teaching analog photography, are staffed either by aging faculty or those that love the darkroom and silver-based imaging. Fine. This retro, craft-based avoidance of where photography is and is going makes these alternative process programs. But these aren't in any kind of mainstream of photographic education.

One more observation. Although the history of photography is still taught in university-level courses, outside of academia there is less interest in knowing what preceded current practice. In my teaching and interaction with today's photographers, I find far less knowledge or motivation to look at what came in earlier times. I often find younger photographers don't have a clue what was done even twenty or thirty years ago. This can cause someone new to repeat past statements or discoveries.

William Herny Fox Talbot circa 1846

Finally, I have been very very fortunate to have had a career as a teacher at a time when the university-level study of photography was in its heyday. Clearly, it no longer is. Ironic, as more and more still photographs are created every day and yet the study of the medium is in decline.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted September 13, 2019


Kayafas Gallery in Boston current show is called Water. I am sure it is worth seeing. The show was curated by gallery owner Arlette Kayafas's husband, Gus. Gus and I go way back as we were classmates in graduate school in the 70's.

I didn't submit to be in the show but thought I would show a few of my "water" photographs here in the blog. 

Boys on a Dock, Martha's Vineyard 1982

from Mass Marshes 2013

San Francisco Bay 2018

South Shore Martha's Vineyard 2014

Half Mast, Oak Bluffs, MA 2018

Black Water Dam, NH 1994

Bermuda 1980

Connecticut River, Vermont 2017

Highlands, North Carolina 1988

Adams, MA 1994

That was little bit of a stroll down memory lane. Having worked so long, there is simply so much work. We are working these days in the studio to increase the  organization of it all.  It is a large task. 

Blogs can be so many different things. I find it challenging and rewarding to work to make mine a good read and to reinvent the form at times. While acknowledging this is primarily a platform in which to share my work, I try to bring you topics and photographs that are interesting, timely, and that inform you about the medium of photography as well.  Let me know what you think:

Neal's email

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 26, 2019

The Printer

The title "The Printer" not only defines the inkjet printer I use to make my prints but also my career, for I am nothing if not a printer.

Darkroom days: countless hours printing in various darkrooms, many that I built myself. Before digital, computer displays and the internet photographs were, quite simply, seen by prints made on paper, whether published or actual prints.

My practice still is print based, although I gather much of the following of my work through my website and blog. Unfortunately, the presentation and craft of  prints that are exhibited these days is often lacking but still remains of paramount importance to me.

For almost 6 years virtually every print I have made came from my Epson 9900 44 inch inkjet printer. Though most friends and colleagues have moved on by now from theirs, mine kept on trucking, admittedly with more head cleanings and some banding from time to time. This is most likely attributable to a "single user", meaning me, and great care taken in preserving and maintaining the printer. Before it died last week it showed over 5000 prints made.

But returning from the recent trip out west to start editing files and print the work from the wheat fields of the Palouse, I ran into trouble right away. I could not get the yellow ink to give me much yellow at all. Think "wheat" in color. Yellow is the most important of colors.  I'd dial in more yellow, saturating it on screen and the subsequent print would only show a little. Nozzle checks bore this out. A significant gap in the yellow range. Several cleanings and what is called a "power clean" which uses a lot of ink, and the head was still clogged. These are sure signs that the head needs replacement. By the time you pay for a technician to come and replace the head and do the work to bring the printer up to specification you really just should purchase a new printer.

My new Epson 9000 arrives this week.

Stay tuned.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 22, 2019


This just quick: the new show is printed, wrapped and packed. The last three of American West prints was framed yesterday with help from assistant Jillian Tam and then wrapped in foam... thank God for foam! What did we do without it all those years?

Install day is June 25 so there is plenty of time to tweak signage, print a show statement, make labels, etc.

24 in all. 8 big (@ 46 x 31 inches) and 16 small (30 x 23 inches).

My aging Epson printer, a 9900, has been on and off problematic throughout this printing cycle. I made one big print that showed banding and so am now reprinting it. This then needs to go the framer to be mounted before being brought back to the studio to shove it in a frame. I will generally test strip until I am sure I've got a clean image:

The banding was very subtle but I could not allow it to go up and be seen, even though most might not notice. 

Try to complete shows before their due date. This to give yourself a breather to look and think things over, to tweak and refine, to reprint if necessary. I have even edited some final framed prints out just before delivery, as past experience has taught me that I tend to show too much. Lean and mean is better. 

Part of what I stand for as an artist is very high quality, both aesthetically and technically. So a show from me, wherever the venue, needs to represent those values. At this later stage in my career, this is no time to let those concerns slide. 

Hope to see the 27th!

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted June 13, 2019


My career and my art have been defined by a few of the lenses I've used to make my photographs over the years. We know that the camera and format play a foundational role but it is the lenses we use that make our pictures look the way they do. 

Early in my career, it was the Carl Zeiss 80 mm Planar for the Rollei SL66 that got the job done. I also learned a lot from using that lens as it was my first optic of very high quality.

It was sharp and good out to the corners and wonderful close-up. Next it was Zeiss again, with the 38 mm Biogon lens mounted to the Hasselblad Superwide (SWC) camera. A rectilinear lens; if held level, straight lines stayed straight. 

Virtually all my series works from the 70's, 80's and 90's were made with the SWC. Next was 8 x 10. I  bought the 240mm Nikkor f5.6 first but I found it to be soft so switched to the 300 Nikkor f5.6. 

This was a superb lens with a huge circle of covering power. (For those non- photographer readers or those that haven't worked with a view camera, the "covering power" refers to how large a circle of light the lens throws back to the film or sensor. A larger circle allows for more movements of the lens off axis for tilts and swings and other movements.) For twenty years this lens was my main "go to" and it wasn't until fairly late in my use of the format that I added a 210 Super Symmar by, you guessed, it Carl Zeiss. 

After switching to digital in about 2005, I have stayed with Nikon throughout. In there, of course, have been some remarkably poor lenses, usually less expensive budget glass, but a few standouts too. For instance, each time the company has upgraded the 70-200mm f2.8  zoom I have too and the current issue lens is exceptional. All my aerial work is with this lens.

The lens that is legendary for me and, I believe, perhaps under-acknowledged, is the Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8. 

Big, heavy and expensive, with a huge curved glass element in front that makes using filters difficult, the lens is very specialized as it only zooms 10 mm. I believe the wider the lens the greater the expertise needed. This lens is not for the faint of heart as things can go wrong very quickly.

Holding the 14-24mm level or knowing how much out of level you are is key. Sharp, and good at all apertures, this lens is extraordinary. It is rare for a lens this wide to be very good at its edges. This one is.

Seldom neutral or transparent, most photographs made with it bear its "signature", meaning they aren't a window to the world but a definite take on it.

Think about this: do you care about photographs that are interpretive: unusual, different and have their own special look, or would you rather look at photographs that depict reality and rely on content for their impact and meaning? This is an art versus documentary question and one perhaps for another post.

Ah lenses... you can understand photographers' passionate feelings about the lenses they use to make their pictures. I also use the Sony A7r MK III and have the 24-105mm f4 and love the range. This is a very good piece of glass. Often this can mean a "one lens" day for me. 

My newest? The 200-500mm f5.6 Nikkor. 

Probably designed more for birders and wildlife photographers, I will see soon how it does with landscape. This is such a specific lens, useable only under special circumstances.  I am looking forward to pushing it out to 400 and 500 mm in the Palouse shooting Wheat in Washington in late June.

Stay tuned.

Topics: Commentary,technical

Permalink | Posted April 28, 2019