Topic: Commentary (143 posts) Page 2 of 29

The Mayhews

You ever listen to Car Talk on NPR? Tom and Ray Magliozzi the Tappet Brothers being very funny and outrageous, giving out car advice to callers? Tom died in 2014 but reruns continue. Used to be my garage, called Good News, back in the 80's. There's a puzzler every week on the show and Ray sometimes prefaces the week's puzzler by saying that it is "non-automotive". Well, although this is a photography blog, this week's post will be non-photographic.

Maybe this will buy me  back some of the readership I lost when I wrote a tech piece about a new lens a couple of weeks ago. 

I've been going to the island of Martha's Vineyard my whole life. My parents brought me here for the first time when I was less than one year old, in 1946. The island is now big time tourism, with growing numbers of summer renters,  seasonal residents and "wash-a-shores". But back then, the town where our Chilmark house is, had very few summer residents. Our family friends were locals like the Sewards, Fischers, Pooles, Flanders and Mayhews. Fishermen, farmers, real estate salesmen, post office workers. One of my dad's best friends was Ben Mayhew. Ben and Eileen Mayhew had five children: Jonathan, Peggy, Gregory, Skipper and Eileen, the oldest. As my parents didn't build their own house on the island until 1964, in those earlier years they rented most summers, always in Chilmark. So my growing up summers were defined by my times on the Vineyard and some of my playmates were Greg, Skipper and Peggy. Their mother Eileen was known as Big Eileen and was actually very tiny and their oldest daughter Eileen, who was known as Little Eileen, was actually very big. Big Eileen died in 2016 at 101. The service for her was held on the island and there were stories  about Eileen and Ben and the  kids growing up in a family where their dad went from being a sword and lobster fisherman to an elected representative for the island to the State House in Boston. Mayhews are buried at the  family plot in the Chilmark Cemetery at Able's Hill within spitting distance of where my parents are, and where I will be.

I dated Peggy Mayhew a few times in Denver where we were both going to school, she at Colorado Women's College and me at the University of Denver. Greg served in the Army during Vietnam and returned to find his father very sick. By this time Ben had been the state rep in Boston for a few years. When Ben died Greg served the remainder of his father's term. This was short lived as Greg was voted out in the next election so then took over where his dad had left off as a fisherman. For many years Greg served as caption on their fishing boat out of Menemsha, Skipper as one of the crew and Jonathan as a spotter pilot in the hunt for swordfish. 

As time wore on and the local fishing industry died out the Mayhews adapted by     fishing for other types of fish and Skipper became a clammer. Eventually Greg sold his boat for scrap. He died last year. In a metaphor for change the Mayhew house we called "the big house" on the hill overlooking Clam Cove in Chilmark was sold and now is being renovated, which these days almost always means a complete teardown. 

I played in that house as a kid, rode a rope swing in the barn with Skipper and Greg and watched on the Mayhew's living room TV as Neil Armstrong first stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969.

The Mayhew's Big House, now almost unrecognizable, serving as a symbol that nothing stays the same. I was on the island for a couple of days this past week and was struck by how much construction there was, how many cars were on the roads, how many restaurants were open in mid February. Big changes on these coastal islands. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 16, 2019

Grant Rant

I have been a resident of Massachusetts for 45 years. Each year since the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship's origination I have applied in the photography category.  In earlier years this was by submission of a portfolio, in more recent cycles this has been by applying with 5 jpegs using the Cafe system. The photography fellowship is awarded every other year and currently stands as a $15000 grant. I am applying. I'd be a fool not to.

I will not win.

Why such cynicism? Let's go down the path of how this works. Jurors see just the 5 jpegs, all at once. The submissions are anonymous. The panel is instructed to make awards on "artistic quality" and "creative ability". Furthermore, in the published guidelines, the Council writes: 

This category accepts original work in traditional and experimental photography. We welcome work where photography and photographic technique is central, including digital or software manipulation of photographs.

It is important to keep this in mind when applying. What they haven't said but implied is that if you submit work that is difficult for them to see that it is photography it is hard for them to justify giving it an award.

I have never received a State of MA fellowship. I have been a finalist twice, a long time ago.

The task of the jurors is not easy. I can attest to this from personal experience. Last fall I was a judge for the City of Cambridge grant and have served on many other panels over my career. Jurors can ease the pain of way too many photographs to look at by spreading out the task over several days, or, sometimes, weeks. One of the key advantages to submissions being online is that once the submissions are released for review, panelists can "pre-judge" submissions. Let's be clear, the existing applying and awarding system is based upon logistics: a staff needing to cope with a huge number of submissions working out a method to get the job done efficiently and on deadline.

So, what gets granted? Well, we all should know what doesn't. By and large, photographs that depict something realistically won't get funded. That's a very broad stroke but put yourself in the juries place. The wonderful photographs of trees from the Berkshires made last fall under exquisite early morning light with vibrant colors exquisitely processed? No way. The Moroccan market street photographs made on a trip last year? Hardly a chance. The exquisite black and white portraits of the old man in Zimbabwe? Not likely. The powerful aerial work of the drought in the upper Colorado River in Utah? Doubtful.  Remember, this is an art grant.

So, what gets funded? Work that looks like art. Yes, think painting, drawing. Work that is fiction, not reality. Abstract, but not too abstract. Composite imagery is good, disparate elements blended in software to make new ideas, new visual statements, clearly identifiable as "art", and definitely not "real". Dream-based imagery is good, but also literate, educated and informed photographs work well too, especially if they can tap hot button topics. Political work? Social injustice, racial bias, the environment, the state of the Presidency? Hard to say, maybe yes, maybe no but the overall message has to be upfront and understandable in a few seconds. For the most part, "straight" photography is going to have the hardest of times, I believe.

Let's not assume the jurists are clueless. In fact, they are most likely "clued-in" in that they are well placed in the world of art photography and have knowledge of current movements, proclivities, and practices.  Traditionally they are from out of state, although in recent years I have not seen this defined. What happens if, although the submissions are anonymous, a juror recognizes work submitted? That is a good thing, especially if the work is strong. 

So, what tactics are useful to increase your chances of getting a Massachussetts Council grant? Or for that matter, most grants? I know, here is a repeat grant loser doling out advice; ironic, right? Thinking long-range the more your work is out and seen the better, within the state but also outside the state. If there is buzz about your work, use the media to promote it, write about it and share it, in all forms you can think of. Remember that there are many reasons why your work doesn't deserve funding. Just because you are passionate about it doesn't mean it should win. Most photography isn't art, after all. Is yours? Consider very carefully the five jpegs you will submit. Do you show continuity, five from one body of work to demonstrate depth and power? Or, apply with five different photographs from five separate bodies of work to show your diversity of interests and abilities across a wide spectrum of content? Tough call but I would say the former, the approach that says I want to show you enough of this one project to define it, and give a sense of what really is going on here. I know, there is so much other work of yours worthy of this fellowship that no one will see. Suck it up, my friends.

Is the system flawed? Absolutely. It is biased towards a certain kind of photography. But honestly, how could it be any other way? Yes, it would be more just if you could submit more work or perhaps state your case, provide more information. But think of the task the panel and staff have, the logistics of reviewing all that work.

Last, and perhaps of most value. I know, $15K would be REALLY great but chances are slimmer for a win here than almost anything I can think of. But apply. Nothing to lose except the hurt of rejection. I've written before about acquiring a tough skin. The MA Council grant is a case in point. But of real worth is the effort needed to review your work made over the past several years with the perspective of what total strangers viewing it will do in deciding to award $15K to you or not. How is your work perceived and judged from people you don't know that are experts? Also, who knows? The juror who loves your photographs but lost the argument to award you the fellowship goes home and looks your work up online, reads your statement, gets what you are up to and suggests his/her curator colleague at the local museum take a look. You get an email from the curator enquiring if you'd be interested in showing your work in a show coming up next year. Priceless.

Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship applications are due January 28, 2019.

Start Here

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 27, 2019

Write Our Own History

This title really should be: Can we write our own history? Meaning, can we predetermine what people see from us after we die? Doubtful, but it may be part of what we're trying to do as career artists. Work to predetermine our lasting legacy (if there is any), to leave a mark somehow or to make sure what's preserved after we're gone is something we care about.

Heavy stuff.

Of course, in another time, if you were a pharaoh, had slaves and unlimited resources, you could have a pyramid built to ensure long term exposure and to guarantee the memory of you would survive for future generations. Although I do have an ego, somehow a pyramid or even a monument doesn't seem to be in the cards for me. However, to be truthful, I think I've been working my whole career to have my photography out-survive me. In modern society, we don't like to talk about our own death much, but considering its inevitability, it seems prudent to consider the "when I die" scenario occasionally and to plan what will happen to our work after we are gone. Certainly, if you're a professional artist and even if you're an amateur who's worked hard on your pictures and believe there is work of significance and/or beauty.

Uncomfortable to even contemplate, right? But, make things that will last longer than you do and the topic is essential. I believe in looking at this square on, instead of tangentially or ignoring it altogether. I think that's what many do, carry on at the same pace, ignoring all the signs of decreasing abilities as though nothing changes. And yet everything changes.

It is entirely possible that the prospect of your life's work ending up in a dumpster is fine with you. No need to read more of this post, then. But if not, read on.

What is to be your legacy? Great partner, great impact on your profession, great dad or mom, financially successful, great artist, great friend, done great work for mankind, positive effect on those around you? Will you designate your family as the recipients of your work? Will your work go to a collection (or collections), a library, a museum, perhaps your school where you taught, a historical society? I will write a more in-depth article about this in another post or two but keep the issues in mind as we discuss the issue of determining what people see of your work after you are gone.

Let's be clear, no one knows your work better than you do. No one knows how that piece you did 25 years ago that seems so out of character fits in the overall scheme or the breakthrough that it represented for you at the time. No one. If you don't order the work, organize it so that it is clear what is and is not a priority, no one will know what you did. Is it a burden or a pleasure to will your life's work to your family? Mostly the former, I believe. Now is also a really good time to get rid of work prints, secondary work that clouds rather than clarifies who you are as an artist, even if you're 35 instead of 75. Running lean is a good principle when looking at your archive. Remember that Frederic Sommer made twelve prints a year.  Curious where that got him? Google the cost of his prints. More is not always better. As an example, I have 128 separate bodies of work on this site on the Gallery page. Those are all sitting in my studio as printed portfolios. I do not see that as an asset. Are they all "A" work? Are they all what I want to remain after I am gone? It is incumbent on me to establish a hierarchy, an order to all this work. My daughter Maru will inherit much of this. Is this a good thing,  a kindness? No it is not. It is an incredible burden on her. What many will do is ask their kids and/or remaining partners to choose, label as such and then deal with giving, donating or arranging for appraisal and purchase of the rest of the work if it is in any demand. 

This means the first step is to get your work organized. Know where bodies of work are and annotate what they are, what they mean and in what place they reside in your oeuvre. Anomalous? Exceptional? Or part of the mainstream? Although not complete, I generally have a statement that goes along with portfolios. Years ago, I started a project of writing about vintage works of mine (in my case this means my analog darkroom-based, film originated works from the '70s, '80s and '90s). Open up the box that holds, say, the work called " Fences and Walls" from  1979, 

and you are confronted with an envelope that holds a single sheet of paper that has a paragraph placing the work in context, dating it and explaining intention and perhaps an exhibition history, if there is one. And yes, it also states the paper I used in making the prints, the "archivalness", meaning the kinds of processing and toning I did. If I'd been more together I would have stated where the negatives were stored so that they could easily be retrieved. Sadly, that never happened.

Call all this presumptuous or just good sense? Your call.

Before I close, lest you think this is just the incoherent rambling of an old man, consider this. Say you are young and somewhat new to this "art as a career" thing but know this is what you wish to do. You have many challenges common to us all.  But you also have the advantage of not having made that much work. This means organizing now makes not only a great deal of sense, it is also much easier. One more: if you are or become successful this presumes you sell your work. Do you document this, have some record somehow of what sold? In photography we often have the ability to "replicate" the work sold. Do you do that? Duplicate a piece sold so that it is back in your inventory?

Of course, we are not in control of our own history. But we can at least take something that has huge meaning and significance in our lives and bring it to a place that honors it, respects the years of hard work and thought that went into making it, stores it, labels it and possibly places it so that it can be found, seen and appreciated understood after we are gone.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 23, 2019

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