Topic: Landscape (4 posts)

Utah Day 2

I'm going to try to post daily for this trip. In the context of showing you what I am photographing I want to do a couple of other things too. One is to speak about how these trips work, how my experience is my guide to know what to pack, where to stay, how to bring home meaningful pictures and how not to screw up.

This may sound like advice to photographers who take trips to photograph, and it is, but it will also address overall professionalism and the discipline that is entailed in making work that is first rate.

Gear: bring what you need and only what you need. Always travel as light as you can but don't leave crucial things out either. Don't bring stuff or lenses you won't use. Figure out some way to move your gear safely. I use a Think Tank rolling case and always bring it with me on the plane. I also bring two hard drives with me (one is now an SSD) and my laptop on the plane as well. As nice as it would be to not bring a tripod I always bring one and don't skimp on its quality (RRS carbon fiber and large ball head). This is so important. Nothing will help your work more than using a good tripod. And, oh yes, don't bring new equipment on a photo shoot trip unless you've throughly vetted and tested it before you leave.

Rent a car, unless you're staying in a city and shooting there. For this trip to Moab I rented a Jeep so that I could go on 4 wheel drive trails.

 You should rent a vehicle that is suitable to the kind of driving and photographing you need to do. I used to advance reserve a white car so it would stay cooler when I shot film. Like that. Also, I like unobtrusive here, something that will fit in and not stand out.

Research your destination and then lodge as close as you can to that place. Whether a motel or  AIRBNB-type lodging, it should be comfortable and a good place to crash after long days shooting  and/or driving. We can't photograph all the time. What are you going to do with down times, bad weather, the wrong light? It's good to think of that in your planning. Another kind of trip is driving, shooting every day with a new place every night. Those are harder, of course, at least for me. I find I can get one thing done in that night's place, if I am lucky. 

I use my destination as the hub of the wheel, and think of day trips from the hub as spokes. At times, I'll go farther from the hub and spend a night on the road. While I may have gone to an area for one thing I consider it my job to look elsewhere, to try to find other places to photograph. Stay flexible and creative. A trip like this is your chance to stretch, breath and experiment. There to make landscapes? What about a day at an amusement park, a subway ride to a different part of town, a ride up a chairlift, a Saturday flea market, etc.

If possible, plan the time of year and the kind of weather you're likely to encounter. When I fly to the Palouse to photograph the wheat fields I have to choose what stage the crops are at, where they are in relationship to harvesting.  As a landscape photographer the time of year you go is the most important decision to make. Then, on any given day, blue skies and bright sunlight is hugely different than a cloudy day. For the most part, cloudy and flat is what I prefer for it allows longer days shooting, with less difference from am to pm and avoids the problems of shooting midday on sunny days when it is bright, harsh and not very pleasing. Flat light models form better without the deep holes of shadows. On the other hand, contrasty days can show depth better and can add drama to your photographs. Mostly, I don't care for spectacular light, highly dramatic scenes and honey highlights with the sun going down, although there are exceptions. My pictures are perhaps quieter and rely on  intention more. 

I look at shot files every evening when I download my files to my laptop. I then back those up to a second hard drive. I can then format the card, charge the camera battery and start fresh the next morning. Old habits die hard. I used to have to unload and load my 8 x 10 film holders every night or I couldn't photograph the next day.

What else? Mostly, I do these trips solo for I am there primarily to work. This is just me, but I am not particularly social or outgoing on these expeditions I take. I am shy yes, but I am also focused on an objective, to make the best work I know how to make. This takes concentration but also means I am a little single purpose, inside my own head. That makes it hard to relate to others, strike up a conversation or meet new people. That's okay. You may be different, or may want to do a trip like this with someone else, not me so much. My worst nightmare is to be in a group, standing in an epic location, all making the same photograph as if from a check list. 

Last, days like these and the trip I am on now, days spent looking for and making photographs, can be as several days in one. At dawn, into something specific, the sun just touching the top, a break for breakfast or coffee, then driving, coming across something new, photographing that, from a long lens on a tripod reaching across a valley, to hand held with a wide lens and a higher ISO down a back alley in town, to some graffiti along the RR tracks, to some wild flowers in the grass of a rural cemetery. So amazing, this thing that has led me to a lifetime of discoveries, of a life rich with experiences and as rewarding as I could ever wish for. This, of course, is the foundation of the trip to make photographs. To be open to new experience, to be a clean slate to what is around the corner that you've never seen. To understand that it is up to you to make art from all this, there for you to figure out the puzzle, to work with it in sympathy for all it has to offer, to coerce meaning from the banal and ordinary. To make special that which is not.

I leave next for Hanksville for one night, then back to Moab for several more. Weather's been good so far, flat and not too cold, with little wind. So far wonderful.

Topics: Color,New Work,Landscape,Digital,Southwest

Permalink | Posted November 5, 2018

Chaco Canyon

Note: the blog is going to take a look at several series works I made in the late 90's and early 2000's that haven't been on the site before.  I stopped working this way in 1984 and then took it up again in 1996. 

Chaco Canyon. Ever been? Know where and what it is? Chaco Canyon is Anasazi Indian ruins about a 3 1/2 hours drive due west from Santa Fe, NM. It is is what is left of a large complex of dwellings abandoned by the Anasazi Indians as they retreated for unknown reasons in about the twelfth century. They were thriving, building, farming and then they were gone by the end of the twelfth century. A real mystery. Theories abound with the most plausible being a drought that forced the tribe to head north, to become nomadic after more than 500 years in this one valley. 

I've been many times and have even spent the night there, sleeping under the stars. Made pictures there too. 

My series starts off with this one of the large great house called Chetro Ketl, but quickly leaves it as I headed up a trail that carves through the cliff face to arrive at the top looking out on the canyon below and the plateau above it.

Petroglyphs are common here.

Chaco Canyon is strikingly beatuful, accessed by traveling on a dirt road that closes when it rains, hidden away in a valley on a plateau in the desert. It's a mysterious place, filled with ghosts of a time long  gone, of a vibrant community and highly civilized society that simply left and vanished.

Let me provide some context. I made the Chaco Canyon series in 1998. This series came a couple of years after I made the Portland, Maine series (here) and a year after the Oakeksdale Cemetery one in 1997 (here). I was back in the business of making series work after a spell of 12 years or so. I'd concentrated during those years on working in 8 x 10.  That work was far more incidental (individual photographs intended to stand on their own as opposed to sequenced and ordered bodies of work). This was a very prolific time for me as the Oakesdale Cemetery series introduced me to many new ways of making pictures in sequence. My idea behind what the narrative form was also changed during this time. I was seeking now to expand an understanding of a place into many pictures but also to be more directorial as well. Chaco Canyon conforms both to earlier ways of putting pictures next to pictures but also extends it by being a highly specific and intentional journey that was mine alone.

The full Chaco Canyon series is on the site: here


The series concludes with this picture above, carved into the rock floor of the cliff  above the Anasazi dwellings. I was photographing here on a far more subliminal level, trying to convey a sense of a past civilization and a collective intelligence that was staggering. Imagine leaving the home you grew up in but also the whole city around you leaving too.

For me the concept is to imbue my pictures with something of, yes, the place where we are, but also of our perception and emotional reaction to where we are. This is what is missing from so very much of the landscape work we see on line these days. I've written before about "special places", where we find some visceral and personal connection to some place where we are, whether it is something like Chaco Canyon, or something closer and more privately held.

I urge you, if interested, to come to  555 Gallery in Boston to see the prints.

As always, I am very appreciative of your taking the time to look at my work and to read my thoughts about it.

Topics: Black and White,Vintage,Southwest,Analog,Landscape

Permalink | Posted October 7, 2016

Going Back

I am going back. Soon. February. California. Santa Rosa. North of San Francisco. For a month.

A story: in 2005 I took off for California at spring break to attend a SPE (Society for Photographic Education) conference in Portland, Oregon. Then I rented a car and headed down the coast. As I'd wandered inland, just over the border into California I did one of those over the mountain drives you can do from the inland to the coast. No highways here, it was small two lane rural roads, twisting down through the valleys and up with hairpin turns to the top again. What   did I find? A landscape that is about as perfect and wonderful as anything I've ever seen.

Verdant, lush, sumptuous, exotic, garden-of-Eden green interspersed with black bark trees in amazing shapes. Aaron Siskind used to go back and back to Spain almost every year to shoot olive trees and I have been returning to the Palouse wheat field country in SE Washington for twenty years.

Okay. Hold it. Enough hyperbole here. Come on back to earth because there is something wrong. Shot these in 2005, right? They were digital? Where was digital in 2005? Not good. These were made with a Nikon D70, a 6 mp small chip camera which was sort of a "pretender" camera. It looked like a camera, felt like a camera, had lenses like a camera, but it didn't take pictures like any camera I'd ever used as they weren't any good!

The imagery looks okay on screen but please don't make a print from it. I know, this is an exaggeration. For many people I am sure it was fine, but remember I came from a standard of photographing in 8 x 10. It was fun to shoot with but I thought it was terrible. It didn't help that I had a couple of shitty lenses as well. We had bought a bunch of the cameras for student use at school so I had bought my own to be able to teach with it effectively. These pictures shown here aren't any good as real pictures, something you could make prints of and have them sitting on a shelf in a nice box to be brought out and looked at on special occasions, or one or two from the set framed and hanging. I certainly could never show them. So that's why I am going back to California, north of San Francisco, in February. To rephotograph that landscape. As you get older you find yourself saying "now, not later." It's been too long already. This is one of those times.

Actually, I am sure many of you have similar stories, important pictures shot in earlier digital days now relegated to very small prints or being shown on line as the files aren't very good and are too small. My primary work was still made on film in those days, 8 x 10 and 2 1/4. In fact, that summer in 2005 I headed out to live in Cody, Wyoming for a month and made some good pictures shooting those two formats. Check out: Old Trail Town.

I need to be there with the far better equipment we have today to capture what is so very good and what was so badly rendered 9 years ago.

Can't wait.

Topics: California,Landscape

Permalink | Posted January 3, 2014

Blackwater Dam

Since I've been writing about missing 8 x 10 work (Missing 1 and Missing 2) I thought I'd write about one of the few real series I did in the format: Blackwater Dam. I did promise to take a look at 8 x 10 color and I will soon.

I bet we've all got projects made but never seen, or at least never seen by the public  in a show, or never published somewhere. I know I do. Is the work less good? Or is it because it's been promoted less? I can't say that I know and it probably isn't for me to decide.

But because I write a blog that is about my work and I've just downloaded the Blackwater Dam pictures to the site, I thought I'd back them up with a little context and maybe a story too. The dam, which is one of five flood control dams in the Merrimack River Basin, is an Army Corps of Engineers project that was completed in 1941 for $1.32 million.

These are about as pure as landscape photographs by Neal Rantoul get. They aren't, of course, straight nature photographs at all. Although very beautiful, Blackwater Dam is as heavily managed a place as the wheat fields I photograph in Washington or the Dunes in Southern California.

I have always been fascinated by the banks of rivers, the foliage and detritus along the shore, the concept of mostly silent tons of water sliding by relentlessly pulled down hill by gravity. For a view camera photographer like I was rivers also allowed me a straight shot at the opposite bank, something one can't do while photographing while in the woods. This area near Webster, NH also lives up to its name: Black Water.

There is another piece to the components of this series and it is logistical. Webster, NH is about 1 1/2 hours from home in Cambridge. Often the pictures were made on Sunday mornings, when traffic was light and I had a free day or even a morning.

This was the kind of series where I might get one or two each time I'd photograph there. Of course, I would make more than that, but would end up using only at most a couple from each shoot. 

Blackwater Dam is a series caught in transition. While all made on film, the prints sit on two sides of the digital divide. I made many conventionally as back and white selenium toned 16 x 20 inch prints in the darkroom, just as I had for years. But by 2003 I no longer even had a darkroom as I had  given it up at Northeastern to create a student computer lab. So the full set of prints are made as inkjet prints and are larger at about 30 inches across than I could make in my darkroom, even if I still had it. 

I still remember standing in front of this and watching in wonder at the silent force of the river's current slowly pivoting this large circle of ice around and around.  A remarkable sight and, as far as I know, I was its only witness.

A story, you asked? You've got it. One time, heading up to shoot on a Saturday morning I got to Blackwater, pulled my tripod out of the back of the car, unfolded its legs and set it up, ready to put the big Toyo Field 8 x 10 on and clamp it down. It was at this point that I realized I didn't have the connecting  plate that would wed the camera to the tripod together securely. Damn! Being  unusually brilliant I remembered that downtown Concord, NH had a photo store. Of course if I was really so smart I probably wouldn't have left the connecting plate back at home sitting there on my dining room table, would I? Anyway, I put everything back in the car and drove the 30 minutes to Concord and parked on a side street near the store on a slight hill, facing up the hill (this is important as you'll soon see). I locked my car, headed into the store, they had the plate, which I bought and so I was  good to go. Out of the store I go (I'd be whistling if I could then as I was very pleased with myself). I come around the corner to see someone parking an old rounded fifties type pickup truck in the space in front of my car. I see the driver and she's now parked, gets out of the truck and starts walking down the hill to Concord's main street. As she's doing this I watch the truck, now in what seems like slow motion, start to roll down the hill, driverless and dead weight, gathering up a nice head of steam as it slams into the front of my car, bang! which is low enough and pointed enough in front that the back of the truck slides right up onto the hood like it was made for it ending up practically burying my car's front underneath.  

End of story? Pretty much, no photographing that day as my car had to be towed away so had no way to get back to Blackwater. Nor was I inclined as I was pretty shaken up. Is there any upside to the story? Well, I now had  two connector plates, which is about one more than you need.

You can get at all of Blackwater Dam here.

Topics: Rivers,Nature,Landscape

Permalink | Posted April 12, 2013