Topic: Monsters (5 posts)

Monsters Final

The Wild Thing show at 555 Gallery in Boston is down. My work in the exhibit called Monsters is foam wrapped and back in my studio waiting for me to slide the framed prints back into the rack that will hold them. One of the truths to being an exhibiting artist is that the work goes out and most of it comes back.  

For those of you that weren't able to see the show I have put the majority of it on the gallery page of this site here. Allison Nordstrom wrote the introduction to the work for the show's catalog. If you'd like to read it here in the blog let me know.  You can contact me here. Below is the artist statement I wrote for the catalog, which is available through the books section of this site. In it I write about my growing understanding of the work I'd made. (BTW: The prevailing wisdom is that people do not really read blogs. I wonder if you do?)


As I write this in July 2015 I am heavily immersed in the printing of the photographs for the show at 555 Gallery that has my pictures in it called “Monsters” that opens in mid September. Printing for a show like this is practically a single-minded effort that requires focus and blocking out distractions as much as possible. While I made these pictures in 2014, this is the first time they’ve been printed and shown.
Thanks to the wonderful essay by Alison Nordstrom in the catalog we have the necessary perspective placed on the work and she has contextualized it for us as well. I am thankful to her for providing that which I can’t. But I can attempt in this statement to bring you into the work and speak to motivation and intention. As far as success or the final result goes, I will leave that up to you.
On a gray and cold day in early winter I drove to Fitchburg MA to make a presentation of my work to the new head of the Fitchburg Art Museum. We had a great time and looked at several portfolios. I left thinking that that the meeting had gone well, and on the way out of town saw on my left a sign on top of a long low building that said, “Halloween Costume World”. I pulled over, parked and went in. Inside was quite dark and cold with aisle after aisle of all sorts of things. Halloween costumes for children and adults in plastic envelopes with pictures of models wearing what was contained within. A mask wall with what looked to be hundreds of latex masks stuck on sticks from floor to ceiling. A section of mannequins dressed in odd juxtapositions of monsters and tableaus of scenes like three of the major characters in the Wizard of Oz. And finally, in another huge room with no light and no heat at all, an odd storage area that included rentable full size models of Beetlejuice and a somewhat broken Frankenstein, assorted gory and macabre scenes of beheadings, the green Wicked Witch of the West, torture and executions, a wig wall filled with hundreds of all styles of inexpensive wigs placed on plastic head forms of amazing variety and so on. I was the only customer in the store that day. I walked right up to the man behind the desk and asked him if I could come back to take pictures. He said, “Yes, of course”. While the visit to present my work to the Fitchburg Museum turned out to be a complete waste of my time the visit to Halloween Costume World did not. I had a new project.
Over the next several months I returned many times to the store. The routine became familiar to me and to the staff in the store. I would arrive, ask them if they’d mind turning the lights on, haul in tripod and photo gear, set up and start to photograph. Each time I’d think I was finished after a few hours but when looking at the work made, realized I needed to go back to reshoot.
Working on a project like this, where the subject stays the same, is as much a discovery for the artist as it is for the viewer of the work. I learned this ten years ago when working on making pictures from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The specimens weren’t gong anywhere but it was up to me to discover and apply my own imprint.
So, I worked, trying different approaches each time I went. By five or six trips photographing in the store, about an hour from where I live, I felt the work was getting redundant. So I stopped. By this time I understood that I had unearthed something a little more substantial than the pictures just being shocking, atypical, funny, or quirky. I found I was attributing personalities to these masks and head forms and mannequins. This started to show itself in nicknames for some of the characters. The three models shown side by side in the show are known as “Neal’s Passion” as they are very lovely and make me think of my youth. The large print of the vertical model with the surrounding dark hair is now “Mona”. Then there is “Dorothy” in several parts and interpretations. The side-by-side models with unbelievable lips are called “Pouty” and finally, the large print of the smashed mask is simply called “Jack”.
What began as an experiment in new seeing had now become, surprise surprise, meaningful. Little did I know. I thought when I started I had a hold of something that would entertain, be colorful and maybe titillate. What I found was that I had photographed something that, I believe, struck a more primal note. That what our genetics and our ancient brains do to these faces and the over-the-top expressions molded into these odd things is to indentify with them, to seek to form relationships with them, to, essentially, attribute personality to latex, plastic and fiberglass. This, I predict, is a path for human civilization to deal with if we survive, if we don’t blow ourselves up or contaminate where we live. Movies like Chappy, Ex Machina and Her all wrestle with our future relationship with machines we make in our image. Interesting times indeed.
In my own small way I too am moving ahead. My classmate and colleague, Arno Minkkenin says that “Art is risk made visible”, and, while perhaps an over simplification, it certainly seems to apply here. As a career artist I have made a leap with this work, taken some risk, to delve deeper into an area I have been wrestling with for ten years. What do we know about us from preserved forensic specimens? Or in the case of my Cabelas work, what do we learn from photographs of stuffed animals posed in situ in a large sports outfitting store? And finally, what can we assimilate about ourselves from the caricatures we make in our own image? These monsters in all their cheap and gaudy representation of the human condition, in all their gross exaggeration of much that is abhorrent about us as a race, can also be strangely beautiful and unsettling. Dichotomies are fascinating. Enigmas provoke and pose questions that hopefully go beyond $14.95 wigs and $29.95 latex Halloween masks.
Welcome to my world of Monsters.
Neal Rantoul
July 2015

It has not escaped my awareness that I am writing this practically on the eve of Halloween. Happy trick or treating and be safe out there.

Topics: Monsters,Color,Northeast,exhibition

Permalink | Posted October 29, 2015

Was it Worth It?

Last week I flew to Salt Lake City ostensibly to shoot aerials. I am on my last day as I fly back tomorrow to be in town for the opening of Wild Thing at 555 Gallery on Saturday.

Let's see now: round trip flight, hotel, rental car, food, 2 charters totaling 2 1/2 hours, shipping (of the Kenyon gyro stabilizer I use): not insubstantial money to spend on a little over two hours of flying.Worth it?

You tell me:

btw: if you are looking at these on your new super wonder 47 inch monitor that cost more than what you drive then great. But if you only look at those three images floating above this text on your iPhone while you're riding the subway on your way to work while you're sipping your laté then I really have nothing more to say to you. Well, maybe just this; you should be ashamed of yourself.

I've written before about commitment. Well, sometimes commitment means more than that new lens you want or getting up early to catch the light. Sometimes it means travel.

Let's back up. Why am I out here on a one week trip to aerially photograph in the area of Great Salt Lake north of the city? Because, years ago, on a flight returning from the Palouse shooting wheat fields I flew from Spokane first to Salt Lake City on one of those odd right angle connections on the way to returning home in Boston. As we approached the airport in Salt Lake City from the north we flew over the lake and some evaporation pools with amazing colors. It's probably taken me 10 years to pull it off but here I am back out here with the specific intention to photograph those pools.  After two flights and shooting 600 or so frames I can say that for me it was worth it. Clear skies, plenty of light and sunshine and files of unparalleled quality.

A little tech: with this much light I had the luxury of shooting at ISO 400 at 1/1600 of a second anywhere from 5.6 on up to f11. 

So what else did I do while out here? I drove around looking for pictures. Mostly unsuccessfully but I will share some in my next post.

I've just posted on the site the first edits from the first flight. At 50 something photographs it's way too many but at least you'll get a sense of what it was like out there: here. 

Like another planet.

                                                           • • •

If you're local, see you Saturday at 555. Can't wait. Exceptional coverage of my work in the show by Aline Smithson at Lenscratch: here and a preview by Elin Spring in her blog What Will you Remember: here. Thank you Aline and Elin!

Topics: Monsters,marshes

Permalink | Posted September 9, 2015

Packing up

Camera? Check. Lenses? Check.Tripod? Check. Battery charger? Check. Back up Hard Drive? Check. Extra cards? Check. Phone? Check. Phone charger? Check.  Laptop? Check.

And on and on and on. The list of things we have to bring when flying is long and there is almost certain disaster if something is forgotten.

I left for Salt Lake City yesterday and had piles of stuff scattered about before packing. I am here primarily to shoot aerials so sent ahead the gyro stabilizer to my hotel as it is heavy and cumbersome to take with me.

Those of us that do this a lot, friend Lou Jones comes to mind, this traveling to make pictures, have a process we go through in prepping for a trip. It is partly mental and partly procedural. One thing I learned years ago was to break it down into categories: photo, computer, camera support(s), clothing, personal, and so on. Lou is a little different in that very often he's going with an assistant or even a crew.  Add lighting to the mix and it gets even more complicated. But an experienced assistant can really make a big difference. I've always gone by myself on these trips. There is no one else to blame but me if I forget to bring something.

As a sideline, in earlier digital days I would go with a backup camera. I no longer do this as I don't want the weight and the expense. Foolish? Maybe, but not so far. What would I do if mine broke? If I could I would probably rent.

Another trick: pack categories all at once. This simply means don't try to pack all your clothes, for instance, over a couple of days. Why? Because you'll forget what you put in the bag and either repeat items or leave things out. 

Not packing what you don't need is an art, of course. Weight is your enemy in all things when you travel. That long lens you almost never use when working close to home? Will you really use it on your trip? There is nothing worse than bringing stuff you don't use. This holds true for clothes. Pack light, plan for the climate your headed to and think about less clothes, particularly if you can do a wash when you're there. Teaching in Italy for 5 weeks, I did a Woolite wash every other day or so.

Years ago, when working in 8 x 10 and with more stringent security measures coming into play on flights, I learned to ship ahead. I had a large fiberglass case that was built like a tank. Off would go the camera, lenses and film holders via UPS. I would ship to myself to the hotel I was staying at, or a friend's house if possible. Think about this: having security ask to open your boxes of sheet film to see what's inside. A nightmare if unexposed and worse when already shot. That was so scary I would usually ship the film too. Makes another case for going digital, doesn't it?

Rolling is king too. Why carry it when you can roll it? I use a rolling case for much of the lenses and ancillary stuff and the laptop. This goes on the plane with me as it is sized to fit the overheads. Then the camera and personal stuff like an iPad (with movies I rent loaded on before I leave) and headphones, glasses, wallet, snacks, etc go in a backpack that serves to hold almost all the photo gear when I arrive. I can stack the backpack on top of the roller during those long concourse runs when changing planes, when you've got ten minutes before they board and they've shunted you to a different concourse. Argh! Love those.

Years working in 8 x 10 leaves me with a legacy for always wanting the best quality possible and that means a strong tripod.  There is no way around this, sadly. Too small a tripod means I am blowing low light with long exposures because it doesn't hold things steady, too heavy means I am carrying unnecessary weight. Here carbon fiber rules and sadly, money speaks. Although for years I got by with an early Induro tripod (which wasn't bad) I now use a Really Right Stuff TVC-2X with their large ball head. Not perfect but I now get a larger percentage of keepers than before. Big bucks. Maybe Santa will be good to you this Xmas.

This could go on and on but I think you probably get my drift. With practice you can get yourself packed up well for a far away shoot on a tight time frame but it is definitely better to have a few days to plan it all in your head and pack carefully, thoughtfully, with as little weight and redundancy as possible, and not forget anything.

So, Neal, were you 100% this trip? Did you plan for everything and bring everything you needed and not forget anything?  Nope. Considering that my phone becomes my nav on a trip like this, I need power for it in my rental car. Forgot that, for sure. First thing this morning? Radio Shack or equivalent.

BTW: Back in time for one incredible party at 555 the 12th. You coming?

Topics: 555 Gallery,Monsters

Permalink | Posted September 4, 2015

Packed and Ready

If you've been following along you know I have a new show going up in September.

My work, called Monsters, will be highlighted in the next show at 555 Gallery in Boston called Wild Thing that opens September 10, with a reception September 12.

We just finished it yesterday and it is packed up and ready to deliver.

So much work over the past 1 1/2 months and it is all reduced down to this pile of foam wrapped framed prints.

Thanks to Hannah, my summer assistant, and some friends, we have finished ahead of schedule and the work looks great. Thank you all for your help!

Want more information? 

555 Gallery

Topics: Monsters

Permalink | Posted August 19, 2015


If you've been reading this blog for a bit you know I have a new show coming in September called "Monsters" at 555 Gallery in Boston. The work is part of a larger show called "Wild Thing." Trust me, this will be a wonderful show. Opening is 6-8 pm September 12, a Saturday.

At any rate, we have made a catalogue of the show, which will be for sale at the gallery. It is at the printer now and is killer good, with most of the Monster pictures in it, with an introduction by Alison Nordstrom. I can tempt you with a little of that here:

When an artist of a certain longevity, stature and tradition makes what appears to be a radical departure from his earlier concerns, it behooves us, as his audience, to consider the new work both in its own right and as a thread in the complex trajectories of a creative life. Even when the artist’s oeuvre has embraced genres as diverse as architecture, landscape and still life in a lengthy and prolific photographic career, we may still be surprised by the results of this artist’s curiosity. The exhibition and publication of Neal Rantoul’s recent series “Monsters” offers the opportunity to experience one artist’s way of seeing and to think with him about what it means to see and photograph.

Thank you, Alison.

My own artist statement, which is also in the catalogue, takes a slightly different tact (it seems weird to quote myself here):

What began as an experiment in new seeing had now become, surprise surprise, meaningful. Little did I know. I thought when I started I had a hold of something that would entertain, be colorful and maybe titillate. What I found was that I had photographed something that, I believe, struck a more primal note. That what our genetics and our ancient brains do to these faces and the over-the-top expressions molded into these odd things is to indentify with them, to seek to form relationships with them, to, essentially, attribute personality to latex, plastic and fiberglass. This, I predict, is a path for human civilization to deal with if we survive, if we don’t blow ourselves up or contaminate where we live. Movies like Chappy, Ex Machina and Her all wrestle with our future relationship with machines we make in our image. Interesting times indeed.

Update on where we are: all the photographs are printed, mounted and, as of Monday, framed. We will pack and ready them next week for transport to the gallery the end of the month. There are clearly too many, better than too little.This is not unusual for me. To overprint a show. It makes for some tough decisions when hanging the work but also leaves some extras to go back to my studio for viewing there. It is important to remember that most of the work, the framed prints, will out survive the show. Shows only last a short time but the work and the catalogue last far longer. One of the lessons learned early in exhibiting my work was that the show is often just the start of the exposure of the photographs to the world out there. Good work should have a life beyond just some distant memory of a show several years ago you had. Think of the exhibition as the work's debut. Definitely not over when the show comes down.

The catalogue's cover:

Love that cover! Gives you absolutely no idea what sort of hell is going to let loose inside its pages. Perfect. Thank you Andrea Greitzer for a most wonderful design.

Please, stay tuned.

Topics: Monsters

Permalink | Posted August 12, 2015