Topic: Series (25 posts) Page 3 of 5

Cabelas Story


Is it true? I've never told the Cabelas story? Yes, it's true.

I am going to now.

Let your mind drift into a "what if?" category. Let it range through the world of no restrictions, no restraints, the "do whatever you like" that you use to go into when you were a kid. This is like daydreaming, of course, and something I did far too much of in Latin class in the 8th grade.

Okay.  Let me set the scene: a friend and I are driving through rural PA on one of those late summer just before going back to teaching trips. It is maybe 2006 or 7. We approach a large billboard announcing that a Cabelas store is coming up. He asks if I'd ever been to one and I respond by saying no, that I'd never heard of it. We stop and go inside and I am confronted with a sports outfitting store built on a huge scale. In the middle is what I can only describe as a taxidermy mountain of animals arranged in situ and several  smaller areas where we are transported to the Serengetti in Africa with lions and elephants and giraffes. The displays are like dioramas. They are over the top wonderful, bizarre, a little twisted and I want to photograph them. I mean really want to photograph them!

I ask at the information counter about photographing and am told to go ahead take all the pictures you want as long as there is no flash and no tripod. Good but not so good. I take some snapshots with a point and shoot digital camera.

I get back home, start teaching again, am in meetings meetings meetings all the time but Cabelas pulls at me. After several false starts I find myself on the phone with a marketing guy at the home office in Nebraska. He's asking me why I want permission to photograph in the stores when they are closed, why I need to work with a tripod and what I want to do with the pictures once made. I am prepared for that and am using my title as a professor at a prominent university to validate my intentions to make pictures that are cultural research that is based in the USA and  that I am really interested in this "museum quality experience" the company promotes about its displays. Oddly enough, he says okay. Just like that. Then he tells me how it'll work.

I am to email him a few days before I want to photograph in a given store, then I am told to arrive about 6 am at the staff entrance, sign in and go about my business until the store opens at 9 am and then clear out.  I try it out first with the closest store to me at the time which is outside Hartford, CT and it works fine. I shoot for three hours while the employees are stocking shelves, sweeping floors and having a sales meeting that is very rah rah rah just before they open.

I am shooting with a Nikon D200 which is a far cry from equipment we use today. I am using the lights that are on in the store and I am way out of my comfort zone, dealing with white balance issues, areas that are too hot due to the floodlights in the ceiling, difficulty in getting access to some of the displays due to not being allowed over the railing, not having the the right lenses, etc. Over the next several months I make some upgrades. I move up to the new Nikon D300, the first digital camera that gave me usable files.

I am now planning the first of two dedicated trips.  My first one is early March while on spring break. I fly to Chicago and work stores in the Illinois, Indiana and lower Wisconsin region. There are about 50 or so stores in the chain. I drive, get close to a store, stay in a motel, arrive at the staff entrance at 6 am the next morning and, well, you know the rest. Each store's employees are wonderful, helping me move stuff and offering me coffee. After I am done at about 9 am I drive most of that day to the next store and repeat the same process. It being early March I hit some weather and have a not my favorite adventure with my rented minivan with no snow tires in a snow storm of epic proportions but I soldier on. In that trip I shot in four stores.

I've written about this before but I am now accruing real work. I am no longer a novice, I am becoming experienced in the topic of my interest and I am making increasingly knowledgeable pictures. All to the good. Each store is the same but different, some on a scale that it is difficult to comprehend; 250,000 square feet of store. Others are far smaller with fewer displays that interest me.

I complete that trip and the following summer fly again to shoot more stores. This time I start out in Boise, ID and hit stores in Nebraska and South Dakota. It is August and it is very hot. In all I photographed in 17 stores and to this day I cannot pass one by without going in with a camera.

We did a book of the pictures: Cabelas

The work's been shown and published quite a bit over the years. 

When I began the Cabellas projet I had no idea what the outcome would be. I didn't really even know why I wanted to do it. I believe we are just as novice as anybody else when we start out. It is important to acknowledge that and to face up to the fact that you will make mistakes and have false starts. But, soldier on and trust your instincts as they're probably the best thing you've got. 

Cabellas is on the site: Cabelas

Topics: Color,Prints,Series,Digital

Permalink | Posted January 20, 2014

Westwood Village, Danbury, CT 2006

By 2006 I was definitely shooting digitally, but still had one foot squarely in shooting film as well. Westwood Village is a "hybrid" series in that it started out being made with a film camera, but then the processed negatives were scanned and made into archival inkjet prints. The prints are made as duotones, a process by which we can add a second color ink to the already neutral black ink we use to make black and white prints with an inkjet printer.

Westwood Village is a series that is the same but different in that it stays within the format I'd established over 25 years earlier of shooting series work in 2 1/4 inches square and making black and white prints (about 12 x12 inches) that were arranged sequentially to form a body of work. But it also diverges in that it starts out with the promotional brochure used to sell the units in the development.

I'd never done that before. But the contrast from the Utopian view of this midde income complex of townhouses to the reality of what it looked like at the end of the winter in March on a gray day in mid week with snow still on the ground was just too rich to ignore.

I remember printing these and how I'd refer back to the sales brochure. It influenced my printing as these are some of the ugliest prints I have ever made into a series.

Pretty bleak, huh? Things weren't that great for me that spring in 2006. At work we were suffering under departmental leadership that wasn't. Moral was low and the faculty were barely hanging on. Personally, my family life was nonexistent as I had little contact with my daughter, Maru, who was living in Florida. March in New England is never good. Cold and relentlessly gray, it is always a month that teases at spring's coming but never fails to deliver lousy weather.

But the earlier ones in the series are also a set up in that I did find beauty here on the side of this hill outside Danbury, CT.

In looking back at this picture now, almost eight years later, can I say I was consciously aware of the opposing triangles, the bush in the foreground and the roof in the background? Yes. I assume that's what got me standing there clicking the shutter. Do I like this picture? Yes, very much. Simple, bold, definitive, rich texturally, spacially interesting as there is a real journey from the front to the back, closed-in but opening out to that gray sky on the top; it looks to me like vintage Neal Rantoul at the top of his form (can't be accused of modesty there, can I?).

Anyway, this led me to a study of these evergreens, which seemed to soak up whatever light there was like a sponge and cover the hillside like a carpet.

Which I put up against the bland and rigid architecture of the development itself.

Despite the humor and irony of the opening images of the sales brochure, this is a serious set of photographs. I am shooting with both barrels loaded here, if you can forgive the gun-based analogy.

I also took a couple of  "creative license" turns here. And why not? At this point I had little or no following, no gallery representing my work, no big and prestigious shows coming up and no one beating down my door to see and purchase my work.

Besides, this was just too good to pass up; the stand of dark tees, this barren desert of lawn and the chink in the armor, this crack of a crevasse opening up and leading to the grid of the manhole cover. Tilt the camera? Absolutely.

So, how did I end this one? By using a time honored process of letting the pictures breath a little, letting the viewer see an opening or perhaps letting the viewer leave this place behind, or at least promise at the possibility. 

Escape? I couldn't wait to leave Westwood Village that day! I've driven past it many times since and have never exited the highway and driven up there to see it  again. Doubt I ever will.

The full series is: here

Contrast this one to the most recent post, from Italy: Fort Dei Marmi. Like from two different planets.

Blog's are very much a one way thing, for the most part. As the readership grows I am very pleased at this silent but positive response to my work. But it would be very helpful to hear from you. Are you getting anything from my writing about my work? Do you think I am on or off point in my comments and analysis? Once again, I will respect your privacy if you do email me.

Neal Rantoul may be reached here

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Topics: Black and White,Series,Hybrid

Permalink | Posted January 1, 2014

Yountville 1981

I made Yountville, CA in 1981, less than a year after I made the Nantucket series. This was still a new way for me to work, connecting pictures to pictures, and I was very excited to have found a system that would allow me to make bodies of work, rather than unconnected single pictures.

With these I followed the same model as with the Nantucket pictures. Flat light and walking around an area. In this case it was early morning in March and there was fog that wasn't burning off yet. It kept things flat, good for the pictures I was making in those years. Yountville is one of the towns north of San Francisco in wine country. I have been back to visit the same streets several times since, and have even tried to make new series from the same place, with little success. Yountville is much more built up now. 

I was interested in forming linkages from picture to picture:

I had no training in this way of working. Graduate school had been mostly about single pictures, not groups or series of pictures and I don't believe we ever talked about sequencing. I don't think I had anyone to talk with about these pictures either. Working in isolation has its rewards, of course, as there's no one there to tell you how wrong you are. On the other hand, working that way makes for work that is perhaps too much a singular view or that has an emotional tone that is unsupportive of the work.

I remember sweating bullets over the prints. With the Nantucket series I'd established a precedent for flat prints but ones that were full, meaning that the prints could go into deep blacks but still stay predominantly in the grays without strong highlights. With Yountville I worked to do the same.  

What was printing like then? I had a darkroom carved out of a 1/2 bath in my apartment, with the enlarger mounted above the toilet. Turn 180 degrees from the enlarger and bang you were right in front of the developer, sitting in a sink that I'd made that was about 8 feet long. Two to three minutes and then the stop bath to the left and then into the fixer, agitated, then white light on after 45 seconds or so. Look at the print, decide what could be improved, turn off the light, go back to the enlarger, pull out another piece of paper and repeat. And so on, often for several prints. After fixing, the print went into a holding tray of water. When it was time to final wash the prints I would put them one at a time into a Zone VI plexiglass washer for 10 minutes or so, then into fixer remover which also had rapid selenium toner in it, then back for a final wash of 20 to 30 minutes, then the prints were squeegeed and placed face down on a plastic screen drying rack. The prints would dry over night.

Yountville has been shown numerous times and is included as the first series in the monograph "American Series", published in 2006.

Topics: Black and White,Series

Permalink | Posted December 2, 2013

Goldfield Ghost Town, AZ 2012

I spent most of the winter of 2012 in and near Yuma, Arizona. This was in the months directly after I retired from teaching and it was a time of tremendous relief at being finished with teaching and my commitments as a full professor at Northeastern University. 

I had a great time in Yuma. A couple of friends came out to visit, I met new friends and had many wonderful times photographing and making discoveries in an area new to me.

One of those was the Goldfield Ghost Town, about an hour outside of Phoenix in Apache Junction.

I arrived early so the tourist town wasn't open yet but I found a guy in one of the buildings and asked him if I could walk around and take pictures. He said, "sure, help yourself."

Sometimes the act of making a series is simply a continuing discovery and Goldfield Ghost Town was just that. 

This is a remarkable place, made richer by wonderful all kinds of weird things going on.

I walked around the village, looking for the next frame while shooting the current one, working to keep a logical path through the place and also to notice every little thing I could see.

I also did a few unusual things for me, such as:

It is quite rare for me to point up like that in a series but I felt it was justified in order to isolate the broken wind vane up against the sky.

This one, of an old fire tuck with its two hoses gave me pause as it was very beautiful in color:

( The way most of us work in black and white in the digital world is to shoot the pictures in color and then make a color conversion into black and white in post production. That is so very different than using black and white film in the camera. It can be wrenching to see colors go in an instant.

But sometimes one picture has to be sacrificed for the sake of the group and I felt this simply needed to be a black and white series so the final is in black and white.

This is one of the more crucial photographs in the set. It is an old type setting machine and effectively straddles the fence of older times giving way to newer technologies. A nice incongruity.

The stairs above is a picture I had made before:

years before at the Northampton, MA Fair Grounds but in a different enough way as I felt it was okay here and the light was gorgeous.

Another core picture: the cactus, the surreal painting, the pattern on the door, the sign "Gallery" and then finally the word "...very".

As the series begins to conclude, I worked to summarize and then to finish indicating the loop back to the beginning:

The full series is on the site at: Goldfield Ghost Town.

The series  is nineteen images. The prints are on Canson Photographique Baryta paper and the prints are 21 x 14 inches.

Topics: Series

Permalink | Posted November 20, 2013

Colville, WA 2012

I just added a series to the site: Colville, WA. This was a vacated farm off of Route 395 Northwest of Spokane. The farm was south of Colville a few miles. Why photograph this?

Let me show you:

Here's a cropped version of the above photograph:

This notice was taped to the front door of the farmhouse. I was there on July 19, eighteen days after the farm's last inspection. How could I not photograph there?

This was clearly a dairy farm.

What back story was there about this abandoned place? How many generations had worked the farm? How many decades had the animals been milked or herded out to graze? How many barn cats had licked fresh milk from a saucer put out by the farmer? How many years had the fields been cut, the hay baled as feed for the next  winter? How many Thanksgiving dinners had been eaten around the old table in  the kitchen covered with a checkerboard table cloth?

What causes someone to abandon a farm? Had the farmer gotten too old, perhaps had a heart attack one cold and dark winter's morning lifting hay bales to feed his cows? Had the farmer's wife been too old and weak to carry on after he died? Had the farmer taken out too many loans with the bank as he was less able so they were forced to foreclose the place? Or had the farmer and his wife been simply unable to pay the bills and left? 

Of course, we will never know what the end to this sad story is. But I could pay my respects to a place that had great history and resonated with a past life that was active and vibrant. I see children playing tag in the backyard on a hot early evening one  July 4th weekend, with fried chicken on a platter being brought out of the kitchen by the farmer's wife, so pretty in her late 30's, wiping sweat from her forehead and wearing that apron he bought her last Christmas.  I see the young family down at the Chevy dealer in Colville climbing into their new bright red pickup truck, the one that lasted fourteen years. I see their young son, hitting  a homer his senior year in high school that summer before he went to Vietnam and never coming back, blown to hell by a land mine. I see lemon aid in a big pitcher and pancakes on a plate and the family huddled around the console TV watching that astronaut walk on the moon. I can hear little Betty struggling to learn to play the piano, repeating "Heart and Soul" so many times they all screamed at her to quit. And I see her opening the door to her date Mitch years later the night of her prom. Where did all that go? Does all that amount to nothing here in this overgrown corner of the state of Washington next to highway 395 south of Colville?

So much life, I am sure, so much history gone, now the place abandoned. 

So sad.

How could I not photograph here?

Topics: Series,2012

Permalink | Posted October 21, 2013