Topic: West (23 posts) Page 1 of 5

The Alone Post

Although I was never particularly uncomfortable photographing with others and would often take students on field trips, either during class but also on weekends or even longer, over my career my best pictures have been made by being alone. A camera, some film, a lens or two, or more recently an empty card and a full battery. But just me, my thoughts, whatever perceptions I may have, leaning on experience and a "what if?" attitude.

Much of my work and over my career has been based on traveling someplace to make my art. Earlier there were countless day trips, necessitated by being very busy, with teaching (many years at Northeastern and Harvard simultaneously) and being a father. I've lived in New England my whole life and it has been a rich environment in which to be a photographer. Also, I couldn't afford trips away frequently. Later, as my daughter grew and went away to school, and my income was better, I could get away, mostly on spring or summer breaks for longer periods, ten days or two weeks, or for many many years, teaching in Italy for a summer term, with free time on the weekends to take off in a rented car, explore and make pictures. I found the Dolomites this way, ski areas high in the mountains with barren slopes in the summer, the city of Trento north of Venice on the edge of the mountains, German and Italian cultures melded together, or on the Mediterranean along the coast.

And over twenty-five years and close to as many trips to the wheat fields of the Palouse in southeastern Washington. Really only one reason: to photograph. Get up early and after breakfast, get going. Up from Pullman or my base for years at the Best Western in Colfax. A vast expanse of rolling hills of wheat, lentils, safflower, peas.

In the early years in the 90's, drive, stop, haul out the tripod, unfold the 8 x 10, hang the meter around my neck, pull out the case of holders, swing it all over my     shoulder, walk to where I would make the picture, open the lens, go under the black cloth, focus, adjust, come out, close the lens, point the meter at my subject, set and cock the lens, insert the holder, pull out the slide, click the shutter, reinsert the slide black side out, throw it all over my shoulder, walk back to the rental, dismantle it all so it would fit in the car, get back behind the wheel, drive until time to repeat the process all over again, hour after hour and day after day.

This all got a little easier when I began to take digital seriously in about 2006.

Looking back, I know I wouldn't have made very good company, so inside my head as to be practically non verbal. I wasn't looking for company, I was looking for pictures. Nights were simple as I was so exhausted, that, after unloading and reloading the holders in a closet or a bathroom so I could shoot the next day,  I was often done by 8 or 8:30. Meals were solitary, maybe while reading a paperback I'd brought along. I reread some Hemingway on one trip, For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, books and ideas not thought of since high school. I often read a Robert Parker novel as it seemed there was a new one every year. I can remember lusting after a cold beer as I worked late in the afternoons on dusty farmer's roads in August heat just before harvest, the wheat like gold, not a barn or a house to be seen.

From a busy and full life, students needing questions answered, help and council,  loving my kid or with family on the Vineyard, long days of surf on the beach, but needing and loving this too, days with not a word, the landscape, the sky, and me, tiny and insignificant, a camera, a tripod, a rented Nissan or Chevy or Ford or Kia or Honda from Enterprise, Dollar, Hertz, Avis, or Alamo from the airport two hours north in Spokane. 

Seems like countless times, the last one in 2019, like coming back to an old friend, a part of this country that simply doesn't change much. There is comfort in that.

Is it the isolation that advocates for the pictures I make?

There have been a few times where a friend or two came out, joined me for a couple of days to roam the hills. It is only possible to understand the power of this, the Palouse, by being there. 

By 2005 I had started making aerials each time I went, a shock sitting so close to the pilot in the small plane I hired. Probably the longest sentences of the trip as I asked him or her to turn right, lift the wing, change the altitude or do a 360 around that, please. Very powerful to capture close to 500 frames in an hour's flight, then head back to the motel room to see that I had done.

Alone with my thoughts, no distractions, reflecting on my plight, yes lonely but knowing that would end when back home. By that I mean I was smart enough to know that while I was making some wonderful work there was much I was missing in life. Alone had its goods and it had its bads. In the 8 x 10 film days, returning from wherever I was I knew I had months of film developing ahead of me before I was to see anything. Digital changed that. The 8 x 10 was a wonderful economy, a full days shooting being maybe 20 frames. But digital was easily several hundreds of frames a day.

As a teacher I learned it was important to say this to students for they didn't know it innately. This thing is hard work and needs a willingness to sweat, hike, push through and stay on course. There are long hours with little visible reward, practice  needed to keep craft and acuity in tune. Lazy just does not work.

I'll leave you with this. In my workshops and adult student teaching over the years I often have people, accomplished perhaps in something else, turning over and into photography, in a hurry to get good very fast. They are seeking a pro's maturity without a pro's history. They wish to be as successful at this as they were at what came before photography. So, these are "know it all" people in the role of being a student. It can be awkward for in photography they know so very little. Often they have all the gear and even the mannerisms down pat, for YouTube videos have given them that. But working in isolation and solo has never entered their heads. Off photographing with a husband or a wife on a nice summer morning they don't know that the partner sitting back there in the car while they traipse around "on the hunt" is a distraction and a conflict to the making of good photographs. They want depth in their pictures but are playing the guessing game of shooting randomly in the hope that something will work out. Taking a trip solo, dedicated to the making of photographs, can be a revelation here, the student understanding that the solitude can lead to seeing through the subject to a deeper meaning.

As I wrote earlier, alone has its goods and it has its bads. 

Want to respond? Not hard: here

Topics: Analog,Digital,Color,Black and White,West

Permalink | Posted April 15, 2021

This just in 2

Note: I first published this in March 2014 and it quickly got me in trouble. It seems some parents had signed up their daughter to take a course with me at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina that spring. In researching their daughter's teacher they came across this post from my blog:

This Just In

They had no idea it was a joke, took it seriously and were going to withdraw their daughter from my class. It took a lot of apologizing and explaining before they'd let her take my class.

So it goes. 

Topics: Color,Digital,West

Permalink | Posted August 15, 2020

Valley Trees

I returned last week from my second trip to Northern California to photograph the effects of the Camp Fire in Paradise.

As I start to make prints from the shoot I realize I was seeking to connect with the place in a slightly different manner than before. Partly documentation and partly an artist's response, the work reads more personal and selective.

An example is these, called Paradise Valley Trees:

This career artist doesn't always know why he's doing things. That sounds bizarre I know, but it is true. I discover things from the pictures I make. Yes, I made some conscious decisions here: convert the camera to 1:1, make the files in post into black and whites. So, I was working towards higher specificity in these pictures.

But there needs to be chance, discovery, unpredictability, accident, surprise, intuition in our work. It isn't all intellect and control.

These trees, serving as symbols for so much more, standing guard, doomed to be cut down and heading for the chipper, scarred and charred, killed by wind and fire on November 8, 2018.

Prints are 12 x 12 inches. I suggest seeing them in person: Neal's email

Topics: Black and White,Digital,West,New Work

Permalink | Posted November 25, 2019

Home From Paradise

I arrived home a few days ago. I spent a week photographing in Paradise, CA,  one year after the Camp Fire leveled the town on November 8, 2018.

The town is struggling to come back. Most of the demolition is finished, debris carted away, dead trees hauled off to the chipper. Some residents live in trailers on their property, waiting for utilities to be turned on, some are rebuilding and some will never return.

What's next for the images I made? Unlike most photographers these days, I will edit the files and make prints of the photographs, for this is how I work and have worked throughout my career. This will take a few weeks and will end in a portfolio of prints.

For my readers that are photographers,  this trip was something of an experiment. I took only the Sony A7R MK IV with me. Every photo trip for the past 20 years or so has been with some model of Nikon. Why the change? Large file size with a smaller, lighter, and more responsive camera. With a 61 mp file, this is an unusual tool but it is proving to be really something when everything is dialed in correctly. I had a few glitches, misunderstandings and wrong settings, but I now know more about how to work with the camera and believe this can be a clear step up in image quality. Sony from now on? I haven't decided yet but I am leaning that way. 

Next up? One more blog on photographs I made of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County,  the last two days I was in California. This was a fire that burned 77,000 acres in late October 2019.

Stay tuned. 

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Topics: West,Digital,Color

Permalink | Posted November 23, 2019

Paradise Graffiti

The last day I was in Paradise I took a new route down to the valley and in to Chico where I was staying. It was a mostly one lane road that wound down a canyon out of town. 

Of course, much of it was scarred by the fire.

About halfway down, the road widened out to two lanes and the pavement  smoothed out, perhaps due to a repair after a landslide. But it was no longer black macadam as it was covered with an orgy of spray painted graffiti, with tire tracks on top from cars peeling out, a place where teenagers hung out, expressing all kinds of pent up anger, frustration, joy, love and artistic ability too.

Very odd, this pavement canvas halfway down a canyon. Fantastic, really.

I get it. I know, graffiti destroys property but I find the sheer energy and exuberance of it very powerful. Also, it can be very beautiful.

After spending an hour or so photographing I realized that much of the whole road, several miles of it, served as a surface for taggers and graffiti artists.

Which then led me to this, with the disclaimer that I have no idea if any of it is true: 

They meet at the spot on the canyon road on Saturday night late after the big game which they won 14-7. Beer and cheap wine, cigarettes, vapes and weed, going steady, hooking up or trying to, singles, spray paint, loud hip hop, headlights, peeling out and loud exhausts, convertibles, pickups and clapped out beaters. Youth, their place and their time, seeming like forever but ephemeral and fleeting, compounded and warped by the disorientation of the fire that November day in 2018, one of those they will never forget and that will define their lives until they die.

As I concluded my second trip to photograph in Paradise, California I learned many things; that the effects of the fire run deep, that lives were changed forever, that the scars from those few crazed hours in November 2018 will be carried by the people of the town the rest of their lives. 85 people were killed that day but Paradise will take years, decades really, to regain anything of a semblance of what it was before the fire. The possibility of another fire will hang over them as well.

Topics: West,Color,Digital

Permalink | Posted November 19, 2019