Mountain Work: Then and Now 1

In the summers of 1978 and 1979 I made a series of pictures at the tops of tourist mountains in the States, those uniquely odd drive-up mountains with great views that seem to place human beings in a different world. It was and is one of the few series I have ever made of people.

Shooting mostly from behind I used open sky like a back drop and looked at relationships, gestures, body language and issues of scale. I also photographed vehicles.

I photographed mostly with the Superwide Hasselblad but also used the 2 1/4 Rollei SL66 handheld. I made the prints in my darkroom on 14 x 17 inch Kodak Polymax paper, and toned them with selenium. The final prints are about 12 inches square.

The original Mountain Work series is here. I wrote about the work in a blog post: here.

1978

2015

The pictures are from mountains like Mt Washington in NH, Mt Tamalpais in CA, Mt Cadillac and Mt Tom in ME.

As often happens the sensibility used from earlier work does not just go away in later years. I have been photographing in a similar way over the past year or so. The trick, of course, is to bring something new to the table. We all have places we return to over and over again throughout our lives. This new series is no exception.

These are digital and in a whole different world, focal-length-wise: 80-400 mm. In 1978 I didn't know nor had used anything longer than the normal length lens for the format and tended to use wide angle lenses. 

Comparisons are inevitable:

My sense is that this is a continuation of a way of working formed in the late 70's  with some new parameters thrown in, not something completely new or ground breaking.

I don't know if at my age and abilities that "new" is on the horizon for me. I hope so but have no evidence to prove it. At any rate these pictures utilize a different technology in the capture and also in the printing than the originals; a compression of space as opposed to normal or wide angle focal lengths, color as opposed to black and white and the use of the same eyes and brain but thinking informed by 37 years of experience.

As a tactic, photographing people from behind is a tough thing to do, meaning that it "anonymizes" them, taking away the smile or the frown or the eye to eye contact. It also is often what someone does when they don't have the nerve to face their subjects. This is seen in early street work, where the photographer is trying to do something quick and spontaneous but doesn't yet have the skills or experience to pull it off. I know this, but in this work there is a different strategy at play. Pictures made from in back of people gets us looking at what they are looking at much more. We see the landscape or scene as through their eyes, even with their perspective. That's mostly what I was doing with these. Not making portraits in any way but photographing the people as "symbols" and emphasizing gestures. 

I  am not posting these on the site yet as they are not final edited.

BTW: Note that this will be the third "Mountain Work" as there is another made in 2011 that uses mountains but in a very different way. Take a look :Mountain Work 2011

Stay tuned.

Topics: Mountain Work,Color,Digital,New Work

Permalink | Posted June 26, 2016

Presenting at VCS

VCS? What is that? The Vineyard Conservation Society on Martha's Vineyard.

I have been asked to speak and show slides of my aerial photographs of the island on June 29th. VCS is a long standing conservation non profit on the island and responsible for countless lands saved and preserved. This is a real honor for me. 

BTW: While you may not be able to make it to the talk, my work of aerials from the Vineyard is now represented by the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury.

Topics: Martha's Vineyard,Aerials

Permalink | Posted June 7, 2016

Working Close to Home

Throughout my career as an artist, primarily as a landscape photographer, but also working in other genres, I have returned countless times to Martha's Vineyard, where the Rantoul family home is. My parents built a house in the town of Chilmark in the mid sixties and after they died I share the home with my two sisters. We rent the house most of the summers and use the house in the spring and fall. As a matter of fact I am there now, writing this post rather than out photographing as it is raining and cold, with a steady fine rain that feels like a long time commitment to me.

While there have been real blocks of time where I couldn't of cared less about photographing here the past few years have resulted in a large amount of work, made both aerially and as ground based series too. 

I find it wonderful to have such a richness of beauty and form right near by. It does inspire me to work here these days, challenges me to come up with new projects and ways of interpreting what is here. Perhaps you have this too where you live. Things close by that you see daily that when seen through the eyes of an artist can be used to make art. I'd encourage this, this looking closer, considering what you pass by everyday as ammunition for your pictures. Your increased knowledge of an area seen daily on your way to work, the macro examination of your backyard, the looking  with a camera at the place where you get your coffee every morning, the different perspective and vantage point to something so taken for granted, so very mundane that it is almost invisible or as you think about that meeting coming up or that deadline approaching or next weekend when there's a camping trip or a reunion with old friends or a first date or.... you know what I mean. As visual artists we are trained observers, nothing gets past us, we are like sharks on a hunt, predators on the prowl, looking for pictures to make. 

                                       • • •

Now I am off island, but I was on the Vineyard last weekend and went up to the famous Gay Head Cliffs on Memorial Day Weekend in the afternoon on a nice day to see what was going on, this the unofficial start of the summer, only to find many many tourists taking selfies and posed snapshots with the cliffs or the lighthouse in the background. Not a camera in sight, all smart phones. I sat there and watched it all unfold, like a changing set of actors on a stage. What a killer this must be to the camera manufacturers who relied on the huge amateur market for most of their revenue for a very long time. Instamatics, Polaroid SX-70's, the Brownie, the Swinger, etc.

Talk about sea change, the smartphone picture is now practically universal with the point and shoot cameras for all intents and purposes gone. Yes, there are specialized cameras like waterproofs, action cams and drone cameras, but the phenomenon of bringing the camera on the vacation is really over. The smartphone rules. The best camera is the camera you've got with you and everyone has a phone with them, all the time.

You can see why the smartphone companies are making improvements to the cameras in their phones. This is a way to create a competitive edge. 

So, did I take these with a smartphone? I did not.

Topics: Martha's Vineyard,Gay Head,Color,Digital,Northeast

Permalink | Posted June 4, 2016

Buffalo

I am starting tomorrow to shoot at the silos that are on the edge of the river in downtown Buffalo, NY. I am a student in a workshop that provides access into the structures.

Silo City Photography Workshop

This is led by Mark Maio and he has done these for many years now.

•••

I wrote that the day before I drove to Buffalo from Cambridge.

Now I am writing a week or so after I've returned. What'd I do? I photographed the site along with the 30 or so others that were there. We were allowed to go anywhere in the silos we wanted, a huge complex of 88 acres of abandoned grain silos along the river.

Urban warriors delight.

On a wet, windy and cold weekend we scrambled throughout the silos, workshop attendees with cameras on tripods over their shoulders, climbing endless flights of stairs often in total darkness, creepy and at times dangerous places, leaky with holes in the roofs, exciting to be allowed in and the spaces filled with abandoned machinery, conveyer belts, spindles and all sorts of stuff. We learned Buffalo was a central depot for wheat arriving from the midwest to the Great Lakes and down the waterway to Buffalo and then Albany through the Erie Canal and then on to NY to ship wheat all over the world. An industry created for a time (19th and early 20th  century) and now mostly gone, although General Mills still makes Cheerios in Buffalo.

This is a world made for HDR photography, where many will over render and make pictures that are fantasies.

It was difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the place. As Trump would say it was "Huge".

Many workshop attendees (I hesitate to say we were students as there were no classes, we were simply paying for organized access to the place) were returning for another year, having been many times. They ranged from camera club photographers looking to extend their range to seasoned pros working with tech cameras and 100 mb Phase One backs. One gentleman photographs models every year:

In truth, although I scampered around the site for two days shooting like everyone else, I wasn't really in my element. No regrets and I did make a few, at a silo still active, where the grain is loaded into railroad cars and trucks. I liked the colors created by the lights and the dust all over everything, extending the photographs somewhat:

But mostly I felt privileged to be at these silos, a place positively resonating with history, of an industry that was built in large scale. It was humbling.

Thank you, Mark.

Silo City in Buffalo, NY. Mark and his wife run these workshops twice a year in a professional, organized, friendly and well overseen manner. If you go be prepared to climb. Oh, and bring a headlamp.

Topics: Digital,Northeast,Buffalo

Permalink | Posted May 27, 2016

A Disturbing Trend

I'm old. Believe me, I know it. I'll be 70 in a few months. That fact may make it hard for you to take me seriously but bear with me for just this post. With age comes wisdom, right? What I want to write here is that I think the field of photography by those making art is changing in a disturbing way. Read on.

Photographic series or bodies of work are being explicated, explained, contextualized, rationalized and elevated with text or verbal rationals. You're thinking: so what? That's no big deal. Let me start with a short history and then let's take a look at current practice.  20 or 30 years ago, going to a photo show at MOMA or the Met, SF Modern, ID in Chicago or even the Whitney often meant you were confronted with a row of framed and matted photographs along with perhaps a brief statement from the show's curator that gave some biographical data on the photographer or maybe explained in what context the works were being shown. The titles of the work were usually the place and the year the images were made.That was it. The expectation was that the photographs stood on their own, were to be viewed and understood on their own terms, usually as single images sitting next to other single images.Think Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Lew Baltz, even Ansel Adams and Cartier Bresson. Few words were necessary.There were exceptions, of course. For instance, Robert Adams, who had whole reams of text used to flush out his work and build a rational.

Now, go to a show by a recent MFA grad or sit across the table from someone showing you their work at a portfolio review and things are very different. For most work there is absolutely no understanding possible without a written or verbal account of what the photographer is up to. I always have the sense that I am joining the telling of a story in the middle, trying to play catchup. Again, for most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on.This isn't always awful, as perhaps it is part of the evolution of the medium into a specialized category that leads to increased specificity and a clearer intent. But, and this is my main point, the photographs often aren't very good. It's as though photography has been sublimated to a necessary part of the total, that the words are the priority and the photographs somehow are ancillary or secondary and therefore not needing much attention. This resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely.

What is this? My theory: most new art photography these days come from MFA grads who have studied the medium, not only its practice (although often not enough) but its theory, its criticism, its analysis. As the medium's craft has become easier, more fluid and automatic, mastery of the technical and visual has become less important. Students flowing out of MFA programs now that were started in the 60's and 70's are graduating with degrees and thesis works that are equivalent to PHD dissertations (there is no PHD in applied photography) as the MFA is the terminal degree in the discipline.These grads and recent grads are learned, academic, studied, vocal, theoretical and informed in the medium's history. They are also "conceptual" in that the thought is formed, the work is made to fit the thesis and then executed as a package with the written text to go along with it. This can resolve itself in performative works, video and/or photographs with a primary written component and a secondary tier of importance to the photography. As photography at this level has grown, the treatment of it as an academic pursuit has as well. Very often the craft of the medium is subsumed, indicating the artist has little interest in the inherent qualities of the discipline itself,  using it simply as a vehicle for visual communication. In fact he or she may have graduated from just that: a department of visual communication.This constitutes a "literalization" of the medium or in effect a deconstruction of its inherently visual qualities resulting in an analytical and intellectual final result.

Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer's aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self absorption, even making work with blinders on.

Before you label me an old guy with a lack of sympathy for the young and an inability to see the value in younger's peoples ideas read on. Joni Mitchell once sung that "the old hate the young" but I have always really liked the young, forty years of teaching at the university level that I really enjoyed as a case in point. Youth is vibrancy, endless energy, huge flexibly and sense of discovery that is wonderful to be around. But making the assumption that I or any viewer wants to hear the personal story as a prominent component of the art just really gets me going. I do not. I want to be able to look at the art and judge it on its own merits. Presently, I find a good deal of it lacking.

Look, the practice of making pictures used to be hugely craft based. You needed to study photography and the making of pictures hard to be good at it. It used to be difficult to do well. As a professor I seldom saw any student any good at it until they were a couple of years in. Now, the level is higher and proficiency comes without much work. I doubt most students two years into their degree can accurately tell you what ISO is, aperture and shutter speed settings, 18%  gray, reciprocity failure, D-Max and so on. You can build the case, of course, that they don't need to know those things. Put the camera on "P" and fire away.

My point? As photography becomes ubiquitous, as we are all photographers and even the most simple of cameras made today provides stunning results compared to a few years ago, photography is free to explore areas never approached before. That's all good. But please give me fewer words and better pictures! I find the story, the text mostly boring and condescending, telling me how to look at the photographs rather then letting the photographs do the talking.

It's ironic that as photographs have become easier to make and there are more photographers than ever before making more photographs the pictures are worse. 

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five when referring to the allies massive bombing campaign of the city of Dresden towards the end of WW II that killed people in the hundreds of thousands: 

So it goes.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 21, 2016