Times They Are A Changin'

Bob Dylan sings the times they are a changin' over and over again in a refrain on a record made in 1964. He was singing about the civil rights movement. Of course, things are always changing but something happened the other day that drove the point home about how things have changed in my world, the world of photography.

I headed out route 2 on a photo day. Late summer and glorious weather, big billowy clouds, not hot and not humid. For those of you that aren't local Route 2 starts in Boston and is four lanes heading west until about mid state then it turns into two lanes. It roughly parallels the Mass Pike but runs farther north. It continues all the way out to Williamstown at the western edge of the state. (I have been making aerial photographs along the length of Route 2 for a couple of years. To see these go here and to read about the project go here.) I wasn't very far out when I pulled over to drive through what used to be the US Army base at Fort Devens, now largely privatized with small companies, some residential housing and a business park. I pulled in at a sign that said Mirror Lake, parked, got my camera and walked down the dirt trail toward the lake. This was one of those, "I don't know what's there but I'm never going to find out unless I go down and check it out" walks.

I got down to where the trail opens up to see the lake on my left. I took a picture, not trying to do anything more than show this idyllic late summer scene:

I heard a woman's voice "Can I help you?" off to my right. I looked over to see a middle aged woman walking towards me, her hair pulled back in a pony tail, wearing a smile and shorts and a Mirror Lake T-shirt. I said that I was a photographer and just looking things over on this beautiful day. She said, "I can tell you are. You don't see many people with a camera these days." Bang. There it was. 

The big boys, or what we think of as the big boys, Canon and Nikon, are having trouble selling cameras. The whole field of point and shoots is almost all gone. DSLR sales are not terrible, but the market caters to us that are the shooters and our numbers are small compared to the amateur market. Smart phones have taken over as the camera of choice for most. What made the Nikons and Canons and others profitable over past years was the sale of millions of cameras to the amateur market. The cameras we use are halo products, made to set the bar high for those wanting better cameras so they can be "better" photographers and for pros, which most of us are. Sony is making some serious inroads into this more traditional model with big chip, smaller and mirrorless EVF cameras now. This is where most of us, as pros, are headed in the near term, those of us with our big heavy DSLR bodies and lenses. Can't come too soon for me. But Canon and Nikon and some others are way late to the party.

But she's right, of course. You don't see many people with cameras these days. Cameras in phones are just plain good enough for most now and we've always got our phone with us, don't we? When I stopped in at the Ale House for lunch in Gardner, MA later that same day after shooting with my too big and heavy Nikon for a couple of hours I put it down and pulled out my phone to see if I'd gotten an email, texted a friend, took a picture with it to share with another friend, ordered my food, looked at Facebook on my phone to see what what was up, ate my meal, paid and went back out with my too big and heavy Nikon to make more pictures. The only reason I need the DSLR is because I make prints, and usually large ones. This too will change.

The Times They are A Changin'.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted August 30, 2015

The Mountain Work

I just added a series to the site called Mountain Work from 1977/78, (here). Hard to believe I was making pictures so long ago but it's true.

Mountain work was series work before I knew most of my career I would be a series photographer. I made them during a very active period when I was carrying several projects at the same time. In truth my single mindedness about making pictures back then looks, from this perspective, a little deranged but there is no doubt I was making good work in there, if perhaps making too much. Mountain Work was a portfolio of 20 black and white photographs made at the top of  "drive up"mountains. I thought then and still do that these are unique places, with wide vistas, huge skies and, in the summer, people from all walks separated from their more mundane lives, placed as though the sky above was a sort of backdrop for them and, yes, presumptuous I know, for me as well to photograph their interactions, joys  and gestures at being on top of the world. I was passionate about the project and went to places like Mt. Tom, Mt Battie, Mt Tamalpais, Mt Washington. Mt Cadillac. The only rule was that this be a destination you could get to by driving to the summit. Tourist mountains.

Wait a minute. Do you realize the exceptional-ness of the last few sentences in the paragraph above?  This from the guy that does not photograph people. Well, I did in this series, so there. From Mountain Work in 1978 to Monsters in 2015 (some 37 years!) being shown at 555 Gallery in Boston in September, I've gone from photographing the human beings in situ to photographing fake people as masks and mannequins. We will see soon if this is progress.

At any rate, before we get to the pictures let me place them in context. In those years I was single, had not yet started a family and was in my early 30's. I began teaching at Harvard in the fall of 78, was teaching summers at the Maine Photographic Workshops, and had been teaching at NESOP (New England School of Photography) for a couple of years. I would, the following winter, take a self imposed leave from both to drive through the Southwest to photograph. This was the trip that changed my life because I spent 3 days with Fred Sommer (posts on that begin here and continue for three more, searchable by typing Fred Sommer in the search field).

The Mountain Work also ushered in something else. The pictures were mostly made with Kodak's Plus-X. The year before I had devised a new and constant film agitating procedure for processing my negatives and was showing that off with these pictures. While these on screen won't show it well, the large expanses of middle tonality grays of skies in the series were smooth and clean. 

I would drive to the top of the mountain, park, get my camera out and stay for hours, watching as the cast of characters changed as they got out of their cars, headed over to the viewing area, pointed out at things way off, took pictures, hung out a little, got back in their cars and drove away. Only to be replaced with others in a steady stream of  humanity in all shapes, sizes and dispositions. 

This was a sequenced series, in that it moved from start to middle to end in a flow. 

I treated vehicles about the same, photographically, as I did the people.

What's the exhibition history of these pictures?  Practically nonexistent. I showed them once, in a show at my niece's non profit gallery in Newport RI in the 90's. Published? Nope. Anyone know about them before now? Pretty safe to say no. The prints are about 12 inches square, toned with selenium and cool in color. This is a little embarrassing to admit but there is only one copy of these prints. Back then, no one I knew printed editions or copies of prints. 

This one, with a Rollei SL 66 that could tilt, made hand held. Scheimpflug through space. Don't know what that is? Go here. Sharp from small bush in foreground, through woman's arm then off to the left through trees and to the horizon. All the rest not sharp. I used this camera quite often that way. I felt it differentiated my work and that I could direct the viewer's path through my pictures.

I always thought this one above predicted my moving into a stage of marriage and being a young parent with a baby in my arms. In fact, I would be a parent four years later.

This one is a favorite: independent activities on the stage of this parking lot at the same time, almost as though choreographed.

As the series moved on it began to reduce the people in scale to smaller and smaller.

Then, in the next to last picture, the shock of three people, the largest yet, and an acute foreground-to-background range through the fog of early morning at Mt Tamalpais north of San Francisco. I always loved that gesture,  someone pointing off to somewhere.

And finally,

with the lone figure standing on the rock way back there, the picture bisected at a 45 degree diagonal.

The full series is here

Let me know what you think, but please, take a look at the full set first.

Neal's Email

Note: this is an extremely poor facsimile of the originals.Want to see the actual prints? This can be easily arranged through 555 Gallery, as they represent my work.

By the way, I made another Mountain Work series of pictures in 2011. They are here.

Topics: Black and White,Analog,Northeast,Northwest

Permalink | Posted August 28, 2015

What I've Learned

After now almost two months of working on the new prints called Monsters  for the show coming up in September at 555 Gallery in Boston titled "Wild Thing" I have learned a few things and I thought I'd share my experience with you.

Making prints from a project, be it for a portfolio or for an exhibition, is a process. There are steps, necessary as an evolutionary process, that must be taken. These are things that can't be rushed or corners cut to get to a final result. This is true at least for me. I believe it is very important to set enough time aside for these steps to happen. I started working on the new Monsters pictures around July 4. They are now finished with the last step being to move them to the gallery, unpack them and hang the show. So, my personal process of editing, printing, reprinting, changing sizes or cropping, reprinting, mounting and then framing is now about to go into a more public process of interaction, final editing, and working with the gallery to hang the work. Then, finally, when the show opens my work goes public. But as this progresses from singular decisions and all the results inherent in that to a more public place my role is no longer active. In some sense, the job being finished, my role is over. I just need to show up.

The Monsters show, framed and packed for moving to the gallery.

This is all good, of course. I am honored and privileged to be allowed to take my work through this process and I am indebted to 555 Gallery for the opportunity. For a sense of perspective, much of my career was spent making work with no clear objective in sight, no place to show it, no one expressing an interest in it or, in fact, even knowing it existed. But what I've learned or it seems relearned is that while the gains are large, that I am showing new work soon, there are losses too. This whole "print for a show" thing? In this case, it was all consuming. Not much time off, few new photographs made, few laughs and fun times and, whatever work I did make,  made without enough concentration. 

Where there have been other activities going on they have centered around making a catalogue for the show, sending to press the Essays on Photography book that is being printed now, and some advance publicity for the show. There are now even Moo cards made of  the Monsters work:

Why? For the sheer fun of it. Also, I've been dealing with theses images and more in large sizes for so long it's great to be able to see the cast of characters in cards, as these have become my coconspirators, my friends. Suffice it to say, we are very close. If you see me, ask to see my cards.

While proud of the new work and looking forward to is unveiling, I am missing time spent on making new work. To that end, there is some travel coming up that should put things back on course. Coming up in a week or so I fly to Salt Lake City, Utah to make aerial photographs of the salt flats and the shoreline of Great Salt Lake.Thanks to Google Earth I can show you where I am headed:

Can't wait. 

I'll be back for the opening at 555 Gallery September 12. 

Hope to see you there.

Topics: Aerials,Color,Digital,Northwest

Permalink | Posted August 26, 2015

Lia Rothstein

Back in July a friend and I took most of a day to drive to Meriden, NH to see a show of photographically derived art by friend and colleague Lia Rothstein at the Aidron Duckworth Museum. (BTW: The Duckworth is a fascinating place, well worth seeing.) Some of you may know Lia from the days she had a photo gallery in White River Junction, VT called PhotoStop. 

On seeing this work you could be forgiven for thinking the  show wasn't so much a "photography" show as the wonderful art looked more like paintings and drawings. 

There's something to be said for being in this process for forty years or so. Lia's quiet sensibility and acute intelligence come through here loud and clear. This show had me questioning my own definition of what photography was as it used photography as its foundation but went on from there. Here's a brief description from the review of the show in ArtScope Magazine:

Working with light projections, digital and hand drawing, encaustic waxes, oil paints and other media, Lia Rothstein is transforming her photographs into highly abstracted, texturally nuanced, intriguing works on handmade Japanese and other fine art papers.

Lia's spent a lot of her career in the service of others: bringing up two kids, being the wife to a high powered husband, running a gallery, etc. I know first hand how hard she worked for me as I showed my work at her gallery twice. For this show she took a year off for herself to work, to experiment, to create. She rented a studio space just to work on these pieces. It was time well spent for she labored to extend her own definition of what photography is. This resulted in us questioning ours. I found myself thinking that this work is a confirmation of what it is to be an artist. The exhibition was a serious look at just what possibilities are imbedded in materials and tools used with an open mind,  an experimenter's curiosity to see "what if?"

With this new work, never shown before, it was hard to tell what was fixed. This piece seemed to float outside of its own fasteners on the wall, partly  transparent, partly photograph, partly painting.

The next six sat off the wall, elegantly fixed with magnets on the heads of nails, with small lights behind the encaustic treated paper.

The prevailing theme was water, its surface, transparency and its fluidity. 

These three, some of the most structured, were made from table top forms, warped with software, printed, then worked on the surface to blend, build, scrape, smooth and color. 

Although the show was not large Lia took on several kinds of explorations:

with a couple of large panels, highly abstract and yet somehow familiar, loosely interpretable as landscapes but also hitting a more emotional note.

Much of the work stemmed off an experience of a month-long residency in Iceland in 2012, where Lia began to work with different ways of making photographs and indeed, some of the initial images in this show came from Iceland.

Highly abstract, yet some of the pieces had wonderful form as they had an underlying structure.

# 1: Since the show is down how do you get to see this amazing work? Contact the artist: http://liarothstein.com and, if you have any ability to influence a curator or gallery owner, urge them to take a look too as this work needs to be seen more.

#2: I can't resist the urge to editorialize about this work. Remember those early days of Photoshop? At school we used to call the work "hamburgers in the sky" because that's what people were doing. Compositing things randomly in the frame, like hamburgers, simply because they could. We have come a long way since then. Spending some time with Lia at the show, hearing her describe her process and rational behind her work, it occurred to me that this breaking down of barriers between photography and really all other visual art forms has reached a level of maturity, sophistication and confidence as to be seamless. Lia's process comes from a base of photography, as does her experience and training, but this work moves very far beyond that and we are the richer for it.

The show was amazing. Thank you, Lia, for sharing it with us.

Topics: Review

Permalink | Posted August 23, 2015


Back, way back in the early 90's a couple of students named Andrea Greitzer and Scott Merritt came to me with a proposal to check out a 4 x 5 view camera for an extended period to do a photo project. I no longer have in my mind what that was but it may have involved using a camera over the summer and making pictures in New Hampshire. Extended use like this was definitely against the rules. Cameras would be stolen, lost or be broken when returned in September. But they made a compelling case, claiming they were part of PFAYVA. I had never heard of this. It turns out Andrea was a graphic design major. They presented me with a letter that looked very official with the logo right up there on top stating what the organization was. I kept it and here it is:

a little yellowed with age as it was pinned on the board above my desk for almost 20 years. Being members of the  Photographic Foundation for the Advancement of Young Visual Artists, which they started, got them the camera they wanted for the summer. Although there never was an actual student group called PFAYVA, all special programs and various photo trips with students became known at Northeastern as PFAYVA programs. PFAYVA turned out to be the longest lasting, most effective and popular student centered program on campus that never existed. Each spring we would take senior thesis students to Martha's Vineyard, Block Island or to Maine and, one time, to Savannah, Georgia. As it turns out PFAYVA also would scholarship students who couldn't afford to come. In reality PFAYVA had no budget (remember it didn't exist) and I was funding them with my own money or discretionary funds from my budget.

Over the years I would drop the term as in: "oh, as a member of PFAYVA you can do that" to students. They would have no clue what that meant but it was my way of telling them they could more than likely circumvent a rule or come on a trip with us that they couldn't otherwise afford if they joined PFAYVA. Being photo students they were already members of the club that didn't exist. Being members afforded them rights and privileges doled out on a discretionary basis by its chairman, which would be me.

Of course, PFAYVA trips were exhausting but a total blast. One weekend we had so many students we booked the whole Youth Hostel at Martha's Vineyard in early April a week before it opened. There were about 25 of us. Another year, at the Vineyard, I checked out a 14 seat van from the motor pool at Northeastern and brought my daughter Maru and her best friend Carlotta along as well. Another year we rented a barn in Vinalhaven, Maine that had a trampoline in it. For the trip to Savannah we stayed the first night in the Youth Hostel but, as it had the world's largest cockroaches, moved to a motel for the remainder of our stay. Waffle House for breakfast was big that trip and Krispy Kreme doughnuts important late at night when the light was on.

One of the last PFAYVA trips we took before I retired was to Block Island. We rented a house in February or March. There were only about 8 of us so we went in two cars. We managed to make pictures in between the snow flurries and found an island pretty effectively shut down that time of year. 

My colleague, Stan Strembicki, runs things much as I did when I was at Northeastern. Stan heads the Photo Program at Washington University in St. Louis.

What happened to Scott and Andrea? Scott graduated, married another NU student and now has a family and lives in the midwest. And Andrea now teaches photography at Northeastern and runs a very successful summer semester in Venice each year. Andrea has also designed all the books you see on the "books" page of my site except one, American Series. Her own creative work can be seen on her site: here.

I believe that PFAYVA did serve to advance young visual artists. Thanks to Andrea and Scott for inventing it.

Permalink | Posted August 21, 2015