In Retrospect

I need to address the profession of teaching and, in my case, teaching photography in higher education.

First a little history 

By the post WW II era of the 50's and  60's in America photography was growing from a professional activity for magazines, portraiture and reportage to being slowly regarded as a viable art form in its own right. Pioneers such as Walker Evans, Bernice Abbot, Ansel Adams, Ed Weston and Harry Callahan among others were being recognized for the revolutionary artists they were. With the famous "Family of Man " exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid 50's came a whole new generation of people taking photography seriously. By the mid sixties actual photo programs and departments were being developed in universities. 

By the time I received my BFA degree in1971 and my MFA in 73 a photo major was the real deal and virtually all large universities and many smaller schools offered majors, minors, concentrations or at least courses as electives in photography.

In my own case and that of my classmates I was definitely in the right place at the right time. By 1975 I was teaching a couple of days a week and by 1978 four days a week in two places. By 1981 had landed a tenure track assistant professorship position in Boston.These were never easy to get and I started at a very low salary but several of my classmates, now colleagues, got them too. By 1988 I was tenured. Achieving tenure is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for many as it assures job security, senior status, and higher pay.

Was that the best? No. In the  beginning I was overworked, underpaid and under funded. I also was newly married, had a one year old baby, was renovating a house while living in it and was still teaching two days a week at Harvard. At Northeastern I'd been hired to teach in a facility that was hopeless. When it rained the roof would leak into the darkroom sink! I was scheduled to teach classes I had no curriculum for, no slides in which to teach a history class, no staff to man the lab for students to work outside of class time. But bit by bit, semester by semester things did improve. The school renovated the building, put us into new darkrooms I had designed, got us a color machine, new enlargers and most of what else we needed. I hired our first lab manager, hired other faculty, increased the program's budget, developed new courses and curricula, offered a concentration in photography and so on.  We were no longer aspiring towards being a vibrant and viable photo program; we were one.

While I was the primary force behind this, the popularity of photography and the medium's own pervasiveness as a significant field of study played a big part. It was a heady time as by the mid 90's Kodak was giving us materials by the palette, Ilford was as well, Polaroid was supporting the summer teaching I was doing in Italy with cases of film, Hasselblad had started a killer program with us that allowed our students and faculty to buy their wonderful cameras at phenomenal prices, Fuji was loaning us massive amounts of cameras and lenses to lure students to purchase their gear. Things were very very good. We had a state-of-the-art lab that was headed by a full time staff person of real ability. I stole him from another school by offering him a big raise. Photography was arguably the most vibrant and exciting program in our large Department. A few years later Photography was raised to another level of credibility, viability and support when it became a part of a new major in Multimedia Studies, a program I started with colleagues in our department.. This is how we garnered support for our digital offerings.

At the same time I tried to recognize my limitations as a teacher and worked to compensate for that by hiring other teachers with strengths in my deficiencies. I am proud of those hires and many of them are still there.

Things have changed

I retired from Northeastern in January 2012. Since then the Department has conducted one search for my replacement that failed due to incredible ineptitude by the University with commiserate deception and manipulation by the candidate. Not good. Currently they are searching for a more diverse person.

Here's the paragraph for qualifications for the Northeastern position, which is, by the way, "open rank" meaning they will hire the person they believe is best qualified in either tenure track (assistant professor), associate professor (tenured) or as a full professor:

Candidates must have an MFA, or equivalent terminal degree in media arts, visual arts, interactive media, digital photography, video art, digital art, installation, performance, or closely related contemporary art practices. They must demonstrate a high potential to advance their field through original work and creative production, experimentation, collaboration, exhibition, performance, activism, advocacy, presentation and publishing. Evidence of a high level of skill and accomplishment in making meaningful and provocative art with a sophisticated aesthetic, social acuity and cosmopolitan cultural sensibility are expected.

Notice how broad and open this is? The position is no longer a direct replacement for me but could be a performance artist, a book maker, whatever. That's because they want to choose from all kinds of people. Photography teaching and Photography programs at the college level are undergoing some serious changes. It is pretty difficult to justify single discipline programs in the visual arts currently, and specifically within photography. Photographers practicing the discipline are no longer just photographers. They need to know some graphic design, video, some animation perhaps, some web based applications, and on and on.

Photography teachers also need to show some flexibility and diversity in order to adapt to changing times. They need to increase their skills into other fields. Finally, the tenure system in higher education shows some signs of real stress. Fewer tenure track jobs are being posted and there are more and more adjuncts across all the disciplines. Adjuncts are pushing back, though, as many are seeking unionization to be able to effectively fight for better working conditions, including health coverage and job security. This dirty little secret of more adjuncts teaching more courses than full time faculty has been used by universities for a long time to great effect. Why? For more profit. I know, universities are not for profit places, right? Take a look at upper administration's salaries. Universities are businesses and you needn't look far to see what the real priority often is.While it was a long time ago, my dad's salary while president at a prominent art school in the 70's was well below $100k. It is not uncommon for current presidents of universities to make $1 million or more.  That's where a good deal of the higher tuition's dollars have gone, not so much into faculty compensation.

In conclusion, I was clearly in the right place at the right time. It shocks me now at my good luck. My belief is that photography itself is dissembling into a medium far more diverse that incorporates so much more than just a single picture at a time printed on a piece of paper. While this is the way I have worked throughout my career and will continue until I can't, younger photographers have both incredible opportunities ahead of them but large challenges as well. This is true of teachers too.

Please understand, this is one retired professor'point of view, not an accurate assessment of the field by survey or a consensus opinion. I hope you have found it informative. I would appreciate your views. You may reach me through my email address: here.

Thank you.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 23, 2015

Brilliant

Don't print much? This post won't be very interesting to you. Print small and on sheets? Again, not necessary to read on. But, print with a larger printer and print from rolls and you know very well what the problem is. Most roll papers will not lie flat when printed. This is fine if the print is going right into a frame or is being mounted. But for prints made to be viewed in portfolios this has "high suckage". This means most of us prefer to print from sheets when we can. This has numerous drawbacks. Sheets cost more as we are paying more for packaging and shipping (and throwing away more packaging when we're finished). Sheet sizes are limited and stop at 22 x 17 inches for most companies. Epson is the only one I know of that makes its Exhibition Fiber paper in the 24 x 30 inch size. If you've seen any of my work over the past year or so, you know I've been printing on this paper quite often. Open a presentation portfolio in any size that's printed from a roll and it is apparent right away as the paper has a curl to it that just won't quit. To me this presents the artist's work poorly.

Is there an answer? Weights on prints over night is a classic solution but is space inefficient and often doesn't really do it. Plus if there is any dust you have the chance of imbedding it in your print. Well, I believe there is a solution now. I just bought something called the D Roller and here is a demo made the first time I used it.

The D-Roller is a fairly heavy tube that unrolls with a sheet of plastic affixed to it. This is mine on my dining room table. This D-Roller is 50 inches wide and made by Beinfang.

You put your curled print on the sheet face up.

Roll it up.

Wait a bit (I waited about 20 seconds).

And unroll your print. 

Damn! How cool is that? I hope Eric Luden (DSI), Paul Sneyd (Panopticon Imaging) and Jonathan Singer (Singer Editions) get to read this as this could change their lives.

The D-Roller is available from Aztek.com

Brilliant.

Permalink | Posted April 18, 2015

Get This

Many of you that read this blog are photographers. And many of you find (I hope) relevance in what I write in relation to your own work. My intention is to share with you experiences and photographs made throughout my career to, yes, increase awareness about my own work, but also to mentor and to teach, if possible. After all, I taught photography for my whole career, some 42 years.

In that vein, let us try to go down a particular path. But first some restrictions. First of all, I am talking about photography made primarily outdoors in the world. Landscape or city, things placed or working spacially, close or far, analog or digital, black and white or color... doesn't matter. Secondly, this is mostly a "thought thing", a conceptual precept based upon an idea that you would carry with you as you make pictures. Not a post production analysis or critical review. Okay? Ground rules established.

My point is this: The picture is what you make it to be. Wait a minute! Has Rantoul lost it? This is such an obvious thing to say that it evokes the classic "duh" response.This is so simple as to be practically imbecilic. But let's look at it a little to see if it makes any sense. Standing in front of something with a camera hand held or on a tripod I've got an infinite number of choices to make about how the picture will be. We do this all the time. I want this in the frame, over there on the edge. I want this to be prominent and in focus. I want this to be darker or lighter. Easy, we're smart and it comes almost naturally, for the most part, if we are a practiced photographer, comfortable with the tool we use and out in the world doing this frequently. But think about it for a second. Those choices, those decisions we make almost intuitively lie at the very core of what we are or try to be as an artist. And, more importantly, they can be changed and modified if we hang onto one very important realization. Photography doesn't give a shit about reality. There, I said it. We know this, of course, but photography is really slippery because it will render things pretty much like what they looked like when standing in front of a subject, all on its own. Actually, that's what most photographs made by amateurs are like. 

But shift gears here, please. Work with this fact: The picture is what you make it to be. You are the driver and it takes a very assertive person to make the picture exactly the way you want it to be. You will need to take control over your picture. Cartier-Bresson, Mr. Decisive Moment, would declare that he was like a dancer with a camera; waiting, moving, following, pouncing, running up the stairs, moving back, moving forward. Yes, photography can be sitting there forever waiting for the light to be right but mark my words, it is not a passive activity. There is a predatory quality to making pictures that is required. I believe.

There is another characteristic that comes into play when thinking about "the picture is what you make it to be". And that is the concept of placement, meaning where things are put or arranged in the frame. The choice you make about inclusion or exclusion in your pictures. Critical stuff. Keep it simple, keep it known and a clear decision: I want this there. I don't want this in the frame. Think I am only talking about landscape work? I am not. Take a look at this miracle:

by Garry Winogrand. Standing on the sidewalk, pointing right into the light with shadows creating multiple V's, a clear decision made in a split second. That was Winogrand's genius, the sheer speed at which his brain worked and connected to the shutter button of his camera. Amazing.

We all waffle, equivocate, are unsure about an outcome, have our bad days, get influenced by something useless or that takes us off track. Me and you, we all compromise, hoping, thinking maybe this will work out or be great even though we know it won't. Think about it. How often have you made your best work when in such an indefinite state of mind, unsure of your next step? What is better: to be emphatic and sure or to be ambivalent and indecisive? You are the king of placement, actually. For you know that to move three inches to the right changes everything. You know that to move closer three inches changes everything. Often these differences seem very subtle. But you are the one who has this control, this phenomenal power to bend the outcome of a picture to your will. For you are the driver. Remember this, as though I haven't written it often enough: The picture is what you make it to be.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 16, 2015

Christmas Trees


Lying there in a field, thrown away, reminding me of Richard Misrach's dead animals thrown into a pit in Nevada under very suspicious circumstances. The series, called "Desert Cantos" starts off this way:

On March 24, 1953, the Bulloch brothers were trailing 2000 head of sheep across the Sand Springs Valley when they were exposed to extensive fallout from a dirty atomic test. Within a week first ewes began dropping their lambs prematurely– stunted, woolless, legless, potbellied. Soon full-grown sheep started dying in large numbers with the same symptoms — running sores with large pustules, and hardened hooves. Horses and cattle were found dead with beta burns. At final count, 4,390 animals were killed.

photograph by Richard Misrach

To be clear, Misrach offers no answers but uses these pictures to analogize about the atomic bomb testing the US did in this area in the 50's and 60's. Miscrach made his pictures in 1987.

The question occurs to me that I probably couldn't have or wouldn't have made these pictures of uprooted evergreens in a North Carolina tree farm if it hadn't been for Misrach's pictures serving as precedent.

I know, they are only trees, right? There is no real tragedy here. Or is there?

Think about this. I made these late one morning with a gentle rain falling in rural North Carolina in March 2015. We stopped, realizing what we were about to drive right past. Out in a field, uprooted, chopped down and left there what, to be fed into a chipper or buried like Misrach's corpses? What a waste. Sad, really.

Grown to be sold to be a centerpiece in a family's homage to Jesus Christ's birth on December 25th? Or, depending on your point of view, to be cut, bought, brought inside, covered in plastic lights, draped with fake snow and tinsel with gifts from Walmart strewn around its base to be ripped open by children in a feeding frenzy on Christmas morning. Hard sometimes not to be cynical.

I'd like to bend this work and the idea of life cut short into a piece about how our contemporary times ruin everything. How we live in a disposable society and throw what we don't want away. But it's just isn't true. This particular carnage of some evergreens in North Carolina isn't about "now" and the cheapness of things in 2015. For it is universal, isn't it? There is nothing particularly timely about these pictures. We've been ruining things since mankind started.

At any rate, I wrote this pessimistic view last week when it was rainy and cold and New England was relentlessly hanging on to winter. By Saturday the sun had broken out, the temperature was higher and I spent all day at the Griffin Museum mentoring photographers and looking at some very fine work that affirmed my point of view that there is good in humanity after all. 

It didn't hurt that I had beer and a burger that night with Frances and Paula from the Griffin. We told stories and laughed and life was good again.

Topics: Commentary,Color,Digital,Southeast,New Work

Permalink | Posted April 13, 2015

The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill

Near Harrodsburg, Kentucky there is a place that is so special and so wonderful you don't want to miss it. It is the largest of the Shaker Villages and is called Pleasant Hill. It also is an inn and a restaurant where you can sleep in a room in a Shaker building and eat simple and well prepared dishes in the Shaker tradition. That's exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago. I stayed and photographed late the afternoon I arrived, ate dinner there, then got up early the next morning, photographed, then had breakfast and headed on my way back home.

I've been to this incredible place many times over the years and first photographed there in black and white with a view camera in the early 90's. But my relationship with the Shakers goes back much farther than that. I was a student at Darrow School in New Lebanon, NY for my 4 years of high school in the 60's. Darrow is a boarding school on the site of the first Shaker Village in the US. I lived in Shaker buildings and played sports on fields that had been farmed by the Shakers. On Wednesday afternoons I practiced "Hands to Work and Hearts to God" as the student body maintained the school's grounds and buildings. I believe much of my aesthetic was formed there during those years. 

Photographing at Pleasant Hill for me has the feeling of being at a retreat or a respite from the frenetic, commercial and hassled life outside the village. Being at any Shaker site feeds my soul and brings me peace. Situated in thousands of acres of rolling farmland, the Village is true to its Shaker origin.

Shaker building interiors are just as special and pure. As the Shakers did not believe in procreation, they always kept the sexes separated so common rooms had to have two stairs and entrances. This led to some unique and beautiful symmetries.

But perhaps the crowning glory of this Village is the spiral staircases in the main building that now houses the dining room.

These two staircases that run up to the third floor are justifiably famous. They exist as a carpenter's tour de force of simplicity, purity, symmetry and design.

Should you wish to go it's best to make a reservation: Shaker Village at Pleasant HillIt is best to stay at the inn.

Topics: Shaker,Pleasant Hill

Permalink | Posted April 5, 2015