Digital History 2

The other day I wrote a blog about some of my digital history and how a couple of pictures I made served as the very beginning of new programming where I taught at Northeastern and ushered in a new era of study for students.  It is: here.

These are the two pictures that changed everything:

Why publish these now? Because I found the negatives yesterday in my studio.

The top one is as I shot it, the bottom one is with the trashcans digitally removed using the cloning tool in Photoshop. You can see on the left side of the  bottom image "Kodak Premier"-that was the 8 x 10 LVT Film Recorder. Date 5/14/92.

Topics: Digital History

Permalink | Posted September 28, 2016

Digital History

As most of my readers know my teaching career was primarily at Northeastern University for thirty years in Boston with 13 years at Harvard University that overlapped with NU during the 80's.

I had been hired by Northeastern in 1981 to head up a new program in photography. By 1990 I was a tenured associate professor and was successful in helping to design and oversee construction of all new facilities in a renovated building. We were teaching as many as 5 intro photo sections per semester with 25 students in each class every semester year around. Even then the classes were wait listed with as many as 150 students trying to get in.

Photography at Northeastern was on a roll.

In the early 90's I wrote a grant application to take an intro to digital photo class in Camden, Maine at the just built Kodak Center for Creative Photography. The class, I believe, used Photoshop 1. I remember being shown how to use a mouse. It was early days. I  learned that the Center had an 8 x 10 film recorder in a special cool room that also had a hi-end Howtech drum scanner. This was for "special projects" only. I definitely wanted hands on these machines. I wanted to use the 8 x 10 LVT (Light Value Technology) recorder in the worst way. Although this was very early digital days scanning was a fairly mature technology.  

Back at Northeastern I made my case to my dean that I needed to do more research in Camden. He funded me and I began 1 1/2 years of going back and forth to learn more, to take classes and to get hands on with the 8 x10 LVT. Eventually I was awarded the status of using whatever I wanted and to be there whenever I wanted, sit in on any classes and, in the end, had a one person show of my photographs in the Center's gallery. The Kodak Center was built to research, use and develop software and hardware for the coming digital photo revolution.

Why so hungry for that one piece of equipment, the LVT? The only way I was going to be able to make a high quality print from a digital file was to scan existing negatives on the drum scanner, work those files in Photoshop and then write that file with the LVT back onto another sheet of unexposed film to be able to take it back to my darkroom to develop it, and then print it conventionally from that negative in my darkroom using an enlarger, trays and chemistry. In those days there were no inkjet printers.

That's just what I did.  I wasn't thinking of applying digital technology so much to my own work yet. That came later. But I was very interested in it for the program I ran and for my students. 

Back in Maine at the Center I scanned an 8 x 10 negative of an alleyway I'd shot in Cambridge, worked on the digital file with a computer to remove some trashcans with the clone tool, wrote the new image back onto an unexposed sheet of 8 x 10 black and white film using the LVT and developed the negative back in Boston in my darkroom.

I made a print of both the original negative with the trashcans in the frame and also the new negative with the trashcans removed. I tried to make the two prints as identical as I could.

I then went to see the same dean who had funded me to be up in Maine in the first place. I brought the two prints.

I remember this very clearly. His name was Jim Stellar and he was a young, savvy  and aggressive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and he had been a psychology professor before becoming an administrator. We sat on either side of a coffee table, he on a small sofa and me in a chair across from him. After initial pleasantries, I placed the two prints side by side on the coffee table saying, "see if you can find the difference between these two photographs". He looked at both for a second, looked back up at me as though he didn't get why there were two prints of the same thing, and then looked at the prints more closely, going from one to the other, back and forth. Finally, a light bulb went off in his head and he said, "the trashcans!"

Remember, this was very early times in the world of digital. I explained to him just what I'd done, so easy to do now and yet so difficult in those early days. He was dumbstruck but got the importance of this one example right away. For him it became his tactic to take the idea of beginning to teach, support digital photography and computer based programming at Northeastern to the school's provost, president and board of trustees for funding. These two photographs became a symbol of the creation of new labs, equipment and a curriculum in a broad array of disciplines that became the major in Multimedia Studies a few years later. New faculty, additional support staff, continuing allocations for updating, software and yes, not an 8 x 10 LVT, but our own 4 x 5 LVT.

This framed image with the two photos side by side still hangs in the Multimedia lab in Ryder Hall at Northeastern today. It's a little hard to see but if you look closely you can tell that the image on the left has no trashcans along the side of the left building, the one on the right does. 

No way could I lay claim to sole credit for all this. Getting the University to first understand and then move on this whole new and large scale project took years and scores of dedicated people to plan, initiate, lobby for and succeed in obtaining what was needed but yes, it all started here with these two prints.

You can draw your own conclusions but the takeaway from this is what I would say to my students: act on your ambitions, innovation doesn't come easily as there is always resistance to the new. Be persistent. Patience helps. Confidence too. Don't take no for an answer. But if you know you're right, hang in there. 

Topics: teaching,Digital,Northeastern

Permalink | Posted September 27, 2016


This past Monday I returned home from a few weeks at Martha's Vineyard (new work to follow soon). On the day before I left I met up with friend and colleague David Welch for a demonstration flight of his drone.

We met out in Katama, a beach along the South Shore; no trees, flat land and close to the beach. In the back of David's wagon was a large hard case that held the drone, extra batteries, chargers and the controller. In about a minute David pulled the drone out of the case and placed it on the ground, hooked up his phone to the controller, turned everything on and the drone revved up and took off.

Off the drone went with David at the controls. We quickly lost sight of it but he could see where it was by what its camera was showing through the app on his phone . At this point he had it hovering over the beach. It was very windy that day so the machine was having a hard time staying in one place. He brought it back with the two joysticks on the controller and then handed the controller to me, telling me which each one did. 

I got to fly a drone! I quickly learned this was easy. Don't touch anything and the drone hovers. Push the  joystick left or right and and it leans over a little and goes that way. Push the other joystick up and the drone goes straight up and so on, all the while the camera is stabilized and moves on its gimbal to say steady. To an aerial photographer all this is a little overwhelming.  To be able to put the camera platform just where you want it is wonderful. Hovering's amazing! My photographing from a plane going at 100 mph is very hit or miss. Downsides to the  drone? Lots. 12 mp camera on the drone verses 36 with a Nikon in a plane. A fixed focal length lens verses a 70-200 mm zoom. Flying time of about 20 minutes. Very limited range. Want to shoot a couple of miles over there? You have to pack it up go over there and then launch the drone again. Then there's FAA rules and licensing. Lots of restrictions too including height limits. Add in the cost of the drone and learning how it all works.

A plane? Usually about $250 an hour and you are dealing with the elements as you can see from this back seat photo by my friend Lynn. The window to my left hinges up and stays open during the flight.

photograph courtesy: © Lynn Christophers

But I thoroughly enjoyed flying the drone, feet firmly on the ground. Of course, there's risk flying in a small plane. David uses his for commercial assignments including real estate and also weddings. He has a video series on Facebook that is the drone hovering stationary above the beach on the Vineyard with the waves coming in and then going out that is sublime.

His Drone? A DJI Phantom 3 Advanced. 

David Welch Photography:here.

Thanks David!

Topics: Aerials

Permalink | Posted September 23, 2016

Representational Photography

For the sake of this essay by representational I mean photographs that are made of the real world and that represent a place or things relatively realistically. For example much landscape photography is representational. Like so:

Utah 2010 ©Neal Rantoul

As photography overall has matured and grown the subcategory of artistic expression in the medium has grown as well. There are simply far more areas being explored by artist photographers than ever before. In fact many more artists outside of photography use it for their art as well. Representational photographers constitute a part of a broad array of expressions and aesthetics, intents and purposes.

To this photographer the representational work that is in the most trouble, be it in exhibition, publishing, or on line is landscape photography. Sweeping generalizations are always dangerous but curators and gallery directors can have difficulty with pictures of things that look like what was in front of the photographer when the picture was taken.This kind of photography often is seen as being passé. Landscape photography is frequently the least appreciated and is often seen as irrelevant, as one of photography's oldest forms. This is the world Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Edward Curtis and countless others inhabited. To many their huge significance in the history of photography is seen only important in relation to when their pictures were made and the clear precedent they established. But now? Done, over, past it and simply insignificant in the current world; so say many present day curators, gallerists and critics.

Iceland  2013 ©Neal Rantoul

Let's flush this out. 

One scenario could be: 

Not that this is only a guy thing but our subject, call him Lou, retires early at 55. His kids have left the nest, he's got the wherewithal and a hobby in photography under practiced for years but now has the time to learn more about making pictures. Just like he did in his very successful business, he attacks the medium. He takes courses, studies hard, learns the lingo, applies himself and takes workshops and photo safaris and treks and green photo trips all over the world. In actuality he photographs a great deal of what he's never seen before. He's up before dawn, signing up for all the extras: the hike to the edge of the volcano, the glacier calving, the lion kill on the Ockevanga Delta, the moonlight adventure, down close in with the penguins. He is attentive at the National Geographic lectures, applies what he's learned when shown the best "photo spot" by the digital photo guru he's studying with in Wherever. He's passionate about this new thing in his life, buying some of the best cameras and lenses. He soon realizes he needs more computer power, a bigger display and a printer too. After more courses and workshops, now understanding calibration, ICC profiles, color gamut, D-Max, pigment inks, paper substrates, baryta, paper weights and even metamerism he is getting prints that look stunning to him.

Iceland 2013  Neal Rantoul

Armed with his newfound knowledge and prowess Lou starts to show portfolios of prints to friends, to past colleagues and boldly goes into galleries to ask them to look at his work as well. "Rejection" is not in his vocabulary. Little does he know. While mostly he is rebuked, told to make an appointment, given the "we're not looking at work right now" line, he's persistent and breaks through to show his work to a few. Within this smaller group he mostly fails but finds one or two that are encouraging.

Let me be clear: Lou isn't making art, not really. He may not know that, feel he can play in the big time with his new found passion, hell, he may even make a    photograph that transcends the genre of travel photography occasionally. But art? Not so much. Also, this is a contextual thing, isn't it? One incredible phrase in a bad book, one wonderful musical passage in a symphony mixed in with a whole lot of terrible tends to get lost.

The mistake Lou makes is attributable to the degree of passion he now feels for this new thing he does. He loves his photographs so assumes others will want to see his work too, love it too, and buy it. Not necessarily. Certainly in the big leagues of A-list museums and top galleries, he will be occasionally disrespected, condescended to and refused entry in no uncertain terms.  

Lou's not going to feel good about the way he's being treated but many of his friends will get it. Lou's new big thing, they'll think. They may also think that the reception he's getting is mostly deserved as he's going up against the major players, the career artists who've lived it, learned it, been supported by it and conversed in it their whole adult lives. I understand Lou's desire to be with the major players but good equipment, some training, some emulation, even good prints does not necessarily make an artist.

When asked by students why I would photograph something  so boring, plain, ordinary, something on the side of the highway, a field, a building, a street, I would  answer with another question: "If you'd photographed with passion, persistence, made really an enormous amount of pictures over a long career, worked hard, thought practically only about making pictures for decades, would you shoot what you are shooting now? Wouldn't you have moved through that to things a little more subtle, deeper, creative and challenging?

Part of all this, of course, comes from the changes that photography itself has been experiencing. Ubiquitous comes to mind. Universal too. Massive improvements in quality and also ease of use. Improved smart phone cameras are playing a part here and photographs from them will only increase.

Mt Tamalpais, CA 2014© Neal Rantoul

So, why have I included some of my own pictures here? Because I make representational pictures too.  When presented with the sublime landscape, the light that slides along the valley in the mountains, the sun breaking free I can't resist either. I am a photographer who has good equipment and a good skill set so I can make good pictures there. But I  seldom show this work as it sits outside my efforts as an an artist, for the most part. I would never say that those pictures are art.  Look, most of us love photography for many reasons, not just to make pretty travel pictures or our art for that matter. I make snapshots at family gatherings and use a camera to keep a record of important events in my life, just as you do. But it makes sense to understand the difference between much of representational photography and what I would would call true artistic expression. It is one of the reasons we refer to the photographs we make as our "work." It is because we've labored hard and long to get to this point in our careers and worked hard on our art.

Topics: Representational

Permalink | Posted September 18, 2016

The Americans by Car

No, this isn't a story about a road trip through the US.

The Americans by Car is a new book of photographs by Karl Baden.

When Karl makes pictures he has a way of homing in on something and doing it for a long time. For instance he has made a picture of his face every day for thirty years. I think he has been making photographs behind the wheel of his car for a long time as well. Karl is a Boston-based photographer of long standing and teaches at Boston College.

This small book with few words relies on that amazing ability some photographers have to make pictures before thought and consciousness interrupts to ruin things. This is instinctual work and, I would assume, hugely quantitative to get just a few that work. Baden is also a sequencer in that a given picture will set you up for the next, let you out in one and pull you back in for another.

Of course, the title refers to Robert Frank's seminal look at the USA made in the 50's called "The Americans". Karl pays frequent homage, using American flags liberally, just as Frank did. Also, this review comes at a fitting time as Nathan Lyons died last week at 86 years old. Lyons was one of the founders of the Society for Photographic Education (SPE), the founder of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY and the author of several books, the most significant to me, named "Notations in Passing" which is perhaps the foundation for the way that Karl works in his own book "American  by Car". Lyons and Frank were both engaged in being out in the world, on the street, inside a bar of cafe. 

Baden's working structure is quite different, however, just as the time is different and the country hugely different. He is always in his car, frequently we see the window frame acting as a frame within the frame. We also often see his rear view mirror pushing us back behind where we are looking, almost as though we are looking over our shoulder at another time, another perspective. 

I particularly like the off handed and informal approach, as though the picture gets made so quickly design and composition take second tier.

Of course, those photographs by Lyons and Frank were in black and white and Karl's efforts here are in color. I can't imagine The Americans by Car being anything but made in color as the photographs make distinctions, analogies and comparisons that rely on color to be effective. 

Karl Baden's work here lies firmly in the tradition of street photography but relies on his unique perspective, and the protection it affords, of being made from in his car.

Friend and colleague Elin Spring also reviewed the book: here.

The book is a superb look at our county in the current times.

The book is for sale from Karl at: 

and costs $42. 

Highly recommended.

Topics: Books,Color,Review

Permalink | Posted September 5, 2016