Essays on Photography

What's up? Well, actually quite a bit. There is a new book in the works and about to become available. Long in the making and passing through several iterations of design, editing and proofing, we are very close to releasing: 

Neal Rantoul: Essays on Photography 

Every book you see in the "BOOKS" heading on this site are monographs of my own work. But this new essay book is very different. We have taken key posts from my blog, reworked them, edited them and put them into a 8.5 x 11 inch book that is really elegant and pertinent.

I asked friend and author Christopher Benfey if he would write the introduction. Chris is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and, most recently, the author of Red Brick, Black Mountain,White Clay. Chris writes for the New York Review of Books. He and I taught together last year at Penland in North Carolina.

Blog posts are ephemeral in that their life, for the most part, is short and transitory. But a book lasts, has a physical presence and can be read, pulled down off a shelf, referred to, read again later and used to find a key phrase or a thought that has meaning for you. This new book is just that. 

We worked with what I thought were key posts taken from three years of writing the blog, sent them off to the editor (Debbie Hagan, the editor of Art New England; thank you Debbie!), worked them over again, cut some, added some, sent those off again and so on until we got down to the essential ones that could not be cut. We tried to balance the book with essays on my work that were essential with pieces about photographers that have been important to me over my career, such as Fred Sommer, Harry Callahan and Ezra Stoller. Perhaps it is safe to say that Essays on Photography is one person's creative process, taught by example.

The designer is Andrea Star Greitzer, whom I tend to think of as more a collaborator than simply a designer. Andrea has designed all the on-demand books you see on the "BOOKS" page. Quite simply this new book would not be possible without her considerable skill, foresight, and advice. 

We have worked to make the book accessible, affordable and informative to those of you that aspire to a career in photography as well as those that are already in a career in photography. This book, like most of my others, will be printed on- demand, so you'll need to go to 555 Gallery in Boston or to the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA to purchase it. I will let you know when it is out. It will be soon. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted July 1, 2015


Coming up. New EXHIBITION. September 2015. 555 Gallery. Boston. 

This is big!

What is Monsters? Monsters is new work, never shown before. 

I like to think of this new work as part of a trajectory, perhaps a final chapter or at least a key component of work begun more than ten years ago at the Mutter Museum (Mutter), that then progressed to the Cabela's work, that then included the Reggio Emilia, Italy photographs and that, most recently, includes work from the National Museum of Medicine and Health. Monsters, although different, fits right in with these others.

As someone who has perhaps spent most of his time photographing both rural and urban landscapes it seems I have amassed a significant body of work in this "other" manner of photographing. Funny how that goes. Follow your heart, your inspiration, your instinct and your work too may go off into something you never could have imaged.

The original tangent for me was the Mutter Museum pictures I began on a whim in 2004. I had just been promoted to full professor at Northeastern University where I taught and felt as though I could now do anything I chose, that I was no longer constrained by review and scrutiny. This was very freeing as I'd been in academia and its requirements for a very long time. I'd never photographed in that way before and was mostly an outdoor photographer. There I was, photographing forensic study specimens both large and small with an 8 x 10 inch view camera, inside, in a small space and using hot lights, hanging black paper as a backdrop. Add to all this, that, of course, I couldn't see any results until I got back to the darkroom to process film and make prints days or weeks later. My friend Rob and I made several more trips to the Mutter in the next year or so and eventually, I shot some in color as well as black and white. Four of the color ones were shown at 555 Gallery last fall, in 2014.

Monsters is Halloween masks, wigs on display that use plastic head forms and mannequins. This is work begun in 2013 and completed last year.

Why? Although my imagery is mostly pretty straight I have, throughout my career, worked to extend my own definition of the medium of photography. What could I do with it, how could I make pictures that rearranged my own precept of the medium's capabilities and qualifications? I believe this comes from a career-long desire to understand my own chosen discipline. So, to bring this to these Monster pictures, my effort is to extend my own range but also see into photography's transformative power. By this I simply mean photography's incredible ability to be both more than what you see but to change things it renders.

With these pictures I also believe there is a peculiar and wonderful humanization that takes place. Do we imbue plaster, plastic, latex and foam with human personality through some evolutionary imprinting due to our genetic makeup? 

In order to sort through this and to share the effort with you, we are making a catalogue of the show and I am pleased to report that Alison Nordstrom is writing the introduction. Don't know of her? Alison is the former curator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY and the author of numerous books on photography. I am honored that she is willing to delve into these pictures and share with us her perceptions.

I will blog occasionally about the work as I now leave Martha's Vineyard after two weeks to get to work. I will be printing and framing during July and perhaps into August.

Monsters will be at 555 Gallery in September. 

Don't miss it.

Permalink | Posted June 29, 2015

There's No Place Like Home

(Note: this is "from the vault" in that it is a blog I wrote but never published after returning from a road trip to New Orleans in March.) 

In the classic film the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy recites this phrase over and over again while clicking her ruby red slippers:

"There's no place like home, there's no place like home".

Photograph © by Neal Rantoul from the "Monsters" work soon to be shown at 555 Gallery in Boston.

I don't have any red skippers and even if I did they probably wouldn't get me home again but I am just back now from being on the the road the past 23 days and driving 4596 miles. Funny, I couldn't wait to leave in early March, feeling pent up after the brutal winter we've had, but I couldn't wait to be home again the past few days. I left New Orleans on Saturday and arrived home Wednesday. 

With so many road trips made over the years this one felt both familiar and foreign. Some general observations while driving all those miles:

-Route 81 is a major cross country corridor totally dominated by trucks 

-There are very few interesting cars on the highway these days (note: I was driving in mid March. Might be different in nice weather in mid summer.)

-Just about everyone drives about 80 mph most of the time

-It is very difficult to eat well while doing a road trip. I did best when booked into a motel for the night. I would search on Yelp for what was nearby then head out to eat.

-GPS, hotel-finding and food-finding Apps, and a radar detector seem like necessities these days. I don't understand how I ever did anything while driving without them and paper maps seem positively primitive.

-Booking in advance, usually the night before, but sometimes an hour or so before checking in has its advantages. I tend to use Hotwire a lot as I don't mind not knowing the name of the hotel as I book. I try to stick with 3 stars as a minimum.

- My car takes high test. The lowest on this trip? $2.55/gal.

-I stop and take a quick nap when groggy. That feeling of zoning out at 80 mph is really scary.

-Although the quality of the sound sucks, Sirius radio helped me through endless boring hours. I listen to some music, some comedy and a few right wing political  stations (I enjoy hearing how the other half thinks. Man, they do hate Obama!). On regular FM in the South you can't go wrong with a little religion, the calls to support the "ministry" are the best.

-The United States of America is really big.

Did I make some good photographs? I like to think so. I know I grew as an artist on this trip, always a good sign. But photography is a humbling vocation, at least for me. Often I think I've hit gold only to find I didn't.

Stay tuned or you could even subscribe to the blog as I begin to work the files and make prints. I will be sharing these with you as I work over the next month or so to bring to fruition work made on my March 2015 Road Trip to New Orleans and Back.

Addendum: writing this now in June. I did make some good pictures, including a new portfolio called "Kudzu" that are at 555 Gallery right now. 

Topics: Commentary,Road Trip

Permalink | Posted June 22, 2015

Something New Three

In the last post (Something New Two) I was about to head to Medfield to photograph at the Medfield State Hospital, a long ago abandoned state mental hospital near the town of Medfield, MA. Although in the past I have trespassed to get at places like this, this time it was totally legal as the town allows the public access to these buildings, in fact the whole hospital campus. 

I went. I shot. I conquered (well, not on). It was sunny and the place was wide open with a few strollers, people walking dogs, kids smoking dope, etc. Even a cop, but I am getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got there shadows were getting long and, of course, it was very beautiful.

As I wrote in Something New Two I had a sort of "check list" of things to look at or pursue. So, I did. I shot steps. 

Some with shadow lines, zigzagging through the pictures and some without. I also tried photographing them at an oblique angle

and working with the increasingly dramatic lighting as the day ran down.

Whew! After an hour or so of this, I'd had it with steps so moved on.

and started to work with color.

greens and reds....classic. But also there were other colors there:

this pale blue in the railing that I liked

and then, finally, with a longer lens to compress scale and isolate.

Many pictures, I know. This feels a little like I am eliminating possibilities. Trying approaches so as to learn what doesn't work, or what not to do. I know, some of these are good but I am not a documentarian, and there lies the rub. To use the place as somewhere to go deeper, to link with the past, the richness of its history. Can you imagine? A state mental hospital at the turn of the 20th century? Think shock treatments, frontal lobotomies, restraints and later, the early days of drug therapy with all the ensuing lack of knowledge and understanding that implies. Unspeakable horrors and mistreatment. Mid June may be just too pretty. And, I am now sobered enough by these posted here to begin to think I may not succeed. You know, as you gain experience and have some successes under your belt, you can become complacent, assuming success. Also there is this: through decades of hard work applying craft, intellect and emotion, you have essentially raised the bar on yourself, haven't you? The irony is: raising the bar at the same time that you are physically less able and possibly less astute. Challenging.  It's enough to have you hanging up your spurs never to ride again. Do not fear, I will persevere at this most challenging of places in which to make pictures as I try to go farther, dig deeper and reunite with a past redolent with tragedy and lives lost.

At any rate, the Medfield State Hospital project will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks as I am no longer on the mainland but on Martha's Vineyard. I am doing things like having coffee with friend and wonderful photographer Stephen DiRado:

here telling a story about a former student. 

Oh yes. The cop. I am done shooting, sitting in my car going over what I've done by looking at the files on the screen on the back of my camera. I hear this police siren light up, loud right next to me and a Medfield cop is sitting in his police car right there. I slide down my window and he asks if everything is okay? I say it is, that I had just finished photographing and did I need to leave? He says, no. He says he just wanted to make sure everything was okay with me sitting in the car like that with my head down, not moving. I said thanks and off he went, patrolling the Medfield State Hospital.

Topics: Something New,Something New Two

Permalink | Posted June 20, 2015

Something New Two

So, here we go. I am about to go out on my first real shoot. This post will give you a little of the "before". First off, it is sunny and hot today but I will head out there about 4 and arrive about 5. I liked the way light was beaming on certain things in the first pre-shoot I did out there. So today I am looking for some directional light before the sun starts to go down. If you don't know what I am talking about the story starts here.  I also have some notes, which look like this:

To shoot:


 -Juxtaposition of buildings to buildings

-Vines up against red brick

-No sky long lens all red brick

-Rooftops at 400mm

Sorry to bring this down to such a pragmatic level but the notes help guide me or help me be selective with what I shoot, but also tell me what to  bring and how to start. BTW: Although good to have this "pre-project" mindset it can all change when you get there. 

Here are some of the"note taking pictures" that led me to draw up the list of "to do's".

So, there's a little glimmer here, a little bit of an idea or two forming in my brain. Nothing earth shattering yet, some ideas about shape of print beginning to work their way through as well as limiting sky in some approaches. It is tough as I am fixed to the ground, invariably pointing up, which gets old really fast. We will see what I can do about that. 

Prevailing thoughts as I go out to photograph this afternoon? To not be generic, to be specific and intentional. To link my pictures together, to prescribe a path or at least some relationship from picture to picture. To allow subsets or thematic diversions. And especially when shooting long, to work with where things are and are and are not in focus. The photographer's toolkit. With tools being used selectively.

Topics: Something New

Permalink | Posted June 16, 2015