Magical

Ever feel you were in a place that was somehow magical? That, for whatever reason, things colluded to make where you were something so very special as to be once in a lifetime? I am sure you have.

Orvieto, Italy 2009

Ever happen to be there with a camera? Were you able to capture that special circumstance? Take advantage of this gift? I am sure you have.

Arsenale, Venice, Italy 2007

I know I have. There is the sense of tread lightly here and speak in whispers as this is so incredible you could shatter it in an instant. That feeling of OMG I just have to get this, all I have to do with this camera in my hands is to bear witness to this beauty, this sublime place, this other worldly quality. This is both a powerful concept, to be able to make something truly sublime out of what is in front of you, and humbling for it is such a transient thing, this picture you are making.

Oakesdale Cemetery, Washington 1997

Isn't it this at least part of what we seek? It is often what we are looking for as artists reliant upon the world around us to make our pictures. To find a circumstance, a unique combination of weather, place, light and use of a creative frame of mind that will combine together something perhaps mundane into something truly extraordinary. Very empowering, this. The feeling that it may be put there for you, arranged and choreographed as a display for you to photograph. Odd, yes?

Bermuda 1982

Two things: one, you can't have this "ah ha" moment, this ultimate reward, without being out there with a camera, a lot. You need to be in the world, seeing, looking, being a photo predator, on the "hunt" for pictures. Two, experience should be your guide, your practically instinctual director of future success. This is where your intellect is effectively useless, perhaps for logisitcs only, for it is your intuition, your heart, that will lead you down that path, over that rise, around that corner to find the sublime, the magical.

Vignole, Italy 2006

I am most fortunate to have had this kind of experience numerous times over my career. I can't assume it or take it for granted but I can be thankful when it comes and accept it for the gift it is.  

Topics: Italy,Black and White,Europe,Analog,Digital

Permalink | Posted October 18, 2018

Finding Your Bliss 3

In Finding Your Bliss (here) and Finding Your Bliss 2 (here) I wrote about a Sally Mann photograph and compared it to this image I made in 1976, not in content but in intent.

As I conclude this series let me please pause and thank Sally Mann for starting this extended conversation. Her photograph pushed me to go back in my own work and dredge up the two swans photograph and remember what it meant then and what it means now.

But what happened to my work after I had this big moment, this realization that with my photography I now had a deeper understanding of inherent possibilities, paths, and directions? Did I go back to the family picnic that afternoon and announce my discovery? Did my family and friends have any clue that I had gone deeper and seen farther into my life's work as an artist. Nope, nor did it come out later. This was my discovery, my "ah-ha" moment. I felt somehow that this experience was not relatable or at least that I couldn't share the power of the realization effectively, or, at worst, that they wouldn't care.

I would say that, while I didn't go on to become a "hands or body parts in the picture" photographer I was better informed to the inherent possibilities and depth that my pictures could address, that I was playing to a higher level in my work after that day. In short, by making this personal discovery, the bar had been raised on my own work throughout the rest of my career. 


As an addendum,

let me answer the question you might be asking. Was that infrared photograph of my hands in a picture made of two swans on the edge of a pond in Martha's Vineyard in 1976 something that led me to more "hand's in" pictures? Did I continue or utilize this process in other work as I went through my career? Mostly no, with occasional exceptions. Examples:

These are from my first trip to Iceland in 2013. I was an artist in residence at the Baer Art Centre in Hofsos. The pictures are of The Cape, a locally famous huge piece of rock near where we lived that summer. Same thing, feeling a strong connection, I found my hand(s) sliding into the picture. An affirmation perhaps that I was there and interacting with the air and place in a short slice of time. Not conscious so much as felt or intuited perhaps.

I was not the first person to move my hands or other body parts into the frame of my photographs in 1976. Self portraiture was common and I made some of those too. But was I making a sort of "selfie" back then? I don't believe so, for a selfie connotes a desire to show yourself in a place, in front of  the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal as a proof mechanism that you were there.  Not my interest at all. For mine was to interact with the place, as an immersion into the place.

Let me leave you with the following. As photographers we must deal with the mechanics of our medium (although even that is changing). Also, as someone who makes his own prints I must bring a whole other set of skills to bear. But if well schooled, all of this fades to the far background to allow a skillful and meaningful image to surface. This also allows us to share our feelings and perceptions with others, to point a direction, to observe something amazing or awful or never seen before or even to draw attention to something others walk right by on their way to work. This most incredible tool we have, photography, which has gotten so good in the last few years, is our best observational device ever to look at ourselves and the world we inhabit. And, occasionally but rarely in my work, to interact too.

Mt Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge,MA 1978

This ends the Finding Your Bliss series of posts on my blog. I hope you have enjoyed them. As always feel free to share your comments: here

Topics: Black and White,Analog,Digital,infrared

Permalink | Posted October 5, 2018

Finding Your Bliss 2

If you read the first installment (Finding Your Bliss) to this series of posts you'll know our story is about to arrive at its apex. 

Poucha Pond, Chappaquick, 2017

At the core of my aesthetic as a landscape artist are these two pictures. Some sky, some foreground and some land, often a strip off in the distance. It is what I painted as a spray painter in the late 60's and it sits at the foundation of decades of landscape work as a photographer.

Near Pullman, Washington 1997

While having little understanding of this while standing on the edge of Squibnocket Pond that warm day in late August, 1976, I saw a pair of swans close to the opposite shore. This is not uncommon as the pond is a safe haven for swans to nest and bring up their young. I hung the camera around my neck, set the self timer and proceeded to make a series of exposures with my hands in the picture.

Why? Because I felt connected to the pair of swans way off?  Because of the commonality between all things living?   In this simple act of making pictures in this way I am sure I couldn't have found words to say. This was almost completely a "felt picture", putting a part of me in the frame to affirm my existence, to establish that there I was, to deny distance and objectification, to force the sense that photography can be as much about the maker as the things shown in the frame. Look how small the swans are (remember I was using a 24mm lens) and how large my hands are. Isn't Sally Mann doing the same thing in her picture? Affirming her ability and vitality,

the depth of her feelings for her chosen medium and its expressive character, for its ability to convey raw emotion, perhaps love? I believe so and with my really quite simple and perhaps naive picture made in 1976 the same sensibility pervades as I stretched my arms out and reached out to those swans, waiting for the click of the shutter. I was certainly struck with the contrast of the innate simplicity and beauty of this timeless event of two swans passing by and me standing there, a creature from a different world, tricky and high tech tool hung around my neck, this esoteric film recording the content in the infrared spectrum and producing a glow to my white skin.

It is tempting now so many years later to build more into this picture than it warrants and I am resisting being a sensationalist here, but there is no ignoring that this was clearly a crucial moment I was having that afternoon on the Vineyard. The realization that I had crossed a threshold holds true today.

So, what happened? What did I do after finding my bliss in this moment in 1976?  Well, stay tuned for #3 to find out.

As always, I invite your comments: Neal's email

Topics: Black and White,Analog,infrared

Permalink | Posted October 4, 2018

Finding Your Bliss

Finding Your Bliss? Where's he going this time, you ask. Well, it all started with this:

Sally Mann's iconic photograph of a dead tree in a river.

A few weeks ago, as I was giving a gallery talk at the Peabody Essex Museum, I paused in front of this photograph at the Sally Mann show and realized I could probably go on for hours about it. In fact, I didn't get to talk about the whole show, partly because, I am sure, I was going on about this one so long. The photograph, I believe, speaks to Mann's essence as an artist. Surreal, ethereal, minimal, powerful and deeply felt, it is one of those works that takes your breath away, yet is so very simple.

Can we channel everything we've got, harness all our power as artists and focus it into one piece, one image? Can the stars, the planets align and the powers that be all come together in one sublime result? What a rare thing that would be. Sally Mann seems to have done just that. 

I believe part of the reason that I connected so strongly with this one photograph is that something similar is embedded in my own artistic past, from a discovery I made in 1976. This is because, as I age, I find I am looking back more, stepping off the treadmill that means new work is needed constantly and settling on past discoveries and even a few epiphanies. Let me give you my own example... and, fair warning, this may take a few posts to really get to it for I need to place one photograph I made in the 1970's in context. 

1976. Where was I? 3 years out of grad school, teaching at New England School of Photography in Boston and I would start teaching at Harvard 2 years later. I would exhibit at the Addison Gallery in Andover the next year. There was much I did not know, but I was plunging along at a frantic pace, making new pictures and discoveries. Heady times, for I was living the dream, it would seem: traveling, photographing, printing, showing. Plus, I had started using black and white infrared film and was fully immersed in the weirdness of never knowing quite what things would look like for it sees things we don't.

But to home in our story we have to go to the island of Martha's Vineyard and the summer of 1976. I have always photographed on the island, ever since starting out in photography in 1969. In fact I have new work made from this past summer on the site (Menemsha).

Our story is intertwined with the recent Judge Kavanaugh hearings,  white privilege and entitlement for the photograph of mine I am referencing wouldn't have been possible without privilege and the right pedigree. My parents were members of a club, a beach club on Martha's Vineyard that allowed access to some of the most pristine and gorgeous shoreline on the island known as the Hornblower land in Chilmark and Gay Head (now Aquinnah). Some of this beach was later where Jackie Onassis bought property but in in 1976 it was still held by an extended family of Hornblowers and their relatives. 

Membership to the club, I am sure, was awarded to the privileged few, having the right pedigree and standing to be allowed on the beach.  No clubhouse, nothing at all but a key to a locked gate, allowing you in your 4 wheel drive vehicle access to the winding sand path and up over a ridge right on to the beach itself. To say the sense of entitlement was large would be an understatement. I couldn't go on my own as it was my parents that were members. But that summer of 1976 I did go with them, to picnic, to swim, to walk what seemed like endless miles of south shore beach facing an open ocean with not a house in sight. 

Earlier that summer, the year of the US Bicentennial, I had driven cross country in a motorhome with a friend making pictures. In 9000 miles, we had adventures both small and large, met great people, and photographed so many new places. It was a "grand tour". I remember after that trip I had a sense of being more open and of feeling the world was at my doorstep, beckoning me to plunge in, to fully immerse in all that my life as an artist could be. 

By late August I was at the Vineyard with my my parents at the family home in Chilmark. One gorgeous blue sky day off we went to the "Associates" beach.

The club was called "Squibnocket Associates" and afforded access to what we used to call "Zack's Cliffs". This is the beach that has the biggest dunes on the island. In 1976 I was 30 years old and leaned towards the  Airplane, Joni Mitchell, CSNY, and the Stones, maybe some Dylan in the mix.  Being a photographer by then I would bring my Nikon F with the 24mm lens, a length I loved as it seemed to agree with the way I saw. I shot a lot of black and white infrared film in those days. Use a 3 stop red filter and the film will "see" into the infrared spectrum. Once we settled in at the beach, got the stuff out of the Jeep, maybe went for a swim and had a sandwich, the long hot afternoon would have me wandering off with my camera to explore and take pictures.  I would head back into the dunes behind us because if you went far enough you'd come across Squibnocket Pond. Ah yes, the pond!

Few houses, completely private, I might take off my suit and swim in the warm shallow brackish water.

And photograph.

Finding your Bliss (1) will stop here. Hope you'll come along as we get to the one picture that popped into my head as I was standing in front of Sally Mann's photograph in Salem a few weeks ago.

The dunes behind the Squibnocket Associates beach on Martha's Vineyard

Topics: Martha's Vineyard

Permalink | Posted October 3, 2018

In October

Once again, we will be open for Allston Open Studios, this year it is October 13 and 14 from 12-6 pm both days.  I am now working on framing some new pieces from last summer. We will have portfolios to view, and something to drink and eat. Please come by.


Topics: open studio,Open Studios

Permalink | Posted September 28, 2018