As you may know, I photographed firestorm damage in southern and northern California last winter. Now, in July, there are reports of new fires, some in the same region as before. I can't shake it.

I made up this short story. Let me know what you think. Neal's email

Dan thought he was doing better. He'd had that fight with Del last week about trying to be more present and holding up his end, spending more time with them. He knew of the fires and was worried but the day at work had been really something; the merger, the raise, the promotion. He'd picked up Sheila on time that day at school and was rushing home to feed the kids. As he drove up the valley it was quite smoky, the air thick. You could taste it. As he pulled up to the house he could see small flames in the trees on the ridge across the valley 5 miles away. That didn't look so bad, he thought. He called Del to find she was on her way up the valley too, stuck in traffic, gridlocked. He told the kids to clean up and set the table, start their homework and come down when he called that dinner was ready. He started to fix the meal, washing the broccoli in the kitchen sink and looking out the window thinking what it was he could do with $6k more each month. Oh man, that boat he saw at the show. Setting the rice boiling, and getting a beer, he turned back to the sink and glanced up and out to see something very different. As in a daze, he looked out at a raging maelstrom of fire coming right towards him from above, flashing down the hillside, the fire fanned by the high winds, flames blown horizontal. He woke up, left the water running in the sink and took the stairs three at a time yelling, "Get out, now, get out, we have to get out now!" "But Dad, I'm right in the middle of...." Kenny said. "Get out now, right now, no, leave it... out!!!!" And they're all tumbling scrambling down the stairs and out the front door, Lucy barking like she was possessed and into the truck and out the driveway and down the hill, it seeming like the fire was right on them as it was everywhere, thick smoke and the heat! Dan looked over his shoulder as they sped away to see his house fully engulfed in flames. They got down to the valley and Dan pulled over. They tumbled out, all three kids yelling at him, two crying as it began to dawn on them, their lives as they'd known them were over.  Everything was gone. There were hugs too for they realized they were lucky to be alive.

Dan realized he had nowhere to go as he dialed Del to tell her their house was gone.

Topics: Color,Digital,Aerial

Permalink | Posted July 9, 2018

A Thousand Crossings

Went to the press preview last night at the Peabody Essex Museum(PEM)in Salem, MA with photographer friend John Rizzo to see the Sally Mann show that opens this weekend and is up through September 23.

Curator Sara Kennel took about 25 of us through each section of this large exhibition, defining and explaining Mann's motivation, inspiration, impetus and the final result. Sara was instrumental in orchestrating the show to come to PEM and shared her mastery of Mann's oeuvre with us. I am so very thankful for the invitation.

This is a major show, with superb examples of many of Mann's series since 1981. Incidentally, though this is a traveling show, it is not going to New York. After PEM it heads to the Getty in LA, then the MFA in Houston, to Paris in  2019 and ends at the High Museum in Atlanta in 2020.

Although Sally Mann has used other formats, the 8 x 10 camera resides at the core of her career. As I worked with the same camera for 25 years I can relate to its sheer difficulty and the beauty of its imagery. Many of the prints in the show are breathtakingly beautiful.

So many shows these days come with large amounts of hype and little substance. Sally Mann is simply enough the real deal. Over now a long career she has confronted life's core issues with eyes wide open, refusing to flinch or change. She is concerned with family, loved ones, racial prejudice, aging and the American South. Through her need to probe deep into our human condition and by looking at all things close to her, she makes the personal relatable on a universal scale.

See this exhibition.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted June 29, 2018

Follow Through

Golf swing, baseball's at-bat or throwing to first base, tennis, almost anything in  sports: I can remember my ski coach in high school yelling at me to "follow through!" in the giant slalom. Well, it's important in making art as well.

After three years of photographing almost daily every morning before class in Spruce Pine, NC while teaching at Penland School of Crafts, I approached the subject this year with genuine doubt that I could contribute anything new. When you've grown to know an area it is harder to eke out new material. But I went most mornings, sometimes with a few students, more often on my own.

Of course, the last time I photographed in the town it was 2014. That's a lifetime in digital photography and I was working a few weeks ago with a present-day camera which upped my game. Back then it was the Nikon D800E, a breakthrough camera with some serious problems. It had a tendency to vibrate, making pictures that were blurry. 

What did I find? This was work this time, the pictures not coming so easily, the fluidity of being in a groove harder to come by. I did make some discoveries, however, and learned that I didn't know this small town as much as I thought I did. I learned that I could speak in very subtle tonalities and colors, conveying huge amounts of information, that less can be more and that it isn't always necessary to scream your point. I learned to let the pictures speak, working to impose less upon them, as most good photography doesn't need to feed the photographer so much. Although working mostly with the same focal length lens as before, I worked to utilize its attributes better rather than to minimize its shortcomings. And finally, this was photographs made under no pressure, as there is no one beating down my door to see this work, no show I am working towards, no one, in fact, knows what I did. Very freeing, this. 

If left to your own devices and mindset, free from outside influence, what is your art like? Mine becomes quieter, as I am no longer looking for the "star" image, no longer thinking that I am a career professional with a reputation to maintain. I can be a student of the medium again. This is really it, the reason we do this, photograph so obsessively, looking looking looking. Let the picture come out, let the content drive the agenda instead of imposing yourself upon it. Become that kid in you, become that person seeing these things for the first time, wondering at what is displayed in front of your camera. 

This is what I discovered in Spruce Pine, North Carolina in the end of May and early June, 2018:

Want to see more? These, of course, are just the introduction. Want to see all the Spruce Pine work? Want to see actual prints?

Easy. Email me: Neal's Email.

Topics: Color,Digital,Southeast

Permalink | Posted June 24, 2018

Then and Now

In the summer of 1989, while on Martha's Vineyard, I made a photograph of what we always called "Keith's Farm", along Middle Road in Chilmark. That photograph would be used to make this poster:

for the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF) for their 20th year anniversary. I made it using the 8 x 10 inch camera and cropped it (rare for me) to fit a panoramic format. Michael McPherson (of Corey McPherson and Nash Design) was the designer and we used a local printer and applied a slightly yellow varnish overcoat to give the image its somewhat warm look. I donated my photograph and Michael charged a basement rate for his design. This was a time in my career when I was working to help various non profits promote their causes visually by offering my services pro bono. 

While on the Vineyard I drive by this same field daily as it is less than a mile from the family home. I always think of the circumstances under which I made the poster image and thought I would share them with you. 

In the summer of 1989 my friend Rob Gooblar and his partner Gail Hill were renting Ozzie Fischer's cottage down at Beetlebung Corner. The evening I made the poster photograph we were having a cookout on the beach at Squibnocket with a group of friends. I had proposed to VOLF earlier in the year that perhaps they could improve the effectiveness of their message by using pictures of mine of the island. They countered with an offer to allow me on their managed properties to make pictures. By the time I made the poster image that evening I knew what they wanted and Keith's Farm was part of their charge, to help the family position some new houses with site lines that would not obstruct the view to the South Shore coastline.

What prevailed that summer was this: my father had fallen while walking down stairs in May in Providence,  hitting his head. He was in critical care and in a coma in a hospital on the mainland. My family and I were frequent visitors, going over for the day to see him and then returning to the island. My mother was a confused and disoriented mess. She had been married to my dad for 49 years and was completely out of sorts, making odd decisions and finally renting an apartment in Providence to be close by but then when visiting him only staying for a few minutes.  The whole summer was like being in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the second shoe to drop. My dad died that fall.

I drove by the field the other day at dawn, remembering that odd summer infused with impending tragedy, the ending of my Dad's life, a long life well lived. I think about a place where we have some history, where a drive down a familiar road can resonate, where there has been so much change and so much has stayed the same. I stopped. Pulled out the tripod, put the camera on it and framed the farm pond much as I did 29 years ago when I was 42. Before 9/11, before Obama, before Trump.


Topics: Martha's Vineyard,Digital

Permalink | Posted June 23, 2018

Back at Penland

I am back at Penland School of Crafts near Spruce Pine in North Carolina. I am co teaching with Christopher Benfey for the second time. We are teaching a class called Word/Image where we hope for students to become better writers and photographers and to integrate words with their photographs. This tends to break down to photographers working to write better and writers working to photograph better. 

If you don't know of Penland I think of it as about the best place imaginable to study the arts. Take a look at the site: here.

Our class is two weeks and tends to go 24/7 in that there are lectures, presentations, and field trips. At the end there is a show and tell where all the workshops get to show what they've made. This is an immersive experience for all of us and takes some adaptation to give yourself over to it. The rest of your world tends to fade away as days are long and the work is hard. Instructors are often working on projects of their own during the time they are teaching and since Chris and I are here teaching the class together we plan on collaborating on a project together. Last time I worked on becoming a better writer and plan to do that this time as well. Like photography, writing benefits from writing more. Hopefully you readers are the beneficiaries. 


I am concluding this piece here a couple of weeks later. I am on Martha's Vineyard with friends and family, photographing and enjoying a most beautiful place in mid June.

The Penland experience was intense for us all and both Chris and I felt the workshop did go well. During the second week we spent three sessions looking at work of mine, the three years of work I have done of the small town of Spruce Pine. Chris and I set it up that we would have a conversation between the two of us, but then invited students to join us in looking over the work.  We started with 2012, the first year I taught at Penland. I get up early, corral a few students, we drive to Spruce Pine, get coffee at "DT's" and then get to work for an hour before heading back up to the school for breakfast at 8:15 before class starts at 9.

Every day.

Rain or shine and sometimes with no students as this can get monotonous. For about an hour we looked at the work from that first year, talked about principles used, theory applied and my practice. Students would join in around the table. The prints are 22 x 17 and made probably with the Nikon D800E as I don't think the D810 was available yet.The D800E was not my favorite camera but there is no doubt it made an excellent file, particularly hand held.Not up to current standards, but this was six years ago, after all.

At any rate, Chris's perspective on it and his broad experience reviewing art contextualized my work very well and his growing sophistication in photography itself allowed us to set the bar high. I've never been in a better place looking at my work than those three days of looking at my Spruce Pine pictures. Thanks to Chris, but also to students Donna, Greg, Sara, Richard, Bob, Jan, Karen, Sadie, Carol, Luke, and of course, Mercedes, our studio assistant, who is simply the best.

Thinking of taking a class? Take a look at Penland, a most wonderful place: here

Topics: Penland

Permalink | Posted June 15, 2018