Washed Out

This one is to introduce the new group of pictures on the site called Washed Out (here). And to explain my rationale.

Can wrong be right, can ugly be beautiful, can accuracy be exchanged for interpretation? Something hovering around the question of attempted objectivity versus the purely subjective. 

These washed out and somewhat pink landscapes of the mountains behind Malibu, California are this photographer's effort to describe what it feels like to be driving through the canyons on a midday in midweek, with the sun at full force, no wind, the ground cover bleached out, the soil dusty and like chalk; a somewhat apocalyptic view of a place no doubt influenced by my aerially photographing wildfire damage a few days earlier up the coast in Ventura.

These are, of course, the Santa Monica Mountains.

In initially rendering these in normal colors and tonality I was struck by how they conveyed nothing of the intensity of the light and the dryness. 

I was thinking of how our eyes react when faced with going from someplace dark into a landscape blindingly bright. How the colors are bleached out and monochromatic.

But think about this for a moment. Think about how photography has changed, how its use as an art form has been so drastically redefined in recent years. How the investigation into how it sees and we see has been pushed to new boundaries. Somehow, although I still make them, the straight landscape is over, done to death and how, if the drive must be to see things new, there is nothing new. How the prevailing discipline would need to be an interpretation of surroundings, a molding of the combination of the mediums' use and the content serving the photographer's wishes. This then leads me to the photographer's intention.

One train of thought would appear that we are no longer, in higher levels of art, allowed to leave that up to the viewer to work out. That it would be necessary to drive the outcome more specifically. Hence "Washed Out".

The last point, imagine I made these into a small book, with about 25 pages of images all in this same bleached out tonality. Sit down with a glass of that nice merlot you found in Italy last year, comfortable in your favorite recliner, to look through these pictures, to study them. How fulfilling and rewarding an experience would that be? Would you become invested in the subtlety and nuance of the different images? Feel there is a rhythm, a narrative?  Doubtful. But you might believe that you are looking at a concept, a conceptual rendering, a deliberate distortion of the actual into something made for looking then thinking about what you saw to understand intention. This does get perilously close to a personal politic, doesn't it? For the quality has been sucked out of these images, denied the very basis for our determination of what is a good photograph. Of course, we see this all the time, either by ignorance or by deliberation. 

Is this simply devil's advocacy? Placing these pictures in a place of contrary perspective? This is for you to decide, for I am simply the maker. You are the determiner.

Washed Out:

Comments always welcome: nrantoul@comcast.net

Topics: Color,Digital,Northwest

Permalink | Posted April 23, 2018

A Photo Scandal

I am writing this at a time when the news recently broke about the photographer Nick Nixon's early retirement from his professorship at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in early March, amid accusations of "inappropriate behavior". An investigation is underway.

I am going to weigh in here as my teaching career at the college level spans over 40 years teaching photography, just like Nixon's did.

Anyone with a long teaching career such as Nick's, whose time was spent teaching photography at undergraduate and graduate levels, has to ask  "was I ever inappropriate in the classroom, am I getting too close to my students, am I misinterpreting their praise for me, did I behave well, is my behavior beyond reproach?". Once I was a tenured professor (1988) this was really one of the only ways I could be fired, inappropriate activity with a student. I know I was acutely aware that anything at all off could put my career in jeopardy. For instance, I had a rule, that when students came to my office for advising, if my door had been closed, it stayed open while we met. I would tell new teachers this same rule when I hired them. Are there students who are manipulative and use sex as a way to get someplace in their studies? Yes. Negotiating this potential minefield is part of the responsibility inherent in teaching, I believe.

Of course, I am disturbed by accusations serving as a presumption of guilt in this "me too" time. And yet, imagine being the victim of inappropriate behavior from a professor? My heart goes out to those that were abused, either emotionally or physically.

So, we now have our own "photo scandal", the first in my knowledge in the New England community. (Update: there now seems to be another one, the case of Thomas Roma in NYC, with many accusations of teacher-student sexual contact.) So much pain and misery in so many ways. Was I still a professor teaching art in a college or university I would be on high alert, particularly if I was a man. Time to think over your curriculum, what you say and don't say in class, your behavior on campus and off, your attitude towards women. And remembering who the adult in the room is meant to be.

When being in a school and a longtime teacher, when a leader in the discipline in your university, where you are highly respected by peers and students alike it is somehow easy to see how this could migrate to a sense of power and autonomy that could promote an  "I can do anything I want" syndrome. 

Finally, what remains an issue is what will happen to Nixon's career as an artist. (Another update: the ICA in Boston announced first that it would keep Nixon's large somewhat retrospective show up through its run to April 22, then changed that and took it down four days early, at Nixon's request.) Will he still be showing, collected and held in high levels of esteem as a contemporary master of photography? Will the value of his work stay the same, dip lower or perhaps even go higher? Does this recent scandal condemn him? Remains to be seen. Time will tell.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 19, 2018


Pinnacles National Park is in Paicines, California, about 1 1/2 hours south of San Jose.

I just finished making prints of the park as I was there in February. These are just the tip of the iceberg and I hope to go back next winter. As it is a national park it is good to go with a pass, if you have one, as it costs $25 to get in otherwise. Also, try to go during the week when it isn't so crowded. This is a very popular park.

I focused mostly on the trails. I'd just come from several hours of photographing a series called "On the Way to Pinnacles" so was beat by the time I got there. I hiked up a trail maybe a couple of miles, photographing along the way and then came back down. 

Note: I  hand held the Sony A7R MK III while at Pinnacles, which turned out to be a mistake. I have learned this camera is a sort of hybrid, in that it is small and capable of tremendous results but that it is all too easy to screw up sharpness. Follow this twisted logic of mine, proven to be wrong. Small camera means you can use it like a point and shoot, popping frames off without much regard to settings, particularly shutter speed. I've learned that this does not work well. This is because it makes a huge file and therefore deserves great respect. I would most definitely shoot these next time with the camera on a tripod. I blew about 40% of my pictures at Pinnacles that day.

Pinnacles is just a jumble of rocks but on a very large scale. It is a fascinating place and reminds me of constructions I would make in the field behind our house in Connecticut as a kid where I grew up. In those I dug in the dirt, making ramps and roads for my trucks and loaders, moving earth and rocks. 

Pinnacles National Park, California. Highly Recommended.

Topics: Color,New Work,Digital,Northwest

Permalink | Posted April 16, 2018

Wildfire: Before and After

I've been showing pictures and writing about the effects of wildfire damage in California for a while now. I photographed the area of Santa Rosa in February 2018 after it had been heavily hit by wildfires two months earlier. 

Early on with this project, I realized I had something of a unique perspective for a non-local in that I had rented a cottage for about a month on a ridge in the hills above Santa Rosa in the winter of 2014.

So, yes, these have turned into a "before and after" project of one small area, what I photographed when living there and what it looks like now.

Let me preface that this was an exceptionally beautiful place, a small two BR cottage on a ridge with a valley to the east and a valley to the west. Often I'd wake up to something like this:

with early morning fog that would burn off by 8 am or so.

Looking west across the valley the cottage was situated right on the ridge:

with some really wonderful oak trees nearby.  These were irresistible:

Let me see if I can paint this picture. Often after returning from long days photographing and long drives (I was heavily immersed in the Tafoni pictures on the coast and Skate Park pictures that winter) I would kick back on the deck with a beer and the camera next to me on a tripod and just click off a frame or two as the sun went down. This was a paradise.

I even had the owner's dog, Din, as a companion at the place that winter:

In late February, from the air, this same property looked like this:

with the owner's house on the left and where I stayed in the cottage on on the right.

From the ground:

What do those same oaks look like now?

Evidently when the fire came through wind was so fierce the flames often scorched the trees but didn't kill them. You can see that in this last photograph. The hill behind the tree is darkened and some trees are stripped of foliage but not all of them.

Let me leave you with this as a symbol of the destruction: the property owner's fully restored VW Beetle:

Owners and dog all are well. They rode out the fire that night in an apartment down the valley in town.

Topics: Color,Digital,Northwest

Permalink | Posted April 11, 2018


Greetings. I have just loaded the final and edited images from the Mannequin shoot I did in Oakland, CA  in February 2018. 

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

Take a look: here

Topics: New Work,Digital,West

Permalink | Posted March 30, 2018