Topic: Commentary (187 posts) Page 1 of 38

RISD Portfolio

Starting in about 1966, the RI School of Design Photography Department held a competition each spring for students to be in the annual photography portfolio. The student group that pulled this off was the Photographic Education Society (no relation to the much larger national organization of the same name).

If accepted you had to make 150 copies of your image and mount them on the provided board. Of course, we all wanted to have our work in the portfolio. I was fortunate to have work of mine accepted in 1972.

Brian Pelletier

One of the benefits was that in the portfolio were photographs by both Aaron Siskind (by 1972) and Harry Callahan,  two of our high profile teachers. If accepted you got one copy of the portfolio. I think they sold for $150 each. This got you 25 prints from different undergraduate and graduate students plus several photo faculty.

I was looking over the three (1967,1972, and 1975) that I have and almost all the imagery is in black and white and most of the photographs are predominately straightforward. The printing style in those days was heavier, contrasty with deep blacks and bright whites. This was 30 years or so before digital took hold, and color was taught in one class as an elective. Printing color was slow, hot, unhealthy, expensive, and few bothered. "Art" photography was a black and white medium then and color was for reportage and perhaps advertising (think Life Magazine).

At any rate, looking at the prints from these portfolios gives us a glimpse of an earlier era. Photography as a form of creative expression looks, at least to this artist, like it was still evolving, contained primarily within straight imagery and straight prints. In those days making a good print was an accomplishment. A medium still exploring our world, with a camera in hand or on a tripod, the photographer going out to make discoveries and imagery mostly found or come across by chance. Studio, constructed, assembled, blended, configured, set up? Not so much. Our job in those days seemed to be to make art where we found it. 

Harry Callahan

Teaching: I would walk into class with a black 11x 14-inch portfolio box under my arm. I would ask the students to sit in a circle. I would then hand each student a mounted print from the portfolio. Once they each had one I would ask them to study it, as I was going to ask them to talk about it as if they had made it themselves. An intro student talking about a Callahan or a Jim Dow or a Linda Connor with no idea who those photographers were. After each had a chance to speak, some getting into the role-playing and some not as much, I brought them into a few of the photographers' works they talked about. This exercise was a real eye-opener for some students and I used the tactic for many years.

Jim Dow

Ed Sievers

Finally: for those of you that read the blog that are researchers, historians,  and curators who want to see more, you can find copies of all the portfolios that were made in the RISD library in Providence. If I can be of any help please contact me directly: here

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 22, 2022

Martin Parr at Boston College

I saw the superb show of the work of the British photographer Martin Parr this past week at Boston College's McMullen Museum and recommend it highly. Fellow photographer and teacher at Boston College Karl Baden has brought us a large sample of Parr's photographs made over his career. Cleanly and with excellent text that contextualizes the work, we go from the late 70s up through 2005 or so and are shown specific projects along the way, from early days with small analog black and white prints up through medium format large color inkjet prints. We are taken on a journey of Parr's interests, including many pictures from Ireland, unflinching and in-your face-pictures of demonstrations, family get-togethers, people on the street, a visit by the Pope, and photos of monuments and famous tourist destinations made with a wry sense of humor.

Excuse the hyperbole but I found the work in the show to be a confirmation of photography itself. Parr's pictures affirm that, although it may feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, there is good in the world, for his spin is mostly positive.  That things aren't perhaps as bad as they seem. 

Parr's role as acute observer takes great discipline and this show presents us with work that speaks to his efficiency and wonderful ability to find things that hold our interest in unexceptional circumstances. For Parr, pictures are everywhere. 

Parr is a commentator on our human condition, with a decidedly British take. 

Take a practiced and perceptive photographer, put him/her in front of places of interest peopled with a broad cross-section of humanity,  add in some wit, irony, a strong sense of design and a fine color sensibility and you might have Martin Parr, clearly one the very best working today. I only wish the show gave us more current work, for what is there seems to stop about 2005.

Many photo shows these days leave me angry and frustrated, feeling that photography has lost its way, missed its inherent capabilities and attributes while being taken up by artists that bend it, mold it to make imagery that I don't have a clue about, personal and political pieces that I don't relate to. But there is wonderful work to see. So far this year I have seen this and the Frank Armstrong show at Fitchburg Art that confirm that photographs are being made that are superb.

Thank you to both Frank Amstrong and Martin Parr and the curators that brought them to us. 

More info?

through June 5

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted May 16, 2022

Life Changing

Not the first photograph. Certainly not the last. From 1972. But the first photograph that really changed my sense of the weight and power a photograph of mine could have. What something became as a photograph. How a physical thing was transformed into something else that had presence. 

Made in my second year of grad school and working on my thesis, which was from junkyards. 

I believe that was the first photograph I'd made that was transformative. Just a hood ornament on an old rusted-out wreck sitting year after year in a junkyard in East Greenwich, RI. Not so important, right? Not something newsworthy or of a major event but for me, earth-shaking. I felt its weight, its personal importance as a sort of canary in a coal mine, sitting there as a test perhaps, begging me to understand that because of this one print, my world had changed. That the bar had been raised and my understanding of my relationship to the medium of photography was now more firmly defined than before. I knew my place better or maybe had found my career with this one photograph. To a young student who had never found much purpose in my life, this was big.

The print? The original sits now in my studio at perhaps 7 inches square and is mounted and matted to 11 x 14 inches. It is signed and dated as: "1972". Of course, you'd never know it was special unless you read about it here or it came up over a beer.

Over my career, I've been asked, "What is your favorite photograph you've made?" What a simply preposterous question. But if forced to answer this one above would be on the list.

Do you have one like mine? A photograph that pointed the way for you or shook your world? When did you make it and under what circumstances? Do you have it out or where it can be seen? Does the memory of making it come flooding back when you see it? Does your family know it and do your loved ones know how important it is to you?

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 22, 2022

New This Spring

Hoping you will sign up. Please share with your friends and colleagues.

For immediate release:

Photographer Neal Rantoul to hold one-on-one portfolio reviews this spring in Acton.

Widely known career photographer and artist Neal Rantoul will be conducting one-on-one in-person portfolio reviews and project consultations at his new studio this spring in Acton, MA.

Want feedback on a new body of work? Have an idea but not sure where to start? Looking for granting or funding? Working on a book that needs editing? Believe you have work that is strong but need help finding your audience? Need feedback on a series or help with sequencing?

Join Neal for a discussion of these and any other photography-related issues.

Neal Rantoul is a career artist and teacher with over 40 years of experience looking at work and advising on its quality, efficacy, and ability to connect with others. Neal is retired as head of the Photography Program for thirty years at Northeastern University and taught at Harvard University for thirteen years as well. With numerous national and international exhibits to his credit over his career, Rantoul continues an active schedule of making new work and bringing past works to wider recognition.

Since retiring ten years ago, he has taught workshops, given lectures, published books, exhibited his work, and held one-on-one sessions with photographers.

Schedule and costs: Initial one-on-one sessions of 1 to 1½ hours with Neal are $100 with subsequent meetings at $150/hour. Generally, meetings are held over the workweek during normal business hours at his studio in Acton. While understanding that some are reticent to meet in person due to Covid-19, Neal is fully vaccinated and boosted, and all safety protocols will be observed.

Neal writes “I believe I can help photographers reach their objectives and that I can respond to their need for clarification on their work. Very often photographers don’t know what the response to their work is. This is often because too few have seen it, or their audience is less than candid. With so many years looking at work I can provide a clear-headed response in a supportive and positive manner while helping with logistical and aesthetic considerations. Got that big project sitting in prints under the bed, unseen and unknown? Or have an idea but are not sure how to proceed? I believe I can help you.”

If you have questions or to schedule:

Call Maru at (978) 496-4901 or email her at:

Neal Rantoul Photography

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 24, 2022

Waiting 2

In Waiting I described the saga of being all set to go on a long trip only to have my car break down the night before I was to leave.

In Waiting 2 we continue and conclude the story.

Finally, the dealer called saying the car was all set. I called a cab, loaded all my gear in for the trip, and hoofed it to the dealer across the river. It was -9 degrees outside. 

I paid up and loaded everything in the car. Driving out of the garage the temperature went from warm inside the shop to brutal cold. I watched the new paint job on the hood from a few weeks earlier shrink, crack, and peel off as I drove away, leaving bare metal. I didn't hesitate. I headed straight for New Orleans.

914 Porsches were mostly the same as VW Beetles meaning their engines were air-cooled and any heat was provided by heater boxes on either side of the car under the body. What warm air the car made was provided by the exhaust pipes going through the heater boxes, then that air was sent into the cabin by a fan. -9 degrees was way too much for this system so I froze until I got far enough south for the outside temp to be higher. I drove to New Orleans as fast as I could. 

The rest of the trip was uneventful and I had no more disasters.  I met and befriended wonderful people: Fred Sommer, Todd Walker, Ed Ranney, Bill Jenkins, Harold Jones, Ann Tucker. And I made pictures, lots of them:

 I didn't get a teaching job in the Southwest that year or any other year. I ended up heading home after having three memorable days with Fred Sommer in Prescott, AZ at the end of the trip. The next year I'd be offered the job at Northeastern University and taught there for the next thirty years. 

But waiting that early January in 1979 put me through some changes. I can still feel that desperation and panic too. Forced to wait, all control over my own fate taken away by a broken axle. 

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 28, 2022