Topic: Commentary (150 posts) Page 1 of 30

Big Change

This is a blog post about the big change that has taken place in photography. After now a long career as a photographer and a photography educator I can now say that craft matters very little and that the age of making beautiful photographic prints is over.

Let's go back a few years, to students studying film-based photography at the university level. Craft was king then, as it was hard to learn to shoot film, to know how to adjust various settings on the camera, to make pictures that conveyed things beautifully. Hell, even after learning to load film in the tank and develop, it took weeks to learn how to make a good black and white print, often a whole semester. Good craft was the foundation of making pictures that looked good, conveyed intent, communicated a certain emphasis or point of view that was expressive and intelligent. All gone now, of course. The advancement of technology has eliminated all that. A good analogy is learning to drive a car. This is a skill, learned over time with the necessary training and discipline to become good at it. Same with photography, or used to be. Autonomous cars are coming and you'll no longer need skill behind the wheel to get someplace.  With photography to some extent we are already in an age of autonomous photography, for the devices are really doing just fine on their own, making well-exposed files of pictures that practically print themselves at very high quality. Look at the sheer quality of smartphone photos today. Great skills at the helm of the computer, the conduit to the inkjet printer, are no longer required. The process has become so highly automated that a great intellect combined with years of experience is no longer needed. The people who are truly great printers have been obsolesced by great advances in automatic everything. Of course, there are lapses in all this. People still do make terrible prints. Through some brain fart or no knowledge whatsoever really terrible photographs are made every day. But with a modicum of knowledge, great prints are easy and can be practically assumed. 

It's tough to be obsolesced.

This makes looking back to a Stieglitz, or a Weston or even an early color street photograph from the early 70s by Joel Meyerwitz look like they were making a bloody miracle. And they were. Spend some time with some original Adams or Weston prints and they will blow you away, as for them to be making prints of that high a quality in the time they were making them was unbelievable.

Now, shoot RAW, let the camera make the focus and exposure settings, load the file into Lightroom, adjust it with sliders to your liking, export it as a TIFF, send it off to be printed or print it yourself and what have you got?  A well exposed and excellent print.

Did I at times rely upon my technical skills in analog days to outweigh anything else? 


 Many of us did that. Point an 8 x 10 camera at something inane and inconsequential, develop the film and make the print with consummate skill, frame it beautifully and show it with the presumption that it is hugely important. Great significance and weight based on the device that made the picture, often nothing else. Paul Krot, a teacher of mine at RISD and the inventor of Sprint Chemistry, once said to me that anything was fantastic if shot with an 8 x 10 camera and its true. The format seduced me for 25years.

Now, I am shooting with a 61 MP mirrorless camera that handheld can do very well when compared to the 8 x 10, maybe even better. Making a big print 40 or 50 inches across is easy these days, you just need a big printer.

All of those technical concerns, the skill of printing and handling the materials knowledgeably, being practiced and respectful of what could be done are now, for the most part, over. 

When working with analog materials my objective was always to make the perfect print; the widest tonal range, the best sharpness, the deepest blacks and the most luminous highlights that I could. Remember Ansel Adam's adage that the "negative was the composition but the print was the performance"? This took great skill, years of experience and yes, often some luck to succeed. It was very difficult to do. Now, these things are easy, almost assumed. Those very values and high standards are often lost on those younger, brought up in a digital era. This is partly progress but also makes me a little sad too. The idea, now, of spending a whole day in the darkroom going through many sheets of paper to make one consummate print seems laughable. 

To quote Kurt Vonnegut once again, 

"and so it goes."

(All images reproduced here are ©Neal Rantoul and are from 8 x 10 negatives and transparencies and may not be reproduced without specific permission by the photographer.)

Topics: Commentary,8 x 10,black and white and color

Permalink | Posted October 20, 2019


Last month I juried a photography competition. Since I know many of you submit to these I thought I would share with you how it works.

The one I judged was an "open call" meaning simply that there was no theme or  definition, you could submit anything you wanted. The structure was set up through the Cafe system:

This allowed me to see each submitted image as a jpeg on screen, along with an artist statement and the size of the photograph. The use of Cafe is ubiquitous across the industry. This is important as you will be lumped together with everyone else's submission in each competition with no way for your photographs to stand out, be regarded individually or regarded as something special in any way. It matters little whether you make platinum prints, print on the best of water color papers, or emboss your photographs so they have actual depth. The Cafe system democratizes all submissions, universalizing all applications into one thing and one thing only: the image. Work in large format, make prints of excrutiating quality 5 feet across? It doesn't matter. Gold-tone your analog prints with a proprietary formula that adds spacial depth and a haunting hue to your prints? It doesn't matter.

As a judge, I got fatigued and sloppy after a long session looking at hundreds submissions. It became difficult to value each one, to regard it separately from others, to respect the artist's intent, to judge on its own merits, to avoid categorizing it as another portrait, landscape, collage, night picture, wildlife, etc. I found I needed to take a break, go do something else and come back to the task fresh. It would be easy just to blow off the job, pick images randomly and disregard any effort to determine a hierarchy of photographs, from superior to inferior.

In the past, I have judged many photography competitions, but always in an actual space or a gallery with framed prints unwrapped and leaning up against the wall or sitting on tables. This allowed me to position them, to basically curate a show with photographs I'd chosen.

Looking at real prints allows a judge to see the quality of the image, to evaluate the artists' craft. With the Cafe system that is effectively gone. Grainy, unintentionally blurry, streaked or camera shaken, poorly printed, oversaturated or over sharpened? It would be difficult to tell using Cafe. 

Let me make this statement so I am not misunderstood. It is clear there is a need for judging to be streamlined but the Cafe system (or any other that reduces your work down to a jpeg file) is terrible. To take a process whose very core is individuality and universalize it is just plain wrong. You aren't making your art to become anonymous, are you? The expressive medium of photography reduced  to just a jpeg representation on a display is a travesty. This is art, being boiled down and  smoothed over by digital means to 72 dpi on your screen. This is no way to determine the inherent quality of photographs.

As an applicant I understand your predicament, either conform to the system or do not submit. Photography has become very big, hundreds or thousands of applicants, many competitions to submit to and prestigious judges reviewing your work. The Cafe system is a poor substitute for actual eyes viewing your prints. This makes portfolio reviews stand out as being far better.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 11, 2019

Harry Callahan 2

I am struck these days, as I age, how little history people know or care about.

In my own field of photography as an art this is often born out by how important someone's work was while they were alive and how insignificant it seems now that they are gone.

Isn't history how we learn from past mistakes? Isn't history to see what precedents there have been?

A couple of years ago I posted a story about the photographer Harry Callahan who'd been a teacher of mine in graduate school.

     Harry and Eleanor Callahan, Atlanta, Georgia

This is another story about Harry.

Harry was invited to Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1995 by Carl Mastandrea of the Boston Photo Collaborative to give a presentation on his work. I was on the island for part of that summer and had a show of island landscapes at the MV Museum up at the same time. The day for his talk arrived and as the afternoon faded into evening the sky was darkening, a storm approaching. It was hot and humid, the air lifeless. As the crowd arrived at the Chilmark Community Center where Harry was to talk, the sky had turned very black and we could hear thunder in the distance.

Harry began his talk, standing up front at a lectern, speaking into a microphone.The house was packed with the overflow standing in back, kids crossed legged on the floor in front, Harry talking about his work in the darkened room, slides thrown up on a big screen. Crack! Came the thunder, the wind picking up as the storm approached. Harry continued, now his voice was competing with branches thrashing outside. The windows were open, the wind blowing things around, the audience was getting concerned and edgy while Harry continued. All of sudden lightning stuck the building, the power went out- Bam! - and Harry was standing there in the dark hall, the lightning having arced up the microphone cable and right to where Harry was standing. For an instant the crowd was in shock, immobile in surprise. Was Harry hit by lightining? Was he all right? For several  minutes the power was out, the battery powered emergency lights were on and people were fussing over Harry to see if he was okay, the room bathed in a dim glow. Harry was standing there seemingly all right but very quiet, appearing to be wrestling with what just happened.  A few minutes later the power went back on but, as the microphone was toast, people were asked to come forward to be able to hear Harry speak. The whole dynamic of the presentation changed then, Harry loosened up and the crowd was now experiencing something warmer and more intimate, as though in a conversation between friends rather than in a formal lecture. 

Harry and Eleanor flew to New York the following day to visit with Eleanor's sister.  Harry had a massive stroke a few days later in NY that knocked him back  and that he never fully recovered from.

Harry was in his eighties that summer and we never did know if he'd been struck by lightning or not. I always felt there was a connection between the lightning storm that night in Martha's Vineyard and Harry's stroke, but I never knew for sure. 

Harry was a very big ideal in 1995, his work shown and collected universally all over the world. He had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier and was the US representative to the Venice Biennali as well. He had major shows at the National Gallery in DC, MOMA in New York and on and on. 

Time holds still for no one and Harry's work is now seen in the light of present times. Few seem to go back to look, to learn from him. It's a shame.

Topics: Northeast,Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 1, 2019

Does It Matter?

Heading out of town a couple of weeks ago on another shooting trip this time to Maine I picked up one of these, the new Sony A7R MK IV that I ordered a couple of months ago. Thank you, Hunt Photo.

I know, you either don't know the significance of this or don't care but please, bear with me. This is a unique camera, which will most likely not be a general purpose, do everything kind of camera. 

Some will buy it because they want the most up to date, buzz-worthy camera, as a sort of fashion accessory, to impress. Others will use it to make pictures.

Shoot your kids soccer game, take it on vacation, use it to take pictures of the stationary rower you bought years ago that you're now selling on Craigs List? Not so much. Although it will do all this and more, this camera, at 61 mp, is a huge overkill for much of what photography is needed for. With a new sensor that sits in the camera the same size as one frame of 35mm film (about 1 inch x 1.5 inches), this thing is recording so much sheer information it is staggering.

Looking at its file, it opens in Photoshop looking like this:

At 300 pixels/inch this makes a 344 MB file that is 31 inches! Put another way this would mean a 50 inch print would come in at 190 PPI. Great, right?

Hold on, though. How often do you want to be making such a huge print? And what if you just want to make a print, say 14 inches or so? Again, way too much file than is needed. This becomes an issue when you start thinking about storing these huge files.

More is better, right? Not necessarily.

Now that I've had the camera for a bit and walked around Rockland, Rockport and up on top of Mt Battie with it I can conclude a few things. This is a more mature and refined camera than its predecessor the MK lll. It feels solid and substantial, its bigger grip aiding in holding it comfortably. Buttons and settings have been reworked slightly, the shutter, although not instantaneous, is fast and very solid feeling. But, and it is a big one, as this file is now so very large, hand holding the camera sharp becomes a challenge. I set my shutter at 250/sec and 500/sec and still got unsharp images. Holding it out at arms length and looking at the back screen and then tripping the shutter is asking for trouble as this just isn't stable enough. I suspect many users will find themselves using a tripod more often with the mk IV.

Something else: As we're getting up there in the rarified range of medium and large format cameras, the quality of the lenses we're using becomes increasingly important. Think that kit f4 zoom lens is good enough? Probably not. 

My whole career has been spent on a pursuit of high quality. Early on, I rejected much of 35 mm photography as I couldn't resolve the issue of grain and lack of sharpness. Most of my work in analog photography was with 120 mm cameras or 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 inch sheet film. I wanted to be able to make larger prints of high quality. This was true in the earlier days of working digitally too, as I made many changes to larger sensors as they become available: Nikon D3 to D3x, to 800E to D810 to D850. About 4 years ago I dove into the Sony mirrorless cameras first  with the A7R MK ll, then the lll and now the lV.

Let me post a few pictures made with the camera:

Let me add that you wouldn't see any perceivable differences here on line between this camera and most others. The file is too small and the reproduction is too little. The difference between this Sony and cameras with fewer megapixels would only be apparent when making larger prints.

and his wristwatch at 4:1

Impressive, yes?

Let me conclude with this: make pictures with a digital camera that has a smaller sensor and you limit the size prints you can make.  Make pictures with a digital camera with a large sensor and you have the ability to make big prints. The downside is that you need more computing power, more and larger storage, from the cards in the camera to the hard drives in your computer as well as the  RAIDs you use as back up. 

The Sony A7R MK lV

Topics: Camera,Commentary

Permalink | Posted September 30, 2019

Photo Education

William Henry Fox Talbot circa 1846

I am a career photo educator. Before retiring from my position as a full professor and head of a photography program I had taught photography for 41 years. Does that qualify me to write about the state of photographic education? At least it allows me to weigh in.

First, let me define where I taught. My first teaching was with Harry Callahan at the RI School of Design while I was a first-year graduate student. My 2nd year in the MFA program I taught at the Providence Country Day School in 1972/73. From there I moved on to teach at Northshore Community College, New England School of Photography, Harvard University (for 13 years) and Northeastern University (for 30) where I initiated and headed the Photography Program. I continue teaching today at various workshops and have been a regular at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina for several years.

Why all this history? Hopefully to validate the following: single track photo programs and photo departments at the university level are dead or dying. Photography is no longer legitimate as a single-discipline academic pursuit. Photography Departments in large universities? No longer does photography stand out as a beacon of new cutting-edge anything. With present day cameras making video, with our smart phones doing the same, still photography looks positively prosaic in the context of social media and a broad array of ways to disseminate imagery.

Locally, last year's demise of Mt Ida College killed an active and vibrant photography program that was working hard to teach a curriculum of professional practice. But even more telling is the news that the New England School of Photography has been struggling to survive, laying off faculty and suffering under low enrollment. In fact, NESOP will close as of Aprill 2020.

Were I still heading the program at Northeastern I could not effectively argue for funding for new faculty or increased resources to a dean or a provost for just photography. I would have to include more multi-disciplinary, broad-based visual and artistic disciplines in my request.

Why is all this? Why are photography departments and programs that were formed in the 60's and 70's facing such difficult times? Because the demand has changed and is far less. No student coming out of a 4-year school or 2 or 3-year graduate program is going to be well prepared either professionally or artistically having just studied still photography. The idea is practically laughable. Students moving into professional or artistic practice need to be taught a wide-ranging set of skills in still and moving imagery.

The craft has changed too. It used to be an art to make a good print. Now well exposed and well crafted still images are easy, a dime a dozen. Furthermore, take a look at what art photography looks like now. The single photograph, straight and unmanipulated, is rare in a field of imagery that looks more like fantastical paintings, imagery from imagination, dreams, and fantasies. In this respect, in making art, straight photography is practically dead.

Of course, there are programs that are a little different. These are programs that maintain strength in teaching analog photography, are staffed either by aging faculty or those that love the darkroom and silver-based imaging. Fine. This retro, craft-based avoidance of where photography is and is going makes these alternative process programs. But these aren't in any kind of mainstream of photographic education.

One more observation. Although the history of photography is still taught in university-level courses, outside of academia there is less interest in knowing what preceded current practice. In my teaching and interaction with today's photographers, I find far less knowledge or motivation to look at what came in earlier times. I often find younger photographers don't have a clue what was done even twenty or thirty years ago. This can cause someone new to repeat past statements or discoveries.

William Herny Fox Talbot circa 1846

Finally, I have been very very fortunate to have had a career as a teacher at a time when the university-level study of photography was in its heyday. Clearly, it no longer is. Ironic, as more and more still photographs are created every day and yet the study of the medium is in decline.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted September 13, 2019