Topic: Digital (158 posts) Page 1 of 32

Photography's Hard

Photography's easy, right? Your phone makes great pictures. You don't really need a real camera anymore.

But photography's really hard if you want to use it knowledgeably, substantively, if you want to make art, if you want to extend it beyond the everyday concerns we all have to record our lives and share them with others. It is particularly difficult now that photographs are universal, infused into our lives in every aspect, filling every nook and cranny of our existence with their presence. Photography is now ubiquitous. 

When I studied photography in the early 70's, photography as a means of creative expression was fairly new and certainly not universally understood. That meant that innovation was relatively easy. There was much to explore. Double expose, turn pictures upside down,  superimpose, juxtapose, blur and scratch an emulsion, etc. Making statements that hadn't been made before wasn't so hard.

But if you want to make art with your camera now. If you want to avoid the insignificant, trite, banal, done-to-death and cliche, it is harder.  If you want to innovate, make things never seen before, to rock the world with imagery that is breathtaking, aggressive, beautiful, and extraordinary.

Well, you're screwed, my friends, for photography as an art has somehow become something else, well over the era of being a new and exciting form of expression. Take landscape: impeccable and exquisite pictures of faraway lands glorified with the perfect time of day, the perfect light and the perfect resolution? Irrelevant and done to death. Why would a beautiful image shot in the mountains of, say, New Zealand have any possible relevance in today's world except in a "National Geographic" kind of way? When a "Google Images" search produces literally hundreds of the same kinds of pictures as yours, or worse, better than yours.

Let me remind you that these examples, obtained through a Google Images search, are usually anonymous, free for the taking. The only possible reason I can see for this kind of photography is to "put one in your quiver", to take the photograph yourself, to make a photograph that is right up there with the competition, to call it your own, to bask in the accomplishment that you went there, captured that with your camera, had the print made or made the print yourself, framed it or had it framed and hung it over your mantle in your living room for your family and friends to see with predictable oohs and aahs.

But art? I don't think so. Something else entirely. 

I know this might provoke some controversy around the definition of "art" for art is used in all kinds of contexts, most of them making art more pedestrian. I also know I have opened the door to push back for there are many who believe

(Source: Google Images)

there is a place in art for this kind of photography. And no doubt, there are some very beautiful images being made in this way. But art? More like elegant description, enhanced documentation or interpretation.

So photography is hard because this is is simply not enough, to record our surroundings with fidelity. Yes, there's a place for this but real art, art that says something, that propels us forward, that does not confine itself to convention, that becomes significant historically, that is far more difficult and daunting and entails a higher level of responsibility.

The big mistake, of course, is this: assuming, because you like it and are proud of it, your friends and family like it and have urged you to enter the contest, to meet with the gallery director, the book editor, the museum curator, that these professionals will be impressed and moved to purchase your work, show it, publish it. But, from their point of view, please, tell me, what are they to do with your pictures? 

In earlier times, perhaps as a holdover from the era of Edward Curtis and William Jackson that showed us the frontier of the American West in the late 1800s for the first time, you could get away with impressing this way. But not now, not when these below are right there for the taking:

Endless blue-sky landscapes, glorifications of existing places, postcard-perfect, idealized and beautifully rendered. Is that what you aspire to? Or do you want to go deeper, share your unique take on the world, use what is in front of your camera to comment, display and render with heart and intellect, to use photography's amazing abilities to convey with relevance, timeliness, and perspective? 

What do you think? What do you want to say? What do you believe? 

What's key here is this: it is all too easy to make pictures that are generic, cookie-cutter photographs that simply meet the norm, the contemporary conventional. Our job as artists is to go farther, to push our medium into forms of expression that extend ours and our audiences' understanding of this medium we choose and to signify our unique place in the world.

Cabela's, Nebraska, 2005

back cover American Series, Cody Wyoming, photographs by Neal Rantoul 2005

cut Xmas trees, Spruce Pine, NC

Museum of Health and Medicine, Bethesda, MD

Paradise, CA 11/2019

More reading: This article references my work circa 2011 and hits on some of the same themes:

MV Arts and Ideas

Topics: Commentary,Digital

Permalink | Posted December 14, 2019

Valley Trees

I returned last week from my second trip to Northern California to photograph the effects of the Camp Fire in Paradise.

As I start to make prints from the shoot I realize I was seeking to connect with the place in a slightly different manner than before. Partly documentation and partly an artist's response, the work reads more personal and selective.

An example is these, called Paradise Valley Trees:

This career artist doesn't always know why he's doing things. That sounds bizarre I know, but it is true. I discover things from the pictures I make. Yes, I made some conscious decisions here: convert the camera to 1:1, make the files in post into black and whites. So, I was working towards higher specificity in these pictures.

But there needs to be chance, discovery, unpredictability, accident, surprise, intuition in our work. It isn't all intellect and control.

These trees, serving as symbols for so much more, standing guard, doomed to be cut down and heading for the chipper, scarred and charred, killed by wind and fire on November 8, 2018.

Prints are 12 x 12 inches. I suggest seeing them in person: Neal's email

Topics: Black and White,Digital,West,New Work

Permalink | Posted November 25, 2019

Home From Paradise

I arrived home a few days ago. I spent a week photographing in Paradise, CA,  one year after the Camp Fire leveled the town on November 8, 2018.

The town is struggling to come back. Most of the demolition is finished, debris carted away, dead trees hauled off to the chipper. Some residents live in trailers on their property, waiting for utilities to be turned on, some are rebuilding and some will never return.

What's next for the images I made? Unlike most photographers these days, I will edit the files and make prints of the photographs, for this is how I work and have worked throughout my career. This will take a few weeks and will end in a portfolio of prints.

For my readers that are photographers,  this trip was something of an experiment. I took only the Sony A7R MK IV with me. Every photo trip for the past 20 years or so has been with some model of Nikon. Why the change? Large file size with a smaller, lighter, and more responsive camera. With a 61 mp file, this is an unusual tool but it is proving to be really something when everything is dialed in correctly. I had a few glitches, misunderstandings and wrong settings, but I now know more about how to work with the camera and believe this can be a clear step up in image quality. Sony from now on? I haven't decided yet but I am leaning that way. 

Next up? One more blog on photographs I made of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County,  the last two days I was in California. This was a fire that burned 77,000 acres in late October 2019.

Stay tuned. 

Or subscribe.

Topics: West,Digital,Color

Permalink | Posted November 23, 2019

Paradise Graffiti

The last day I was in Paradise I took a new route down to the valley and in to Chico where I was staying. It was a mostly one lane road that wound down a canyon out of town. 

Of course, much of it was scarred by the fire.

About halfway down, the road widened out to two lanes and the pavement  smoothed out, perhaps due to a repair after a landslide. But it was no longer black macadam as it was covered with an orgy of spray painted graffiti, with tire tracks on top from cars peeling out, a place where teenagers hung out, expressing all kinds of pent up anger, frustration, joy, love and artistic ability too.

Very odd, this pavement canvas halfway down a canyon. Fantastic, really.

I get it. I know, graffiti destroys property but I find the sheer energy and exuberance of it very powerful. Also, it can be very beautiful.

After spending an hour or so photographing I realized that much of the whole road, several miles of it, served as a surface for taggers and graffiti artists.

Which then led me to this, with the disclaimer that I have no idea if any of it is true: 

They meet at the spot on the canyon road on Saturday night late after the big game which they won 14-7. Beer and cheap wine, cigarettes, vapes and weed, going steady, hooking up or trying to, singles, spray paint, loud hip hop, headlights, peeling out and loud exhausts, convertibles, pickups and clapped out beaters. Youth, their place and their time, seeming like forever but ephemeral and fleeting, compounded and warped by the disorientation of the fire that November day in 2018, one of those they will never forget and that will define their lives until they die.

As I concluded my second trip to photograph in Paradise, California I learned many things; that the effects of the fire run deep, that lives were changed forever, that the scars from those few crazed hours in November 2018 will be carried by the people of the town the rest of their lives. 85 people were killed that day but Paradise will take years, decades really, to regain anything of a semblance of what it was before the fire. The possibility of another fire will hang over them as well.

Topics: West,Color,Digital

Permalink | Posted November 19, 2019

Return to Paradise 2

So, I've been at it a few days, photographing the remains of a whole town: Paradise, California.Though I am now here a year after the Camp Fire, the damage is no less impressive for there is so much, the extent of the fire so massive, that I still find it difficult to comprehend.

I drove farther east the other day, up through Paradise to the small town of Magalia, closer to where the fire started. Here the fire was spotty, some areas untouched just as some are a total disaster.

Trees are a powerful indicator of what that day in November 2018 must have been like. 50 mph winds pushing the fire ahead, throwing embers into the air, flames being fanned at times moving horizontally, trees on fire and singed then blown out as the firestorm moves on.

As I drove farther east up the ridge into the Sierras, the country opened up and became less inhabited.

I used a long lens to reach across the valley so I could describe for you how this fire behaved, its random nature hitting a stand of trees, only to move on and leave large areas untouched.

Getting lunch yesterday at a Taco truck (there are no restaurants open yet in Paradise), I spoke with an older man who lives in Magalia. He and his wife had evacuated east the day of the fire, away from Paradise, as the route down the main street called Ridgeway was blocked and people were gridlocked in their cars not able to get clear. He told me he left that day and wasn't able to get back to his home for six weeks, much of that time having no idea if his home was still standing or not. His home was untouched.

I also spoke with Robert, who lives on his property in town in a trailer as his house no longer exists. The day I spoke with him he was hoping to get electricity as he's been without for the past year. He said he will rebuild as he has nowhere else to go. He was carrying a sidearm and explained that looters have been a problem. 

Most of the empty lots are sprayed with a kind of cover, much like what we see when a construction site is reseeded with grass.

This below from Ridgeway on the way down to Chico.

I've got one more day here in Chico and will spend it finishing up in Paradise, retracing my steps to make sure I've got all I need. Then tomorrow I head to Healdsburg to see what the Sonoma area looks like, the site of the Kincade fire in October.

Stay tuned. Your comments always welcome: here

Topics: West,Digital,Color

Permalink | Posted November 16, 2019