Topic: Profile (21 posts) Page 1 of 5

Diane Arbus

We all know the work of Diane Arbus, the New York based photographer of  American oddness, the bizarre in the commonplace, the freak in the neighborhood, the misunderstood, ill defined and typed wrong, the disenfranchised, the down and out, the disillusioned, the outsider in all of us. Powerful stuff and hugely influential to me as a young man starting out.

In 1970 Arbus came to RISD where I was a photo major and a senior. She spoke to a group of us, sitting in a classroom on a raised platform, holding up print after print, talking animatedly about her work, the circumstances around which the photographs were made. The boy with the hand grenade in Central Park,  the Nudist family in the Midwest, the Triplets. This was just about when she was having her big show at MOMA, perhaps before but I can't really remember. What turned out to be a blockbuster of a show and an event in that there were lines around the block of people waiting to get in to see it. Her first monograph came out about this time too, the publishing of which rocked photography like nothing before or since. The work was edgy, visceral, deep and true. Arbus seemed to cut through everything to her subjects, some of whom she befriended and revisited many times.

She talked that day about how she didn't at first realize that shooting carefully and knowledgeably was important, and that print quality was crucial. She was close to Lisette Model in earlier years in NYC and Model had convinced her that you couldn't hope to speak with eloquence about anything if your quality was crap. I took that one to the bank. I still have difficulty looking at good ideas presented poorly, no matter what the discipline.

photograph by Stephen Frank taken in the classroom at RISD in 1970.

Her presentation was very animated and hyped up, not through nervousness particularly but I do remember thinking if she was on something, high somehow. 

About a year later she was dead, having killed herself. A life snuffed out was way too early. I wonder if what is known now about depression would have helped her. Very sad.

Seeing her that day, now so long ago, was formative and transforming for me. I don't think I'd really "got it" until then, that this thing I was studying called photography could have real power and weight, show us parts of ourselves and the world we lived in that would extend our experience and knowledge first hand, open a door to something or somewhere completely foreign and incredible.

As soon as I started teaching I used Arbus' work to slap students in the face, to wake them up to the same realization that had happened to me, to shock them out of their complacency. And it worked, not always, of course, but often enough to make it worthwhile. I wanted to imbue students with the concept that they could do anything they chose to.

Diane Arbus: one of the very great photographers of the twentieth century.

Topics: Profile,Commentary

Permalink | Posted March 4, 2016

Todd Walker

Have you heard of or seen the work of the artist Todd Walker? If not, then thank your lucky stars because I am here to bring his work and life to your attention.

Todd Walker was one of those artists that seem able to jump ahead or to see things so differently that they can make the commonplace look exceptional and the exceptional look like from another planet. Progressive? You bet. Ahead of his time? Absolutely. Todd was unique. Todd died in 1998 but he has a website (presumably made by his daughter Melanie, herself an artist) here.

Wikipedia sums him up like this:

Todd Walker (1917 – 13 September 1998) was an American photographer, printmaker and creator of artists' books who is known for his manipulated images and for his use of offset lithography to produce individual prints and limited-edition books of his work.

I met Todd on one of my travels through the Southwest in 1979. He lived in Tucson by then and taught at the University of Arizona with Harold Jones. Previously he'd taught for many years with Jerry Uelsmann in Florida.  At any rate, Todd was simply a wonderful person, complex and brilliant, working with the darkroom technique called "solarization" in earlier years and then moving on to lithography and making his art with his own offset press, then with early versions of Apple computers and writing his own programs rather than using Photoshop. 

Todd started out as a commercial photographer and was very successful in carrying such clients as General Motors. He used to like to tell the story of closing up shop, locking up the studio and getting out of the professional world to be an artist. 

In 1984 I decided I wanted to show Todd's work at Northeastern University, where I  taught. I was the curator of photography shows at the school in their gallery. I flew out to Tucson in August to choose work for the following November's exhibition and stayed with Todd. Tucson's heat in the summer is an experience. We spent several days going through work and mapping out the show. In November the school paid for Todd to fly east for the opening of his show, to give a lecture for the Photographic Resource Center (PRC) and to teach a one day workshop. It was the first time Todd had ever been to Boston.

My friendship with Todd continued. As I was often in Tucson on various projects, I would park a motorhome in his driveway or roll out a sleeping bag to sleep on his back porch trying to escape the heat. We took a day trip in the motorhome; Todd, his much younger girlfriend (I think her name was Becky) and her dog, on a trip east through the desert from Tucson to a place Todd knew of called Cochise Stronghold, a box canyon where the story went that Cochise and his men had holed up at some point. 

It's where I made a picture that would serve as the poster image for a show I had at Northeastern in 1986:

Here are some made by Todd:

Some are pre digital and some using digital tools. Most of these were made on Todd's own press.

This one above is a darkroom image where the print was solarized. Finally, Todd made artist books with his press. 

Todd's long gone now but sorely missed and a big influence on me earlier years. Want to know more about Todd Walker? Start here. Much of his work is held at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson where you can request to see it for research and study purposes. Highly recommended.

I am thankful to Melanie Walker, Todd's daughter, for sharing his art with me and for keeping Todd's work alive. Melanie is a career artist and teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Topics: Profile

Permalink | Posted February 18, 2016

Profile: Christopher Payne

Christopher Payne is a documentary photographer who started out as an architect. His website describes him as, "specializing in the documentation of America's industrial architecture and landscape." 

Chris's work is currently on display at the Clarke Gallery in Lincoln, MA through January (along with 8 x 10 contact prints of nudes on the beach at Martha's Vineyard by Stephen DiRado). Gallery owner Dana Salvo has hung an impressive show of the work of these two first rate contemporary photographers. 

Chris lives in New York and is largely self taught. Working in various architeture firms as a younger man he knew that architectural photographers used large format cameras to correct for convergence and control the perspective on buildings photographed for their clients. He always liked to draw as a student and when traveling so he would sketch what interested him. As time went  on he found, however, that he needed to take snapshots too as the drawings took a long time to make. As time went on, he found himself wishing for better quality from his photographs. Like so many others, photography had begun its seduction and he began to learn to make real photographs of places that interested him.  This led him to his first real project

of subway power substations no longer in use in NYC. He works in the 4 x 5 inch format, shooting film that is then scanned and printed as large inject prints.

Chris has an uncanny ability to sense when a project is timely combined with strong interpersonal skills that help him gain permission to photograph these sites. In the Asylum work shown at Clarke Gallery, he is showing large predominantly color prints of closed state hospitals and asylums from all over the USA. The work is remarkable, lucid and clear, with Chris's respectful and reverential feelings coming through for some very beautiful places, long abandoned and for most of us, unknown. 

This last one is of cremation urns.

In another project of North Border Island in New York Chris gained exclusive access to what he describes as the  unique circumstance of an uninhabited island of ruins in the East River, a "secret in plain sight." Chris uses one project to build a case for obtaining permission to get in to the next. He does not trespass as so many others do, as he works with various bureaucracies, often showing them his books, to build an alliance with those in charge of these mostly abandoned structures.

North Border Island, NY

Lastly, Chris's updated site is very good: and quite deep with clear descriptions of his projects and even a little about how he's moved on. Feeling he didn't want to just photograph abandoned sites, he has been shooting in textile mills and small companies like Steinway. This work includes portraits of workers.

Chris's work? Impressive.

His show? Highly recommended. 

Clarke Gallery, Lincoln, MA... through January

Note: Christopher Payne's book "Asylum" is also available at the gallery.

Topics: Profile

Permalink | Posted January 19, 2015

Ezra Stoller Story

Maybe this is just an old timer's reminiscing but I know why I am thinking about this one as I've being  going to some events that involve architecture, architects and architectural photography in the past few weeks.

Ezra Stoller is universally recognized as the dean of American architectural photography. His effect upon the medium and upon architecture itself cannot be underestimated.

Ezra Stoller Portrait

Ezra Stoller was born in Chicago in 1915, grew up in New York and studied architecture at NYU. As a student, he began photographing buildings, models and sculpture; in 1938, he graduated with a BFA in Industrial Design. In 1940-1941, Stoller worked with the photographer Paul Strand in the Office of Emergency Management; he was drafted in 1942 and was a photographer at the Army Signal Corps Photo Center. After World War II, Stoller continued his career as an architectural photographer and also focused on industrial and scientific commissions. Over the next forty years, he became best known for images of buildings.
Many modern buildings are recognized and remembered by the images Stoller created as he was uniquely able to visualize the formal and spatial aspirations of Modern architecture. During his long career as an architectural photographer, Stoller worked closely with many of the period’s leading architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, Gordon Bunshaft, Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier and Mies van der Rohe, among others. Stoller died in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 2004.

Source: Esto Photographics

A few days ago I went to a wonderful panel discussion at the BSA (Boston Society of Architects) in which Ezra 's daughter Erica showed us some of her father's iconographic photographs from the 1960's and 70's. One of the things that came out of the evening was the sense that, as photography became so crucial for architects to show their designs, and in particular, that Ezra Stoller became known as THE architectural photographer of the time that architects were designing their buildings so that they would look good in an Ezra Stoller photograph! Remarkable. What an oddly powerful position to be in.

At any rate, my story is considerably smaller.

The first couple of years after finishing with an MFA at RISD were difficult. Those years, 1974 and 1975,  I couldn't get work. I was trying to teach photography at the university level and applied for a few jobs but didn't get any. One rejection came particularly hard as I'd interviewed to be the one full time professor in photography at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I'd gotten all the way up to being interviewed by the president of the school and meeting key board members but was too young, too green and didn't get the position.

As I hadn't been getting teaching jobs I thought I might become an architectural photographer. I had some skills as I'd worked with a 4 x 5 view camera for a few years and owned one. But I didn't know what it took to be an architectural photographer. So, naive young man that I was, I called Ezra Stoller. He agreed to meet with me and so I arrived at his firm called ESTO outside of NYC at the agreed upon time and date, thinking that maybe he'd let me assist him. Right away he established who I was and what my qualifications were (or weren't, as it  turned out). He said he hated all "these MFA's" as they were pretentious, superior and too good "to push a broom" or "go out to get coffee". He told me his ideal assistant was some high school kid with a good work ethic and no desire to learn anything at all about photography. Did I think I was too good to push a broom and fetch coffee? Absolutely. Did he cut me down to size? Sure did. I left that interview properly chastened and humbled by the experience. Thanks to Ezra for that.

He showed me around the place. He ran a photography business at ESTO, which employed other photographers besides himself and was a full photo lab, processing film, and making prints for clients as well as the in house photographers.

Towards the end of the time I had with him, he asked, "What's your last name again?" I told him, "Rantoul" and he said "Rantoul Rantoul. Come with me." And we went down the stairs, as the building had been a bank in a previous life and in the basement was the vault. In it was where he kept his archive of negatives and proof prints.  He shuffled through a few files, labeled by year, and found 1946, the year our house in New Canaan, CT was built. He pulled out a print with "Proof" stamped across it that was a black and white photograph of our living room in the house where I grew up. He had photographed the house for a magazine called House Beautiful. He handed me the 8 x 10 print saying I could keep it. I still have that print somewhere. Thanks to Ezra for that too.

I kept up with him over the next few years, calling him occasionally to let him know I was still hungry. He never had anything for me, as an assistant, and to be truthful, within a year or two I was very busy teaching. But I respected his being straight with me as he'd woken me up to the reality of my position; too young, too pretentious and too inexperienced.

A couple of years later he called and said he was shooting a new building at Dartmouth College (Ironic: the same school that had shot me down for a teaching position a few years earlier), and asked if I wanted to drive up for the day. I did and got to watch a real master at work; setting up lighting, working his assistant (and me) hard, for a full day of shooting that were photographs of mostly interiors, balancing outdoor light with indoor florescent and incandescent light sources, being sent out to pick up a take-out lunch with yes, coffee too. Pretentious is never good, whether you're 27 or 67. Finally, thanks Ezra, for a few a lessons that I still practice today.

Topics: Profile,Commentary

Permalink | Posted March 29, 2014

Vindication: Bermuda Portfolio

Pay Back. Revenge. Retribution. Condemnation. How sweet it is…..


Some of my fiercest fought battles were done by outlasting my adversaries. I could not beat Peter Serenyi at Northeastern, chair of the department, not while I was under tenure review. Behind a thin veneer of cordiality was a layer of mutual dislike. Early on I did have some knock-down screaming fights with him but I learned to hold these in check as he was irrational and I wasn't tenured yet. My motto: lay low and wait. He did retire, and when he did my ability to influence decisions towards positive outcomes for the photography program increased dramatically. 

But, on to the story. This one takes place in Boston. In 1982 I had taught one year at Northeastern and was teaching each fall at Harvard. Things were going well. I was married, my daughter was born in December, we were renovating a house and I was planning a big move, which included dismantling two darkrooms: a color one and a black and white one, both with enlargers to handle 4 x 5 film, a Besseler and an Omega. The color darkroom I'd built for my wife so she could print her graduate thesis for MIT. It had a 20 inch color print drier that ran on a dedicated 220 line that could heat the whole apartment, and often did.

A former colleague from NESOP (New England School of Photography) named Steve Rose approached me with an idea to do a portfolio of my pictures. Steve taught photo history at NESOP . We chose a group of  2 1/4 infrared and conventional black and white pictures from Bermuda for the content.  I had made several trips to Bermuda recently and had work from there he and I liked for this project. I made the toned prints, 156 in total on 16 x 20 inch paper using Ilford's Galerie, which adds up to an edition of twelve with one artist proof. He was to do the rest. A special white box was designed and ordered, board was purchased and, on a very tight deadline, I made the prints that spring. It also was a very full summer coming up that year. I was working on a one man show to open in August at the RI School of Design Museum and I had prints in a summer show at Light Gallery in NY. I remember the printing for the portfolio as being brutal. Relentless, boring, monotonous; printing that many of the same image is always tough. They were also difficult prints to make as I was toning with multiple toners in those days. I remember I threw my back out printing that spring.

I delivered the prints to Steve on time, who lived and worked here:

Wait a minute….lived where? There is no there there. Actually, I just made that picture a few days ago and yes they are tearing down the building where Steve Rose lived and where I delivered the prints.

I love that part where the kid says, "wait a minute" in the movie Princess Bride when Peter Falk is reading the story to him. It seems our young hero and his princess bride were kissing and the kid couldn't take it. All of sudden we're back to the kid's bedroom and his grand father is sitting there with the book in his hand. Stops the story right in its tracks.

I think of this picture as doing that, stopping the narrative in mid stride. Steve Rose's building is being torn down in January 2014 right in the center of the frame. If that means I can erase having to think of Steve Rose every time I go by there, then that is fine with me. But, let's get back to our story taking place in 1982. 

Back to then.

As I said, I delivered the prints. Up to that point I thought we were good. Steve assured me all was well, the boxes were in and his crew were all set do the mounting, matting and assembling. A few weeks later I was about to leave for Europe when I got a call from one of Steve's crew that Steve was leaving town, that he wasn't coming back and that I'd better come over right away and get what I could of the portfolio as it all was going to be trashed if I didn't.


I did just that. I went over, got my prints, some of which were mounted and matted, the boxes and some extra board. Steve had gone by then. Calls to him were not returned. I never saw Steve Rose again. Lucky for him as I would've decked him. The guy hightailed it out of town with creditors on his tail. He owed everyone. And had lied to us all. To say nothing of a large project left in a shambles.

Scandal. Intrigue. Shocking Incident. Transgression.

In the small Boston-based community back then of artist photographers, gossip prevailed. What a mess. What happened with Rantoul and Rose? I took off for Europe, relieved to be free of it for a while.  I came back to pull the portfolio together and, over the years, was successful in either donating it to collections or selling it. Two remain and the portfolio is in the permanent collections of the Addison Gallery of American Art and the Stiftung, which is the photography collection at the Museum of Art in Zurich, Switzerland. Plus, I donated a copy to my high school and several are in private collections.

Back to 2014, to Steve's place being felled by the wrecking ball. Finally, the bad taste in my mouth of Mr. Steve Rose is gone, along with the place I delivered those prints to a lifetime ago, 32 years to be exact. Good riddance to the building being reduced to dust and to Steve being long gone.

You might be interested in seeing what all the fuss was about. I will bring the Bermuda Portfolio to you soon.

Topics: portfolio,Profile,Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 23, 2014