It’s formal title is “Larry McNeil and the Art of the Digital Age. Through the use of a camera phone and social media sites like Facebook, art photographer Larry McNeil explores the art of everyday life as perceived by a contemporary indigenous person. Presenting hundreds of his own snapshots made around Washington, D.C., informed by his unique visual aesthetic, McNeil invites NMAI visitors—in person and virtually—to add their own commentary to his photographs and to upload their own snapshots to his Facebook page.”
I’d like to make this fun and interactive, because the emphasis is having us collectively figuring out what “The art of everyday life” means to you. I’ll be at the Smithsonian National Musuem of the American Indian on Saturday and Sunday October 25th & 26th if you want to show up and get feedback with your smartphone photos. We could play with different ways of making photos and just see what unfolds.
At various times I’ll likely ask you to photograph something thematic and share it on the site(s). I think that this will be fun and maybe even thought provoking, but we’ll see, because this will be a group effort.
On Facebook just look for “Larry McNeil” to participate. Here’s what my page will look like:
Link to Larry’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/larry.mcneil
On Instagram, look for “1_photographic” to participate. Here’s what the page will look like:
Link to Larry’s Instagram page: http://instagram.com/1_photographic
When sharing photos on Instagram, please use the hashtag symbol #, followed by my username 1_photographic. It should look like this: #1_photographic.
If you find yourself in Washingtion DC, please take the time to stop by our exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and see the photography exhibition up titled, “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson!”
Selfies are wildly popular on Facebook, so I decided to make one especially for this project. It’s me at the National Museum of the American Indian in DC, and even cooler, made with a Nokia Smartphone. How cool is that?
Please join us by sharing photographs. Thank you, and get those photos uploaded! All user agreements are between you and the companies, not McNeil or the Smithsonian NMAI. All McNeil is doing is organizing a place to share photographs on existing social networking sites. No legal agreements or any agreements are made with anyone with this project and no liabilities may be extended to any party. The legalese language is made between you and the user agreements at the social networking sites.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Look at who is the 2015 NMAI calendar boy!
Earlier in the summer of 2014, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian had a fun contest for their members. They voted on which photograph was going to be placed on the cover of the 2015 calendar. The platinum photograph “Elders” won the votes.
Thank you everyone! Hey, bring it on by and I’ll sign it for you over a nice mug of coffee.
Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson exhibition website.
Photograph and story Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved
For me as a creative person, my imagination is still what separates me from everyone else. After that, it’s a way of seeing the world that maybe involves the stories that I want to tell. Maybe not, I’m still kind of trying to figure out the creative process, even after all these years. I think that’s what makes it fun, is that once you think you’ve got it all figured out, something new happens that makes you rethink everything. Reality checks are good.
If one could reduce some of this to it’s essence, I suspect that the creative process has to do with your own personality, the stories you’ve experienced, the things you’ve seen along the way, and maybe your own style of making images. Everyone’s brain is hardwired in a specific manner, and your photography is a visual manifestation of that, which is what I find to be very slippery, mysterious, and sometimes even kind of magical. I just call this “the sometimes-magic of photography.”
Cameras (including cell phone versions)
I’m asked by a lot of people about cameras and advice about which ones to buy, which brands stand out from the crowd. Usually it’s a person who wants something that can get better results than the usual bland and generic look from a cell phone camera. Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion, the most convenient cameras being made are in cell phones, but they do have their limitations, especially when you want a photograph that involves your imagination.
This seems kind of like name-dropping, but what the heck, some brands are definitely better than others. I’m reminded that musicians have their favorite instruments, and some of them are likely quite pricey because they can do things that others can’t. It’s cool to play keyboards on an iPhone app, but I’ll bet you my best camera that artists don’t use the iPhone app for recording their best material. Same with photographers; the cell phone cameras are fun, but it’s not what we use for our real stuff. As for myself, I use a very powerful and easy to use Nikon D800 for everyday use. It’s lightning fast, has a large, beautiful image sensor and a cool array of professional lenses. It allows me to imagine a scene and make it a reality, something that cell phone cameras still lack; the ability to make a visual manifestation of what you imagine. Sorry, but that one is an epic fail, as my son would say.
McNeil learning Photography back in the day…
When I was attending Brooks Institue back in the late 1970’s, it quickly became clear that the flagship Nikon F2 was the 35mm camera for us aspiring pros to be using. They were rugged, fast and had the best lenses, a killer combination that was hard to beat. I couldn’t afford one yet, but got one the next class session. I wanted to learn photography with a classic camera, so I got a 1953 Leica IIIF rangefinder camera with a Summitar 50mm F/2 lens specifically for the intro creative class at Brooks. To me it was like getting a 1953 Fender Stratocaster to learn the guitar. Hey, I wanted the classic mojo man, to learn how the photographers back in the day made their photographs.
The first thing you notice about the Leica rangefinders from the 1950’s are that they feel like what cameras should feel like. Small, precise and made with the best craftsmanship of the times. Many of the gears were machined brass, not cheap stamped metal, and it had a heft to it that felt good and natural. It exuded a low-key authority and classiness, and the shutter was a quiet near silent click. It was a stealth camera. Ironically enough, what I liked best about it was that it forced you to slow down and take more time to compose your photographs. I used a different camera for speed, this little baby was for contemplative work where I took extra time to carefully compose the photographs.
Lets not kid ourselves, using a Leica was also like wearing a tailor made designer suit, not some off the rack thing from a department store. Does anyone really care about this when looking at photographs? Probably not, but the point was, I did.
This Leica IIIF was designed at the dawn of 35mm photography when cameras were set to evolve into something dramatically better, and I wanted to learn a critical part of what photography was about with this camera. It was a fun journey of exploration; one that hasn’t stopped yet, regardless of whatever gear you’re happening to be using.
As mentioned above, I’ve gone digital and love what the media can do these days. This photograph was made with a Nikon D800 DSLR with the beautiful 85mm Nikkor F/1.4 prime lens. This lens has a depth of field, or bokeh that is very appealing, because it renders the background to various degrees of softness, something that you can’t do with generic cell phone cameras by the way. Shot in my little makeshift studio with north light and fine coffee. Bottom’s up, buddies, and here’s to making more cool photographs.
Story and Photograph Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Platinum photographs look cool. Actually they can look a bit warm too, depending on the mood of photo goddesses and gods on that particular day. In reality, it’s such a temperamental process that even when you have the scientific aspects precisely correct, one can still get dramatically different looks that seem to defy logic. This drives some photographers completely mental, and many simply abandon it and move on to something easier, like quantum physics.
People who are willing to let go a bit, and go with the flow from what the photo goddesses send your way generally get good results. In other words, it’s critical to have a look or feel that you like and strive for making a visual manifestation of it, yet be open to the fluidity of what the process has to offer it’s practitioners. Be steadfast yet flexible, kind of like how you raise a teenager, and when everything seems beyond redemption, try again, don’t give up.
Platinum photographs, or platinotypes are a 19th century photographic process where you mix up a liquid photographic emulsion that contains real platinum and other light sensitive compounds. You coat the paper with this emulsion, let it dry and then expose a negative with ultraviolet light onto the paper. Sounds easy, right? In reality, it’s quite complex, but in my opinion is worth the battle to make it work because you end up with a look that is so unique. Each photographer who uses this process starts to have their own visual aesthetic or tastes with how they want their prints to look.
Please go see the work for yourself at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian from now until January of 2015. Here is a link where you can see all of the photographs in the exhibition, “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson.”
I’m partial to sharp detail even when the look is a little soft because of how the emulsion interacts with the paper. The photographers who used soft focus lenses in the 19th century were practitioners of Pictorialism, where the platinum photographs were often “dreamy looking” where soft focus lenses ruled the day and it was a highly romanticized look. My photographs are anything but romanticized, but I like to think that they have a certain poetry to them, but with a hard edge, both visually and metaphorically.
This is where “the rubber meets the road” as they say. If you can’t make a decent digital negative, maybe it’s time to walk the Earth until you get your mind right. It’s when you see whether the photo goddesses are partial to you. If you still get bad negatives, perhaps you ought to consider just using a cell phone camera or get on your knees to the photo gods and do some serious begging to get back in their good graces.
The moment of truth. If you’ve got an exceptional negative, you are now free to start getting abused in the darkroom. Sorry, I mean if you have a great tonal range and it’s sharp, you can sneak into the darkroom before any bad mojo catches up with you. Your platinum photograph is going to be the same size as the negative.
The Act of Naming New Work
Like any creative work, my photographs nearly always earn a title, and I view a title as another creative aspect of the work itself, sometimes offering a subtle layer of meaning. Naming new work is always a challenge, because we generally want something “short and sweet” as they say, without being too blunt or factual. It’s a fine line, because hopefully the title is also perhaps a little poetic and a natural reflection of the work itself without seeming to force anything.
Since this was a collaboratively made photograph with my son T’naa, it was only fair that we named it together. We bounced a lot of ideas around in my office, including why the photograph looks like this, and thought that maybe a title inspired by one of his Metal Bands would be good. Just by dumb luck, T’naa was taking a college writing class at the time and he explained that some classic writing verses have what’s called an “iambic pentameter.” For an example, Shakespeare used an iambic pentameter which consisted of five pairs of two syllables (or iambic feet). This means that there is a quantified rhythm to the English language.
Having established attitude, rhythm and meaning, we started writing down lists of words; some humorous, some a bit presumptuous, and some just plain way too serious for it’s own good. I insisted on keeping “Raven” somewhere, because after all, he’s the one walking around the scene. I still like a plain little notebook for brainstorming ideas and have stray notebooks around the studio.
Ready for what we came up with after all this? Drumroll please, and preferably from a Metal band: “Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands”
We both liked it because the idea of a sunrise is about hope, a literal new day that we can make our own. The word “stroll” seemed perfect because it infers something leisurely and maybe even kind of carefree, like the idea of a relaxed walk through a park or garden. Much like the photograph itself, the words are juxtaposed with the last word “wastelands,” which is what helps add momentum to the idea that the photograph may be a bit satirical. When we tossed this title into the mix it made both of us laugh out loud, so we knew we nailed it.
Smithsonian Website Indelible
I hope you take the time to visit the Smithsonian’s Indelible website for the new platinum photography. Not only that, I hope you get the opportunity to see the exhibition in person, because there is a subtlety to the photographs that is difficult to reproduce on a web page. Each photograph has a very cool set of audio recordings to accompany the work.
“Raven is known among the Tlingit to have created the world. Of the deepest platinum black, he surveys wreckage strewn across a post-apocalyptic landscape, casting a shadow upon a smashed camera. Although the bleak setting suggests photography’s demise, Raven instead announces a new beginning for the medium. With Raven’s connection to the camera, McNeil asserts the power of the power of American Indians to create their own photographic representations of and for themselves.”
The audio files were fun to make. Scroll down on each image page and listen to McNeil as he shares his wisdom about such topics as Raven’s Boneheads, or Baskets Before Time. Each platinum photograph has it’s own set of audio files. Get yourself a nice mug of coffee and a comfortable chair to listen up.
And Don’t forget about the Nikon that makes cool digital Negatives
This high resolution Nikon D800 makes extraordinary digital negatives for platinum prints. After comparing scanned film with photos shot directly from a digital camera, I’ve been finding that the digital negatives are very, very high quality. For whatever reason, the negatives are more forgiving for photos originating from a digital camera. I suspect it’s because you don’t have to make the transition from film grain to pixels, and the pixel to pixel transition is a very cool lateral shift where image quality is not compromised in the least.
The 36 megapixel sensor makes highly detailed photographs that can easily rival a large format scanned negative. Toss in some cool Nikkor lenses and you get great digital negatives. This Nikon is going to make my platinum printing faster without compromising image quality, which is what us photographers are constantly chasing around the planet. With ravens.
Now go check out the Indelible exhibition. Do a road trip, man.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Tonto’s Earthen House is a hip hangout. It’s new public art that is also a part of a fundraising auction back home in Tlingit country.
Aldona Jonaitis Ph.D., the Director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North wrote a very brief description of “Tonto’s Earthen House” for a catalog produced as part of the Tináa fund raising auction for the Sealaska Heritage Institute:
Tlingit photographer Larry McNeil, well known for his compelling and often humorous and satirical collages, has become increasingly concerned by the global climate crisis that so few people today seem to be taking seriously, and fewer still endeavor to do something about. His current series, “The Home Planet,” is addressed not so much to today’s audience, but more to people born after 2031. By that time, people will wonder why we were so careless with our environment.
According to this photograph, part of the explanation is our insatiable appetite for gasoline. This complex image first appeared in Boise as a 12 foot wide public art project and incorporates Tlingit imagery — the Chilkat weaving design juxtaposed on the “Chilkat blue” 1959 Cadillac and silver engraved bumpers — as well as the ambiguous pair of Tonto and the Lone Ranger (here inside a jail). Since he’s an Indian, Larry is supposed to be spiritual, so his “sacred symbols” are the strip of film drawn onto the wall, and, next to it, the swirling, “cosmic” image of an aperture. The self-referential camera sits in the back of the car, ready to take more photos. Indicators of the climate crisis include that gas-guzzling car as well as the bicycle Larry used to drive to work before being destroyed by a 5000 pound SUV. Sitting at the wheel of the gas-guzzling car is Larry himself, who wears a particulate mask woven from spruce root “because it’s a health hazard to pedal my bike in the thick carbon dioxide emitted from cars.”
“Tontos’s Earthen House” was made as part of the Boise Traffic Box Public Art Project, and is installed across from the downtown theater.
Gunalshéesh, thank you everyone, including my home team whom helps make all this work possible: Debi McNeil, my wife, partner & studio manager, and T’naa McNeil, our son and most excellent photographer’s assistant.
“Tonto’s Earthen House” will be amongst many other contemporary masterpieces of Northwest Coast art. The auction is designed to help raise funds for the construction of the Walter Soboleff Center.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.
In reality, anyone who knows me realizes that the title “Pixel Lounge Workshop” is an inside joke, and you’d better be awake long before 5:00AM to keep up with this kid.
Today is day two of a 2 day digital art workshop that I’m leading as a guest of the Evergreen Longhouse Educational and Cultural Center at Evergreen College. We are using the very cool facilities of the Evergreen College Photography area, which resembles a low-key lounge, yet is very efficiently designed with state of the art digital gear. Thank you to everyone for helping to make this happen, we are enjoying it very much.
Gato Barbieri playing “El Parana.”
Patrice Rushen, Stanley Clarke, Ndugu Chancler, Oleo (Sonny Rollins)
Here’s to a great day of making new art!
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2013, All Rights Reserved. All musicians retain their own copyrights on Youtube.
The here and now with this classic series: For the past four months, I’ve been working on new digital negatives (off and on, due to a car accident) to make “The Feather Series” into new platinum prints. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian will be exhibiting the series (and others), at a future date, and they are in the process of being made into platinum prints. The platinum prints are a bit on the etherial side compared to regular silver darkroom prints, or even inkjet versions.
Making platinum prints a very intricate process; one that stretches all of your photographic skills to the limit. You need serious photo technique, a healthy measure of shadowy and mysterious alchemy, a hearty splash of mojo, and regular sacrifices to the Photo Gods in order for the magic to unfold. It also seems surreal to be making digital negatives here in 2013 where the photo world is dominated by digital stuff. Digital Negatives? Wait a minute, we got digital cameras so we don’t have to mess with pesky negatives, didn’t we?
Anyway, as with any creative process, it’s the idea that drives everything else, including ones having to do with process, and how process often becomes a layer of meaning too, but more on that later .
Flashback to 1992: Back in 1992, the 500 year anniversary date of when Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas, a group of indigenous artists were asked by Theresa Harlan to participate in the “Message Carriers” exhibition that was graciously hosted by the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University from October 7 through November 8th, 1992. We were asked to make photographs that had to do with this notourious date in history when so many people of the world were forever impacted in various ways. I’ll confess to being repelled by this idea at first, but warmed up to the idea the more I thought about it.
Theresa Harlan remains one of the most thoughtful curators I’ve met, and she was a former Director of Exhibitions and installations for the “American Indian Contemporary Arts Gallery” in San Francisco, and a curator at the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis for many years. She also wrote a very intelligent and insightful essay on Indigenous Photography titled “Creating a Visual History: A Question of Ownership,” for the Aperture series of Photographic Journals; Issue #139 “Strong Hearts” in the spring of 1995, in which this and other series were published.
The Creative Process: The proverbial moment of clarity struck in early 1992 with this work, and I set about photographing a very beautiful, yet simple feather with different skies, found sites, and constructed studio scenes with distinct lighting setups. I liked the idea of reducing the visual aesthetic to something akin to a “common denominator” or a very simple set of photographs that carried various ideas.
“1491,” the first photograph in the series, served as a visual metaphor for a future that never was- what would have happened had we indigenous people of the Americas evolved without outside interference? I found myself simply wondering how humanity would have evolved had the humans indigenous to the Americas been allowed to continue to evolve without European interference. It’s about decolonized minds. Can you imagine a world not in the midst of a human- induced ecological melt-down?
As it turned out, this set of creative ideas wasn’t so simple after all, because in reality it was very challenging to make the photographs that I’d imagined. For an example, regular black & white film wasn’t working; it lacked the drama I’d envisioned, so I tried black & white infrared film and it worked.
Process and how it informs meaning: A few things were starting to gel, including the idea that “1491” and the rest of the Feather Series needed to be made via the photographic process. Not only that, a layer of meaning had to do with a kind of visual simplicity that only photography could really perform. This is because even today in the digital age, there is a clarity and veracity attached to how photography is perceived as a medium of creative expression. I was on a poetic search for truth, camera in hand, eagle eye silently contemplating the horizon.
Transforming film into platinum prints: As if making the original negatives all those years ago wasn’t complex enough. There are a number of steps to complete and any one of them can make the entire process collapse, which is what is so maddening about the process for making platinum photographic prints. I’m thinking that it would be way easier to just shoot with an 8×10 film camera if you want to make platinum/palladium prints.
- Make the film negatives & process the film.
- Scan the negatives. LOTS of precision & highly advanced work here.
- Interpret the file information/make a digital curve/Print the Digital Negative/ LOTS of testing here.
- Make a custom platinum emulsion that matches the digital negative/ LOTS of testing here.
- Make a series of exposures via an Ultra-violet exposure unit/LOTS of testing here.
- The easiest step of all is to make the final print based on 1-5 above.
- Print finishing/ get rid of spots. Celebrate!
Scanning Film Negatives: The next step was scanning the original black & white medium format negatives into the computer. In this age of cool digital cameras, this seems a bit weird, and even quite retro to be even thinking of film negatives. This series was shot with a Hasselblad 500 CM about a decade before digital cameras were any good. The digital cameras from 1992 were 1/3 of a megapixel, costed nearly $2,000.00 and made photos that were essentially low quality junk. Most people were still shooting with film for their high-end photography in 1992.
Drum scans are way better than the consumer scanners, but if you can believe this, the ones commissioned for this project were way too large, and also scanned in an incredible amount of dust. It was taking forever to work on these huge files, so I tried scanning with a consumer scanner, and this worked beautifully for my purposes, because I was going to keep my high resolution output size to below 20 inches.
I have a preference for SilverFast scanning software, because it’s a fairly easy interface to learn and it allows users to input a very beautiful dynamic range of midtones, highlights and shadows from the negative. It gave me the 36 bit .Tif files that input all the subtle information I needed to make the digital negatives for the platinum prints.
To be continued… In the following entries I’ll include information about making the digital negatives, hand-coating the platinum emulsions, exposing the paper and processing the prints. Please come back and see how things are progressing.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Word on the street is that Nikon is nearly ready to release a new digital camera that has retro styling. Maybe even with a full frame sensor. Cool.
Here is their teaser ad, and the camera is due to be released any day now. You hear a couple of manual clicks of what sounds like dial adjustments; the shutter has a quiet authority and the guy in the video says, “It’s in my hands again.”
While in Tokyo in June to help judge their 2013 International Photo Contest, I was introduced to one of their camera engineers, whom was working on a new compact digital camera. We were at at a hip lounge celebrating the Judging with food and drink, and I mentioned that two of my favorite 35mm film cameras as a young pro were the Nikon F2 and the Nikon F3 bodies.
It’s true, I really loved the clean, pure designs and how rugged they were. There were never any unpleasant surprises while shooting with those bodies and you could shoot briskly and precisely. I once had three Nikon bodies freeze while shooting on the North Slope way on the northern tip of Alaska in -55º F winter weather, and they just kept right on shooting. At any rate, this made their engineer smile, and he said, “You will like the new camera we are working on right now. I can’t tell you what the design is, and all I can say is that if you liked those camera designs, you will like this new camera.”
My eyes lit up and I asked “F2? F3?” He only smiled and said mysteriously, “You will like this new camera.”
I’m betting a mug of fine coffee that it is a Digital version of the classic F3. Any takers?
I hope it is a take-off on one of their classic bodies. That would have a coolness factor that is off the charts, especially for us pros who paid our dues with these rugged pro bodies before digital SLR’s roared over the horizon. For you photography purists, here is a link to the Nikon F3 information.
Story Copyright Larry McNeil, All rights reserved, 2013.
I was invited to China for their “First Beijing Photography Biennial,” which is part of their “Beijing International Photo Week,” starting October 24, 2013. My role was as an honored VIP guest, and they had set up a two week stay for me, which included visiting many parts of China and meeting Chinese Photographers associated with their exhibition “Images, Times and Impressions.”
This Beijing International Photography Week has clearly been the result of a lot of careful planning, spearheaded by the Ministry of Culture. I am very sorry to have missed out on this wonderful opportunity to see a lot of fantastic photography and to met many other photography professionals from around the world (If you see an empty seat in the VIP section, you’ll know why it’s empty). The value of International Photography venues like this is that they present the opportunity to share the humanity that links all the people of our world together, and this is always to be applauded. Good job everyone, keep it up, regardless of which country you are living in. It seems that here in the 21st century, we humans have the ability to recognize how we can collectively better ourselves, and the humanities are a great way of accomplishing this collective task.
According to the “This is Beijing!” website, “The 2013 Beijing International Photography Week will open on October 24 at the China Millennium Monument in Beijing’s Xicheng District. The photography week, with a theme “Photography: World in Focus,” will highlight a series of exhibitions, lectures, forums and themed activities at the main venue, as well as at the 798 Art Zone, Caochangdi Art Zone, Wangfujing Pedestrian Street and Cable 8 Creative Culture Zone. The First Beijing International Photography Biennial Exhibition series will focus on the social landscapes in different countries and regions. The “Image, Times and Impression” themed exhibition will unveil the most famous works by well-known photographers at home and abroad.”
For those of you who make it to Beijing in the next week, get ready to see lots of most excellent photography, and save me a seat for next time.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2013, All Rights Reserved.