Naming New Work & Mighty Nikon Platinum Photograph

Platinum_Photography_Type
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.

Larry McNeil in the darkroom

Larry McNeil taking a quick break in the darkroom while making platinum photographs for the “Indelible” exhibition. He was getting great results that day because he made a proper sacrifice at the shrine to the photo goddesses. With Chilkat blue gloves, no less.

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.”

"Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands" platinum photograph by Larry McNeil.

“Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands” platinum photograph by Larry McNeil.

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 Nikon photograph was designed to be in both color and made into a platinum print. There are a multitude of variables with making the transition to a digital negative, but in my opinion, it's way easier to make the shift into digital negative form when the photograph itself originated from a digital photograph, as opposed to scanning actual film.

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.

Nikon_Digital_Neg_McNeil2014

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 a list 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.

Notes.

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.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian "Indelible" website.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian “Indelible” website.

“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.”

 

Audio files!

Audio files where McNeil talks about the photographs. Check them out!

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 stunning digital negatives for platinum prints!

Nikon D800 DSLR & Nikkor lenses

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.

 

 

Read more.. Friday, March 14th, 2014

McNeil Sabbatical 2012-13

Guess who started their sabbatical on December 21, 2012?

The big guy in the orange vest loading the plane is my crew chief, and if you need to get in touch with me, just text him.

I hardly ever  spend my creative time in a studio. I guess that maybe it means that the world is my studio, but that sounds kind of clichéd, so I’ll just say I need to get a lot of my source material out there in the real world where life is unfolding. On the other hand, there is a lot of production time spent on the images after they’re photographed. So the reality is, lots of time is spent at a computer editing images. Man, nothing glamorous about that, but it goes back to the idea of working in a darkroom, where a lot of the looks that you witnessed in the camera’s viewfinder need to be coaxed back to the surface. It’s like the photo gods decree that “No, you don’t get his photo unless you roll up your sleeves and put some sweat into it.” No complaints here, that sounds fair to me. You’re on, dudes.

Boise State University, my fine colleagues and external reviewer all have my sincere gratitude for recommending me for this sabbatical. They have the wisdom to know that sabbaticals are indeed a time of renewal for their faculty, where we leave teaching to do the critical research that informs our discipline and where we also share what we’ve learned along the way with the rest of the world.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for this plane full of camera and lighting gear. If you look closely, you’ll likely see a camera case that holds a big 4×5 camera, or even a photographer who’s traveling light with only one little bag, because he needs to move quickly and silently on a bicycle instead of a plane. If you follow the wafting aroma of fine coffee, you may also find something interesting.

Raven mug from Hulleah, Kona coffe from Minmyo. Now I'm really ready to blast off. Fasten your seatbelts.

Story and Photos Copyright Larry McNeil, 2012 All Rights Reserved

Read more.. Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

2012 Apocalypse, Coffee & White Raven

Well heck, I had to go down to the pyramid at Chichén Itzá to see for myself what all this Mayan prophecy stuff was about & share it with you.

2012 Apocalypse Story, from an indigenous perspective. Larry McNeil at the pyramid of Chichén Itzá, in the heart of Mayan country.

Each one of the Mayans I talked to were a bit amused by all the fuss, so I just went down to the beach to talk to the Mayan fishermen. The real ones, not the tourist sport fishermen; the ones like me who fed their families on what they caught. As I stood on the beach watching one of them unloading his catch of the day I walked over and introduced myself as another indigenous man who made a living catching fish way up north. He smiled and we had a conversation very similar to the ones I had with fellow fishermen back home in Alaska, and as it turned out, we spoke the language of fishermen.

“How were the tides? What did you use for bait this time? When was the best time to set the gear? How long did you let your hooks soak?” Of course, my number one question was “What’s your favorite fish recipe for around here?” He said the most heavenly dish was boiled barracuda heads in a broth with mild spices and fresh vegetables from the garden.

I told him that the best recipe from my village was boiled salmon heads with potatoes, onions and just a few spices. If you put in too much stuff, the delicate flavors will be overpowered. We both laughed at how non-fishermen families don’t really know what good fish is actually all about.

What is a journey without including a Coffee Quest? I also have an eternal quest for the most perfect mug of coffee. Oh my god, did I ever find it, and confess to nearly falling to my knees, welcoming the salvation of partaking an earthly gift from the holy spirit. Well, actually from hard working Mayans who grew the finest coffee beans high in the mountains using traditional farming techniques.

If you look carefully, you can see white raven enjoying this sublime coffee too. White raven comes from our own creation story and is the ultimate shape shifter who appreciates fine fish head stews and coffee.

So it went. I’m back home now, dreaming of luscious fish heads, monumental pyramids, totem poles, coffee and freshly sharpened fish hooks.

Story and Photograph copyright Larry Mcneil, 2012 All Rights Reserved. Steal this & you’re bait, man. Fish bait

Read more.. Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

2012

On this auspicious first day of 2012, I wish you an extraordinary new year and the hope that things improve for the people, and for our home planet. It seems that the global state of gloom and doom has gotten everyone’s attention by now.

I can’t help but be reminded that it is the struggle that defines humanity, and we are at our best when things get rugged. My advice is to remain flexible with whatever you encounter this year, especially if it’s challenging. Sharpen your wits to a razor’s edge and don’t forget the coffee.

Ice lens.

As for myself, I’m going to add a new camera to my bag of tricks, just in case. It has a built-in monopod that not only shoots cool photos, but can double as a zombie flail if need be. I call this my 2012 Digital Camera, because it takes five digits to grasp it properly.

My new custom-made camera setup for 2012.

Nothing freezes the zombie action like this 2012 Digital Camera. You realize I’m just kidding, right? It’s really not a flail at all; it’s just a camera for the upcoming year.

Have a great new year and remember, the magic words for 2012 are flexibility, preparedness and quick wits. Think like a raven.

Story & Photos Copyright Larry McNeil, 2012, All Rights Reserved

Read more.. Sunday, January 1st, 2012

First Light, Winter Solstice

First Light, Winter Solstice (lithograph)

Back in the summer of 2007 I made a collaborative print with Brooke Steiger titled “First Light, Winter Solstice.” Brooke did a beautiful job and I really love this print, especially now at First Light, on Winter Solstice.

Raven steals everything that isn’t nailed down. Heck, even some stuff that is nailed down, so it was perfectly natural that I in turn “borrowed” Edward Curtis’ flagship photograph that he dubiously titled “The Vanishing Race.” Sorry Curtis, it’s mine now. Only it is changed to reflect a scene more grounded in reality. Rez cars.

Curtis made a high art out of constructing inane stereotypical scenes about Indians, such as this one with them riding into the sunset as a poetic farewell. The photographic scenes were a mix between what appeared to be museum dioramas and staged photo sets, complete with actors, costumes, makeup, and of course fine photography and lighting. In the midst of his photographic project on Indians, Curtis did in fact work for Cecil B. Demille as a Hollywood cameraman.

At any rate, Curtis passed his Vanishing Race photographs off as truth and did it with a flourish, because after all, he was a highly trained photographer; certainly good enough to get J.P. Morgan to provide seed money, to have President Theodore Roosevelt to write the forward to his books and have Cecil B. Demille hire him as a part of his own Hollywood myth making team. See the pattern here with myth making? I would put forth the assertion that Curtis’ work is ultimately about White Man, not indigenous people. Curtis’ photographs are telling a story strictly from the standpoint of White Man, plain and simple. It’s a romanticized Western story that has little to do with reality.

The young Edward Curtis trying to look mysterious. He was using his mom's hat in the lighting test and forgot to put his own back on.

Curtis was indeed a very talented photographer who made beautiful work about real people too though; the photographs were just not very honest much of the time, that’s all. I would have liked his work a lot better if he photographed the indigenous people as he actually found them, like in front of their cars, talking on the telephone or studying with electric light bulbs. Or better yet, with them riding by an old Rez car that was fading back into the landscape.

This takes us to First Light Winter Solstice, where I wanted to make the characters more grounded in reality, like them going to a Winter Solstice ceremony at first light, passing an old beat up pickup truck along the way. It’s about continuing ancient ceremonies, not fading into the sunset. Raven transformed the scene with a bit of magic, digital tools and good old artistry with a master Tamarind lithography printer. We had to solve a lot of very challenging creative and technical tasks too, and even had to recruit master printer Bill Lagattuta to help solve some of the more extraordinary technical roadblocks we encountered.

This Rez car was remarkably difficult to make and was where we had to pull in another master printer to get the look I was looking for.

It is only here at the first light of the new winter solstice that I again fully appreciate the teamwork that allowed us to make the lithograph I had envisioned at the beginning of our collaboration at the Tamarind Art Institute. It also took an entire team of organizations to make this project a reality, starting with the State Department, where the Arts in Embassies program resides. It also took the National Museum of the American Indian, the Tamarind Art Institute and many other key people behind the scenes to make it a reality. I send my heartfelt thank you to them all, including the other artists who participated at the time: Jaune Quick-to See Smith, Norman Aikers, Marie Watt, and Mario Martinez.

I love the idea of making art that was designed to act so specifically as an ambassador for our people. I was thinking of who we really are as Americans, both Indigenous and the proverbial ‘melting pot’ that forms our collective identity. I was thinking of early Cowboy and Indian films that formed the world’s perception of who we are, especially as a mythical place.

Raven the transformer never stops shifting things around, we are in a constant state of change.

I wanted a heroic Raven pictograph for the background because he is from our own creation story and frequently amuses himself with the often-subliminal nature of a quasi-educator, a poetic rascal. By using a sepia toned photograph I played with the perception that Indians were and are only in the past, and brought them into the present and did it with a bit of a sly joke that we can chuckle about. If we can take outdated stereotypical ideas and laugh about them, we acknowledge that they were indeed a bit absurd and we can move on in a good way. Especially at the first light of the winter solstice, which is also about transformation and continual shifts everywhere.

Art in Embassies website at the State Department. McNeil's editions may be tracked as to which Embassy is exhibiting a lithograph.

Story Copyright Larry McNeil, All Rights Reserved, 2011

Read more.. Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Raven tries to figure it out. Or Nature Redefined, Earthscapes & Kimowan.

X’áant xwaanúk Tléil yee ushk’é, I’m angry you are bad is from my body of work about the global climate crisis.

Artists try and make sense of the world. It doesn’t always work because sometimes the world simply doesn’t make sense. So we end up capturing the lunacy.

I assembled this collage around two core images. Raven was first. I was looking for an authoritative, stately posture that would be an iconic black silhouette with a rich, pure charcoal feel. This raven went through the heat and was slightly carbonized, so he was perfect for a cheerful black day at the power plant. Our creation story involves raven and carbon emissions.

I'm Angry you are bad.

I’m Tlingit and we take shit from nobody. If it weren’t for us, Siberia would extend into North America. Either that or Canada would extend west into what is now Alaska. We drove both groups of colonists out of our homeland at the loss of many lives and I mention this only because it is this warrior philosophy that drives nearly everything I do, especially as an artist. The triangles on the right are stylized Killer Whale teeth and there is a faded Chilkat robe pattern in the decayed wall.

Stylized killer whale teeth. I am from the Tlingit Killer Whale Fin House, and the teeth have their origins in some of our ancient spruce root basket designs.

Chilkat robe pattern chipped into an eroded wall with a white raven peering into the empty head of a human.

I felt filthy from photographing coal-fired power plants around the country and actually got a nasty nasal infection from being around them. I feel bad for the people who have to live on the same planet as these thousands of massive coal-fired power plants scattered all over Earth. I also feel bad for the home planet and how badly humans have brutalized her. It makes me rethink the definition of humans and whether it is natural for us to ruin our environment because we do it so well. In that sense, it also has me rethinking the definition of the term “nature,” especially when describing humans and what we make, how we treat our environment and each other. It may mean that a Styrofoam cup is as natural as a buffalo, which kind of scares me.

Earthscape #31 is from the Rocketship Chronicles series. When the Apollo astronauts viewed Earth from the moon, they had a profound revelation. Earth was magical. It also had no borders. They knew from a glance that humanity, all the life there, and the planet were one. This is precisely what every Native tribe has been saying since long before they first met White Man. We are all one; you cannot separate just one element and treat it differently. If you pollute the land and the air, you pollute yourself and all other life, we are all connected. It almost seems gratuitous to say this until you look around and realize that most people don’t get it, especially political leaders and industrialists who only care about their most recent earnings statements.

My Earhscapes are about strengthening the notion that our home planet is indeed all we’ve got to live on and we’ve got to start treating it like it’s a home planet and not a colossal waste heap. It’s a little playful in that there is a quasi- yearning for finding another planet where we can find refuge. Then we come to our senses and think, “Wait a minute. This is OUR home planet. It’s the polluters whose damn asses should be on rocket ships out of here, not ours…

Earthscape #31. I made this photo last year from my rocketship, over the coast of southern California after assisting MFA Photography students at Brooks Institute.

Hasselblad Moon film back from a NASA camera. For real. This is so perfect for my Rocketship Chronicles photos.

I have a portfolio of photos regarding my Rocketship Chronicles on facebook. What’s really cool about it is the feedback I get from friends.

My Rocketship Chronicles portfolio on facebook.

Kimowan’s Journey

One of the most profoundly beautiful, sad and mysterious experiences I’ve had this year was when our sister Hulleah and I went to say farewell to our brother in art Kimowan Metchewais up in Alberta late this summer. I’m reminded that we meet many gentle spirits on this journey of life and the journey is so short, painfully beautiful, and so damn hard sometimes. We ease the journey with each other, at least this much is clear.

After Kimowan started his journey into the spirit world that morning, a series of peculiar events started to unfold. Hulleah and I tried to be unobtrusive as Kimowan’s family went about taking care of Kimowan’s passing in the hospital that morning. Antje was beside herself with grief, as was everyone else. Kimowan’s mom was so gracious and offered to ride with Hulleah and I up to Cold Lake later that morning.

In a moment of silence, Kimowan’s hospital room was vacant, even as people gathered in the guest suite next door sipping coffee and talking quietly, giving each other hugs and tender assurances. There was a feeling of peace and calm amongst the sorrow. Someone laughed gently and gave us the Cree translation for “strong coffee.” I wish I could remember those Cree words. I stood at the window looking out at the view as his family went about taking care of business. I noticed a few young ravens playing right outside his window. One in particular was hopping on the roof, doing what was obviously a shadow dance. He was very taken with his shadow and was clearly enjoying it’s presence. It’s shadow looked like a rocketship. Without even thinking about it I pulled out my camera phone and shot off a bunch of photos, smiling at raven’s oblivious playfulness. It made me wonder if perhaps Kimowan was having a bit of fun on his way, and nature couldn’t help but play along. Kimowan would’ve smiled at the camera phone too, I’m sure. We don’t need no stinkin’ fancy pants cameras, we wing it quite well, thank you.

"Raven Rocket from Kimowan's Window." It's stylized a bit, but is essentially what the scene looked like outside Kimowan's window. Raven loves rocketships even more than me I think.

I have a portfolio of photos that I made on that journey, including many other instances of nature living it up that day. Way more than usual. Here’s to you Kimowan, we miss you.

These are the three prints that I have in our 2011 Biennial Art Department Faculty Exhibition today at the Visual Arts Center. Come and check it out, I’m in some most excellent company.

Story Copyright Larry McNeil 2011, All Rights Reserved

Read more.. Friday, September 2nd, 2011