Photographer Neal Rantoul’s Amber Waves Of Grain
BOSTON — It had been raining for three days straight, Neal Rantoul remembers. The Cambridge photographer had been driving cross-country when he ended up in wet Seattle.
“I couldn’t beat the rain,” the 66-year-old tells me.
So he turned around and drove across the Cascade Range. And found wheat—planted in rows curving up and down hills toward the horizon, like vast inland seas.
“I was about out of film,” he says, “but on either side of the road were these wheat fields. Beautiful, not flat. I headed home and I made a couple notes in my journal to head back.”
He flew back to the Palouse in southwestern Washington State in 1996.
“As I got down there it all sort of opened up. I was in the mother lode of this area,” Rantoul says. His photos from the ground and later shot from planes are the subject of his show “Wheat, Washington 2009-2012” that will be at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham from April 7 to May 26. He speaks about his work at Boston University at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, in a program organized by the Photographic Resource Center.
“Driving along, you know, I see something. I’m very often searching and failing,” Rantoul says. “But every once in a while I find something.”
The green and brown grain becomes abstract in Rantoul’s photographs—lots of little marks in close up and long rippling lines when seen from the air. Here in New England, he says, “We don’t get this kind of spread out landscape they get out there.”
Rantoul grew up in New Canaan, Conn. His mom was an artist, a painter. His dad was a carpet company executive who commuted by train to New York City.
“In those early days,” he says, “I don’t think I understood that it was OK to be drawing or painting because my model was my dad and he was a suit.”
But he found his way to Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in 1970 and ’73, respectively, and studied with two giants in the field of photography, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. He went on to teach photography at Northeastern University in Boston for three decades, retiring in January 2012.
His primary subject is the outdoors—nature as well what people have built. “I’ve been looking at America my whole career. Being fascinated by it and horrified by it,” he says.
Early on he tried to photograph “a very purist landscape, untouched,” but was unsatisfied with the results. Instead he decided not to try to hide signs of humanity.
“We’re there. We’re everywhere,” he says. “There isn’t purity anymore. That’s not a tragedy, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way we are in the world these days.”
Like many local photographers—including Frank Gohlke (who’s now in Arizona), Barbara Bosworth and Jim Dow—he’s had a formalist, conceptualist approach to the landscape, a style that’s sometimes called “New Topographics” photography.
“I’m a post-World War II minimalist,” he says. “Reduction way down to the essentials.”
He’s photographed Boston skyscrapers; Utah cliffs; a lush California neighborhood; 19th-century Old West buildings relocated to Cody, Wyo.; and abandoned WWI-era military housing on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor. At Panopticon Gallery in Boston from April 3 to May 13, Rantoul shows his aerial photos of Martha’s Vineyard along with work by Brian Kaplan in “Views from Cape Cod and the Massachusetts Islands.”
“Started with me being curious about what Nomans Land looked like,” he says of photographing the islands from airplanes.
Rantoul has spent time on Martha’s Vineyard throughout his life because his family had a home there. As a boy, he watched military jets strafe Nomans Land, 3 miles south of the Vineyard. It made him wonder about the place, but visits to the island are prohibited because of fears of unexploded ordinance left over from U.S. Navy aerial gunnery practice there from 1942 to 1996. And it made him curious about many other nearby islands that are private.
In his aerial photos, the Vineyard becomes abstracted into the greens and blues of rippling water, the lines of roads, the greens of grasses, the browns and reds of bare shrubs and trees.
“Near but far,” he calls the Massachusetts islands. “We’re looking at islands, but we can’t get there. But from the air, you’re right there, bang.”