The Long Road – William Neill Photographer a Retrospective

July 10, 2017 ·

William Neill

We all walk the long road. Sometimes the light is all shining on me, sometimes I can barely see. What a long strange trip it has been, on this long and winding road. These lines from classic rock and roll songs pop into my head as I try to write about my four decades as a landscape photographer. You may ask yourself, how did I get here?

When I was growing up, my family often spent time outdoors. On weekends, we’d picnic in local redwood forests or beaches near our home in the San Francisco Bay Area. During most summers, we’d spend a week or two visiting National Parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Sequoia or Yosemite.  These family road trips sparked my love of nature.

This passion became solidified in the face of personal tragedy when I was eighteen. While working a summer job in Glacier National Park before starting college in the fall, I learned that my brother had died of a brain aneurysm. My immersion in that mountainous landscape during a time of great personal distress opened my eyes to the restorative powers of nature and led me to a life in photography.  At some deep level, the beauty of my surroundings seeped into my subconscious—the lush colors of a meadow dense with wildflowers, the energy of a lightning storm, the clarity of a mountain lake.  In an effort to capture and convey these life-affirming discoveries, I began to photograph as I backpacked throughout Glacier.  Within a few years, all I wanted to do was make photographs!

Just a few years after buying my first camera in 1974, I moved to Yosemite and never left. Living in or just outside the Park continuously since 1977 has been key to my development as an artist. After a few summers working for the National Park Service, I was hired to be the photographer in residence at The Ansel Adams Gallery. I was able to get to know Ansel and attend his workshop summer sessions; meet other world-class photographers such as Ernst Haas, Paul Caponigro, Joel Meyerowitz and Jerry Ulesmann plus Ansel’s stellar assistants John Sexton, Alan Ross, Ted Orland and Don Worth.  I started teaching photography to park visitors, taking them for daily “camera walks” in the meadow near the gallery. I learned to make my own color prints, ironically, in Ansel’s Black and White darkroom. I listened and learned and explored.

As my career developed over the past 40 years, through many ups and downs financially and creatively, I slowly found a few key themes. (See: Thinking in Themes essay) Naturally, one of those themes was Yosemite. Through my connection to Ansel’s sphere of influence, I was inspired to discover new ways of seeing this grand landscape. I hiked and camped and climbed on my weekends, always with a camera. In 1994, a book of my Yosemite photographs was published entitled Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness.

Along this road, a new theme emerged that focused on intimate landscapes, isolations of the broad view. Rather than try to describe everything in front of me, I searched for simple design and magic light that moved me, and the viewer, beyond a literal description. “Landscapes of the Spirit” became the central theme in my landscape photography, and the theme took form in a major monograph book (in 1997) of my best photography to that date.

My new book begins with a large portfolio of my Landscapes of the Spirit series. It includes key images made with my 4×5 film camera, but also very recent digital captures. There are also chapters featuring my Antarctic work, Black and White images, impressionistic photographs each reflecting creative tangents I’ve taken.

Another chapter includes a portfolio entitled By Nature’s Design. From the very beginning of my photography, portraying nature’s patterns was the main subject for me. The theme took full form in 1993 when I illustrated a science book entitled By Nature’s Design. I was assigned to photograph dozens of specific subjects to artistically and clearly show branching, cracking, and spiral patterns to illustrate the science behind them. A large portfolio of the book’s images appeared in the October 1993 issue of Life Magazine.

The lesson of working with concepts to bring deeper meaning to my portfolios led to new themes. The Black and White images emerged from a long-standing love of the images by Edward and Brett Weston, Paul Caponigro, Minor White, and Wynn Bullock.  Seeing the paintings of Monet and other Impressionists inspired my Impressions of Light collection of photographs using the technique of intentional camera motion to create painterly images.

One never quite knows where the road of life leads us. With a great sense of wonder, a passion for making photographs, and a desire to celebrate nature’s beauty, I’ve stayed focused on the task at hand, the goal in mind, moving forward one step at a time. Now, I can stop for a moment, look back at the path I’ve traveled, as seen in the pages of this book, and breathe a deep breath of satisfaction. Now looking forward, head down again and back to work. The long and winding road continues before me.

There are five pre-order options. The first choice is to order the Standard Edition which is discounted at 20% off during the special offer period. The remaining four options are for a limited time only.

Reasons to pre-order

Name printed in the book
Collectors  edition cover
Slipcases and special editions only available until pre-order closure
20% Reduced pricing

The book includes a full index of each image, showing the camera and lens used.

For more information and to purchase, visit Bill’s website.

To make your purchase, you will see the drop down menu where you can select the options as shown below.


As my conversations with Triplekite’s David Breen and Dav Thomas developed, I shared my book publishing history with them as well as the portfolios on my web page. To my surprise, they suggested a retrospective. It was a daunting prospect, but who was I to say no? Here is a brief Q&A with the publishers:

From the Publisher

What is your philosophy as a book publisher specializing in landscape photography?

“Our philosophy has always been to make the books that we would want to buy – which is also why we started; we simply couldn’t find many publishers making photography books of the natural world in any great quantity. We knew some great artists who couldn’t get a traditional book deal and self-publishing was pretty much a dark art, so we decided to make a stand against the traditional publishing world and prove it could be done in a newer, fresh and more personal way. Of course, things have changed radically in the five years since we started, but our philosophy stays the same – make great books, by great people, and they will sell.  We have always been passionate about the product, its design as well as the content within it. We always strive to make a book which best represents the work within, that on occasion has meant books the size of an A2 sheet when opened out, or with quad foldouts over a meter wide.  We still strive for these ideals as well as showcasing the best work, whether that’s from an established name or a relative newcomer, some of our greatest pleasure is derived from publishing someone for their first book.”

Why William Neill, and why a retrospective?

“William is, of course, a household name when it comes to Landscape photography, so maybe the question is ‘why wouldn’t we?’  Within our philosophy, it is easy to see who we could and should be publishing, and it is often more difficult to see a way of making it viable – a relatively unknown artist will take a lot of marketing if we are to reach beyond break even and often we don’t. More established names are easier to make commercial decisions with but often are already tied into established publishing houses and contracts. When we approached Hans Strand about doing his “Iceland” book, we found a perfect mix of great work, great desire and a willingness to take a chance on a lesser-known publisher in ourselves. William was sent this book by Hans and really liked what it stood for, so he approached us about doing a book together. I remember looking through everything he’d already achieved and once over the awe of it all, thinking he’s never done a complete collection. I guess the idea came from there, and we have worked for a couple of years trying to capture the essence of a career which is beyond measure in its achievements and outputs.”

How did you learn about his photography?

“Personally, I originally knew more European photographers than Americans (apologies), but in my research, I have looked at all the great landscape artists throughout the world. Williams name comes up time and time again in my investigations. Doing polls of our book buyers, and his name comes up, he’s very much respected and followed across the globe and our pre-orders show that.”

Can you give us some insight into the design process?

“The design process starts with an evaluation of the images that will form the content of the book, followed by a rough idea of how to sequence the images. In this case, William already had a rough idea of sections for the book which covered both individual styles as well as locations. The physical format of the book is often guided by the proportions of the images it is to showcase – early on in the design process we decided that a square format would work best in this instance.

Covers were designed early on including the limited edition options and this was followed by the layout including type choice and image spacing. 


After a number of draft versions, with slight alterations to the sections and image selection, we end up with a final version ready for artwork
.”

For more information and to purchase, visit Bill’s website.


Introduction by Art Wolfe

Who remembers The Nature Company? Few probably, but I and many photographers of my generation do, including William “Bill” Neill. The specialty retailer carried beautiful prints by both of us and that is where I first became aware of his luminous work. Over the years, we have met at events and in the field, and one moment stands out in my mind: I ran into him in Glacier National Park after witnessing quite the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen. He too had photographed it from a different location—”Sunrise storm clouds, St. Mary Lake,” page 40—and we shared a moment of excitement and exhilaration at nature’s display. In this and many things, we have much in common.

In his photographer’s statement, Bill quotes Minor White, the Zen-influenced photographer: “Be still with yourself, until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” Bill’s landscape photographs affirm this deep intent, conveying both intimacy and enigma, asking questions rather than answering them. The quest for abstraction runs deep amongst practitioners of nature photography. Bill and I are contemporaries, early contributors to National Geographic and other top magazines, but our hearts are in the art of photography. The quest for finding what’s beautiful and right in the world is an all-consuming one. We follow in the giant footsteps of Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, Johsel Namkung, and in Bill’s particular case, Ansel Adams, for whom he feels a deep affinity. In 1977 he established himself near Yosemite National Park and several years thereafter began working and teaching for The Ansel Adams Gallery, including exhibiting his prints there approved by Ansel himself, quite an honor in itself.

A consummate craftsman, Bill takes photos that deliver the emotional impact of what he felt when taking them—awe at the beauty, plus the high energy of rushing water, a furious wind, or brilliant light. We both admire and are intrigued by the paintings of Monet and other Impressionist artists. Harnessing intentional camera motion and slow shutter speed, he has created a painterly photographic language to express nature’s beauty. In a long career, these new approaches to photography can make a huge difference to the endurance of one’s creativity and zeal. So can new technologies: both of us have large film archives—Bill shot a lot of 4x5s as a landscapist, while I shot primarily on 35mm slide film. There is a joy “bringing back” and creating new images from the best of the old and converting color to black-and-white. Both of us share this drive to expand our vision. The challenge of learning and exploring never ends.

Learning to accept what photographic opportunities are given is a hallmark of a seasoned photographer; you can’t force the light or the wind. So knowing a location is a great advantage; I get the eye roll from my staff when I talk about returning again and again to a location, but this is something all great photographers espouse, including Bill. His sensitive and all-encompassing work on Yosemite National Park is a testament to his calm tenacity and sense of place. As a generalist myself I admire Bill’s restraint and discipline.

Bill writes that “Passion for your subject is an essential ingredient for building a career and a body of work that reflects a deep connection to the subject from a unique viewpoint.” This couldn’t be truer. Trophy hunting—ticking off the bucket list—is a marketing ploy that sells, but it is something that any artist tires of very quickly.

One thing that you cannot get tired of easily is looking at the images Bill has painstakingly selected for his retrospective. His delicate touch and untiring eye is evident in each lush chapter: in Antarctic Dreams,  ancient compressed ice imparts an ethereal blue glow from within (page 58-59) ; in Impressions of Light, a lone seagull lingers at the edge of roiling gray waves and sky (page 191); in Landscapes of the Spirit, pulverized stone gleams in golden seams in a Jasper ice cave (page 106); in Meditations in Monochrome, corn lily leaves unfold and layer in opulent tiers (page 91); in By Nature’s Design, fallen mango leaves glisten with a metallic luster (page 114); and last but not least, in Sanctuary in Stone, Bill coaxes an intimacy from Yosemite landscapes observed by millions every year, but actually ‘seen’ by few.   

There is a wonder all around us; William Neill translates it all into photographic poetry.


Publisher’s Note:

Over the last few years, I have gotten to know William pretty well.  We have traveled to Antarctica together as well as made a Masters Video Series (links below).  When Bill mentioned he was beginning to work on a new boom I suggested that he share with us the journey.  Thus this article.  Book publishing is not easy and Bill and I want to thank Bill for sharing his journey with us.


William Neill
July 2017
Updated March 2018

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William Neill

William Neill, an American photographer and resident of Yosemite National Park area since 1977, is a renowned nature and landscape photographer. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars, posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection, and The Polaroid Collection. Neill has received the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography and is an emeritus member of Canon USA’s elite Explorers of Light. Neill's assignment and published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. Also, he writes a regular column, On Landscape, for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Feature articles about his work have appeared in Life, Camera and Darkroom, Outdoor Photographer and Communication Arts, from whom he has also received five Awards of Excellence. His corporate clients have included Sony Japan, Bayer Corporation, Canon USA, Nike, Nikon, The Nature Company, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Freidrick Grohe, Neutrogena, Sony Music/Classical, University of Cincinnati, Mirabaud, Bear Sterns and UBS Global Asset Management. He is the photographic author of many books including The Sense of Wonder,The Tree, By Nature's Design, The Color of Nature and Traces of Time. A portfolio of his Yosemite photographs has been published Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness and a retrospective monograph of his landscape photography entitled Landscapes Of The Spirit.

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