“I refer to nature’s beauty as
my ballast in the storms of life.”
JR: I’m very interested in the artist’s and photographer’s deepest intentions, how their methods intersect with their mindsets, and what translates or materializes from this. Specifically for landscape photographers, I am interested in the ways the acts of seeing, seeking and being with nature are part of a spiritual or contemplative practice. You’ve made a life of offering the photograph and photography as a pursuit predicated on opening a window to our place within the majesty of nature’s splendor. It seems clear that there is always a desire for the artist to share their central proposition. I believe yours might be something like this – there is indeed ultimate truth and inherent beauty. We are integrative elements within the environment, and the only way to honor “her” is to observe and respectfully allow ourselves to become responsible parts of that environment. I hope that’s close to it! Can you elaborate on this topic of inherent or objective beauty?
WN: I don’t have a very intellectually well thought out approach to this subject. I
JR: How do you practice shooting these days in an environment beset by human intervention?
WN: I live in a rural neighborhood in the Sierra Nevada foothills, surrounded by massive oak trees and tall pines. I mostly photograph in areas with little human impact, or where I can easily remove the human impact when I compose. I watch the seasonal changes; I see the lighting conditions and wait for the images to come to me. Yosemite is nearby so I go there, as I have for 40
“I see, I feel, I photograph.”
JR: Based on what I’ve read and heard from you, a compassionate and gently cultivated type of seeing is at the heart of your work and life. Can you tell us a little about your current experiences with shooting and the inner landscape you’re navigating while doing so? What’s your latest prevalent mood and motivation, and what are you learning these days?
WN: Seeing nature and looking for photographs is a daily practice for me. Currently, I photograph mostly around my home area. Most days I don’t photograph, but between thinking about and seeing future possibilities, I am always becoming ready when the opportunity appears. I rarely plan or heavily research for my photo sessions. Most occur during my daily comings and goings. Recently I’ve been watching the local pear, plum and cherry trees come into bloom. While visiting nearby Fresno I photographed these trees, composing to remove the urban context and focusing on just the branches and blossoms. On one occasion, I sat down on the median of a busy street and photographed up into the trees while traffic whizzed by.
I am also developing new bodies of work. One is a high key series called Whispers of Light. Another is called Natural Collections which feature natural objects I’ve collected, some recently and some decades ago. I photograph leaves, grasses, flowers, shells, ferns, mushrooms, etc. on my lightbox for a white background, backlit effect.
I’m not sure I’m learning anything new these days artistically but am happily continuing my journey making new work. However, after 35 years of trying to market my photography, I’m a bit exhausted with that process. In the technical realm, I’ve change camera brands and am upgrading my lenses so that keeps me entertained as I learn to use the gear.
WHISPERS OF LIGHT SERIES
“Seeing nature and looking for photographs
is a daily practice for me.”
NATURAL COLLECTIONS SERIES
JR: After years of shooting various environments, is there a time and place that remains a go-to or place of return for you? Why?
WN: Yosemite and the surrounding environs have been my “home” landscape for four decades. As in “home is where the heart is.” Any season here will do, but
WN: My sense of wonder for nature is a constant driving force for my photography. I am daily seeing things that blow me away. I don’t think much about the spiritual side of making images, nor am I deeply read on the subject. But certainly, looking backward in time, I can see that my quest to see beauty daily is a spiritual one. I don’t think that my approach is much different than four decades ago. I do see that I need the healing powers of that affirmation process as much as ever. The trends I see in the world around me, environmentally, culturally and politically are very discouraging to me, and I must fight against my cynicism daily. Nature’s beauty, as I’ve said, is my ballast in the storm.
“My sense of wonder for nature is a
I am daily seeing things that blow me away.”
JR: Much has changed with the now ubiquitous ability to access high tech camera gear and for people to take or make photographs which might have been previously unobtainable.
Do you see the possibility for a trend of reverting to more simplistic or constrained camera set ups?
WN: I am no equipment geek, and camera trends are not in my wheelhouse very often. As for more simple setups, I think that the great improvements in sensor tech
JR: What is your current camera set up?
WN: I was a Canon Explorer of Light for many years and greatly appreciated their gear and technology in those early years of digital capture. I currently use a Sony A7R2, which I love for high res and wide latitude 42 MP sensor. I have clients that need large prints. I’ve mostly been using my Canon lenses on the Sony with a Metabones adapter. I’ve recently acquired two Sony G Master lenses, the 100-400mm and the 16-35mm. My ball head is the Really Right Stuff BH-55 on a Gitzo tripod. One of my favorite Canon lenses is my 90mm Tilt Shift lens. Having been a view camera user for two decades, I enjoy still being able to tilt for depth of field control.
JR: A painter friend of mine coined the term and made a magazine with the title “Hunter & Cook” after two prominent types of artistic approaches. I noticed in a Luminous Landscape interview with Jay Meisel that my Dad (Michael Reichmann) also mentioned the idea of the photographer as a hunter, suggesting this approach being something implicit to the medium. What do you compare your approach to?
WN: I can see how “hunting” for images is a term that makes sense for how most of us find photographs. I prefer the idea of being a receptor for inspiration, for seeing what moves me. The approach of hunting for images is a more aggressive concept, which implies a fixed idea and an urgency of finding a successful outcome. My photo sessions are more enjoyable and more fruitful when I don’t “have to” make an image. I enjoy exploring the landscape for visual poetry and that is fulfilling even if I don’t get inspired or make an image.
When traveling or visiting new places, I do some research for locations, checking weather or other seasonal info so that I am better able to be in the right place at the right time. I am not a rigorous planner or fixated on making a specific photograph, but I am not totally random either. If I don’t need to make a certain image, or any image at all, I find more inspiration and often in unexpected places.
JR: Is a photograph something to be found, uncovered or created at this juncture of your career, has this ever shifted?
WN: I’d say all of the above. Sometimes, after decades of making images, I have a vague idea of what I might find. I mostly just explore and rely on my intuition. It is not unusual for me to see something that intrigues me, with my senses telling me something could be here, then I watch and wait and return until something magical appears. In that sense, I have found potential, then uncover opportunity, then create a composition that communicates what I saw and felt. My favorite photograph quote was written by Minor White, “When you approach something to photograph it, first be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence. Then don’t leave until you have captured its essence.”
JR: What is the responsibility of the landscape photographer, firstly to the environment and secondly to the audience?
WN: This is a good question, and a difficult one to answer briefly. I’ll list a few good rules to follow:
Leave it as you found it, or better off, like picking up trash.
You can best honor the landscape by becoming the best artist you can be, showing your own point of view and not regurgitating other’s POV.
Be an activist for your favorite landscapes. If you are inclined towards environmental issues, use your images to educate others about what might be damaged or lost. As an artist, use your vision to share what you love so that they might love it, so that they might help them portray and preserve endangered landscapes themselves.
As for a responsibility of a landscape photographer to the audience, just be authentic to your vision. Share your knowledge of place and technique. Ansel Adams didn’t believe in keeping secrets but believed in sharing and teaching, to give back and advance the art for all. I learned from his example.
JR: What makes a powerful or effective photograph if we remove the subject? What are the subtle ingredients at play for the process to generate results?
WN: Strong use of light and graphic design, and the photographer’s passion and unique perspective. The most vital ingredient is the photographer. Photograph what you love, learn enough technique to translate that passion into a visual experience of what you saw and felt. Overthought, over controlled
JR: You’ve written about how people should consider cultivating a personal narrative when setting out to shoot, and I’ve written the same here, is this a prime component of a successful image?
WN: I’ve written that it can be helpful for some to “write their story” but it is not required. It is more important for you the artist to understand what you want to say and know how to say it. One way to do this is to write it out to help clarify your reasons to photograph for yourself and for the viewer.
I often teach the value of developing portfolios with coherent themes. (see: Thinking in Themes) The personal narrative about which you speak can be enhanced by a simple and evocative title, or fully fleshed out in an essay or artist’s statement. As a theme is developed, it becomes easier to focus on finding new material for the portfolio because you know what you have and what imagery might enhance that body of work. All of this comes from knowing what you want to say. Written or not.(for a concise lesson on writing artist’s statements, see John Paul Caponigro’s essay: https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/3931/writing-artists-statements/
Thank you for sharing with us William!
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A SELECTION FROM WILLIAM NEILL – PHOTOGRAPHER, A RETROSPECTIVE
“I enjoy exploring the landscape for visual poetry
and that is fulfilling even if I don’t get
inspired or make an image.”
My latest book is a retrospective of my favorite photographs taken over the past forty yours. It begins with a portfolio of my Landscapes of the Spirit images. This theme emerged early in my artistic development, focused upon intimate landscapes, isolations of the broader scene. Rather than try to describe everything in front of me, I search for simple design and magic light that moved me, and the viewer, beyond a literal description.
Another major theme in my photography in Yosemite, my home base since 1977. Also included are chapters featuring my Antarctic Dreams work, Meditations in Monochrome images, By Nature’s Design, Impressions of Light, each reflecting in-depth directions and creative tangents I’ve taken.
The book’s photographs were made with 4×5 film, 35mm film, and digital captures. Although many may pay attention to the distinctions in these modes of capture, I see little difference in how I create my photographs. Sure, these things matter, but I am happily low key about the differences. It’s all about the 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, making the best photographs I can, 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 I look forward, head down again and back to work. The long and winding road continues before me.
William Neill – Photographer, a Retrospective
Introductory Essays by Art Wolfe and John Weller
Size: 295mm x 295mm (11.6×11.6 inches)
Photographic Illustrations: 151
My retrospective book is nearly sold out. It is currently for sale at the original price of $60.00 USD, but I will be raising the price as the numbers decrease, so please consider taking advantage of this notice especially for Luminous Landscape’s readers.
CLICK HERE (http://portfolios.williamneill.com/p/william-neill-phot) for more information, sample page spreads, endorsements and to purchase.
I will be happy to sign and personalize books ordered directly from me, so be sure to add the details in the “additional instructions” in the shopping cart.