Art Works Blog

First Person with Photographer Larry McNeil

"Expressing myself, I've found, is necessary for my survival." —Larry McNeil

Innovation in photography is nothing new: the invention of the camera itself was a technological marvel. So advances in the art form are almost less surprising than artists who buck the trend, and return to earlier techniques that have largely been abandoned. Larry McNeil and Will Wilson are two such photographers, who have turned the 19th-century platinum printing process into a modern art form. Their work is currently on exhibition in Indelible, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian through January 15, 2015. The majority of the prints on display offer a lens onto contemporary Native culture, defiantly subverting a technique once popular for documenting the nation’s “vanishing” Native Americans. McNeil, who also teaches photography at Boise State University, recently spoke with us about the exhibit, and turned to topics such as the explosion of digital photography, his personal need for creative expression, and the best advice you can give a budding photographer. An edited version of McNeil’s words are below.

A Universal Art Form

I always thought photography was such a great medium for having a broad audience. It's very universal in the sense that people can understand it very easily. That's actually one of the reasons I selected photography in the first place, because people don't really have to intellectualize that much when they see photographs. It's kind of an instant message. Even kids understand it. I really love that part. Sometimes when I travel and do presentations, I'll ask to do presentations with kids too. Sometimes kids ask harder questions than adults do.

I think that a part of our genetic makeup is that we're curious. We're explorers, we love to travel, we love to ask questions. Being an artist is what all of that is about; it’s that we're curious and we have questions about the things we experience. I think the one thing that can define my life is my curiosity. If I don't know something, I'll go and try and figure it out, and ask questions, and read books, and talk to other people, and travel. I love traveling and hearing what people have to say in different parts of the world. It's learning and experience. And the actual experience is different for each one of us.

Photography is an equalizer. I have friends around the world who are doing the same thing I'm doing. They're just trying to figure out life, and making photographs as part of the creative process. I have a very close friend in Iran, and I find that she's doing the same exact same kind of photography that I am, in that she's making work about what it means to be a person in that part of the world. So in that sense, photography and other creative media can break down these artificial barriers that we've set up for ourselves.

Close-up of a feather

Elders, from The Feather Series, platinum photograph. Negative made in 1992, platinum photograph made in 2014. Photo by Larry McNeil

The Evolution of Photography

It’s been fun to watch the evolution of photography. I started doing photography when I was a teenager in the late 1970s, and witnessing the transition from snapshot cameras, instamatic cameras, Polaroid cameras, and then professional film cameras. Then we jump ahead to the early 2000s when digital cameras first started appearing. Film essentially started disappearing nearly overnight in 2003. So that was the first casualty of photography. But on the other hand, a lot of good things happened as a result of that too. For the very first time, millions and millions and millions of more people were using photography on an everyday basis. That happened starting around 2007, when the iPhone came on the scene. It was this perfect storm of the iPhone camera, and Facebook showing up. All of a sudden people could do photography and share it instantly. We have this phenomenon where 7 million photographs show up in the morning [on social media]. That's totally unprecedented. More and more people are using photography and a lot of them are using it in very creative ways, even with their cell phones. People are discovering these latent talents that they didn't know that they had.

I think [the future] has to do with keeping pace with technological advances, but still having creativity as a key part that defines us. I don't want technology to get so far ahead that it becomes kind of useless. Maybe it means keeping the humanities as part of the sciences so that we can understand what we're doing.

The Art of the Everyday

When my son was ten, I taught him photography for the first time. We were going on a trip to Egypt, and I gave him this tiny digital camera, and I wanted him to make photographs of this trip. I told him, you don't have to make these fantastic photographs—don't feel pressure to do that. I said just take this camera and have fun with it. To get him started, the advice I gave him was just notice the small stuff. As you're out walking around in the morning, as you're out crossing the street, look at the shadows. If there's a dog, go over there and make a little photo of the dog. I think that was the best advice I could have given him, because it gave him the freedom to explore. And what happened was he made a lot of great photographs. Each person is going to notice some little thing in their everyday experiences. In my opinion, that's what defines their human experience, noticing those small things and expressing themselves about it. I would put forth that that's part of our DNA. We experience life, and we want to express ourselves in some way about our experience.

Building a Creative Identity

[My identity] is multi-layered. Some of it has to do with me being a kid in 1955, and having all of those experiences in the 1960s. When you think about it, growing up in the late 1960s was very tumultuous. There were all those assassinations. The Civil Rights battles were going on. I remember being a paper boy when I was 13, and delivering newspapers to downtown Anchorage. I still remember some of the headlines from back then. Things like that tend to define your identity. So that became a part of who I was. And of course other parts too, like being born into a tribe. You don’t have any choice in who you're born to. It enters our psyche and who we are. And it always shows up in your artwork, even if you try and keep it out. That's the fun part. That means that there are layers to your art, that even if you try and keep it literal and very conscious, there are still intuitive parts of who you are that show up even if you don't want it to, or if you're not aware of it.

My existence is defined by expressing myself and photography is the medium that allows me to do that. Expressing myself, I've found, is necessary for my survival. I find that when I can't express, part of me starts to atrophy, part of me is dying. I've experienced that before, because when I was a young person, I had survival jobs just like so many other young people. I know what it feels like to not have creative expression in my life, and it feels like that critical part of my identity, of my brain, is just not being used.

Gas mask against power lines

Demented Coal Paradox from the Global Climate Change project. Photograph made in 2013, platinum photograph made in 2014. Photo by Larry McNeil

The Indelible Exhibit

[The exhibit] is two bodies of work. One of them is from the 1992 Feather series. That had to do with the idea of mainstream America celebrating their Columbus quincentennial. It's about the indigenous take on the arrival of Columbus. For me it was a very profound kind of challenge because it was questioning the notion of our continent being colonized by Europeans and the history of what happened and our response to it. I really loved the idea of going minimal with it, and just using a feather and mostly natural light. And keeping the visual aesthetic really simple, and [using] things like darkness as a layer of meaning, and simple elements like smoke, the feather itself depicted in different ways, the skull, and the sky. I really loved the idea of the sky as this representation of hope, and the potential for things to be made better.

The other body of work was about global climate change. We’re pretty clear about what it is now, and the science is pretty clear. In my opinion, this reality of global climate change is a key issue for the 21st century, for our times. We're living in such a time of transition that I think it's going to be very interesting to record what's happening right now, for writers, for researchers, for scientists, but especially for us artists too. Often times, artists are placed in this unique position of being able to speak about things that are controversial, and to have some kind of platform for them. So I feel like I'm at least trying to take advantage of that dynamic, and making art about things I think about all the time. So it goes back to that old adage of what do you make art about? Well you make art about what you see and experience all the time.

I hope [people who see Indelible] walk away with an understanding that the difficulties that we Native Americans are experiencing, and have been experiencing for 500 years, are universal too. Hopefully they can see themselves in that narrative, because they're a part of that story too. I hope that people will walk away with a greater understanding of what it means to be human, all the difficulties and so forth. We don't have answers; a lot of it has to do with questions.

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