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A Superwide Point Of View: Photos From An American Series

Neal Rantoul is an artist and teacher who has been instructing photography for nearly 30 years. He is currently head of the photography program at Northeastern University and taught for 13 years at Harvard University. An exhibition of his work goes on display at Panopticon Gallery in Boston a week from today. Gallery owner and director Jason Landry obliged a request to introduce the photographer and the exhibition.

Before Leonardo DiCaprio ever walked on the set and shot his first scene for the movie Shutter Island, photographer Neal Rantoul had already been there. The backdrops for the movie were these abandoned houses located in a wooded area on Peddocks Island, off the coast of Boston. A series of photographs from the island, made in 2004, are included in his recent monograph, American Series. Now off-limits to the public, buildings lay dilapidated and decaying, part of the old Fort Andrews, an inoperative artillery post that was built to protect Boston Harbor up through World War II.­­

In Rantoul's words: "I found a way to photograph that allows me to connect pictures to pictures, forming a narrative." Working in narrative, or in a series, is something that is now taught in many B.F.A. and M.F.A. photography programs throughout the world. Rantoul has used the concept of "series" to organize his work. He elaborates, "I became interested in the ability to speak more completely about a place, a frame of mind, light, or the relationship between things."

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Rantoul started out shooting with a medium-format camera, "a two and a quarter" (in photography speak), meaning the image and negative were square. The camera was a Hasselblad Superwide, capable of getting in close and creating tack-sharp images that fill the frame.

It doesn't come as any surprise that artists and photographers can get emotionally connected to their work. Oftentimes, the more personal a project, the better the outcome. In his series Oaksdale, Washington, Rantoul had stopped on the side of the road to catch some shut-eye during a long road trip to Pullman, Wash. — where he was photographing his popular "wheat" series. When he woke up, he realized he was right next to a cemetery.

He explained to me that he began to shoot the landscape from inside the cemetery, then moved into the landscape, shooting back into the cemetery. The four pivotal images in that series happen to be the single tree, double tree, triple trees and the dead tree. These images hold particular weight, not only for the way in which they were shot — but also for the feelings that Rantoul experienced during the trip. As he put it: "When I was shooting the trees, I couldn't help but think of my best friend who was dying. By the time I focused the camera toward the dead tree, tears were rolling down my face."

A selection of Rantoul's earlier works will be on display at Panopticon Gallery in Boston from Nov. 10 - Jan 4, in an exhibition titled Neal Rantoul: Twenty-Five Years (1980-2005)