Jon McNeal was a participant in this year’s Spring Open Studios through 1890 Bryant. One of the reasons I always love these events is the change you can see between years. I love Jon’s work, and it was great to see the direction he’s moved in since last spring.
I am always drawn in by the vast spaces Jon shares in his images, and the weight of their presence in a room. His landscapes seem to open up and unfold as you would see them in person. Each place seems as familiar as my own environments, even those that are, in fact, completely alien terrain.
Jon recently self-published a book of his work, including many of the photographs seen here.
Kim Sikora: I’m sure, like most of us, you have a point in time where photography caught a hold of you. When did you become a photographer in earnest?
Jon McNeal: I’ve had an interest in photography since childhood, but it took some time for me to become a photographer. When we went on family vacations growing up my father always had a 35mm film camera. He would shoot mostly slide film, and we would have slide shows at home after the film came back. As a kid, the fact that you could shine light through a little piece of plastic and have a luminous image, and a memory, appear on a wall was pretty magical. I was fascinated by the fact that an instant in time and personal experience could be embedded in something and then recreated and shared with others.
When I went to college in Houston, architecture studio classes required us to research project sites which included taking documenting photographs. I wasn’t trying to be artistic by any means, but it lead to discussions about composition, color and lighting in photography, and it elevated my interest in the medium.
I subsequently had an internship in Genoa, Italy. Weekdays were all work, but on the weekends I had little money and no obligations, so I would hop on the train and take pictures of the hundreds of cities and villages that were within easy reach of Genoa.
I shot about 50 rolls of film in my two years there, so it was clearly something I enjoyed. My interest and habit have continued to grow steadily ever since.
KS: How has your imagery changed in the past few years?
JM: It’s pretty common for artists to develop a series, but I’ve only recently started shooting work with an eye for how it might fit into a larger body with a specific subject. This has caused me to be more selective in shooting and editing. It’s made me work harder for an image… waiting for light, researching sun angles and weather, and carrying more of the gear to pull it off.
It goes back to the documentary nature of photography that interests me the most. I think one of the best ways to describe the feeling of a place is through providing information, texture and detail, which is best conveyed in a large print.
KS: A lot of your imagery has an otherworldly quality to it. Can you tell us a bit more about your shooting process?
JM: I think my process is rooted in a documentary point of view. It’s what first attracted me and keeps me interested in photography as a medium. With the landscape, water, and built environment work I’m not trying to inject my personality into it. I want to let these places and moments speak for themselves, so that the viewer can make as direct a connection as possible to the setting.
As for the otherworldly quality, I think it may be because I’m interested in the environments that lie just at the margins of the everyday, or enable our everyday; they’re a mix of the familiar and strange. I think these transitional environments can tell us a lot about what we as a society value: where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Generally I want a viewer to recognize at least one element in a photo, but I want to avoiding being didactic about why it is the way it is. It creates a deeper bond when viewers search for their own understanding of what’s generating the scene. Extreme examples don’t interest me as much; they’re too spectacular, too disconnected from our lives to be as informative of our immediate, ‘normal’ surroundings.
KS: How did you decide when and where to shoot? Do you always set out with a particular image in mind, or are some of these “happy accidents”?
JM: I would love to be able to support myself as a photographer full time, but until then my shooting time is limited. For now, this limitation may actually be a good thing; it makes me disciplined as I know I have such a brief time to capture images.
I plan my shoots carefully, figuring out how long we have to drive, where to grab a meal along the way, what the moon and sun are doing at what time, how many days/hours/minutes I’ll need, and what the typical weather conditions will be. In spite of the planning, it’s humbling for me that these are often the least successful images!
The shots that I enjoy taking the most are often the ones made on the way to our ‘destination’. This often involves my wife and me happening upon and driving past something that we find amusing and doubling back to shoot it as quickly as possible, since I’m still trying to maintain my schedule. There’s no self-imposed pressure or preconceptions for these surprise subjects, so if they’re unsuccessful, it’s not as disappointing.
KS: What has your biggest challenge been?
JM: Having time to shoot more. Being available to shoot when nature’s light is most interesting is a constant challenge. It would be a luxury to be able to spend several days at a given location, really getting a sense of a place and its light. In the meantime, I’m enjoying shooting within a few blocks of where we live for those reasons, but I would love to be able to expand that intimacy to other geographic areas too.
I would love to have more time to shoot some of the delta cities, like Antioch, Martinez, Benicia. They’re at the physical and economic edges of our region and represent some of the fundamental challenges facing the Bay Area and California at large.
KS: Can you talk a little bit more about your recent work?
JM: In an attempt to bridge landscape and portraiture, I’ve been developing a series on tourists. As a landscape photographer I am fascinated by the primal experience of seeing a place for the first time. Witnessing others doing the same is a means of capturing that sense of wonder and curiosity. More importantly, a tremendous amount of cultural information can be found in observing this moment.
For me, observing their behavior is a perfect mirror to the challenge of photography, and it simultaneously helps me to discover more about a place and our role in it.
KS: A lot of photographers struggle with the balance of personal work and commercial work. How do you make the time and money to photograph consistently?
JM: I am an architect, and am fortunate enough to work for a firm that has stayed busy over the last few years. It’s allowed me to take one or two small photo trips per year and covered costs for modest equipment improvements. I’m certainly not at the point where photography alone could serve as my primary income.
The good news is that these two pursuits are similar and symbiotic. Architecture is a very long process; it takes a tremendous amount of time to design a building of nearly any size or quality. A project’s concept can be set in place fairly early, and you will work for years to make every detail support that concept; creativity comes in solving a series of small problems to realize a harmonious whole.
Because I have a day job that is demanding, it makes me savor my time to photograph. I go out shooting whenever I can, usually at least 1 day per weekend, and am always planning some sort of photographic excursion… even if it won’t happen for a while, I’m thinking about it.
KS: Is there a new project you’re working on you’d like to tell us about?
JM: I am sending out grant proposals right now for a project to document the infrastructure of the State Water Project, the most well known part being the California Aqueduct. It’s literally transformed the economy and the terrain of the state, and has fueled a majority of the population growth in the southern portion of the state for the last 30 years. I want to show what has made that possible, why it has been successful and why it will always be controversial.
Of course, at some point this game of chicken with the state’s water is going to end…so I want to use photographs to make predictions of the consequences.
It’s very ambitious in terms of geographic scope, time, permissions/access, and budgets… much larger than any single project I’ve undertaken to date. I’m very excited about it and hope to be able to start shooting in earnest this fall.