Early on (at the inception of this blog, that is), an incredible stroke of luck had me stumble upon a marvelous site created and run by Larry McNeil, photographer extraordinaire of American-Indian descent. His work struck me as powerfully grounded, full of heart and mystery, strong, achingly personal and universally poetic at the same time. So I immediately put his website in my Blog Roll. His sharp, under-the-radar humor kept beckoning me . . .

Three months later, I still couldn’t get him out of my head: the feathers (connection to my Collage?), and the crow, and the subdued strangeness of his “nowhere” crossroads and landscapes kept swirling in my mind’s eye. I felt Larry McNeil had woven his magical imagery into my consciousness and therefore I chose him as my subject for this presentation.

A phone call to his home put me in touch with his wife Debbie  –a bead artist herself who divides her time between her jewelry art during the winter months and real estate  the rest of the year– and shares her life with Larry in Boise, Idaho. Larry is a very busy artist (2006 was an amazing year by his own reckoning), with countless projects running at once –these these have kept him traveling most of  2008, says Debbie– while fulfilling the duties of a Photography teaching position with demanding students. His blog tells of his adventures all around the world, his meetings with other photographers, discovering new talents, celebrating in pictures the beauty of nature around the US and abroad.

Its all about raven

Short Introduction - Larry McNeil

Short Introduction - Larry McNeil

His main website is the beautifully-designed portal that drew me to his work. Mixing artfully displayed photographs –treated almost like etchings– and a series of short texts threaded through further goad the viewer into unknown territory. Raven Asks Pontiac, for instance, from Larry’s Portfolio’s drop-down Flash menu, draws us into a dialogue/soliloquy where raven (yes, crow-like; could it be a play on words, aka the Crow American-Indian Nation? Larry likens Raven to the Trickster to whom all is possible) is interviewed by Pontiac. The series opens onto an image that reveals a close-up of the hood ornament of an antique Pontiac, eerily morphing into the profile of a wide-jawed American-Indian sculpted in the 1930’s Russian-Populist style. Muted blacks, lithograph-like reds and blues, smudges, all conspire to make the portfolio look like a found object. Something found in the dust of a lost civilization, a long time after the Crows are gone, after we are gone . . .

The American-Indian from Pontiac

The American-Indian from Pontiac

Cryptic graphics and drawings, half erased, punctuate the site, contributing the half-obfuscated meaning of the Raven asks Pontiac episode a sense of “lost language”. As I re-read this short story, the image on the TV news comes back to me: oh ironical is it to have watched a few days ago the posturing of 3 CEO’s from our 3 major automakers in the US, speaking of disappearance, disaster, the threat of obliteration . . . Armageddon rising at the horizon, brought to you thanks to the selfish ethics of an unwieldy, top-down, antiquated hierarchy. But I digress. . . . Am I, really?

Raven Asks Pontiac

Raven Asks Pontiac

 Tumbleweeds rolling through the failing auto-makers’ plants might not be too far behind. Raven might ponder, shake his beak, take a last look at the hidden message Rules of Cultural Diffusion on the last page, and perhaps fly off . . . in unruffled silence.

In Fly by Night Mythology, Larry infuses quiet, subversive humor into Raven’s new adventure. Showing how polite and civic-minded Raven is: waiting patiently for the cross-road signal to turn the correct color, and walking when allowed. “Fly don’t Walk”, he calls it. Raven mutters: “Finally, the red hand turned into the figure of a white man walking. Not wanting to offend anyone, I did my best imitation of a white man walking, and crossed the street.”

Fly Don't Walk

Fly Don't Walk

The Old-Courier typeface resembles that of a manual typewriter on its last leg. I imagine a Jack-Kerouac-type Raven, sitting alone in a dilapidated bathroom at some near-abandoned hamlet, typing with all its feathers on a roll of toilet paper, On The Road -style. The same keyboard keys keep smudging and piercing the fragile paper. Raven flies off. The manuscript is found, one hundred years later, full of dust, a small raven feather stuck on one of the pages. . .

Further into the manuscript, Larry writes about a Tlingit family –his ancestors– who used to live in Juneau and how they were forced by the town’s bullies to leave their homestead with a promise of reimbursement for their land, and were never paid for it. Collage and writing mixed together speak of debt unpaid, unequal treatment from the “whites” and unspoken pain. Especially the unspoken, untold pain, the hidden humiliation, the blackening of one’s hopeful soul. “This is as real as it gets[,]”  replies Larry to an off-page interviewer, while Zorro creeps in and out of the next pictures . . . A Savior can come from anywhere . . .

Larry McNeil’s work handles personal memory and collective memory as one and the same precious repository of irreplaceable treasures. Old photographs, graphics, stamps, sky, sign-posts, revelatory store shingles, fields, teepees, the spectrum of life intertwined with other humans and with nature, the good, the great, the bad and the profound all handled with philosophical equanimity. Shades of sepia, browns, dust, tears, stitches and scratches become the breathing skin of his visual work. Oh, and that wit : Enlightenment can come from anywhere. . . . To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: “A shingle is a shingle is a shingle.”

The more I look at Larry McNeil’s work, the more I seem to discover, yielding endless sources of visual and inner ahas. Did I mention he bought his first camera at 17, for a photo class? His grandmother had something to do with his passion for photography when he was barely 10 . . .

Why not listen to all the details in the interview below. Beware, though: once his haunting images grab you, they may never let you go. You should be so lucky . . .

Larry’s complete profile is here.

Listen to his interview here …

Please Stand By - Larry McNeil

Please Stand By - Larry McNeil

Thank you for your time.


2 Responses to “Photographer’s Presentation – Larry McNeil”

  1. teeharbor Says:

    Hello Catherine,

    Thank you for writing about my art. I liked your essay, and realize that my art isn’t the easiest material to write about, even for myself. Your essay is insightful and I was very pleasantly surprised to read it, and just wanted to let you know here.

    I am impressed with the photoshop class you take there at Napa Valley. I’ve been teaching digital photography for quite some time and its always fun to see how other people approach it.

    I loved the story of your first camera and the photo contest in France.

    Thank you again,
    Larry McNeil

    1. photcat Says:

      Thank you so much, Larry, for your kind response and taking the time to send me a note. Your work is truly inspiring to me. You manage to say so much with such discipline of means, never shades of black and gray and sepia have looked so rich and complex. I found a door ajar, inviting me inside, beyond the thin chaos of your photographs. And I went there, and talked to Raven. He’s the one who wrote the essay. Here’s to Raven!

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