Friday, December 14, 2007

Larry McNeil's "Real Indians" is 30!

To Celebrate, I'm giving one of the Real Indians photographs away.
It's kind of hard for me to believe that it's been 30 years since this photograph was made. I'm going to give one of these photographs away as part of the celebration. It is valued at $2,500.00 from my gallery in Santa Fe. Don't tell them though, this is between you and I.

Real Indians was made in December of 1977 when I was a senior at Brooks Institute. During an all-night darkroom session I was listening to a Santa Barbara radio station when the DJ played a soon to be released double album in its entirety, and I was fast enough to record it on a cassette tape. It featured Jaco Pastorius on bass and a lot of the Weather Report gang, and one of the very cool cuts took up an entire side on the album. Name this album and I'll put your name in a drawing for the photograph to be drawn on winter solstice. This tape was played a lot during my improvised trip to Santa Fe the next day.

I say improvised because the trip wasn't really planned, and I just wanted to put a lot of miles between myself and school. Everyone at school was more burned out than usual; it was an intense semester and lots of us were more than ready to hit the road. I'd just had a run-in with one of our honored faculty, Mr. Herbert E. Boggie. Boggie was one of the guys who made Brooks great and I have a great admiration for him, but he didn't approve of my shoulder-length hair, so I kind of slinked quietly around campus whenever he was around. He once stopped me in the hallway and told me to go get a haircut. My first impulse was to snap smartly to attention, click my heels together and yell, SIR! YES SIR! But I just said OK, and went the other way as quickly as possible. This was the environment in which the photograph was made, which makes it even more critical because it was overtly defiant of the Brooks culture in which I was studying to be a photographer. It was kind of silly really. I think that Boggie actually would have liked the Real Indians photograph.

The Real Indians photograph is a landmark photograph for me because it marks my first really great photograph which set the tone for my attitude towards making art. It was my only photograph that actually drew applause from my fellow Brooks students; I thought it was very cool that they appreciated its significance because they were a pretty sophisticated crowd, and they were voicing their support of what could be viewed as being a bit subversive to the Brooks culture. After all, a core group of us were free spirited and were used to having the likes of Ansel Adams, Duane Michaels, Mary Ellen Mark and so on, stopping by to shoot the breeze about photography. We knew what really great photography was about and were anxious to finish school and start being photographers ourselves.

Route 66
It was a pleasant drive to New Mexico. I hit a blizzard in Flagstaff, which was a notable omen for a Northern boy who hadn't seen snow in a long time. The photograph was made while driving near the Santo Domingo Rez, just south of Santa Fe off of I-25. It was cold, but there wasn't any snow on the ground there yet. Route 66, the famous interstate from early in the 20th century runs right through the area. Even back in 1977 it felt decidedly retro and even a bit campy. Ghosts of cars from the 20's through 70's literally had the run of the place and if you listened carefully you could hear the old cars echoing through the area. What is it about Americans that have always made them so restless? We love to travel. We're defined by the road, whatever that means.

Route 66 goes from Chicago to LA, mostly via the Southwest and roughly follows the Santa Fe trail, which was the route that the first train tracks took west. It is dotted by trading posts, motels, gas stations and diners from the early 20th century, many of which were still open 30 years ago. The feel of the Joads from Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath was palpable. So was the Indigenous presence. After all, many of the roads in America were built upon ancient indigenous trading routes; we've been traveling the continent for well over 10,000 years and we still know the best ways of getting from here to there.

Santo Domingo Trading Post
While driving past the trading post I saw a blur of the sign that covered the entire breadth of the building. It was so bad that it was good, and I did a U-turn to see if it was really what I thought it was. I walked back and forth chuckling at its audacity, looking for a place to shoot from. I shot a couple of fast rolls of the trusty old Kodak Tri-X with my Hasselblad. My good friend Patrick Nagatani once gave a lecture about photography and phrased it as "Paying attention." His premise was that one of the hallmarks of both artists and photographers is that of simply paying attention to the world around us and making work about the things we notice along the way. I'd have to say that this Real Indians photograph definitely falls into that category of noticing things, and perhaps noticing them differently than everyone else.

It was too cold to linger, so I was brisk about putting the cameras back in the trunk of my little 1976 Volkswagen Sirocco. It was a jazzed up Rabbit that got 25 MPG in town and 39 MPG on the highway. After a number of years I eventually ran this car into the ground and in the spirit of recycling, it is now a rusted out dog house on cinder blocks in Alaska. Oops, pretend you didn't read that.


After locking up the cameras in the trunk, I browsed around the trading post. It was run by the Santo Domingo people, and it was loaded with glass cases full of turquoise and silver jewelry. It doubled as a general store with little kids running in and out to buy candy and soda pop. It was adobe with wooden floors. One of the walls was covered with old dusty black & white photos of a film production shot there in 1969 of "Flap" that featured Anthony Quinn as an Indian. It was a bit surreal and seemed to epitomize my journey. I liked New Mexico a lot, especially in the winter. The smells were unique; there's still nothing like coming in out of the cold and into a house warmed by PiƱon wood which has a kind of spicy fragrance.

Camera Gear
I traveled with two cameras, a spiffy new Minolta XE-7 that was the first auto-exposure camera that was truly accurate, and a Hasselblad system. Minolta led the way with electronics back in the 70's, which is why Leica had Minolta build a lot of their cameras for them, and why their light meters were more accurate than everyone else's for so long. They both had identical Leitz Copal stepless shutters, which is what made their exposure system so fast and accurate.

The Minolta XE-7 is the same camera body as the Leica R3 and the guts are essentially the same with only minor differences. Some Leica aficionados scoff at the early R versions, but what the heck, to each his own, right? I've never been a gear-head purist and always went for whatever made my photography easy while not giving up on image quality. Who cares what the critics say? It was the first high-end 35mm camera that was fast on the draw and made exposures so accurate that even fussy Kodachromes were right on (as in right on, man. I'm hip. It wasn't a bum trip, man. Far out.). Its only drawback was that it was more of a consumer camera and I ran it so hard that it eventually just plain wore out. Oops. Dang, don't you hate it when your camera dies? It wasn't designed for pro use, or someone like me who had more intensive demands than the average user.

My pro 35mm camera body was the ever-venerable Nikon F2, and later a Nikon F2AS. I loved the Nikon FM's so much that I used two of them on a regular basis for years. They were noticeably smaller and lighter than the F2's but were still all-metal durable, fast performers.

My other camera was a Hasselblad 500CM with an 80mm and 250mm lenses with a couple of regular 120 film backs and a Polaroid back. If I was ever forced to only have one camera, this would be it, hands down, no contest. The leaf shutter in the lenses made it an ideal studio camera because it could synchronize with a strobe at all shutter speeds. It was great for on the road because it was more compact than most medium format cameras. Its impeccable optics gave it the extra punch to make itself indispensable.
If you could just have one camera?
Just about all of the medium format camera systems from that era were pretty good. I always say that the right camera is the one that works for you. Life is too short to muck around with fussy gear. Just find one that works and get on with it, man. I must say that there is something pretty special about the Carl Zeiss Planar lenses though. I still use them with my little Contax G2 system, but that's another story. When I was a kid I remember seeing the Apollo moon photos, which of course were shot with Hasselblads.

I figured if I ever have to go to the moon, I'm ready.
Enter the drawing for the Real Indians Print!
Anyway, we've gone to the moon and back, so here's the deal. To celebrate the 30 Year Anniversary of the making of Real Indians, I am going to give one away in a drawing. Enter your guess for which artist released a new double album the night before I left for New Mexico, and you'll be entered in the drawing. Which album was it? Try your retro luck.
Email your submission with your guess in the heading.
(Another hint is that the recording artist is female and Charles Mingus was so taken by the album that they collaborated on a new album the next year)

This is definitely how Real Indians do it


Jackson Rushing said...

Larry, I'm guessing Hejira.

Anonymous said...

Double album, released December 1977? Has to be:

Joni Mitchell - Don Juan's Reckless Daughter

Drumrollllll.... or am I way tooo late?