Review by Geoff Wittig
Readers of Outdoor Photographer magazine in the U.S. may be familiar with William Neill’s work from his long association with the publication. He is probably best known for his beautiful large-format film photography, much of it centered around Yosemite National Park. He has lived adjacent to Yosemite for the past 40 years, which is certainly a nice backyard. But as this gorgeous book attests, his body of work over the decades encompasses as much broader range.
Art Wolf provides the introduction. Following this is a testament to Neill’s perfectionism and work ethic from John Weller, his former assistant and a highly skilled photographer in his own right.
William Neill is a sensitive writer in addition to his photographic skills, and in a short essay he articulates his artistic philosophy. The Hudson River School landscape painters of the 19th century explicitly sought evidence of the divine in the natural beauty of forest and mountain, and tried their best to express this in paint. Neill likewise has sought spiritual solace and connection to something greater in the beauty of nature, expressed through photographs and rendered with meticulous craftsmanship. Quotes from Minor White and Paul Caponigro nicely illuminate what he’s getting at. He also discusses the challenges of curating images to make a coherent statement from 40 years of work.
The first section of images is titled Landscapes of the Spirit, not coincidentally the title of Neill’s 1998 book. The photographs are gorgeously rendered color images ranging from vivid to delicate. I’m a sucker for impeccably composed moody forest images, and these are lovely.
The images range from older 4x5-inch film captures to recent digital images; the grouping is conceptual rather than chronological.
Next is Antarctic Dreams, which speaks for itself. One may be forgiven for thinking it’s difficult to take a bad photograph in Antarctica, but I’ve seen plenty. The images here are lovely, from glaciers and mountains to crystalline ice formations.
Next up is Meditations in Monochrome, a very nice selection of black-and-white images. William is of course known as a master of color, but he began exhibiting at the Ansel Adams gallery with Ansel’s approval, and he continues to work in monochrome with digital capture and digital printing methods.
By Nature’s Design is a collection of details and abstracts, ranging from a 1976 image taken with a Pentax Spotmatic to exquisite large format and digital captures. My own experience tells me that creating a worthwhile photograph from this kind of subject is a lot harder than it looks.
Sanctuary in Stone focuses on Yosemite, and includes many of Mr. Neill’s iconic photographs from the Park. Interspersed with grand images of El Capitan and the valley are delicate close-ups of dogwoods against moving water. The range of photos digs a lot deeper than the customary ‘tunnel view’.
Finally, Impressions of Light is a collection of experimental images, most captured with intentional camera motion to yield soft colorful abstracts. Easy to do; very hard to do well. I was immediately tempted to head outside and try some of this myself, which can’t be a bad thing.
Wrapping up the book is a full set of thumbnails identifying technical details and dates for all the photographs. I found this fascinating, partly because it is difficult or impossible to tell which images are from large format film versus digital SLR capture, so consistent is the technical and aesthetic quality.
As an aside, this book is an apparent swan song for Triplekite, based in England, a small publisher of high-quality photo books that has ceased operations. They previously printed Dav Thomas’s beautiful With Trees and Charlie Cramer’s modest but lovely Yosemite.
William Neill, Photographer, A Retrospective:
TOP Contributing Editor Geoff Wittig is a rural family physician with interests ranging from health care quality improvement, medical informatics, and integration of health care delivery to photography and landscape painting. Photo books are a particular area of interest; he admits he has far too many for his own good.
© 2018 by Geoffrey Wittig, all rights reserved
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