“Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson” is currently on display in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. McNeil, a Native American from Alaska, said his display at the Smithsonian comes from two bodies of work — one inspired by global climate change and “The Feather Series” he put together in the 1990s.
McNeil, a 59-year-old who now lives in Boise and teaches at Boise State University, began his career in photography while he was still in high school in Alaska and working for his father in the commercial fishing industry.
“I bought a camera I saw in a pawn shop window and took a photo class,” McNeil said. “That was all it took. By the time I finished high school, I knew I wanted to be a photographer.”
After graduating high school, McNeil said he used his earnings from working in the commercial herring fishery to visit California.
“I earned enough money to go visit the West Coast photo schools. I bummed around the West Coast for two months.”
McNeil attended the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California, earning his Bachelor of Arts in photography. From there, he attended the University of New Mexico, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts in photography.
For the Smithsonian exhibit, McNeil printed all the work in platinum — a 19th century photographic process that has the most archival durability, McNeil said.
“Platinum won’t fade away,” he said. “Digital photographs only last about a hundred years and the old color prints only last 20 or 30 years … platinum is the longest lasting of all the different mediums.”
McNeil said platinum has the most durability because it doesn’t oxidize, unlike photos printed in other mediums.
“That’s the beauty of it,” he said.
One of McNeil’s pieces currently on display at the Smithsonian is titled “White Raven Ceremonial.” McNeil said “White Raven Ceremonial” captures both his fascination with global climate change and with urban versus rural landscapes.
McNeil said he put the piece together over six weeks when he was a visiting artist in New Zealand.
“Some of (the elements) were made by hand in Photoshop, the power plant was in Chicago and the wall was in San Francisco. The raven was in Alaska.”
Included in “White Raven Ceremonial” is an appropriated image of a gas mask McNeil said he found in a Popular Mechanics book published in 1935. He said he “was looking for something retro. I liked the feel of (the gas mask). It was what I was imagining.”
Gas masks are a recurring theme in McNeil’s recent work centering on global climate change. McNeil said he has been influenced by the terrible air quality in large urban areas. While visiting Tokyo last year, McNeil said he was especially struck by the poor air quality.
“The thing I noticed in Tokyo was how awful the air was … it’s choking, so there are already places in the world where you do need a gas mask.”
As a photography professor at BSU and a photographic artist, McNeil said he is always working to divide his time between his art and his career as a professor.
“There’s part of the clock that’s for being a professor and the other part is for the research. That’s very natural because (professors) are evaluated on how much time we dedicate to each one of these endeavors … They are strengthening each other and that’s the ideal kind of thing.”
“Indelible” will be on display in the Smithsonian through January 2015. McNeil is currently working on a new project with the Smithsonian that will use platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to develop a more interactive relationship between the public and the photographic arts.