Photographer donates prints exploring beauty, change of Island landscapes

Splendid, lush, and perennial natural beauty is what most people associate with Martha’s Vineyard. Yet the history of this Island is also one of change and loss. Photographer Neal Rantoul was witness to the sudden spike in building development in the 1980s and 1990s, and sought to document the Island’s beauty during this time of rapid change.

More than 30 years ago, Rantoul started offering his services pro bono to the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the natural beauty and rural character of the Island. Stepping into this project, he didn’t suspect his work would be anything more than high-quality prints advertising the organization’s preservation work to the public.

In 1995, a few years after ending his collaboration with VOLF, Rantoul exhibited the pictures of the Island’s landscape he took while working with the nonprofit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Last Wednesday, Oct. 8, Rantoul donated to the MVM the same 21 pictures that hung in Edgartown 25 years ago.

Rantoul, who has a family home in Chilmark, was awarded tenure at Northeastern University in 1987. This recognition, and newfound professional stability, prompted him to share his professional expertise with various profits, starting with VOLF. “With real job security, I could do some things that might not bring me much exposure to critics and curators, but might benefit others,” Rantoul wrote on his blog.

Quickly, however, Rantoul realized the scenes he was photographing were more valuable than he had suspected. Most of the sites he was brought to by VOLF would have houses built on them in the next couple of years. The question was not if but how soon such construction would happen. “It was at a time when there was so much building and development going on on the Island that it felt kind of pervasive,” Rantoul said in a phone interview with The Times. “I became aware that there was a little more importance to these pictures than just documentation of a site that VOLF was managing.”

A serendipitous and symbiotic relationship formed: Rantoul would provide his photographic services to VOLF, while VOLF would grant Rantoul access to many gorgeous Island sites otherwise inaccessible.

Just like one of his influences, Eugene Atget, a sense of responsibility overtook Rantoul as he continued photographing these untouched sites, even after ending his collaboration with VOLF in 1993. Atget was a French photographer famous for documenting the remnants of Old Paris quickly disappearing due to modernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Atget imbued his photographs with a sense of tragedy — desolate, winding cobblestone streets, old-fashioned couturier storefronts, and Parisians working bygone street jobs punctuate his work. In Rantoul’s case, it is not through a cosmopolitan city but instead landscapes with wavering grass, rolling beach dunes, and serene lakes that he explores the questions of preservation, degradation, and loss.

Rantoul, following Atget’s choice of equipment, ditched his 35mm camera for an 8 by 10 in. large-format in 1984. “I was photographing incessantly. Almost everything. All-consuming. I felt at that point that if I started to look at the negatives that I processed or the prints that I made, there was no focus,” Rantoul said about his work with the 35mm cameras. “There was no intent. Not much substance. It was a little out of control.” Switching cameras forced Rantoul to work more slowly and therefore more deliberately, even in contemplation of his subject matter. Now, instead of shooting more than 300 photographs a day, a busy day would yield only about 20 photographs. Changing his equipment and technique forced Rantoul to understand and appreciate the beauty and temporality of his subject matter, and enabled him to infuse his prints with a depth of feeling otherwise difficult to realize.

The importance of preserving what exists, and what can or will disappear, applied not simply to the Island’s natural beauty Rantoul was documenting, but to the very photos he produced as a result. “At my age it seemed like a good thing to begin to divest of the work that I thought was worthy of being archived or seen or held by some institution,” Rantoul said about his decision to donate his collection to the MVM.

Bonnie Stacy, MVM chief curator, explained that Rantoul had approached the museum for the donation. “We are very grateful to Neal for this really generous donation,” said Stacy. “I think it’s really cool the way that these images are not just illustrating the continuity of Martha’s Vineyard, but because they were exhibited at the museum 25 years ago, it’s a nice sort of through-line from that time in Edgartown to our new museum in Vineyard Haven.”

Though the museum doesn’t yet have specific plans to exhibit Rantoul’s work, the collection is particularly versatile. “It’s actually nice to have that, not just as a sort of snapshot record, but rather as a body of work done by a professional photographer, and so it has the artistic value and the record value,” Stacy explained. The collection could therefore be displayed by itself, or individual prints could be added to a broader exhibit exploring either the change or continuity of the Island’s landscapes.

Rantoul’s prints will contribute to the museum’s already rich collection, serving as witness to a certain period of the Island’s development, and helping to inform the community about the importance of preservation. Yet, for an artist, letting go of one’s product is always a poignant act: “I will mourn the loss of this work from my collection, but as we age, it is incumbent on us to part with work that can have a life under others’ care,” Rantoul wrote on his blog.