Wendy McNeil

Don't Think, Just Take Pictures!

Below is an essay I wrote for the catalog of Wendy’s upcoming show, “Wendy MacNeil — The Light Inside” at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. January 20-April 10, 2016.http://ryerson.ca/ric/exhibitions/WSM.html Wendy was my photo professor at RISD and we are still great friends. Don’t Think! Just Take Pictures!!

I recently found a manila folder in my mother’s basement overstuffed with letters and ephemera from my college professor. Some of these notes are more than 35 years old, and all are written with a thin brown pen. Each one seemed to burst open and jump up and down with the same message: Go George GO! Entertain us. Work like there is nothing in the world except for you. Believe in yourself. Ignore the way anyone else is doing it . . . We all need that person who is our trainer, our biggest fan, our toughest critic. I had all of those people and more wrapped up in Wendy Snyder MacNeil. My relationship with Wendy began in the visitors’ room at an all-girls dorm at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, in 1975. I had been sent to that lonely outpost of old couches one night while passing through to visit a friend. Its walls were filled with photographs by one of the college’s teachers: a portrait of her grandmother, a stiff-looking French teacher in a grey cashmere sweater. . . I spent the night with Wendy’s pictures and they all became friends. I was on my way to check out the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I drove to Providence, and took the tour. When I came out on Benefit Street, I stared at the building that housed the photography department, and knew that was where I needed to be going to school. RISD was undergoing a transformational moment in 1975. The all-male faculty was shifting. Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind were retiring, but still running the place in their vision — which meant very loosely, but around strong ideas. In my first year, I somehow got myself on the committee in charge of choosing a new faculty member. I lobbied strongly for the woman who taught at Wellesley, whose images I had encountered in that visitor’s room. I knew nothing further about Wendy except for her work published inAperture, and that her photographs haunted me. The old guard seemed to want to hear nothing about hiring a woman. Francesca Woodman, a classmate of mine who went on to be a well-known photographer, knew Wendy from her photography class at Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and also advocated for her hire. I knew she was who I wanted to be my teacher. I pushed. When I came back to school for my junior year, Wendy had been hired and I was in her class. Wendy insisted that we work out of the place we feel; the place where all of our senses are at work. Her mantra to me every single week was, “Don’t think! Just take pictures!” I never understood the point of talking about art anyhow. I just knew how to feel pictures. I was lost at art school and Wendy was my way in. She would dress in layers and layers and layers, which always felt like a statement saying, “this is not about me” — a radical position in art school where most teachers insist it is all about them. She let me fill the walls with pictures — hundreds of them. She loved it when I squeezed a ton of oranges to bring fresh juice to everyone in class. She was fine with me playing audio I had recorded like a mole all week long. I realized that people opened their hearts out to me, often friends telling me things they would never tell each other. I started editing that dialogue into conversations they never would have had, then put pictures over that. Wendy saved my work for last. But there was nothing to say after I showed my work and it killed me. There was no room for dissecting the formality, the work was a mess by nature. There was no serious discourse behind the work; it was built for laughter and tears. Wendy kept me going. “It’s okay to create work out of joy,” she would say. “You don’t have to be tortured to make art.” “Don’t overthink it. Tap into who you are.” We got together once a month at a place that only served lunch called Julien’s. We would hide in a corner table and talk about almost everything except photography and her. I wanted to know what was ticking inside and she always waved her own life away. We didn’t gossip. She told me a story of buying plates and drinking glasses when a Woolworth’s would go out of business. During the cold winters, after dinner she would chuck the dirty dishes into the snow, let the animals clean them, then gather them up in the spring. I remember being so happy to know someone who “got” me in a sea of overindulgence in navel gazing. She told me a story from her visit with Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico. O’Keeffe told her that students appear on her door every day. “They are looking . . . looking . . . and what they are looking for is sitting right on the end of their nose.” Among all of the ephemera saved in my mother’s basement is a photograph of my mother and Wendy standing together. Both came down to New York City in 1975 to attend the opening of the Harry Callahan retrospective as the Museum of Modern Art. Both are beside themselves, almost spinning around in their own joy. Wendy is wearing the layers and layers of clothing my mother could never get over, and my mother was wearing a bright red dress Wendy delighted in. Taking the picture was a young photographer with an amazing teacher who allowed him to find his own rhythm by delighting in and sharing his own joy.