On Friday, September 29, 2017, a ribbon cutting ceremony inaugurated a new public art installation at the Good Hope Road SE underpass with the aim of connecting Historic Anacostia to its river, both separated by Interstate 295 for over four decades. Building Bridges Across the River and ARCH Development Corporation with the support of the Kresge Foundation, PEPCO and City First Bank worked collaboratively for over 22 months to realize the project.
A 2014 study by a group of Virginia Tech students, who led a three month “walkability and accessibility study” according to Building Bridges Across the River, suggested the use of art as a means of reconnecting the Anacostia neighborhood to its riverfront. As a result of the study, a partnership between Building Bridges Across the River and ARCH Development Corporation ensued to implement the study’s findings.
Duane Gautier, President of ARCH Development Corporation, drew up plans for a series of panels based on a similar installation he saw while traveling in Europe. ARCH’s staff then constructed and installed the panels. The public art “mural” consists of six sets of triptychs for a total of 18 panels. Each of the six triptychs is illuminated from the edge of the panels and not from the rear as with other similar installations.
The selection of artist Bruce McNeil’s series A Boat Tour down the Anacostia River dovetails seamlessly with the aim of connecting Historic Anacostia with its river through public art panels under I-295. Bruce McNeil has documented the Anacostia River for over 20 years through a visual narrative of his personal connection to the waterway. McNeil partnered with artist Michael Platt to print large-scale images for the public art panels.
At the public inauguration ceremony, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray stated “I’m proud that internationally acclaimed artist and Ward 7 resident Bruce McNeil helped create the environmental art for the lighted 295 underpass art installation connecting east-end neighborhoods to Anacostia Park, the river and the future Bridge Park.”
A Boat Tour down the Anacostia River documents the passage of the river from its headwaters in Maryland to its confluence with the Potomac River at Poplar Point. Each of the six triptychs show the river’s journey including points along the way like the Eastern Power Boat Club, the Navy Yard and one of the river’s most ubiquitous residents—a great blue heron.
Further examination of Bruce McNeil’s iconic images of the Anacostia for this public art series reveals the artist’s desire to see a return of the river to a more pristine environmental state while remembering its history.
What follows is a series of questions answered by artist Bruce McNeil about his artistic process and philosophy.
What type of cameras have you used?
I still have my Hasselblad from the 1960s. In the old days, I had a 4 x 5 wooden camera that was at least 75 years old for my landscape photography; it is an antique. I can use those but, I need film for the photography shoots and it is very costly. Like others, I collected every type of camera that I desired. Today, I only buy what is necessary for my images. If I have a major project, I will rent the camera for that assignment. I don’t loan or borrow cameras.
Currently, I shoot with a Nikon D7000, Nikon D300 and Sony mirrorless. Rarely, do I shoot with my iPhone and I no longer use the darkroom. Around 2010, I gave a lot of lights and other equipment away to Howard University’s graduate students who then became professional photographers and filmmakers. Still today, I assist emerging photographers, especially east of the river residents. I will give them my old Apple computers with photography software and sometimes, financial support; I pay their Call to Artist entry fees. I will invite them to be in a show that was designated to be a solo for me. In the past, I conducted personal tours of my studio or an occasional private class.
How has your narrative changed?
Starting around 1969 as a photographer with McCord Museum in Montreal, Canada, I was photographing architecture, and had my own business as a commercial photographer. Primarily, I was hired by classical ballet and ballet jazz companies. They were two different dance companies.
Since my childhood, as a New Yorker, I always documented the Hudson River and took family photographs with the cameras that were in the house. I grew up in Sugar Hill in Harlem and later we moved to Queens and I always visited the Hudson River with my friends and family. I guess my fascination with the waterways started as a child. I still document the Hudson River when I visit my family or longtime friends.
I started to dismantle my darkroom in my basement around 2008. Many professional photographers were turning towards digital photography.
Who influenced your decision to shift to digital photography?
My biggest influence was the iconic Gordon Parks when he decided to explore digital photography in his later years. Now, that was an eye-opener. Also, film was becoming obsolete and after shooting on film and processing it for decades, I wanted to experience the new frontier—digital photography. Parks had a major impact on me making this decision. An immediate influence was Michael Platt, visual artist and printmaker. His brilliance with printmaking was and still is exciting and mind-blowing. Visiting Platt’s Studio became a daily outing. It was like an artist colony for me in the heydays. He is my printmaker.
When did you first begin taking pictures?
In the 1960s, I moved to Greenwich Village and I discovered myself as an artist. Like many, I became a self-taught photographer. Nevertheless, I took a lot of classes and workshops from masters who worked with or studied with Ansel Adams and his zone system in NY. I was fascinated with landscape photography.
When I went to Canada in 1969, I began an apprenticeship with Anthony Graham, a biologist. I documented rats in black and white for cancer research using the zone system. Ansel Adams developed this technique. Therefore, I learned that every image had to be perfect due to the medical reporting and documentation of the rats especially their teeth. Graham studied with Minor White who was a protégé of Ansel Adams.
What is your approach to the medium?
As a self-taught photographer, I studied the basic rules of photography and that has kept me grounded in the discipline’s fundamental principles. I love black and white photography, shadows, textures, and such. I apply those same rules when I shoot digitally. The only difference is that I will use my painterly approach with Photoshop to embellish colors like turning the polluted colors of the water to a natural color that most of us associate with clean water. This goes with my philosophy of conservationism of what the water can look like in the future and what it looked like before settlement. For example, I will sit and study an environment for a long period waiting for the right light and view. However, I never take pictures at random. I am not a snapper. I always compose the shot in my mind. And yes, I do miss scenic shots and once-in-a-lifetime images because of this philosophy.
Why did you select this medium?
It was the best medium that I can use to express myself as an artist. I grew up around the arts. Frequently, my mother would take me to the museums in New York City. It was a vacation for us to get away and spend endless hours in the museums. Still today, I love museums and galleries; I can spend an entire day in a museum and never get bored. Professionally, I subscribe to photography magazines, take classes, attend conferences and enjoy a good artist talk.