The Accidental Surrealist

----------------------By Bill Small--------------------------------

Working in black-and-white with a Leica M1, Jim McNitt developed an informal, documentary style that won him a following among New York ad agencies in the early 1970s.

While realism was the cornerstone of his professional work, McNitt was increasingly drawn to the experimental in his personal photography. In Moholy-Nagy's photograms, Paul Caponigro's abstractions and Jerry Uelsmann's photo composites, McNitt found new approaches to photography that had deep roots in such movements as Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

“The works I most admired had one common theme,”  McNitt explains. “They transcended the mechanical, record-keeping function of photography. They had no visual reference to a specific time or place. These were timeless images that used the photographic medium to express a singular personal vision.”

He was most deeply moved by Uelsmann’s elegant and ambiguous photo composites. “They revealed a world that only the inner eye can see,” says McNitt. “For me, Uelsmann represented the perfect intersection of art and photography.”

McNitt also recognized that photo composites required a level of darkroom expertise to which he could only aspire. But he could experiment.

McNitt built a silkscreen press and fashioned colored paper prints from his black-and-white negatives. He explored the Sabattier effect, cross processing, photograms, multiple-exposures, and even primitive photo composites.

After two years in professional photography, he says that , "my commercial portfolio reflected the mainstream, ‘decisive-moment’ philosophy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. But my personal work was inspired by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Paul Caponigro, Diane Arbus, Jerry Uelsmann and others who were finding new ways to expand the traditional boundaries of photography.”

Taking Flight

In June 1974, he traded the Leica for a motor-driven Canon F1, joined forces with pilot Tom Dywer, and won a contract from the Boston Bureau of United Press International (UPI) to shoot aerial photos of the America's Cup trials in Newport, RI. "The UPI contract was a starting point," he says. "An opportunity to learn by doing."

In Newport, he documented both the races and life behind-the-scenes. "I shot pre-dawn crew workouts and late night celebrity parties. I tried to portray the personalities as well as the spectacle," he explains. He also made portfolio prints and showed them to anyone willing to look.

Carol Saner, a photo researcher for Time Magazine, not only looked, but liked what she saw enough to team McNitt with two men whose careers had helped define U.S. photojournalism in post-Depression America – former LIFE Magazine photographers George Silk and Ralph Morse.

Silk had made a name for himself as a combat photographer in the South Pacific during WWII. Morse was the technical wizard who headed LIFE's coverage of the APOLLO lunar mission.

While Silk was amiable but withdrawn, Morse was a fun-loving extrovert who was delighted to mentor an aspiring photojournalist. McNitt credits Morse with teaching the "intangibles" of photojournalism: "He never said, 'Kid, this is what you have to do.' He didn't have to. Watching Ralph plan his shots, respond to editors, and deal with reluctant subjects with off-hand humor taught me things I couldn't learn in photo magazines or workshops."

moholy-nagy: photogram, ca 1933

caponigro: redding, connecticut, 1968

uelsmann: untitled, 1969

mcnitt: america's cup, 1974

mcnitt: southern cross & courageous, 1974

Arbus: Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

As the summer unfolded, McNitt visited both the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and the old Newsweek headquarters on Madison Avenue with increasing frequency. "I happened to be in the Newsweek Photo Dept. during Richard Nixon's resignation," he remembers. "There was no outwardly celebration. But there was a sense of pride that their magazine had, in some small way, helped unravel the web of political corruption. It was hard to believe that a few months earlier, I'd been photographing nasal decongestants and feeling as if the world were passing by."

More and more, he was being assigned to shoot color and encouraged to look for imaginative solutions and fresh perspectives. His work was receiving national attention and impressing the yacht-racing community. He was the only photographer invited to sail aboard "Courageous" during practice races, and was given open access to the "Courageous" tender, sail loft, and crew accommodations at Hammersmith Farm, the childhood home of Jackie Kennedy.

By the time the 1974 America's Cup ended in a "Courageous" victory, McNitt had seen his photos appear in Time and Newsweek as well as newspapers including The New York Times, England's London Times, France's Le Monde and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald. Canon asked him to endorse their F1 camera for a national ad campaign headlined "Jim McNitt and the Canon F1."

It was an approach that was at times frustrating, but which also brought unexpected benefits, or as he puts it: “There there were important synergies. The discipline required to succeed in commercial photography and photojournalism carried over into my personal work. Equally important, I think all the experimentation helped infuse fresh ideas into many of my professional assignments.” Although McNitt, admits, he didn’t see it that way at the time.

After two years in commercial photography, McNitt was growing increasingly restless. “I was spending my days photographing Afrin bottles, hospital procedures and people in various forms of distress ranging from arthritis and allergies to blunt force trauma and congestive heart failure. I seemed to be living out the lyrics of the Peggy Lee song, ‘Is That All There Is?’”


At the time, Canon was challenging Nikon's hold on the professional market. In McNitt, they found an emerging photojournalist whose work radiated adventure. How many other pros would ride a bosun's chair up a 90-foot mast for a bird's-eye view? Or had designed a harness for hanging out the door of a low flying airplane? "He is the only photographer I know who consistently produces images that make you think, 'I want to be there! I want to do that!'" wrote Martin Luray, a boating-magazine editor who worked with McNitt for two decades. "He's also the only photographer I know who always brings back a cover photo, no matter how difficult the subject or adverse the conditions."

McNitt had met Luray in Newport and discovered that they, too, were North Jersey neighbors. In October, Luray sent McNitt on a cover assignment to shoot aerials off the coast of Atlantic City. It was the first of more than 200 magazine and book covers he would contribute during the next decade.  Luray also encouraged McNitt to spend the Winter of 1975 crewing in the Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC) in Florida and the Bahamas. "Just be sure to take your cameras," he hinted.



Meanwhile, Saner had put McNitt on the photographer's roster for the Boating Series under development at Time-Life Books.  After several routine assignments photographing "text-point" illustrations in boat yards on Long Island and Connecticut, Saner called him in Miami with what was to become one of the pivolal assignments of McNitt's career. "I need someone to fly to the West Indies, go to the St. George's Yacht Club in Grenada, find a guy named Donald Street and get portraits of him and his boat," she told him.

Street was the Heinken-swilling author of what was, at the time, the only reliable cruising guide to the Windward Islands. But instead of finding him in Grenada as planned, McNitt learned Street had just sailed out of the harbor for a week-long cruise. Don Street, it turned out, had a well-deserved reputation for unpredictability. "Street would radio that he was going to spend the night in some remote anchorage, I would locate a plane and fly out to meet him, only to find he had changed his mind, turned off his radio, and anchored somewhere else," McNitt recalls.

The assignment became a game of hide-and-seek spent pursuing an elusive Don Street across the Grenadine archipelago via taxi, chartered plane and, eventually, a mail boat. On the the third day, McNitt intercepted and photographed Street. But in the course of the search, he also documented some of the most spectacular island scenery in the world – jungle clad volcanoes, coral reefs awash in foaming breakers, azure lagoons and palm shaded beaches.

On a snowy February afternoon, McNitt made the rounds of boating magazines in Manhattan with this portrait of a tropical sailing paradise. He came away with a photojournalist's dream – an assignment to return to the Windwards and shoot a feature article. Within the year, McNitt had become one of a handful of marine photographers who circled the globe on assignments for publications with names like Rudder, SAIL, Yachting, Boating, Motorboating & Sailing, Cruising World, and Sea Magazine.

In 1980, Hearst Publication's Motoboating & Sailing included McNitt's work alongside images by Edward Weston, Edwin Levick, Stanley Rosenfeld and Beken of Cowes in a portfolio of the best marine photos of the 20th century. By the mid-1980s, feature assignments had taken McNitt to every coastal U.S. state and more than 40 maritime nations – including Cuba and China.

"Feature photography was the perfect vehicle for indulging my wanderlust," he explains. "I was also incredibly fortunate in my timing. I entered the field in a narrow window of opportunity between the moment when growing competition forced boating magazine editors to take photography seriously, and the arrival of the Internet, which made sending photographers around the world obsolete."

There was another implicit advantage to his career in marine photojournalism. It was an ideal training-ground for fine-arts photography.

Fine arts and photojournalism serve different purposes. "Fine-art photography demands an intensely selective and personal vision," says McNitt. "Photojournalism can work through the prism of personal style, the goal is a factual, not an interpretive, record." Yet, both demand a sensitive eye and practiced technique. And as McNitt observes, "both disiplines require an ability to tell stories with pictures." Photographers who achieved recognition in fine arts and photojournalism include Paul Strand, Margaret Bourke-White, Lisette Model, Dianne Arbus, and W. Eugene Smith.

McNitt's first experience with artistically-inspired image making came at a very early age and seems to have affected him deeply. "As a child, I sketched endlessly on old envelopes and paper scraps," he says. "In my imagination, those graphite sketches were living scenes more real than the often bleak Central New York landscape outside my window – more vivid than picture books or even the flickering glow of the television screen."

Then, everything changed. "One afternoon, my father taught me to expose blue-print paper to sunlight and develop the latent image over an ammonia bath. The first time I saw the ghostly outlines of familiar objects -- sea shells, toy soldiers and maple leaves – emerge as white shadows on a pale, celestial blue field, I froze in wonderment," he exclaims.

Turning paper scraps into miniature realms of imagination with a No. 2 pencil was "cool."  But McNitt discovered that drawing with sunlight and watching blue-shadow portraits gradually emerge as if by magic was "thrilling beyond description."

Expressive photography played an important role during his later childhood. McNitt had a rudimentary darkroom and was adept at developing negative film and making contact prints while still in primary school. Among his surviving work from this period are a series of grainy Civil War re-enactments which bear a strong resemblance to the 1860s prints of Mathew Brady and a 21-image narrative WWII sequence inspired by Audie Murphy's 1955-film To Hell and Back.

"The neighborhood was awash in war trophies – every basement was decorated with rifles, helmets, medals, cartridge clips, flags, even complete military uniforms," he says. As a result, it wasn't difficult to outfit a platoon of 10-year olds with some ill-fitting but serious military hardware.  Ironically, although his childhood was steeped in military lore, by 1966 McNitt had become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.

In the meantime, his passion for photography went unabated. In college McNitt borrowed cameras and darkroom facilities to pursue self-assigned projects. "Photography wasn't just something I wanted to do, it was the thing I had to do," he remembers. "Even if I'd never had a professional assignment, I still would have been making photographic images."

In 1968, with Vietnam raging, McNitt stumbled into the first major U.S. exhibit of Surreal art since the 1930s. "I had a summer job in mid-town Manhattan and was told that the MOMA courtyard was a great place for lunch," he says. "But before I could reach the Café, I saw Max Ernst's painting 'Europe After the Rain.' Half-an-hour later, I was still studying the details, transfixed by Ernst's frottage effect and exquisite yet horrifying vision of apocalyptic destruction in an age of unlimited warfare."

His first paycheck went for a MOMA Membership. McNitt doesn't recall exactly how many times he returned to MOMA's Surrealism retrospective, but estimates it was "easily in the dozens."

Outside of a few Dali paintings and couple of slides in an art history course, it was his first exposure to Surrealism. "I walked into MOMA by accident," he says. "But I walked out as an enthusiastic convert to the Surreal aesthetic."

In their penchant for political anarchy, free-love, and self-liberation through uncensored expression, the European Surrealists of the 20s anticipated the excesses of the 60s counter-culture revolution by about 40 years. But it was the alternative universe of puzzling, dreamlike imagery in the paintings of Max Ernst and Rene Magritte and the photographs of Man Ray and Herbert Bayer that McNitt found so profoundly compelling.

"My accidental encounter with Surrealism was simultaneously exhilarating and humbling," he says. "Exhilarating because I saw so many of my own half-formed visual concepts realized with consummate skill on canvas and photographic paper. Humbling because I realized that I was not the first or the only person to have these ideas." McNitt spent the Winter of 1969 in Paris, birthplace of the Surreal Movement. The following year, as a graduate student, he helped teach a college course entitled "The Art and Literature of Surrealism."

"Surrealism grew out of the unspeakable carnage of WWI and a profound loss of faith in European institutions of church and state," McNitt explains. "Similarly, many in my generation felt betrayed by an 'establishment' that used America's youth as cannon fodder in a senseless foreign conflict." Surrealism was all about subverting the old order in art, culture and politics, and it's hardly surprising that McNitt felt an affinity for visionaries such as Ernst, Magritte, Bayer, Man Ray and Tanguy.

If anything, that affinity deepened over the years. At its most trenchant, McNitt's own work confronts issues that contemporary society would rather ignore – fear, grief, depression, aging and death. But his vision is never quite as bleakly pessimistic as the original Surrealists. For instance, one of McNitt's most disquieting images depicts a screaming nude falling helplessly into an abyss. But elsewhere in his portfolio you can also find a photo composite in which a smiling nude soars peacefully above the Manhattan skyline.

"The Surrealists had experienced human folly at its worst. Since rationalism had failed so abjectly, they were willing to accept the virtues of irrationality on blind faith," McNitt observes. "But they ended up substituting one form of absolutism for another. Artistically and philosophically I think they were on the right path, but they went too far. What the second half of the 20th century taught us is that between the absolutes of good and evil, of black and white, there are many, many shades of gray. Stupidity, corruption and greed may seem to have the upper hand in this world, but even in the darkest hour, there are redeeming acts of great human courage and kindness."


McNitt began working with digital technology in the early 1990s, and considers his first successful digitally-edited composite to be his 1994 "She Moaned (In Exquisite Pleasure)." He still shoots with the photojournalist's preferred kit – 35mm-format bodies and lenses – although he migrated from film to digital cameras in 2000.

Photoshop is his primary tool for compositing and what he calls "digital elaboration." McNitt also incorporates Computer-Generated (CG) imagery into his work from time to time – a fact that annoys some purists, but for which he makes no apologies. "I am a  purist as well," he quips, "I'm purely delighted to consider any technique that will help advance the concept I have in mind."

McNitt receives thousands of comments and critiques (see the bottom of this page for a sampling.) They are about 90-percent favorable, with most expressing admiration for skillful technique and creativity.

Among what he considers "intelligent" critiques are those contending images that contain a mixture of photographic and computer-generated elements are more akin to graphics arts than photography. "My personal belief is that if an image contains camera work, then it's photography. But the issue is certainly open to debate." Topping the list of what he calls "the really, really dumb" comments are complaints that because "a composite image contains one, two, three, or more photos, that it is somehow no longer 'photography.'"

Digital imaging represents such a complete break with silver-halide technology that McNitt wonders how much of the intellectual framework of 20th-century photographic criticism applies to the new medium. "The quarrel between pictorialism and purism will certainly endure" he predicts. "But do aesthetic arguments about the unique role of photography still have validity in an age of pixel-by-pixel image editing?" How the question is answered will depend, at least in part, on whether or not digital techniques contribute "thoughtful and original new work that expands the artistic boundaries of photography."

McNitt says he strives not to use his own digital-editing abilities gratuitously. He considers digital elboration as a way extending the reach of photography, not replacing it. "I try to restrain my experimental impulses, and reserve digital modification for situations where there is compelling justification," he explains.

McNitt's imaginative application of digital techniques, buttressed by his credentials as a photojournalist, have been a notable factor in advancing the aesthetic legitimacy of digital editing among fellow photographers. His top-ranked portfolio on the popular web site attracts more than 1,000,000 visitor "hits" a year. Many of these come from serious photographers who visit for the detailed explanations of digital technique McNitt often includes with new images. "Your body of work has been inspirational for me," Haleh Bryan, a rising star in Northern-California art photograpy, wrote to him recently. "I should partly credit my maturation process as an artist to such great influences as you."

Einstein's Dream

What is it about photography that he finds so well-suited to Surreal expression? "We are culturally conditioned to accept the photograph as fact," he says. "Which makes it an ideal medium for exploring different perceptions of reality." McNitt asserts that the understanding of psychology, especially the significance of dreams, has not kept pace with the physical sciences.

"We spend as much as a third of the day experiencing thoughts and emotions that are suppressed or forgotten by the time we awaken," he contends. "Yet dreams have unseen consequences that shape lives and even the course of history." McNitt points out that Einstein gave part of the credit for his theory of relativity to a dream he had as a young man.

"In the dream, Einstein saw himself riding his boyhood sled down a Swiss mountain slope on a clear Winter night under a canopy of stars. He dreamed that he gathered speed until he was hurtling through space at a fantastic velocity. As he approached the speed of light, he observed the color of the stars shift around him in spectacular fashion. Einstein told science-reporter Edwin Newman that his entire career was an attempt to explain that dream!

"Imagine how different the history of the 20th century might have been without Einstein's dream?" McNitt asks. "Surreal images are one way of poking at the fabric of reality in search of meaning which, like Einstein's Dream, lurks below the surface of conscious thought." Alan Riding might well have had McNitt in mind when he wrote in the The New York Times "Arts Section" that "today's photographic artists... seem more intent on altering than on recording reality." (NYT 11/19/05)

Like Longfellow's little girl with a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when McNitt's view of life grows dark, things tend to get horrid. Take "Anguish," an unnerving image which is at once stylistically elegant and yet so emotionally-charged that it seems to emerge from a sweat-soaked nightmare. Or "Grief,"an image that captures the sense of a world ripped asunder by death. It's difficult to name another contemporary photographer who can achieve such profound psychological horror without resorting to gothic devices or clichés.

From the richly saturated mock-Cubist "Nude Descending a Guitar Case" to the dazzling blue caustic swirls that lend "Anguish" such stunning originality, McNitt's genius is most evident in the variety and abundance of his themes and techniques. To be sure, within the categories he has demarcated – "All in a Dream," "The Surreal World," "The Darkside," "Nudes," "Dreaming NYC," etc. – there are clusters of stylistically similar images that seem to fit together as snugly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

The "blue images" so prevalent in the "Dream" and "Surreal" galleries have almost become his signature style. Almost.  But the brush-like Cubist effect found in such diverse images as "Nude Descending a Guitar Case," "Door at the Edge of the Universe," and "Approaching NYC" is also virtually unique to McNitt.  And what of a selective palette that so often seems to favor vibrant reds, ambers, oranges and yellows?

Spend enough time in his galleries, and you will discover that despite its apparent diversity, McNitt's work is unified by an artistic sensibility that is fascinated, if not obsessed, with the inner workings of the human mind.  What makes him so unusual is that McNitt explores our most desperate emotions with the same intensity that he brings to celebrating the beauty of the physical world.

As a result, his work is becoming increasingly collectable. McNitt can be found in the personal collections of Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Ted Turner. The Librairie Maritime et Outre Mer in Paris mounted a massive retrospective of his marine photography in 2000 and his sailing photos are now in the permanent collections of nearly a dozen museums around the world. Among his recent work, some of the images most popular with corporate and private collectors include "Umbrage,""Fantasm,""Carnevale di Venezia,""Time Warp," and "Serenity.”

In the end, whether working as a photojournalist, as in the unique marine aerial"Tall Boy" and the haunting 1978 photo of "Hands" in Santiago, Cuba, or creating fine-arts composites such "Falling," "Aguish," "Grief," "Pepper," and "Shutter Bird," McNitt's greatest gift is the ability to reveal the iconic essence of his subject.

mcnitt: spreaders, 1978

mcnitt: three spinnakers, 1980

mcnitt: Guangzhou teens, 1979

The Surreal World

ernst: europe after the rain, 1941-1942

bayer: the lonely metropolitan, 1932

mcnitt: falling, 2004

mcnitt: contours II, 2005

mcnitt: seducer of time, 2003

mcnitt: hands of time, 2003

mcnitt: she moaned, 1994 (photocomposite)

mcnitt: nude descending a guitar case, 2003 (photocomposite)

mcnitt: einstein's dream, 2004 (photocomposite)

mcnitt: anguish, 2004 (photocomposite)