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Q&A with Neil Meyerhoff

Since the late 1960s, Neil Meyerhoff has been keeping a keen eye out for striking images of people and places. Some of the results have been acquired by such institutions as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. He is represented locally by C. Grimaldis Gallery.

The 64-year-old photographer does most of his shooting outside Baltimore. He and his wife of 40 years, Sayra, also an avid photographer, are longtime, extensive travelers. Meyerhoff's street portraiture captures people of diverse cultures with remarkable honesty; his panoramic pictures of urban and rural scenes communicate vividly (he has shot several thousand of these for Panoramic Images, a Chicago-based stock photo agency).

Meyerhoff has used various cameras, starting in the late 1960s with a Nikon single lens reflex. He launched the large-format, panoramic work in the mid-'80s with a Widelux F7 and went on to shoot with products by Fuji, Hasselblad and Nikon. Recently, torn cartilage in both wrists limited what Meyerhoff could carry, so he switched to lighter Olympus OMD models.

Admitted to the Maryland bar in 1974 (he earned his law degree from Georgetown University), Meyerhoff has a business side to his life. He's a senior vice president and CEO at Hendersen-Webb Inc., a Cockeysville-based property management firm.

He also serves on several boards of directors for nonprofits, including the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he was just named chair for the second time in a decade. Meyerhoff is the first professional artist to head the MICA board.

How early did your interest in photography begin?

I was probably 11 or 12 years old. My father [arts patron Robert Meyerhoff] built a darkroom in the basement for me and my twin brother. I would take pictures using black-and-white film and develop them. When I developed my first picture, I thought, "God, I've really got something here." When I took courses at NYU, I would take photos of students and faculty. Of course, I was trying to be artsy. I don't think I was that successful. And [while studying law], I think I spent more time in the darkroom than in class, but I still passed the bar.

How did your artistic approach to photography develop?

I started taking some workshops and going to museums more, buying books of photography. Sayra and I would go to a lot of galleries to see what was out there. I used to spend hours and hours in the darkroom. Nowadays, I spend hours and hours in front of my computer. It's the same process — to make a picture that is like what you saw in your mind. You still have to have an eye for a good picture.

What are your aesthetic goals in taking photographs?

For landscapes, the rule of thirds still applies [the traditional practice of imagining vertical and horizontal lines that divide an image into three columns and three rows]. It's not ironclad, but you want something in front that draws your eye into the picture. It has to be balanced, so it doesn't look heavy on one side. In the case of photographing someone in the street, I want them looking at me, to acknowledge that I'm there.

Have you had much trouble getting people to do that?

In Asia, people very much want to have their picture taken. In India, I set up a piece of cloth as a backdrop, and people lined up to have their picture taken. They thought it was funny and interesting. In Europe and in Morocco, which was the last country I visited, people don't want to have their picture taken. In some countries, they feel it's like you're stealing something from them when you photograph them. When I'm in New York, I walk around with a camera around my neck all the time and shoot anything that catches my attention — people standing in line at [an] ATM or at Starbucks. You wouldn't do that in Cairo. In New York, I can take lots of photos as a "tourist," and no one thinks anything of it.

Looking back over all of your photography trips, what stands out among the best and the worst experiences?

The best was Varanasi in India. We were in a boat on the Ganges about 10 feet off shore as thousands of women came down to the river to pray. We stayed right there for an hour as the light got brighter. The worst was when Sayra and I went to Myanmar. We almost drowned. We were in a boat that got caught in some rapids. Another couple of minutes and the boat would have been swamped.

How do you ensure that your camera equipment and photos make it safely through all those trips?

My wife and I always carry two cameras and two lenses in case something happens to one of them. We take pictures during the day and download them at night on a backup device.

Do you enjoy the experience of having your work on display?

In January 2007, I had 20 pictures in an exhibit and sold 13 or 14. When you sell more than half, and not just to your friends, you feel very satisfied. In 2009, during the depths of the recession, I had the same number in a show and sold zero. Photographers have got to have a lot of self-confidence. I don't need the validation of someone buying to make me feel I'm doing a good job. I know when I've taken a good picture. If I get one good photo for every 200 I take, I'm happy.

What's next on the travel itinerary, and where haven't you yet been that you'd like to visit?

We're going to Sri Lanka in November, and we're talking about going to New Zealand and Botswana. I've been to 56 different countries. I'd like to get to 60.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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