Michael Rader talks about his photographs in a straightforward, no-nonsense way. His refreshing lack of “art-speak” betrays the absence of a formal art education, save for a few photography classes taken at the School of Visual Arts.
Yet Rader’s work is sophisticated in its appreciation and depiction of luscious surface light — far surpassing the technical training he received in U.S. Navy Intelligence, where he was part of a “Snoopy Team” that photographed new weapon systems on Soviet vessels.
Born and raised in Long Island City, the 46-year-old has lived his entire life in Queens, except for 1981 through 1987, when he was stationed with the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Rugged, strapping and the owner of a Harley, Rader wouldn’t fit central casting’s idea of a sensitive artist, but, in fact, he is. Balancing his passion with a day job as a paper converter in Central Islip, Rader has practiced fine art photography for the past seven years.
The borough of his birth has offered up many worthy subjects, among them, the grounds and funerary sculptures of Calvary Cemetery in Woodside. Shooting there recently, and that same day in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Rader aimed his camera through the open window of his car. Employing this technique probably felt familiar given his surveillance experience, but the reason was the weather, explaining “(it) was the day we had the torrential rain.”
The dramatic effects of precipitation are evident in the resulting series of ethereal black and white photographs, shot with a telephoto lens. Trees are shrouded in mist and an overcast sky adds depth to the drapery folds on the carvings of neo-Classical angels. This was Rader’s kind of day, when the subjects he likes best to photograph — landscapes and cityscapes — are embellished by meteorological conditions.
“Mainly what I think are the most interesting shots are those about weather, including clouds,” says Rader. It seems only natural that his favorite photographer is Ansel Adams. From Rader’s ninth floor Woodside apartment, the sweeping view of Manhattan’s skyline inspires urban versions of Adams’ well-known photographs of clouds hovering over craggy peaks. In a photograph Rader took at sunset several years ago, wispy cirrus formations mimic cranes in flight above Gotham’s skyscrapers.
Rader’s renderings of atmospheric masses call out for black and white film. That medium also suits his fascination with repetitive patterns — both natural and manmade, as in his photograph of rippled beach sand colliding with the parallel slats of a boardwalk; and another of multiple entrance stairways shot in profile at close range.
Though he sometimes shoots in color using a digital camera, Rader feels color can distract the viewer.
“What I feel about black and white is it gives you a chance to concentrate on the subject matter — the line, the shape,” said Rader, whose film of choice is Ilford HP5 Plus, which he described as a medium grain film. “It’s a 400 speed film, you don’t need a lot of light. I love the contrast you get with it.”
Until recently, Rader has not thought about showing his work, let alone assigning titles to his photographs. However, now the time seems right and he’s in the process of assembling a portfolio of 9 inch-by-12 inch borderless black and white prints.
Consistent with his verbal honesty, except for possibly adjusting the contrast, he doesn’t expect to enhance the images during the printing process.
“I don’t really believe in manipulating too much,” he said. “I don’t even like to crop images. I like to get the shot and crop through the viewfinder.”
Straightforward and no-nonsense, that’s Michael Rader.