Then in 1994, McNeil’s mother’s health began to fail, and he moved to Anacostia to care for her. He found the concrete that surrounded their Ward 7 home suffocating. To escape, he often headed to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where he’d spend full days studying paintings.
The canvas splendor went a long way, but it didn’t match the beauty of the outdoors. In search of green space, he began walking to Fort Dupont Park, a few blocks from his mother’s home. When she was still able, she’d come with him, sitting on a bench in the shade as he strolled the perimeter of the park, shooting flowers, broken branches and birds. Occasionally McNeil made his way to the river, but it inspired disgust rather than awe.
“There were abandoned cars in the river. Tires. Refrigerators. It was the ignorance of, ‘Just throw it in the river. Throw it on the sidewalks or down the sewers,’ ” he says. “I started to become very offended by that.”
He’d travel across town, climb out on the rocks near Chain Bridge and photograph the tire-free Potomac. But within a couple of years, he came to a realization: “You can’t blame the community if you’re part of the community.”
He started shooting the Anacostia’s blight, hoping that if he showed people the river’s affliction, they would come to its aid. What he found is that they didn’t want to see it.
“That’s a negative view, and I’m already alienating people when I do that,” he says he realized.
So, he altered his perspective. McNeil began to seek the Anacostia’s veiled majesty. He walked the river routinely, often in the morning and at dusk, when it’s quiet and cool and the world is illuminated in soft, gold light. He shot the water’s ripples and the wetlands. He stood on the river’s banks and nearby bridges, watching for bald eagles, sunbathing turtles and moments when the clouds seemed to move in tandem with the water. The Anacostia became his muse. Within photography circles, McNeil, who still favors floral print shirts, beaded bracelets and straw hats that nod to his bohemian youth, became known as Washington’s “River Man.”
For more than a decade he collected images of the river, never knowing if they’d be put to use. But a few years ago, some friends showed him the work they were doing with Photoshop. McNeil always felt he was at a disadvantage to painters, who can add and subtract to their images at will. This technology, he realized, could be the great equalizer.
He began reworking his Anacostia shots, brightening colors on some, washing over others with a painterly effect. He transposed images onto one another, giving the final work a haunting, otherworldly quality. The face of a water spirit floats above the river; flames sprout from the water’s edge; foam on the surface looks like an impressionist’s dream.