Free public boat rides from Bladensburg Waterfront Park have been instrumental to his work. A few hundred yards from the dock, where trash clusters near the boathouse, McNeil points to two egrets landing on the rocks in the river. “It’s like ballet,” he says. Reeds bending gently are “like poetry.”
“You wouldn’t even know you’re in the city from here,” he says. And that, to McNeil, is the real tragedy of the Anacostia. His neighbors are so close to a patch of nature that has the potential to nourish them the way it does him, but most don’t go near it. “They’re spending more time on concrete streets when they’re surrounded by a beautiful environment.”
About a year ago, McNeil, now 72, began organizing the Anacostia River School of Photography, a ragtag group of a half-dozen photographers who either live or work in the neighborhood and are devoted to shooting the river and its environs. In the past nine months, they’ve had shows at the Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia and Parish Gallery in Georgetown.
The reaction he gets, especially from his own neighbors, is often the same: “This is not the Anacostia River. This is not our river. It’s too beautiful.”
He knows that purists will criticize him for shaping the images with Photoshop, but he doesn’t care. The process doesn’t work, he says, unless it starts with a great original photograph; from there it’s just about carrying his artistic vision a little further.
“I wanted to move them. I wanted to stop them,” McNeil says. “I want them to say, ‘Oh, wow. I want it to be like this.’ You gotta see where you’re living — and if you don’t, I will.”
McNeil’s mother died in February. But he still goes to Fort Dupont Park and wanders down to the river with his camera, especially if he thinks it’s going to rain. “I’ll close my eyes and listen to the sounds — the birds singing, the rustle of the trees.”
It’s like meditation, he says, or theater. The Anacostia is, for all its destruction, dazzlingly alive. You just have to see it.