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.
The goal is to make people see the river as he has come to see it: timeless, important and desperate to flourish.
“I visualize people living there in harmony,” he says. “I visualize people fishing in non-polluted waters. I visualize trades that were being done with the settlers and the Native Americans. That’s where I draw the spirituality of it, and what it could be.”
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.