My previous research for assignment 5 has been concerned predominantly with subject matter; specifically the representation of farming and the rural landscape but, whilst Scott McFarland touches on these subjects, I am more interested here in his photographic processes and the aesthetics of his final images.
McFarland studied at the University of British Columbia under, amongst others, Jeff Wall and Ray Arden starting his professional career as Wall’s studio assistant before becoming his main printer. (1) McFarland’s work is a complex mixture of conceptual art, analogue photography, staging, time elapse techniques, combination printing and digital manipulation often with strong references to both painted art and the history of photography whilst his subject matter is equally broad including rustic architecture, gardens, zoos, street scenes, photo labs, landscapes and sky-scapes. This cocktail of techniques and subjects makes him satisfyingly difficult to pigeon hole so I will make no attempt to do so. Nancy Tousley makes the key point when she says “McFarland thinks of the pictures he makes not as photographs but as works of art on paper …….. (this puts) the emphasis on his role as a picture maker, which is what he is, as opposed to a picturetaker.” (1)
A significant proportion of his work starts with multiple, traditional large format photographs taken from a fixed position over the course of many hours, days, months or even years as shown in Orchard View above. The negatives are scanned into a computer to become fragments in Photoshop montages that are often constructed from hundreds of photographs. His depiction of seasonal effects are particularly striking examples of how this process combines the indexical nature of the photograph and what Grant Arnold calls “a skepticism towards the claim to truth long associated with the medium” (2: p.11) This ambiguity makes reviewing his work an intriguing challenge, an investigation, an exercise in code breaking as the viewer approaches what appears to be a photograph in the documentary style that only begins to reveal its mysteries as out of place shadows, changes in light, seasonal changes and the multiple appearance of individual human subjects challenge the initial impression.
McFarland points out that ‘the idea of combining multiple exposures is not new to photography. It goes back as far as Gustave Le Gray’s seascapes in the 1850s.’ (3) In practice photography’s relationship with truth has always been challenged by artist photographers as evidenced not just by Gustave Le Gray’s combination printing (i) but more ambitiously by Oscar Gustav Rijlander’s Two Ways of Life in 1858 which combined thirty-two negatives (ii). Montaged or combined prints are, if not common, extensively used by contemporary photographers; at times as with Jeff Wall’s A View from an Apartment where Wall has captured the interior and view of the exterior as two separate images as a way to solve much the same problem that confronted Le Gray. (iii) At the other extreme we can find Joan Fontcuberta’s photomosaics (here) or John Goto’s theatrical composites (here) which, like McFarland, contain strong references to painted art.
Whilst McFarland’s complex processes intrigue me and offer inspiration for future projects it is his seemingly simpler images that are directly relevant to my current research. The images in question fall into three groups: combined prints of inhabited spaces, shacks and interior details.
If I was looking to review McFarland’s work in general Reshoeing would probably be a poor example as it is not obviously a combined print; I make this point with some trepidation as I have been unable to find any background on this image or on the series from which it comes. However, what interests me here is the strong narrative that has been achieved through the, seemingly staged, composition. The forge in the back of the farrier’s truck moves to the assistant shaping a red hot shoe and onwards to the farrier fitting the shoe; one could even argue that the horse’s head and her owner provide an ending to the story line. The placement of the four elements from left to right, i.e. in the natural direct of reading, strengthens this sense of narrative.
There are a number of other pictures included within either Scott McFarland (5) or Snow, Shacks Streets Shrubs (6) that have this strong sense of narrative. Some, like Stables on Dr. Young’s Property 2006 are more obviously combined prints and his garden series often convey the use and nature of these spaces over time. If we take these seemingly straight documentary style photographs as a group there are a number of common characteristics that differentiate his work:.
Strong light: especially noticeable in his garden pictures – accentuates the foreground subjects whilst emphasising the strong accent colours that are often included in the compositions.
This strong light also introduces crisp shadows that, by falling in contradictory directions, often provide the code to unlock how the picture has been constructed from multiple negatives.
It seems unlikely that all this lighting is natural and I surmise that McFarland uses large cinematic lights or large LED panels to accomplish these results. However it is achieved, the effect is to bring a cinematic and staged atmosphere to many of his pictures; an effect that is not only referential to Jeff Wall but bears some similarity to the work of Gregory Crewdson or Anna Fox.
Ambient light: it is also notable that McFarland is interested in using ambient light for his interior shots.
He makes the point that “with the cabin images in particular the real subject for me was the light sources and their ambience to the space.” (6: p.144) He goes on to say that by using these available light sources the image gives a “truer sense of the environment through its mood”.
This use of light temperature as a compositional tool is indeed prevalent in his cabin pictures but also appears as an accent in the farrier’s forge in Reshoeing.
In practice it appears that for many of the cabin pictures there is a mixture of ambient light and photo lights. This is clearly seen in Sugar Shack below; the (red) central fire and a (yellow) work lamp are complimented by a strong overhead white light which is probably a LED panel or strobe lights.
Historical references: one might argue that in contemporary photography there exists what my father’s generation called a classical education. McFarland shares with Jeff Wall, John Goto, Mark Abouzied, Christian Louboutin and many others a deep understanding of historical painted art and this forms the basis of a number of his compositions.
The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lust Garden references an 1831 painting by Johann Erdmann Hummel. (2: p.26) but the relationship between the two pictures is more complex that their subject matter; McFarland explains that Hummel was interested in how the newly installed, and then highly polished bowl, reflected the people staring around it; “His painstaking effort to accurately depict those reflections was like a mirror ….. like a lens.” (6: p.145) McFarland sees its current state, chipped and marked by the events that have flowed around it, as a “sculptural reflection” of Berlin’s history. (6: p146) McFarland is paying homage to a proto-photographic artist by capturing Hummel’s lens with his lens after a two hundred year interval.
Martin Barnes draws our attention to the skys in McFarland’s Hamstead Heath series as being influenced by John Constable (7: p.77). Once again his interpretation is complex; he explains that Constable painted multiple versions of the same Hampstead Heath scene changing the sky to meet the requirements of different customers; McFarland has not only used similar locations but has produced a series where the sky was changed to react to to the subject in the foreground.
Staging: to expand on this point, where people are included in his pictures there is often a sense of theatrical staging.
One senses that in scenes like After Candide each person has been very carefully placed. This is obviously essential when combined printing or stitching is the intended process. However, even ignoring the same subjects appearing multiple times in After Candide, staging nearly always brings a particular feel to a picture, a sense of unreality that challenges the documentary style of the image.
Panoramic: After Candide is also an example of McFarland’s very typical constructed panoramas. his technique, using a 5×4 camera, is to take a series of shots by rotating or panning the camera and to combine them in Photoshop. This approach creates pictures that more closely replicate the way we view a scene providing a more intense or complete idea of a locale. Mcfarland describes his intent was to “return the image as much as possible to its original appearance as seen by the human eye.” (2: p.15)
The panoramic approach is also a form of time elapse photography so the sense of narrative is emphasised by the acquisition of images over time. By combining all these elements McFarland moves beyond straight documentary style photography; paradoxically by introducing the unreality of staging, combined printing and time lapse the end result is a more complete record of a place, a representation that is not static but a more fluid narrative of how a place is inhabited and used or how changing light or the seasons impact a single environment. In essence a cocktail of unrealities that create a super reality or even a surreal depiction of place. Kitty Scott describes his photographs as:
“a sophisticated compound picture which simultaneously represents a layered multiplicity of times, an intensity of detail and an uniquely texted spatial quality.” (6: p.33)
McFarland has returned to small buildings and their relationship to the landscape on several occasions. He approaches these structures as working, economic entities not as kitsch rural architecture, this is an important distinction in the context of avoiding representing the landscape as a rural idyll (see here). As mentioned above McFarland sees light as the “real subject” in these studies but, if this is the case, the end results go way beyond his intent. The shack, cabin, shed or workshop has been mythologised in recent times, with a changing contemporary nomenclature that has reclassified them as man-caves, hideaways and rustic retreats; a strange shift in perception that romanticises humble and function architecture and projects it as a desirable accessory within contemporary lifestyles.
My perspective is of working spaces, examples of industry within the landscape regardless of whether it is a gardener’s potting shed or an artisan’s factory. As such these spaces represent not just the activities that currently take place within them but the personality of their inhabitants and, nearly regardless of their age, they become the repository of discarded projects, redundant equipment, off-cuts and kept items, “it will come in handy even if I never use it”, abandoned futures and evidence of the current inhabitant’s and the building’s history.
It is easy to accept that his shacks are studies in light and it is the relationship between the brightly lit interior spaces, often as discussed above as combining ambient and introduced lighting, and the natural light falling on their exteriors and the surrounding landscape that makes these studies so interesting. In his Sugar Shack series he includes three similar pictures, one empty and two inhabited, and it is these that I see as reference points for my assignment.
These pictures represent this small building as a hive of industry, a rough, unpolished place where an artisan works with his hands to create a commodity. The space is full of a mixture of strange and familiar equipment which is somehow pertinent to an arcane process. There is a sense of movement and activity; smoke drifts from the fire, the artisan’s hands and arms are caught mid-task, he is in shirt sleeves despite the snow that lies on the ground outside his open doors. The landscape looks inhospitable with deep snow lying beneath bare branches and is lit by just enough ambient light to faithfully describe it as a backdrop to the industrial scene. Are we arriving to buy his wares, or are we something more wild waiting on the edge of the light watching his activity?
This is one of McFarland’s less common subjects but on a number of occasions he has investigated the currently useful and the long discarded contents of working spaces. These studies are subdued in comparison with his exterior daylight work but he explores and faithfully records these places and the unintentional sculptures that hide under benches and in forgotten corners.
Small workshops are magical places where unexplained objects collect dust for years neither revealing their original purpose nor hinting at their future. My own workshop is full of such objects, some inherited from my father’s workshop, some found in junk shops or in sheds and garages we have acquired when buying houses. The farms I visit all include sheds or parts of barns where pieces of machinery have been carefully stored, sometimes for decades, waiting to be reborn or just left to rust. Each piece has a history that we might never know, no one recalls placing them there or knows who tied that rope over the beam or when or why but over time each piece of now redundant material settles into the dust and debris to become a dormant part of the building itself.
They feel like archeology in the making waiting for the structure to collapse around them and the earth to drift over before being found and dusted down in another millennium to puzzle their finder and to be explained with that default designation of having “an unknown ritual purpose”.
Notes on Text
(i) The technology of the 1850’s imposed long exposure times on the documentary photographer resulting in the blank white sky that is a common feature of early landscapes. Gustave Le Gray took advantage of Frederick Scott Archer’s then new collodion process which allowed him to precisely cut two separate film based negatives to create a single combined negative for printing. A task that would have been impossible with Calotypes or Daguerreotypes. (4)
(ii) Significantly and obviously manipulated images were, if not common, certainly being produced even in the 1850’s. Oscar Gustav Rijlander’s Two Ways of Life entailed combining in the darkroom thirty-two glass plate negatives and is a quite remarkable and very early example of a photographic tableau which would require a non-trivial investment of time to replicate in Photoshop using digital images.
(iii) Jeff Wall explains his intent for this image as beginning with “the recognition that most of the interiors I’ve photographed are quite closed in, I don’t like to repeat myself and so I wanted to do an interior that was open, that included an outside.” The view was therefore quite obviously an important component of the picture but even with post processing it would have been challenging to balance the subtle interior lighting with the view from the window. Wall’s solution was to photograph the interior and the view separately and combine the images in photoshop.
(2) Arnold, Grant (2009) Picture Work: Scott McFarland’s Recent Phoographs – Included as an essay in Scott McFarland. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and D&M Publishers
(5) McFarland, Scott (2009) Scott McFarland. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and D&M Publishers
(6) McFarland, Scott (2014) Snow Shacks Streets Shrubs. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig
(7) Barnes, Martin (2009) The Sky in Sympathy: Scott McFarland’s Hampstead Series – Included as an essay in Scott McFarland. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and D&M Publishers
(1) Tousley, Nancy (2010) Beyond Photography: Scott McFarland’s Art Links Camera and Computer (accessed at Canadian Art 1.10.16) – https://canadianart.ca/features/beyond-photography-scott-mcfarland/
(3) Reeve, Charles (2010) Scott McFarland (accessed at Frieze 2.10.16) – https://frieze.com/article/scott-mcfarland-0
(4) Willette, Jeanne (2015) Gustave Le Gray 1820 – 1884 (accessed ar Art History Unstuffed 2.10.16) – http://arthistoryunstuffed.com/gustave-le-gray-1820-1884-part-two/