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Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography

Scott McFarland: A Cultivated View

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Interview with the Artist

Interview with the artist by Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator, CMCP
Vernissage, the Magazine of the National Gallery of Canada. Spring 2009

Through a blend of analogue and digital processes, Scott McFarland creates photographs that reflect a refined interaction with nature. The garden is a recurring theme as are relationships with animals. These subjects represent the delicate balance that exists between the human and natural worlds.

McFarland uses a 4 × 5 Arca-Swiss field camera to maintain strict control of framing and composition; he also scans his negatives and digitally alters the photograph to aesthetically control the final image. Using these techniques, he creates a highly detailed, self-contained world that delivers a rich viewing experience. To prepare for this exhibition, I chatted by email with Scott McFarland while he was in England on a photo shoot, about his work and how he creates photographs that present a real and desired vision of place.

Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator, CMCP:
Who inspired you to take up photography as an artist?

Scott McFarland: I would not say anyone inspired me to take up photography as an artist. I was inspired by photography itself. At the time I discovered this about photography, I was interested in becoming an architect; taking pictures with a camera changed that.

AK: Who did you study with and where?
SM: I attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Mark Lewis, Roy Arden, Jeff Wall, and Liz Magor were professors of mine. I feel fortunate to have studied with them.

AK: An early project of yours, Laboratory, was dedicated to the darkroom and chemical photographic development processes. What was your interest in this subject and how has it been expressed in other seemingly unrelated projects such as the Gardens series?
SM: Gardens is the first body of work I developed after university. I wanted to return to what I saw was one of the original subjects of photography: plants, more specifically, the space of plants. Laboratory is a continuing project where I am photographing the space of the darkroom and commercial photo businesses. I started Laboratory at a time when the traditional idea of the darkroom — and what defined photography — was changing. My own practice was going through this shift as well. I happened to be working on Gardens and Laboratory simultaneously and I began to see the connection between the two processes of gardening and photography.

AK: Pouring, Ben Kubomiwa Treating Fountain with Potassium Permanganate (2002) makes evident your simultaneous interest in gardening and photographic processes. Could you comment on this image and the types of activities that are occurring in general in your Gardens photographs?
SM: When I was taking photographs of gardeners occupied by their everyday activities, I could see similarities to my own actions with photography, including printing in the darkroom. In Pouring, the figure is emptying a container of potassium permanganate solution into water, which will cause a reaction depending on levels of other chemicals in the water. In this case, the pond is home to koi so he is balancing the PH levels for the fish. In relation to photography, there is a way to check on the exhaustion level of the fix by using a product called “hypo check.” I regularly pour this into the fix to ensure the solution is still performing its task of

AK: The garden is a venerable subject in the history of photography. Do you see your photographs influenced by early practitioners such as William Henry Fox Talbot and the photographs he took on his estate?
SM: I was thinking about Talbot when I mentioned the idea of plants having been one of photography’s earliest subjects. He made photographs of his landscaped estate because strong outdoor light was required to expose the slow speed paper negatives he invented. His photographic laboratory was located at Lacock Abbey, and he needed to be in close proximity to it because of the uncertainty and complexity of his experiments. His garden and surroundings provided the necessary photographic elements to develop his process.

AK: How did you discover the garden as a photographic subject in Vancouver? How did you convince people to let you into their gardens?
SM: The gardens I photographed were in a neighbourhood close to where I lived. At that time, in the late 1990s, there were many abandoned large properties with unkempt gardens as, for example, depicted in Orchard View, Late Spring: Vitis vinifera Wisteria (2004). I started by working without permission on these vacant properties. As Gardens developed, I wrote letters asking for permission to photograph places I felt had good pictorial garden elements.

AK: How do you understand space and place in your work? You often take photographs in a limited area where different photographs relate to one another spatially. Do you wish to create a sense of familiarity of place for the viewers, even if they have never visited the area you are photographing?
SM: I like photographing a specific area frequently, because I am not only exploring a space, I am also discovering how to make photographs of it that are new. For me that process takes time to develop. I don’t always know how a body of work will come together beforehand. My images are the result of photographing a subject in all types of conditions, and then later editing the material first by traditional analogue methods like contact sheets and then moving towards digital post-photographic construction.

AK: Why do you digitally alter your photographs?
SM: I began altering my photographs early on because I was dissatisfied with how single exposure images turned out. 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. My inclined way of making photographs that is natural for me is not the single decisive moment style image, but rather layers of individual exposures combined.

AK: How do you see the characteristics of the photographic medium informing your work? I’m thinking of how you handle light in your images (and the compression of time that occurs in the image) if shots taken at various points in the day are worked together to make a final print.
SM: My consideration of the formal elements characteristic to photography changes with each body of work I do. Empire comprises a montage of different qualities of light taken at various times of the day to best highlight the plants and their arrangement, as seen in the work Echinocactus grusonii (2006). This heightened the image’s unnatural appearance. I felt this was appropriate given the aesthetics at the Huntington Desert Garden, which where the desert garden is more theatrical and designed for compositional pleasure rather than purely taxonomic presentation.

AK: Could you explain your idea of editioning? Usually photographers produce a limited number, an edition, of the same image. However, you will use the same view in several works but change the sky, for example. Is there a precedent in art for this type of handling of the image?
SM: Hampstead is a body of work I am currently producing in London. It continues with some of the ideas that interest me in relation to landscape pictures and the issue of variation. The series comprises approximately 15 images, each in an edition of five. The sky in all 15 images is different in every edition. As no two editions are the same, they become unique. John Constable painted in Hampstead during the summers, but I found his work on Salisbury Cathedral more interesting. It is a work he painted four times, each time changing the sky to affect the atmosphere and mood of the image. You can visit different museums and see the different variations. I liked the idea of him making copies of a painting an object that is usually unique — and of making my photographs unique, which is the opposite of what usually happens in photography.