Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography

Scott McFarland: A Cultivated View

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In his Gardens series, which concentrates on private gardens found in Vancouver’s affluent West Side, McFarland unites the desired view of the garden with collaboratively staged scenes of maintenance. In some cases, the exacting composition and pose of workers underscore the idea of human activity blending with nature as seen in Inspecting, Allan O’Conner Searches for Botrytis Cinerea, where the arched backs of the gardeners echo the curved bends of the hedges and shrubbery in which they work. In addition, gardening activities are integrally linked to photographic processes as the two share many common elements. Both make use of chemicals; photography with developer fluids, stop baths and fixatives, gardening with fertilizers and pesticides. McFarland also sees his photographs influenced by early practitioners such as William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) who, in addition to being the creator of the negative-positive process that became the basis of modern photography, was an enthusiastic amateur gardener. He developed his photographic process as an improvement on the day’s method of recording plants.

Art and Documents

McFarland’s photographs challenge categories of art and document. In terms of the latter, the photograph in its descriptive capacity carries the weight of authority and order, a belief grounded in a cultural investment in objectivity. On one level, the detailed precision and startling clarity of McFarland’s photographs present the world as something intensely seen and scrutinized. In some cases, as especially occurs in views of the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino California, taxonomic captions, such as “echinocactus grussoni,” further support a documentary approach with their connection to scientific classificatory schemes that neatly arrange reality.

This idea of the document, however, is challenged by the artistry of the imagery. McFarland uses film and a large format camera to take his shots. He then scans his negatives and digitally combines them to present a singular seamless photograph. This capacity to transform the world is echoed in his very subject matter. Gardens are frequently unnatural places. They are often comprised of various species of non-indigenous plants bought for aesthetic effect. As the garden is viewed more as a composed site, so the photographer works to create a controlled vision of its depiction, an expectation of nature photographers since the nineteenth century. However, in the twenty-first, digital manipulation allows the photographer to act as the master painter.


Through his careful crafting of photographs, McFarland presents a genteel vision of nature and the place of humans within it. Animals, usually domesticated ones, stand quietly by their human keepers; a steady hand on its face calms a horse being shod, and dogs stand alert beside their masters.

The extended view format presents subject matter as a stately tableau; a gentle zoo keeper feeds placid, lumbering porcupines in a stylized natural setting; young women groom docile horses in a bucolic orchard filled with spring growth; people appear in a wood, their dogs, although faithful companions, nonetheless distracted by one another’s company.

Animal and human worlds are depicted as intimately intertwined; a vision complemented by McFarland’s method of creating imagery that exploits both digital and analogue photographic properties. Through this hybrid manner of working, the artist demonstrates our relation with nature as a subtle interplay of fact and fiction.