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Features / September 15, 2010

Beyond Photography: Scott McFarland’s art links camera and computer

All appearances to the contrary, Scott McFarland thinks of the pictures he makes not as photographs but as works of art on paper, and it is worth listening to him on this point. You see, the key words here are “he makes.” To regard McFarland’s pictures as works on paper is to put the emphasis on his role as a picture-maker, which is what he is, as opposed to a picturetaker. This is not a matter of splitting hairs; it is the crux of things. McFarland’s pictures look so convincingly like photographs. But, celebrated as it is for capturing its prey whole within the camera lens, photography enters the picture only at the very beginning of McFarland’s picture-making procedure: from that point on, digital processes rule the day.

It goes without saying that this first step is crucial, however. It leaves a footprint in the sand that is essential to McFarland’s practice. It is his point of departure, both in terms of his method and process and in relation to the origins of photography and photographic processes. Analog photography provides McFarland with the metaphorical framework for his pictures, which are created not in the camera but in the computer, while the early history of photography, especially in England, supplies the model, as do painting and cinema. No matter what McFarland’s work might show us, he has taken as its underlying subject the various facets of photography itself, as well as the self-reflexive nature of his own pictures.

The distinctiveness of McFarland’s project became apparent in 2009, when his work received its most significant gallery exposure to date, in two solo exhibitions. “Scott McFarland: A Cultivated View” was organized by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography and presented at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. A larger show, “Scott McFarland,” was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Neither exhibition was a full retrospective; the artist is just 34. Nevertheless, the Vancouver exhibition contained 65 works made between 2002 and 2009. His large digital montages were accompanied by series of smaller works, including his first images of Ontario: location shots taken with a Diana camera. His September, 2010, show at Clark & Faria in Toronto, to be titled “Sans Souci,” will contain pinhole-camera photographs taken at Georgian Bay, which will accompany large digital variations on a marina scene.

Over the past ten years, McFarland has emerged as a brilliant young artist with a well-shaped and conceptually sophisticated body of work, who has learned from and yet found a way to distinguish himself from his teachers and advisers in Vancouver: leading artists such as Jeff Wall, Mark Lewis, Roy Arden and Liz Magor. In 1995, during his third year of study at the University of British Columbia, McFarland began to work as a studio assistant for Wall, who became his mentor. He eventually became Wall’s main printer before retiring from the studio in 2006. McFarland now lives in Toronto, but maintains a Vancouver studio for digital computer work.

The problem for a photographer starting a career in Vancouver, a much-photographed city that is moreover internationally renowned as a centre of photo-based art and is home to Wall, Arden, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum and others, is finding a definitive position that has not already been staked out. To find his own voice, McFarland, who began as an analog photographer shooting buildings and street scenes, looked back to the origins of the medium, including the combination printing of Gustave Le Gray.

Possibly invented by Oscar Rejlander, a Swedish-born British photographer, combination printing was a response to the photographer’s inability to compose the image framed in the camera’s ground glass. Carefully joining multiple negatives into a composite image printed on a single sheet of paper was the solution. Combination printing also solved practical problems for 19th-century landscape photographers, whose materials required long exposure times that burned out the sky.

Early photographers like Le Gray and Charles Marville made composite prints based on two negatives exposed separately in order to capture both the sky and whatever was beneath it, in Le Gray’s case the sea. Rejlander’s best-known work, The Two Ways of Life (1857), seamlessly combines 32 negatives into a Victorian allegory on virtue and vice. The younger Henry Peach Robinson, an early Pictorialist who followed the Pre-Raphaelites and was one of the leading art photographers and theorists of his day, was known for innovative composite pictures that privileged the idea over photographic realism. His use of the technique, more than Rejlander’s, stands as a precursor of first photomontage and now digital montage.

McFarland made his first composite pictures in 2002 and continues to work this way, now almost exclusively. He shoots on film with a largeformat four-by-five view camera mounted on a tripod. The resulting images retain the iconic and indexical nature of traditional photography so strongly that it is difficult to override one’s initial impression that McFarland’s composite pictures are indeed photographs. Instead, we might call them photographic. They become further and further removed from photography as a direct trace of the world once the negatives are scanned into a computer. The number of negatives McFarland uses to construct a single picture can run into the hundreds, and the negatives will have been exposed from the same position at different times of day, on different days, sometimes over a period of weeks.

Using Photoshop, he joins the image fragments and produces the picture as either a chromogenic or, most often now, ink-jet print. The image’s flatness, light, preternatural clarity and detail speak of the space of the picture rather than the space of the world it represents. In fact, the image of the world we are given in a McFarland picture (as in a picture by Andreas Gursky) has been taken apart and rearranged. Digital montage allows him to function somewhat like a painter, who works with malleable materials, moving figures around, removing shadows, cleaning up edges, intensifying or subduing colour or contrast and so on. He chooses the brightness and texture of the paper he prints on to suit his subjects; the Hampstead series, for example, which is inspired by Constable’s paintings, is printed on watercolour paper.

Time, in McFarland’s pictures, has little to do with the “moment” captured in a traditional photograph. His synthetic montages present an array of many moments, disconnected from their spatial and temporal moorings and rearranged across the compositional field. In place of the fixed temporality of organic photographic images, his seamless pictures present many discontinuous moments simultaneously.

This is in fact the nature of digital montage. However, McFarland chooses to address this idea of disjunctive simultaneity very directly in several pictures: Torn Quilt with Effects of Sunlight (2003) and Variation #1 and #2 of Orchard View with the Effects of the Seasons (2003–06) in particular. In Torn Quilt, the image of fabric patches of varying ages and patterns stitched together into a rectangle can be seen as a metaphor for McFarland’s process of composing digital images. The two orchard views poetically demonstrate the impossibilities that virtual simultaneity makes possible, placing wisteria trees and vines photographed in different seasons together in one picture.

In the idea of the simultaneity of the virtual there is a reflection of the artist’s approach to the history of art and photography. He uses art history as an image bank or tool kit in which images from all periods exist simultaneously in the electronic ether, to be drawn upon for material and the construction of layered references. Allegorically speaking, time travel occurs at the speed of a download.

Taking early photography as a model and thinking also about the early-19th-century painters whose work Peter Galassi identified as prephotographic in “Before Photography,” a 1981 exhibition he curated for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, McFarland revisits the time when photographic vision was not only new but shared by painters whose pre-1839 works anticipated it—the invention of photography was announced in 1839—and by photographers whose post-1839 work developed it in the new medium. It was a moment when painting and photography came together in what Galassi describes as a “new and fundamentally modern pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms.”

This syntax, Galassi goes on, belongs to “an art devoted to the singular and contingent rather than the universal and stable,” an art that can make a pictorial something out of nothing. Moreover, it is fragmentary, a vision of the world that is cropped into bits, giving a “sense of the picture as a detail, carved from a greater, more complex whole.” And, most frequently, it manifests itself in “the phenomenon of close, variant views of the same site.” As McFarland, who tends to work in ongoing series, with each series devoted to a single site, must have realized, “Before Photography” outlined a dualism that could be taken as an apt dialectical model for an artist who, like the painters, makes the picture, but also, like the photographers, takes the images he composes it from.

Among the pre-photographic painters that Galassi identifies and McFarland thinks about in this context are Dürer, Caspar David Friedrich, Johan Christian Dahl, Christen Købke, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Friedrich Nerly and John Constable. The photographers include William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the negative-positive photographic process; Henry Peach Robinson; Peter Henry Emerson, Robinson’s archrival; and Gustave Le Gray. References that expand into contemporary art include Wall, Magor, Arden, Graham, Gerhard Richter and Stephen Shore. More important than any single reference is the fact that McFarland clearly positions himself as an artist who is developing a new perspective from within a continuum of theoretical and pictorial ideas.

His major themes and motifs are rooted in early photography. Looking away from the city, he has found his subject matter in familiar and intimate sites with personal relevance. His first significant body of work, the Cabin series (2001–04), was shot in a friend’s family cabin. The cabin stands for the rustic, the place of retreat or refuge from urban modernity. At the same time, the rustic and the pastoral are frequent tropes in the work of early photographers such as Talbot, Emerson and Robinson.

McFarland’s interest in the cabin owes something to Magor’s threedimensional cabin sculptures and to Talbot’s Reading Establishment, the shed-like studio he used to print calotypes. It morphs into similar structures that run throughout McFarland’s work: a boathouse, garden sheds, the observatory on Hampstead Heath, an Ontario sugar shack and a Vancouver photo lab. The whole history of photography as a wet darkroom process is implied through McFarland’s references.

The gardeners tending to plants, the meteorologist taking a reading outside the observatory and the syrup maker in the sugar shack: all are analogous to the photographer and his darkroom activity. Motifs related specifically to Talbot’s photographs, though also found in the work of other early photographers, include workers, gardens, fallen trees, plants, a carriage and open doors.

One of McFarland’s most recent pictures, Sugar Shack, Caledon, Ontario (2009), a cinematic nocturnal scene, summarizes McFarland’s references to darkroom motifs. A worker in the shack can be seen through an open door, testing the sugar-and-water mixture in the beaker he holds. The shack is ablaze with light that also spills outside. Inside, red embers glow in an iron stove, creating a rectangle of intense light, another recurring McFarland motif also seen in Safelight and Darkroom Chemicals (2003–06). In early photography, the open door and other like apertures usually give on to blackness. McFarland lets us see inside: the illuminated darkroom is at the heart of his metaphor for photography.

Remember, though, that whatever else the imagery or activities depicted in McFarland’s work might be—and this is the paradox—his pictures stake out a claim that lies beyond photography.

This is an article from the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.