The Imperfect Index: Scott McFarland’s Photographs at Division Montréal
by Anna Kovler
In his exhibition Thinking About a Picture at Division Montréal, Scott McFarland capitalizes on common mistakes that happen in the photographic process. Anyone who has played around with an analog camera knows to be careful if they want a “perfect” picture. Drop the camera and the backside might open, exposing the roll of film to light. Take the camera to the beach and sand will get inside the camera and appear in the developed photos as blemishes on the image. Drop the camera in water and the film will get water damage. Press the shutter button twice and the photo will be a confusion of layers. In every case, the developed picture will have the telltale signs that it was made by a particular kind of machine, at a specific moment, with the use of sensitive materials. The machine’s physicality becomes unmistakably recorded on an otherwise perfect illusion of the world.
McFarland works with both analog and digital processes, but his main focuses are the camera’s traditional mechanism and the values associated with it. If cleanliness, sharpness, and truthfulness are, or were once, the principles of good photography, McFarland rejects them all. Sky Leaks is a series of photographs of clouds that feature striking distortions. In one picture the clouds appear bright pink while in another are obscured by a large, mysterious column of white. To achieve these effects McFarland purposefully used partially cracked camera parts and film that had been accidentally exposed and damaged by moisture. The title references the term “light leak,” considered an equipment defect allowing light to enter the camera where it should not. Pictures with light leaks would normally be discarded since the mistakes obscure or ruin the main subject of the photographs. Yet in this series they also reveal something that a perfect photograph does not – the workings of the camera itself – which become as much the subject of the image as the clouds in the sky.
From its inception in the mid 19th century, the camera’s mechanical body was seen as an impartial, scientific observer that dutifully recorded a single moment in time. Paintings were different. The painter could layer as they wished, seamlessly conflating different time periods and styles in a single work. A painting was fiction, but a photograph was a fact. In the Santa Anita series, McFarland strips the camera of its claim to truthfulness. Shot at a racetrack near Los Angeles, the images consist of over a thousand negatives photographed over a four-week period and digitally layered to form a dense, busy tableau. Human bodies blend with horse bodies and with each other. Rather than recording a single moment, these photographs contain weeks of information, competing to be seen in the jungle of layers. Here the scientific aspirations of the camera as a truthful witness with a single perspective are swept aside, in favor of a multiplicity of viewpoints and subjects.
In the series Lens Cleaning, McFarland again undermines what a traditionally “perfect” photograph ought to be by adding dust to every stage of the photographic process. The artist himself appears in the series, holding a 4 x 5 camera lens. His hands appear doubled in the image, capturing movement as his fingers draw a cloth around the camera’s dusty surface in the moments prior to taking a photograph. Looking closer at each picture reveals that there is actual dust, a combination of hair and lint between the surface of the photo and the glass of the frame. There are also signs of dust in the printed images, where small pieces of hair on the negative end up looking enormous, attesting to the function of an enlarger. By including these unwanted intrusions McFarland make visible the process of photography, the signs of which are traditionally suppressed in favor of a flawless image of reality.
It is commonly said that if we can see our mistakes we can learn from them. What can we learn then from the layers of dust, water, and light damage in McFarland’s meditation on photography? McFarland’s three series suggest that there are no unmediated pictures of reality and no single truth. Cameras must be cleaned, protected, and pointed at the things we wish to capture. The resulting photographs are not merely the objects represented in them, but objects in their own right, products of a complex system that is sensitive to dust, light, water, the photographer’s viewpoint, and the values of an entire culture or field of study. Photographs are, in the end, as much imprints of the processes and biases that made them as the world they imitate.
Scott McFarland’s exhibition Thinking About A Picture in on view at Division Montréal until March 3rd, 2018.