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It's a pleasure to see Sean McFarland receive the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers. Last August, McFarland was one of the eight artists or groups showcased in the Bay Guardian's second annual photo issue. The Baum Award is a national honor designated for photographers at a pivotal point in their development, and in McFarland's case, that development is the opposite of predictable. While many photographers work toward "dazzle 'em" displays of technical virtuosity, McFarland has moved away from earlier saturated digital color images toward simple Polaroid photos that possess ominous allure.
Did I say simple? McFarland's dreamlike images of weather and landscapes are only simple in appearance they require subtle combinations of photography and the increasingly popular practice of found-image collage. In terms of subject matter, they personalize and miniaturize the vast and unsettling images of the semi-settled West present in the camera art of Michael Light, David Maisel, and Trevor Paglen. The title of Lindsay White's current show at Ping Pong Gallery, "A Field Guide to the Atmosphere," might just as well apply to McFarland's work. The atmosphere is stormy, and as troubling as it is beguiling.
SFBG In the last year or two, your work has shifted away from urban views to elemental images: sky, sea, vast land. What has set you off in that direction?
Sean McFarland I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which the earth changes. In an urban environment, we build buildings, roads, and parks, changing the landscape. These are immediate and obvious alterations of our environment. Our actions also change the landscape as we alter the climate more frequent and powerful storms, rising seas. By focusing on making images of the natural world, of the landscape, I'm interested in making pictures of us. How we change the earth and how the earth effects us.
SFBG Your work from the earlier 2005 era reminds me a bit of a short film, site specific_Las Vegas 05, by an artist named Olivo Barbieri. It has amazing colorful aerial views of Las Vegas in which the city really looks like it is comprised of toy buildings and cars. Were you looking for that kind of "making strange" effect when presenting views some might take for granted?
SM The work I was making from 1999 until around 2002 tried to take things that were fake and make them look real. When I first started re-photographing the collages I was making (in 2003), the miniaturization effect was an unexpected but welcome result. I was working in the other direction, making the real look fake. The collages are made by hand, so the edges are rough and messy. The selective blurring of images was there at first to hide where the images were put together, but it was that transformative quality of the focus that made the process intriguing to me. With the collaged images, I was taking pictures from all over, real images of real things, and by bringing those disparate elements together, the pictures raise questions about what was actually in the photograph.
The image of the park (in the Guardian's August 2008 Photo Issue), for example, has the playground from Dolores Park, but with the downtown skyline and bridge removed and replaced with a sky from another city. It may be the absence of the urban center normally in the background that makes the picture seem odd, or it could be that the light from the sky is not the same reflecting off the foreground. The relationship between fact and fiction is one of the strongest reasons I work with photography as opposed to other visual art forms.
SFBG You mention collage as a part of your process. That might not be so apparent to someone who casually glances at your photography. Can you tell me a bit about your approach to collage, and also if there are any collage artists whom you especially like?
SM Lately I've been working to make the collage process less apparent. In the past, the images took the final form of a C-Print, made in a darkroom. Now I'm using Polaroid film. Polaroids are mementos and souvenirs of moments, places, and things that actually happened; they imply that whatever is in the picture was witnessed, was real. Since I can't really take the images I'm making, I'm using collage to do so. A good example is my image of the airplane flying over the black ocean and white land. The picture of the plane is taken from a satellite image of Earth, the land is a photograph I made in the Exploratorium (it's a picture of an exhibit that shows how land is changed by wind currents).
SFBG Books are a big visual inspiration to me, so I liked seeing you cite the Field Guide to North American Weather and Gerhard Richter's Atlas as two recent sources of fascination and perhaps material. What drew you to those books and what do you like about them?
SM I enjoy those books because they are both wonderful collections. I work from an archive of several thousand images. This is probably why Atlas is so fascinating to me. It's the source material (mostly photographs) that Richter uses in his work and it made me even more interested in his work. I like the Field Guide because all the pictures in it are of weather-based natural phenomena. Some of the photographs in it are pretty hard to believe, but actually happened.
SEAN MCFARLAND: THE 2009 BAUM AWARD FOR EMERGING AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS
Thurs/2 through May 23 ( reception Thurs/2, 58 p.m.), free or donation
657 Mission, second floor, SF