16 July 2008

July ’08: Scott McMahon

Posted by jessicakh under: Interviews .

Scott McMahon teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design in Lancaster, PA. His work has been published in Pinhole Photography, Rediscovering a Historic Technique (2nd & 3rd Edition) by Eric Renner, The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes by Christopher James as well as Pinhole Journal Vol. 11, 12, 15 & 22 and he has exhibited his work throughout the United States. Scott currently serves on the board of Society for Photographic Education (SPE mid-atlantic region). Scott has been teaching Pinhole Photography Workshops and Gum Bichromate Workshops (August 9 & 10, 2008) at Project Basho. For more information and to see more of Scott’s work, please visit his website.

How long have you been a photographer?

I’ve been working with photographic processes for about 15 years. I hesitate to call myself a photographer, I’m more of an image-maker and photography is the primary way I generate images.

What is your background/education?

I studied photography at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia receiving my BFA in 1995. More recently I went back to graduate school to get my MFA at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. In grad school I continued with photography and also experimented with film/video, sculpture and installation.

The range of processes you work with is vast and touches upon both historical and modern techniques. How did you come to working with so many processes?

I guess it’s hard for me to just concentrate on one process. I like to move around within the medium and discover new possibilities. I love how photography is an amalgam of so many things. As an undergraduate student I was introduced to various photographic and printmaking processes. I was introduced to non-silver processes (cyanotype, vandyke brown, gum bichromate, platinum/palladium) by Sarah Van Keuren. She also got me started with pinhole photography. Alida Fish also inspired me to push the limits of the photograph and investigate the infinite possibilities and combinations these techniques had to offer.

Many of these techniques seem to be specific to each series. How do you go about developing each project?

I usually start with a preconceived idea for an image, or series of images. I keep a somewhat scattered visual journal; it’s an archive of sorts. I write down or sketch out ideas, collage pieces of test images, record dreams, etc. The process or technique is based on the mood and feeling I want to convey. Often the way I print something in the end is very different than my original idea. Many of the techniques I use are similar to each other in some way, as an example the gum bichromate process has a similar gelatinous skin as a tintype, both surfaces can be manipulated to a degree. My goal in working with different processes is to blend it with the concept so the work isn’t just about a certain technique.

What is your concept of photography and how is that reflected in your work?

To ”build” and “make” images rather than “take” and “capture” them. To question what is fact and what is fiction. I’m interested in creating images that are direct and simple in process for example: the use of the pinhole camera and the use of bioluminescence.

You’ve worked a lot with pinhole cameras. What about this camera interests you?

I’m interested in the idea of fabricating a camera, or modifying an existing camera for specific projects and ideas. I treat the camera as part of my work, as small sculptures as well as image-making devices. Pinhole has kept my attention and curiosity due to the simplicity of the camera as well as the complexity of the images it is capable of recording. Most of my pinhole exposures are several seconds to several minutes long. I like what happens with that compression of time, everything in front of the camera is recorded during the duration of the exposure even if the evidence is subtly represented in the final image. Shifts in perspective, changing facial expressions, movement caused by the wind, etc. are things that I think pinhole can capture in an interesting way.

Out of all the techniques you use, gum bichromate seems to be the most prevalent. What about this labor-intensive technique in particular fascinates you?

I’m never quite satisfied with a “straight print” or one that is essentially unaltered…I like having my hand in the process to push and pull details. The thought of an image being built up slowly in layers of color interests me. I’m also intrigued by the malleability of gum printing; I often work into the surface of the print with brushes and other implements while it is developing. It’s also very active and somewhat performative, which I like. Gum printing is a wonderful hybrid process; it combines photography, printmaking, drawing, painting and a little insanity!

Tell us about your “Projections” series and your inclusion of multi-media in your work.

For many years I’ve attempted to bring the photograph into a more dimensional format, bringing it off the wall so it occupies the space differently. I want the viewer’s relationship to change as they navigate this work. There’s a sound component that relates to the projected image as well as the kinetic sculpture that houses the work. Some pieces inflate and deflate, some are motorized and others are on motion sensors activated by the viewer. The idea of a projection fascinates me and has ever since I viewed the projected image inside a camera obscura for the first time. A projection is a fleeting, ephemeral thing. It is not tangible like a photograph, but it can still reside in our memory long after experiencing it. The work becomes an extension and substitute for our own human behavior. For me these pieces retain a similar feel or tone as my photographic work. I’m still dealing with similar themes of impermanence and our own fragility. It is about light and time, pulse and breath, death and rebirth.

Can you talk about the “Bioluminescent” series that you produced with Ahmed Salvador? How does working collaboratively affect your working process?

Ahmed Salvador and I have been collaborating off and on for several years. We started playing music together and then that flowed into photographic experiments (some more absurd than others). We’re also very inspired by the writing of Bill Jay, especially the collection of essays in his book Cyanide and Spirits. The Bioluminescent series started in 1995 I guess to satisfy our curiosity whether the light from a firefly (or lightening bug) would make an exposure directly onto a piece of light-sensitive photographic material. We gathered a few fireflies and placed them inside a container along with a sheet of color transparency film. We waited a few minutes watching the firefly walk across the surface of the film, lighting up as it went along. The film was processed and to our amazement we had images, not just blobs of light (though there’s some of that), but also fine detail of their legs rendered in silhouette. We then started adding leaves, grass, flower pedals, twigs, etc. inside the container and the firefly light basically produced photograms of these materials on the film. Exposure times were somewhat intuitive, but after a while we had a pretty good idea when the film received enough exposure. The fireflies actually do most of the work! The final pieces are presented in light boxes, the image size ranges from 4×5 inches to 8×10 inches. We are currently working on making them really large to exaggerate the scale of the minute world of the firefly. Working collaboratively is fun and somewhat challenging at times, as you have to give up some control and compromise. Ahmed and I have a similar intuitive sense that makes working together a fun adventure.

The figure is a recurring focus in your work, whether it is through found images of others’ pasts or self-portraits in a staged environment, what about the figure do you find compelling?

Though I often use myself as the subject in my work I try to keep the identity somewhat anonymous so that I am a character playing a roll. It’s often hard for me to communicate to someone else how I want to represent the figure in an image. Something gets lost in translating my visual idea to directing someone to act out scenario, or pose a certain way. I find the figure fascinating in that it is a temporary shell; the photograph preserves that state or condition the body is in at the time. I also use found images of people to try and tell a story. I try to imagine what the original intention of the image was, who it might have been for, what is the expression/posture, etc. I guess with this work I’m trying to get to know the subject with just the visual information I have in the photograph. In most of my work there’s a sense that the figure is engaging in mundane actions, manipulations of ritual and experiments with no beginning and no end.

Tell us about your recent work.

Renovating my house…that has certainly occupied a lot of my time. I’m working on some new firefly images, building a primitive super 8 pinhole camera and starting to work again on the “projections” series.

Teaching seems to be a big part of your life. How does teaching continue to inspire you?

When I began teaching, the model that I worked from was based on skills and a style many other students and I had thrived on. I was inspired to pursue teaching because I had such passionate and enthusiastic teachers, most notably Sarah Van Keuren. She empowered me to see the potential of photography and my own creativity and continues to inspire me to this day. I love to share what I know about the medium and I also learn a great deal from my students.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

It’s hard to say, maybe photographs of sunsets!

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