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A different way of seeing

A closer look at the hyper-real photography of Scott McFarland.

A closer look at the hyper-real photography of Scott McFarland

Boathouse in the Moonlight, 2003. Chromogenic print, 180 x 231 cm. ((Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa/Vancouver Art )

Every time a magazine cover is revealed to have been doctored, readers behave as though they've been betrayed. But of course, photographs have always been composed, staged and altered. A photo is as subjective and manipulative as the person holding the camera. 

The large-scale photographs of Scott McFarland, the subject of a solo exhibition currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery, draw a metaphor between the act of photography and mankind's attempts to simultaneously inhabit and master our natural surroundings.

Now a Toronto resident, McFarland, 34, was born in Vancouver and studied at the University of British Columbia with renowned photo-conceptual artists Jeff Wall and Roy Arden. As a nod to 19th-century photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot, who photographed plant life, McFarland's early work concerned outdoor settings in and around his hometown.

Boathouse in the Moonlight (above), from 2003, comes from a series of photos inspired by a friend's family cabin in Roberts Creek, B.C.

2. Stables on Dr. Young's Property, 3226 W. 51st, Vancouver

Stables on Dr. Young's Property, 3226 W. 51st, Vancouver, 2005. Chromogenic print, 102 x 305 cm. ((William J. Hokin Collection/Vancouver Art Gallery))

For every image, McFarland takes multiple photos of the same site from different angles and moments, and then combines these images using the software Photoshop. This digital sleight-of-hand gives his work a hyper-real quality: the final image is more finely detailed than any one image taken from a single angle; nothing is out of focus. Upon closer inspection, one can see the shadows falling in varying directions from pictures taken at different times of the day. These visual cues are intentional, meant to parallel the way in which these places are perceived in person — with the naked eye taking in the view from multiple angles. They also help distance McFarland's work from traditional photography, which captures a single moment in time.

In this photo, McFarland depicts a slightly overgrown garden on Vancouver's affluent west side. "It looks untended, because the current property owners are fairly old, and have lived there for a long period of time," McFarland says. "I don't think they value in the same way the level of manicured maintenance displayed by some of their other neighbours in the area." In this residential setting, the natural world is both exalted and constructed.

In his best pieces, McFarland's sense of humour is subtle and pointed. The idea of man mastering nature is heightened by the theatricality of the people playing with their domesticated animals. The workers tending to the lawn and the horses in the image also highlight the class divisions between those who bask in the splendour of such gardens and the hired help, who merely maintain them.

3. Echinocactus grusonii

Echinocactus grusonii, 2006. Inkjet print, 62 X 70 cm. ((Private collection/Vancouver Art Gallery))

"I was making images in Vancouver of gardens, and wanted to consider a similar subject, but in another geographic location," McFarland says.

This picture comes from Empire, a series on desert vegetation shot in the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. Henry E. Huntington, an art collector who made his fortune building railroads, founded the garden in 1919.

"The plantings [of the garden] are dense, and the soil is mostly hidden beneath the thriving vegetation," writes Grant Arnold in a catalogue essay for the exhibition, "the fullness of the planting continually reminding the visitor of Huntington's beneficence."  To many gallery visitors, however, these images of lush desert vegetation will simply be appealing to the eye.

4. View of Vale of Health, Looking Towards Hampstead

View of Vale of Health, Looking Towards Hampstead (edition 3/5, 2007). Inkjet print, 69 x 108 cm. ((Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles/Vancouver Art Gallery))

This image takes its inspiration from a series of landscape paintings by John Constable of Salisbury Cathedral, seen in the distance from behind two trees. Throughout Constable's series, the subject and composition are essentially the same. What changes drastically in each painting is the way Constable depicts the sky and light.

McFarland says he was moved to play around with the idea of a painting as a unique work of art, and the photograph as something reproduced. "Typically you can travel and see the same photograph in different places, because of its reproductive qualities," McFarland says. "With the body of work taken in Hampstead, I wanted to create images that were in part multiple, but also unique."

In 2007, McFarland visited Hampstead Heath, the parkland adjoining the hyper-affluent London neighbourhood of Hampstead that inspired Constable's paintings. Like the other images in that series, View of Vale of Health, Looking Towards Hampstead belongs to a set of five images that share the same composition but depict the sky differently. McFarland juxtaposes present with past, photography with figurative painting, by placing modern-day visitors in pastoral locations that have remained unchanged from Constable's time. 

5. The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lustgarten

The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lustgarten (after Johann Erdmann Hummel), 2006. Ink jet print, 66 x 98 cm. ((Courtesy of the artist/Vancouver Art Gallery))

This image is dominated by a huge granite bowl, seven metres in diameter, found in the Berlin Lustgarten. The Lustgarten, first built in the 18th century, has been used at various times as a vegetable garden, a military parade ground and a site for mass demonstration. The bowl, built in 1828, was created from a single piece of granite and erected as a symbol of Prussian military might. This photo, one of the most effective in the show, undercuts the long history of the bowl; its intended significance is undercut by the two disinterested children standing in front of it.

"For me, it is like an Old World curiosity, and has a very interesting history," says McFarland. "I photographed the bowl and its surroundings for approximately two weeks one July. Afterwards I looked at all the film, and began to develop a composite for the final image. The two central children were photographed on separate days and have no relation."

6. Quality Photo Lab, 1300 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles

Quality Photo Lab, 1300 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, 2008. Ink jet print, 147 x 274 cm. ((Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery) )

With this image, taken in 2008, McFarland moves further away from the great outdoors and emphasizes the self-conscious undercurrents of his work. This picture is of a quaintly appointed brick-faced photo lab — a garden, if you want to stretch it, inasmuch as it's a place where exposed film "blossoms" into a photo. The image has a nostalgic quality about it, too, as it harkens back to a time when a photo lab was key to anyone who liked snapping pictures. Now, in the digital age, it has lost some of its lustre.

"It was hard to resist some of the textual elements of the building," says McFarland, who's currently planning new sets of images based in Ontario and future trips abroad, "but I really just wanted to pay homage to the process, and produce a quality photo."

The Scott McFarland exhibition runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 3.

Kevin Chong is a writer based in Vancouver.