Closed July 3, 2009
I guess that any discussion of Scott McFarland’s photography must start in a garden. McFarland is comfortable in gardens, often uses gardens as his subject matter, and the first McFarland photo I remember being interested in was of a garden, Huntington Botantical Gardens in San Marino, California . . ., 2005. The large photograph (over 13 feet in length) struck me as a kind of bowl, the vegetation seems to cradle a central element, a group of cacti ready to be placed somewhere in the fauna. There is elegance to this slight curve in the scene and it added an effect that was hard to come to terms with. Once metaphoric concerns enter the scene (namely of the constructed nature of the photograph and of maybe nature itself), the aesthetics of the scene are not voided or put the side – all of the concerns seem to work together for their end, which is a presentation about the truth of nature and photography and how that truth contributes to beauty.
I remember my initial thought, standing in front of this photo, was that everything felt wild. A few weeks later, I started to reflect on the oddity of that thought, the thought that this photograph felt wild. Reflection might substitute the word wild with words like “in process” or “being sorted.” The garden in the photograph is being sorted -- it is being taken from a state of wildness (something that we can no longer truly know) into a state of touch or into the realm of the human. The thing that you notice about the photograph is that you start to make distinctions between plants that are in the ground and flourishing and plants that are ready to be planted -- there are an assortment of plants with their roots exposed, laying on the ground, marked with yellow and red labels, still in their pots. The ground is well trodden throughout the photograph, everywhere there are indications that work is happening here, that perhaps the gardeners are on a break or at lunch. This garden, in other words, is being assembled, it is being arranged into a certain idea of a garden. This is not nature in the raw but nature positioned not only aesthetically but into a sort of existence (maybe the plants are arranged according to waterlines or existing paths, maybe the industry of the garden is more involved).
There is a second level of meaning here. The garden in the photograph is also a metaphor for how McFarland is interacting physically with the photographic process. The idea of a garden arranging something natural (plants from the natural landscape or from hot houses) into some sort of order could be thought of a direct reference to an analogue photograph (a photo that records light from nature onto a negative) being loaded onto a computer and being touched, rearranged, added to, and sorted in Photoshop. For McFarland, photography is like gardening and the photographer is a gardener – they both take givens (plants or the light received from nature by the camera) and sort them into something conceptual, aesthetic, or both. The photo taken at the Huntington (shifted and sorted by camera techniques) could easily be considered a darkroom or photoshop.
McFarland’s photographs of gardens, I think, are clever and revelatory about photography without being preachy. One thing I love about these photographs is they do not advertise their production but instead simply acknowledge it – people touch gardens and they touch photographs, no reason to get fussy or too philosophical about the matter (although I like to, from time to time). There is something about McFarland’s gardens that are fully embodied and there in a way that perhaps McFarland’s photos including people are not. In those photographs, the people are not comfortable in the photograph -- they do not feel like they belong. The lighting is often inconsistent and the seams a little too apparent. How they are made is there, both visually and metaphorically, but in the photographs of people, the disjoint between the collaged and the background seems to come at a loss to beauty. The gardens seem a visual whole, refer to how they are made, but do not sacrifice beauty for a clumsy point about constructed images.
And why should I care about any of this? To what point do I praise certain of McFarland’s photographs for planting the roots of their creation inside themselves without fanfair, without ceremony, without overt reference, and without sacrifice of aesthetics?
I would say that I find McFarland’s straightforward and humble photos of gardens more appealing than other photographers that are all obsessed with showing the effect and results of production, obsessed with revealing that making a photograph is a process bound up in a market and in ideologies, that these markets and ideologies necessarily separate us from our humanity and turn us into hollow beings. Often photography of this kind is overly earnest, didactic, and obscure. On one hand, the photographers seem distrustful that their viewers can get all the information they need to take away from their practice, while on the other, keeping them information from them by desperately wanting to avoid expression, metaphor, and other time honored tools for conveying meaning.
I will be the last to say that I like even most of McFarland’s photographs because I don’t, but these gardens do promote a way of acknowledging and expanding many of the lessons we’ve learned about photography in the last thirty years without the (supposedly necessary) emptying out of sentiment, romantic notions of beauty, humanity, and of a unified vision of the world. McFarland’s gardens do not seem to fall into these traps. His concerns are fresh and of the moment, but he does so without abandoning humanist concerns like beauty and metaphor. For McFarland, these difficult to know and perhaps old fashion realms of meaning in art are necessary and unavoidable when you want to make a point to a viewer or to show them something dazzling. It is true we are heirs to an age of critique and an age where humanist concerns were taken apart, revealed, and damaged, but that does not mean that we must take that age as a given and despair. I think McFarland’s gardens offer a nice alternative.