Anne Arden McDonald: Rise, Fall, Float
Soho Photo Gallery, New York
8 March – 1 April 2017
Interview with NATASHA KURCHANOVA
Anne Arden McDonald is a photographer and a visual artist born in London, raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and living in Brooklyn. She began photographing at the age of 15, when she initiated a series of self-portraits, set and performed in abandoned buildings. At present, she is involved with process-intensive photography, making images in which chance is a crucial element of production. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally and has entered major museum collections.
The series of images in this exhibition follow her self-portrait series. They have been taken with the Diana photo camera – a rudimentary plastic camera from the 1960s intended for private use. The camera produced images with soft focus, reminiscent of images by the Pictorialist school of photography at the turn of the last century. In this interview, the artist discusses the place of the exhibition in her career.
Natasha Kurchanova: Could you tell us about this exhibition: when and why did you make these images?
Anne McDonald: These pictures are mostly from the 1990s; I began making them in 1993. They overlap with the end of the self-portrait series, which was my first extensive body of work (you can see them on my website at http://www.anneardenmcdonald.com/selfPortrait). The self-portraits have a very strong sense of narrative. They are a slice out of a continuum, you have the sense that there is a definite “before” and “after.” In contrast to the self-portraits, with the Diana series I was interested in creating images with a powerful feeling or mood but that would be more dissociated from narrative. So, these pictures are evocative of maybe a story, maybe a dream, maybe a poem. Here you have less of an idea what the story line might be. I have always been curious about vagueness. I think it is a more open way of image-making because if I make a picture that is very specifically whatever it is, the viewer does not get to bring as much of themselves to that image. If I make a picture where there is a sense of what it is, but there is also an openness to it, then you can interpret it in more directions. As you return to it over time in different parts of your life, it can have resonance to you in different ways – you can see more in it. This body of work reminds me of the moment when you wake up [from] a dream and you have a head full of images, and they are all pieces of something. They take on importance, as they are coming from your subconscious, you want to read them as symbols but as you are grabbing for them, they are slipping away. You know that there was some story line but can’t remember how these pieces were connected. So, you have these fragments, that are really beautiful but they do not make sense, the way imagery comes to you through poetry or song lyrics. Right now, we are walking through the Icon Dianas. They are in front of the room. The ones on the back wall are the Pillow Book Dianas.
NK: Why do you call them this?
AM: I used a Diana camera, which is a 1960s plastic children’s camera. It only has three settings for the aperture and very little focal control. In these pictures, I am pushing the lack of control even more by introducing a long exposure which I hold by hand (as opposed to using a tripod). The straight photograph that this camera makes has this very milky white area. It looks a little bit like a charcoal drawing: the blacks are a little muddy, the whites are a little milky. The camera has a plastic lens; it is not specific. Also, very often there is a very interesting, almost drawn line across the bottom of the photograph. The picture has white glow on the edge, which has to do with the internal reflection of the camera; the whole thing looks a little bit three-dimensional. It looks like the image is popping forward slightly. The camera also vignettes the image, which adds to this three-dimensionality. For me, it is very evocative. I like the way this type of photography references drawing and painting. For the self-portraits, I worked with a 35-mm camera, which has a metering device, a shutter speed, an aperture – all that you ever would want in a camera. This camera does not have any of the precise mechanics but it allows you to give up control. It’s important from a psychological perspective. When you get too good at something, you can then throw a wrench into it and make yourself think on your feet more and challenge yourself to grow – that’s what this body of work did for me: it gave me a different problem set. This type of camera allowed me to keep stretching and growing.
NK: What is the difference between Icon Dianas and Pillow Book Dianas?
AM: The Icon Dianas crystallize a specific mood for me – the taste I have in my mouth when I am waking up from dreaming. When I take these pictures, I am leaving the shutter open slightly longer, so the images are more vague. With these I am using the B setting on the camera, which means that the shutter stays open as long as I hold it down, which in some of these dark areas can be a minute or at least several seconds. There is some camera shake involved in the making of the image. So, these pictures tend to be fuzzier than any pictures I have ever taken, because the light is flowing through the lens and shaping things. Nothing in the picture is actually in focus whereas in the Pillow Book Dianas, something in the center may approach being in focus. These are a little bit sharper. The Icon Dianas are intentionally completely out of focus, which adds to the sensation of weightlessness or falling.
NK: In the Icon Dianas, how did you decide which subjects to photograph?
AM: The camera causes everything to go through a translation process. Part of what you learn as a photographer is not just what looks good but also what will make a good picture – because these are two different things. This is the most observational photography I have ever done – walking down the street, finding something and photographing it. I am not interacting with anything. With the self-portraits, I was cleaning, building, constructing, installing … I am not doing anything like this here. The series contains a couple of images where I am the subject, so obviously I have constructed those, but in most I was looking for a mood, finding this mood over and over again, and using the camera to extend the mood further. In this picture, for example, there is white area in the middle that draws the gaze toward the back of the image.
I was photographing a planted forest in park but it looks so completely surreal, like Popsicle sticks. There is no information in this image about the root structure … I thought it was bizarre, and when I photographed it, it looked even more bizarre. The optics of this camera tends to take things toward Surrealism, toward dreams. It makes things more disjointed, more spatially confused. The self-portraits were more involved with transcending bodily limitations, one of which was flying. We are all both flesh and spirit, we live in a body with a mind that dreams. I did that series for 15 years. By the end of it, flying and not being able to fly was the theme I was most involved with. This series for me is more about floating. It is more gentle. It’s probably hormonal…. When you are a teenager, you want to fly. This shot with the fish tail was found in a natural history museum. It is a model of a shark and it is a balance between an object and a space, but it has a strangeness because this animal is in a confined man-made space.
NK: The picture with a pile of debris on the floor reminds me of your earlier staged self-portraits.
AM: Yes, I have built many piles in my self-portraits. I am not really sure what kind of a symbol it is for me. There are subjects that I photograph over and over again: little houses, dresses, piles. I am very attracted to them.
NK: And also ruins?
AM: The ruins were a metaphor for me, for how I felt in childhood: I felt left out, left behind, forgotten. In that series, it’s as if I’m a phoenix, a live creature rising from the ashes of some devastation. The viewer has the sense of tension and struggle inside the house and freedom and flying outside of the house. Often in the pictures you are looking from inside the house to the outside. The windows, the doorways take on a lot of meaning, because they are the way from struggle to freedom. I did not even realize it until I went to a photo festival in Houston and people were saying, “Oh, I like the interiors, but I hate the exteriors,” or vice versa. All the imagery was spontaneously coming from me and I was not aware of the difference in mood between the two. But then one day in my room I put all the interiors on one side of the room and all the exteriors on the other, and I realized why they received such different reactions.
NK: What about the image of the girl with closed eyes whose face is halfway submerged in water?
AM: That’s me. That was the day of the opening of my two-person show at a photo gallery in Vienna. I was staying in somebody’s house and I took a bath. My hostess had a giant bathtub; I wanted to see what I looked like when I was relaxed. So, I am literally with the Diana camera in the bathtub. Luckily, the camera is plastic -- if you drop it, it floats. You can’t frame if you are photographing this way. I got lucky in this picture because I was in a very precarious position.
Adele Eisenstein helped me arrange the sequencing of these pictures. I think it is important to take this poetic mood and dial it up and down carefully through the images. Sometimes the order of the sequence is determined by graphic elements and sometimes it is determined by the consistency of the mood conveyed by the pictures. You see passages because of the layout of the show.
The picture with the dress is a connecting one to the series of self-portraits I mentioned earlier. And the picture with a hoop over there is a connecting image for me for the body of work I am doing now, which is all about circles and spheres. You are the same person in every work you do, so persistent themes resurface all the time.
NK: What is this image?
AM: I have a friend in New Hampshire who thinks she is a witch. These are duck wings in her barn hanging upside down for curing and hanging over someone’s door to keep bad spirits away.
NK: What about this?
AM: That’s a ray in an aquarium tank in Coney Island. Before Sandy, if you walked into the Coney Island aquarium, the first tank on the right was full of rays. It was very nondescript; they did not do a lot of rock staging. It was basically a bare floor with sediment. I thought it looked like it was flying.
NK: It’s still flying or floating or both.
AM: Yes, in-between. It’s a fish that kind of flies. I just went skiing on my birthday. Skiing and snorkeling are my closest activities to flying. When you ski, you are still on a flat plane but because you are fast, and it is an unusual sliding motion, it feels like flying. Because you’ve got the wind in your face, you have a lot of the aspects of flying. When you are snorkeling, you are chasing the fish around with little fins on your feet. You are moving in three dimensions. It’s a lot like flying.
NK: It’s a good thing to do on your birthday.
AM: It was so much fun! The greatest present my mom gave me on my birthday was the ski lessons when I was a kid, so now I know how to ski.
NK: Is this you?
AM: Yes, it’s me. Coming home from a night wearing a lot of white face makeup. I was taking off my costume and taking some snapshots with the Diana camera before going to bed.
NK: What about the Pillow Book Dianas?
AM: This body of work is similar to my self-portrait series because all its figures are in abandoned buildings. The entire series is composed of me photographing Radek Grosman and him shooting me. He had begun a series of pictures about bodies in distress and I continued it using him. These are more like self-portraits in that there is an installation element. For example, here I am hanging a hoop.
I am attaching lines of elastic here so that he could hold them.
I’ve wrapped his head; I put little spots of charcoal dust on his spine. Here he is wearing my dress from my self-portraits. So, in the Pillow Book Dianas I have a high degree of interaction with him. It was really a dialogue between us; it was a great collaboration. We honored any ideas that either of us had. In the space of the actual shooting we would never say no to anything. I directed his poses a lot, because I could see what was happening in the camera. He has very high cheekbones and has a rather unusual look but he photographs beautifully. We did this series for many years. He was traveling with me; these pictures were taken all over Europe: Italy, Austria, Upstate New York…. We were taking these trips, we were both together, we were shooting spaces and sometimes we would also shoot each other. We only edited after the photo shoot.
NK: Is this an intermediate body of work between your self-portraits and what you are doing now?
AM: Yes, my latest work is a continuation of previous experimentation. If I had not done it I would not be able to make the images I am making now.
NK: Would you like to say a few more words about your self-portrait series, which initiated your career as a photographer?
AM: I began taking self-portraits when I was 15. The earliest ones were done when I was 13 and 14. I began breaking into abandoned buildings as soon as I had a car, which was when I turned 16. You see, I grew up born-again Christian; I did not have a lot of friends growing up. I was in conflict with everything around me, including my family; and for me it was important to come up with an identity that I did not see my culture giving me. Self-portraiture was a way for me to look at poetry, literature, and ideas about women from the outside world and collage a person that I could relate to. There were not a lot of opportunities for women in the culture around me that I related to. The path that women were asked to walk on was very narrow. There were very few types of identities available to them. I chafed under that. I was looking for something outside of my experience. I turned to the camera to make evidence of that. I turned to photography, because this medium is grounded in proof, truth, evidence, documentary. I wanted to make a document of myself by using photography. Had I made a drawing of myself, it would not have been grounded in the same idea of proof. Had I made a drawing of myself as an Ophelia or Isadora Duncan, you would not have to believe it as you would believe a photograph because on some level the photograph is the proof that the transformation happened. I’ll never forget when digital photography came along and people suggested that now I could make an image of myself flying as high as I wanted, and I thought that these people have completely missed the point. The point was that I came to this space and I opened myself up, the space had a mood and I had a mood, and we mixed. This photograph is evidence of a ritual and a performance that happened in this space. I come to it with some idea. While I am building or cleaning, I put the camera on a tripod. The camera is a witness to a performance that has a lot of different gestures and a whole range of experiences. The performance usually happens over a range of several hours. I push myself as far as I can to make as many images as I can and I am usually emotionally exhausted by the time it’s over. The resulting photograph – and there is only one from every photoshoot – is a narrative slice of what happened in the space during the performance. There was a path of ideas to follow and an arch of gestures, and there was one image that worked for me. And it’s usually not what I thought I came there to take a picture of, but …
NK: There is also an element of chance, right?
AM: Yes, it’s true. Also, I am not looking through the lens when I am taking the picture. I have an idea about how big I am in the frame but I am often wrong. I’ve taken pictures when I am doing mincing little hand gestures but you can’t see them in the frame because I am too small. Some bigger, simpler gesture is what will read at that distance but you cannot see those you can’t see. It might as well not have happened, except that I got to experience it.
It’s curious that in the beginning photography was something that I was doing when I was being bad; I was often trespassing. Having it become my job has taken some fun out of it. Right now, I am engaged in the process of making pictures that gives me a lot of excitement. I had a lot of excitement in making the self-portraits and in making these. I did not have a lot of fun in printing the Diana images. This is the reason why I do not do them as much as I used to. I am involved now in a very exciting process when I set up a situation or an experiment, and I let it run and see what happens. This degree of spontaneity in gesture and surprise is very rewarding.
NK: You are pushing even further the lack of control that you mentioned.
AM: Yes, I am.
NK: You said it has something to do with circles?
AM: It is interesting. Part of me believes that the circles are about the atom, the planet, and the cosmos, the microcosm and the macrocosm – life as we know it. But I also think that something else is going on. This shape is so persistent with me that I am starting to believe that this shape is not only about the ideas that are abstracted from me; I think that this is something more personal. I think it must be something anchored inside of [myself]. I have a feeling that it has to do with wholeness. I think that I had a sense of my own wholeness when I was younger. Later, it got broken and I am trying to piece it back together. That’s what the circle is for me. I think that there is something complete, solid, and centered. I think it is [myself] that I am trying to make whole.
NK: Your art is very personal. How does it relate to larger issues that may be relevant to society?
AM: Because of the political moment we are in, I am thinking a lot about the importance for women to generate alternative images of themselves that are personal and come from inside of them[selves]. Media has always fed us images of what we are supposed to look like. Women have the option either of accepting that or becoming the source of their own self-image and identity. For me it is important to be involved in the making of this image and not be on the passive receiving end.
NK: Obviously, image-making has become your life and has changed your life but what kind of more precise parallels can you trace between art-making and your psychological life, if any?
AM: I believe there is a difference between expressing a problem and healing a problem. Photography helped me to find a language to express the struggle I was facing and what was wrong. By the time I found a good therapist to help me I had just threshed out the problem and I had not a clue of how to solve it.
I even had a 15-year catalogue of images of what I thought that looked like. They are all metaphoric. I did not feel that I lived in a barnyard chained to a wall but I felt unfree to set boundaries and get angry. Everything is a metaphor but the feelings are the same. By the end of it, I felt that I was able to point to the pictures and talk about the struggle I was facing. There are a lot of artists who will tell you that their work is therapeutic, that it cures them or heals them. I do not have that experience. Everybody is different – for me, I needed real help to heal.