Scott McMahon, artist in residence at Main Street Arts, during the month of June 2018, is working in one of our two studio spaces on our second floor. We asked Scott some questions about his work and studio practice:
Q: Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Killingworth, CT. I’ve been making artwork, in some capacity since I was a child. When I was 5 or 6, my mother was taking art classes and working toward a degree in art. I would often tag along with her to different art classes and studio sessions. What I remember most from that was the process and the feel and smell of art materials and the simple joy of creating something unique.
I took art classes in high school and decided to try a photography class, then taught by the auto shop teacher. He was probably a great auto shop teacher, but knew very little about photography. What he did instill in his students was the idea of experimentation and developing a personal and creative voice. I spent hours in the darkroom, experimenting with the process, solarizing prints, hand-applying developer, printing multiple negatives, pulling developed prints from the trash, re-exposing them, etc. This is when I discovered that photography was akin to painting and printmaking.
After high school I moved to Philadelphia, PA and received my BFA in photography from The University of the Arts. I then went on to receive my MFA in photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, MA. I am currently Associate Professor of Art and teach photography at Columbia College in Columbia, MO.
Q: How would you describe your work?
My work is primarily photographic and I use a variety of 19th century processes and techniques, such as cyanotype, gum bichromate, salt printing and tintype. My preferred method of generating images is with the pinhole camera. I typically construct my own cameras with a particular project in mind. I am drawn to the element of chance and experimentation that is inherent in pinhole imagery. Subject matter varies in my work. I am drawn to recording the human figure or presence within a landscape or other locations. I am interested in showing the ephemeral qualities of disparate subjects, recording things that may appear both absent and present. I have always been interested in how the photographic image can “capture” and “preserve” moments in time, but yet it can be just as fragile and fleeting as our own experience and existence.
Q: What is your process for creating a work of art?
My process generally starts with some kind of preconceived idea or thought that I feel moved to make an image about. Sometimes a residual image from a dream that stays with me over the course of a few days influences the start of building a photograph. I try to be observant to what is around me and recognize things I consistently come back to. I keep a visual journal of preliminary photographs, sketches, influences, ideas and examples of work by other artists.
Once the framework and structure for an image or series of images is there, I choose a process that seems fitting for the concept. Most of the processes I use are quite labor intensive and time consuming. I like the idea of images needing time to simmer. Exposure times can take several seconds or several minutes, developing and printing also requires time and patience. I work slowly and savor the time it takes to nurture an image through the process.
Another part of my process is working collaboratively with my dear friend and fellow artist, Ahmed Salvador. We have similar sensibilities and ideas about what a photographic image is and how it can be made. Some of our projects include: Bioluminescent Series. This project involves capturing the light emitted by fireflies onto photographic film and paper. Response Time is a project that involves sending photographic materials, wrapped in light-proof bags or tinfoil that have been riddled with pinholes, cuts and tears. We then mail these packages to each other. The photographic material receives various amounts of exposure through the mail.
Q: What is the most useful tool in your studio?
The OFF button on my Macbook…no, just joking. A box with a hole in it, of course.
Q: Do you collect anything?
Surprisingly, I collect cameras. The oldest one I have is made by Rochester Optical Co. and it’s from 1898. I love camera construction and the mechanical components. I also see cameras as beautiful objects and small sculptures. I also collect photographs, mostly from the 19th Century (tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, cabinet cards, etc.). The photographs are generally of people I have no relation or connection to, I know nothing about them aside for what is revealed in their portrait. I’m interested in the mystery of these, why their visages ended up an antique store, flea market or junk shop and the possible stories and narratives they can tell us. I share this collection with the History of Photography course I teach as well.
Q: Who is your favorite artist and why?
I can’t choose one…so I’ll choose six…Video artist, Bill Viola for taking us to places within our consciousness that we should visit more often. Photographer, Sally Mann for the truth, beauty and sheer force of her imagery. Composer, author and philosopher, John Cage for being John Cage. Painter, sculptor, mixed media artist, Anselm Kiefer for confronting a dark past through layers of oil, straw, tar, shellac, murk and mire. Photographer and Optician, Ralph Eugene Meatyard for having an amazing name and creating some of the most haunting photographs in the history of the medium. Robert and Shanna ParkeHarrison for their collaborative genius in creating poetic imagery that deals with loss and human struggle.
Q: What are your goals for this residency?
My goal is to work on a few different projects. I’ll continue working on a series of camera obscura images called “Daily Dust.” I’ll also be experimenting with a few new pinhole cameras that have multiple apertures. I’ll definitely be exploring the surrounding area for locations to photograph. A recent interest of mine has been learning about areas in upstate New York where Spiritualism got its start in the United States during the 1840’s. Hydesville (now Arcadia, NY) and Lily Dale have been on my radar of places to visit and possibly make photographs of or about for some time now. I’d like to keep an open mind and see where things take me, as Hans Richter said: “give chance a chance.”
Q: What’s next for you?
I’ll be part of an exhibition at Sager Braudis Gallery in Columbia, MO this September. I hope to exhibit some of the work I’ll be making during the residency.
Scott is teaching a pinhole photography workshop during his residency at Main Street Arts on Saturday, June 9 from 12 to 4 pm. Participants will construct and photograph with their own pinhole cameras. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. Sign up for the workshop here.