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An Exhibition that Probes the Precarious Balance Between Man and Nature
Scott McFarland, View of Vale of Health, Looking Towards Hampstead (edition 5/5), 2007, from the series Hampstead. Ink jet print. Collection of Michael Nininger. Photo: Courtesy of the artist, Monte Clark Gallery and Regen Projects.
OTTAWA.- Human relations with the natural world are the central focus of the exhibition Scott McFarland: A Cultivated View, organized by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP), and on view at the National Gallery of Canada through September 13, 2009. The exhibition brings together 36 works by Scott McFarland who has become renowned for his superbly constructed photographs.

Photographer Scott McFarland creates exacting images that depict nature crafted to human will and desire. Focusing on gardens, landscape views and animals found in particular sites such as zoos, farms and stables, his approach is both descriptive and metaphoric. On one level, his photographs indicate a state of harmony and peacefulness, while on another, the overall effect appears artificial. The exhibition comprises three series of works, Gardens (2001–06), Hampstead (2005 continuing), and Empire (2003 continuing). A major body of work focuses on Vancouver gardens.

“We are very pleased to present this fascinating exhibition of contemporary photography to the public,” noted the director of the CMCP, Martha Hanna. “Although he has been active for only ten years, Scott McFarland has quickly distinguished himself from other art photographers of his generation with works that immerse the viewer in a rich visual experience.”

Drawing his inspiration from famous gardens around the world and celebrated artists such as John Constable, McFarland uses a large-format camera and multiple images which are digitally combined to create a seamless photograph. In this way, the depicted scene is carefully crafted and his choice and handling of the subject matter incorporates elements of photographic processes and the history of art and photography.

One exhibition, three themes
In this exhibition, McFarland groups his photographs into three themes: gardens, photography: art and the document, and animals.

Gardens – In his Gardens series, which concentrates on private gardens found in Vancouver’s affluent West Side, McFarland unites the desired view of the garden with collaboratively staged scenes of maintenance. In some cases, the exacting composition and pose of workers underscore the idea of human activity blending with nature, as is seen in Inspecting, Allan O’Conner Searches for Botrytis Cinerea, where the arched backs of the gardeners echo the curved bends of the hedges and shrubbery in which they work. In addition, gardening activities are integrally linked to photographic processes as the two share many common elements. Both make use of chemicals; photography with developer fluids, stop baths and fixatives, gardening with fertilizers and pesticides.

Photography: Art and Documents – McFarland’s photographs challenge categories of art and document. In terms of the latter, the photograph in its descriptive capacity carries the weight of authority and order, a belief grounded in a cultural investment in objectivity. On one level, the detailed precision and startling clarity of McFarland’s photographs present the world as something intensely seen and scrutinized. In some cases, as especially occurs in views of the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, California, taxonomic captions, such as “echinocactus grussoni,” further support a documentary approach with their connection to scientific classificatory schemes that neatly arrange reality.

This idea of the document, however, is challenged by the artistry of the imagery. McFarland uses digital technology to combine multiple images into one. This capacity to transform the world is echoed in his very subject matter. Gardens are frequently unnatural places. They are often comprised of various species of non-indigenous plants bought for aesthetic effect. As the garden is viewed more as a composed site, so the photographer works to create a controlled vision of its depiction, an expectation of nature photographers since the nineteenth century. However, in the twenty-first, digital manipulation allows the photographer to act as the master painter.

Animals – Through his careful crafting of photographs, McFarland presents a genteel vision of nature and the place of humans within it. Animals, usually domesticated ones, stand quietly by their human keepers; a steady hand on its face calms a horse being shod, and dogs stand alert beside their masters.

The extended view format presents subject matter as a stately tableau; a gentle zoo keeper feeds placid, lumbering porcupines in a stylized natural setting; young women groom docile horses in a bucolic orchard filled with spring growth; people appear in a wood, their dogs, although faithful companions, are nonetheless distracted by one another’s company.

Animal and human worlds are depicted as intimately intertwined; a vision complemented by McFarland’s method of creating imagery that exploits both digital and analogue photographic properties. Through this hybrid manner of working, the artist demonstrates our relation with nature as a subtle interplay of fact and fiction.

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