Photographer / Artisté Molly McCall
Photographer / artisté
Molly Mccall’s earliest influence on art-making came from her great-grandfather, an illustrator for the New York Times, and grandfather, a professional watercolorist in Southern California. She started painting and photography at an early age, and later attended Laguna Beach School of Art. After nearly two decades in the clothing business, Molly returned to painting and darkroom photography.
SS // How did you get into photography? Explain how your early work evolved into your current aesthetic.
MM // I took my first photography class when I was in junior high school, and converted my bathroom at home into a darkroom soon after. It was like magic to me, and I was fascinated with the two processes: taking pictures and making pictures. I began altering images with double exposures and staging photographs when I was working with Cibachrome and slide film back in the 1980s, long before Photoshop was invented. I have always seen photography as a material in itself, not just a way to capture an image. I have been cutting, collaging, painting, and altering photographs since I can remember, and find photography an infinite resource for my imagination.
SS // Your process is so intricate, thoughtful, and unique. Please describe it for our readers. Where do you find your images? How do you select them?
MM // I have collected vintage snapshots for many years. I first discovered them in flea markets and secondhand stores while looking for vintage textiles when I was designing clothing. The images would be stuffed in drawers and boxes by the hundreds. I was immediately drawn to them. The unknown people and unfamiliar places ignited my imagination, and I began collecting them and using them as inspiration for writing short stories.
I first started re-photographing found images as a way to explore the passage of time and memory. I wanted to challenge the idea of truth and fiction, and also explore how the mind stores and recovers information.
I regularly sort through my photo collection. After I choose an image, I photograph it with a film camera, then scan the negative into my computer to reinterpret, then generate a new negative to print the image in my darkroom. The image is then toned and pressed flat. Then I begin painting with oil paint and acrylics. There are several parts to my process, but I work on multiple images at one time so I can keep continuity to my thoughts while working.
SS // What is the intention/purpose behind the work you create? You’ve said you’re interested in exploring, concealing, and revealing the idea of “memory.” Why is the concept of activating one’s memory so important to you in your work?
MM // My work is about memory and the act of remembering. Building layers on top of the imagery is a physical manifestation of my thoughts about memory. It is both a metaphor and activation
I am interested in how memory helps us construct ourselves, affects our humanity, and locates us in our time; how photography can create a tangible representation of the passing of time and memory, and challenges the notion of truth and fiction. My visual quest is to translate a sensory experience into a visible object, and is one that I know I will never fully achieve. There is a transitory nature to memory that is illusive and ever-expanding, and I like knowing that I will never be fully capable of capturing it.
It’s the exploration of memory and all of its manifestations, effects, and influences that are interesting to me. I am not even sure what the meaning of my pursuit really is. I just know that it occupies my thoughts about 90 percent of the time. I see the effects of memory everywhere: in our society, in our aging population, in my parents, and in myself.
My interest in memory was sparked by a retrospective show at MOMA of American painter Gerhard Richter’s work in New York several years ago. I was struck by his use of found imagery and the way he used a blurred veil of time in many of the paintings. Likewise, Swiss artist Uwe Wittwer’s paintings delve deep into memory by reducing visual information and breaking apart the picture plane to diminish context and simulate the experience of memory.
"I wanted to challenge the idea of truth and fiction, and also explore how the mind stores and recovers information."
SS // How do you stay so patient in this day and age of wanting to experience everything now? How do you think time plays a part in your work?
MM // The fact that my process is so multilayered is part of exploring the passage of time. The layers and multiple materials allow me to step away, think, and return to each piece without feeling overwhelmed as well. The process just unfolds in its own way, and I sometimes feel like I am just guiding it along. It is probably more ritual than process, and one that settles my mind and allows me to disconnect from the noise of the world around me. I couldn’t do it any other way. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me.
I look for specific details when I search for images, depending on which project I am working on. The core of my projects usually starts with a literary source or a universal theme that I can develop using both a personal and collective narrative. I search through hundreds of images to glean maybe three or four that I can anchor my theme on, and then I build a series from there. I sit with the images for a long time, writing and sketching thoughts about them. I spend hours looking at photographs to the point where I actually begin to feel like I am a camera and I am taking the photographs myself. I know it sounds weird, but it requires the same sort of “looking” that taking a photograph requires.
SS // What types of stories do you hope/think will arise for people after viewing your work? Can you name any responses you’ve received in particular?
MM // There is a certain measure of immunity in working with found imagery. I don’t bring an emotional connection to these images, therefore I can re-create them and retell their stories without any pretext. At the same time, I see situations, instances, gestures, and moments that are oddly familiar and that might have been experienced by anyone.
The response by viewers to the images has been quite strong. There is a sense of nostalgia, but the context is contemporary and disorienting. The images take work to absorb, and push a lot of buttons for people.
After viewing thousands of snapshots, I discovered early on that the details of the images are not really what is remembered. It’s the sensate, the perception of the senses that created the memory. I began to explore how to express that and how that related to the past tense of being. Color, shape, form all play a role in the transformation of the images as well. Concealing details revealed more of the emotion of the image and heightened the visual energy of the picture plane like a painting. This was an exercise I had practiced in abstract painting, and I adapted it to the photographic medium.
My work attempts to express the sensory memory, that deeper memory that never fades. The one that can’t be stored on an iPhone or text message, the sense of memory that makes a permanent imprint. I am trying to visually re-create the moment when that occurrence goes from logical to visceral.
SS // What has been your favorite or most successful image you’ve created to date?
MM // The images in my series “One Moment” were a breakthrough for me. I tested my “sensate” theory most strongly there, and I really liked the way it pushed the photographic medium to a secondary place, and subtlety brought forth the sense of memory. “Pony Girl” is one of the strongest images in the series and is one of my favorites. It seems as though it’s an ordinary image of a girl on her pony, but it is obscured by the heavy white dots, which renders the subject of the piece as a figurative form. The background is painted in tones of primary colors to juxtapose the starkness of the white dots. The dots to me create an entry for the viewer and permission to invent their own narrative. The silhouette reflects a passage of time and the landscape does as well.
"After viewing thousands of snapshots, I discovered early on that the details of the images are not really what is remembered. It’s the sensate, the perception of the senses that created the memory."
SS // Do you do anything commercially? What are your thoughts on commercial work vs. gallery-oriented pieces?
MM // Yes. I have done a lot of commercially creative things. After art school, I studied marketing and then went on to design clothing, working in the fashion industry for more than 15 years. Within that career, I designed textiles as well. I loved every minute, but eventually burned out and had to switch gears. Painting and photography were always a part of my life and I turned to them to help me transition into my next career. I began painting large abstract paintings and creating mosaics out of hundreds of darkroom images, while I started a new business with my husband. When that business took off, I managed all of the marketing, doing everything from branding and logo design to publishing a national award-winning magazine.
Commercial art has permeated everyone’s life for many years. Pop music is in commercials, fashion is in film, and design is all around us. It seems as though so many modern concepts are amalgams of multiple things. That is what modern is by definition. It is that “thing” of our time, that “contemporary” thing. I find that what I can bring to my own visual voice is all of those things in my background, whether fine art or design. They all have informed my sense of expression, my awareness of what is around me, and fuel the need to express myself visually.
SS // What is the #1 piece of advice you’d like to give to a young, aspiring creative who’s trying to get into the business?
MM // Tune in. Experience as much of the real world as you can, and not just in the areas that pertain to your profession. Live music, live theater, fashion, travel, food, etc. It will all sensitize you on a deeper level and contribute something to your creativity that will help you develop a unique visual voice. Likewise, balance it with time spent in deeper concentration. Spend dedicated time with something that slows you down and that will engage you in a process that involves your mind with both your hands and your eyes.
SS // Where can we find a Molly McCall piece in person?
MM // Currently, my work is in several juried exhibitions all across the country, and will appear in the Barcelona Biennale this October. The shows are posted on my website and I e-blast announcements out to my mailing list about every other month. The photo-eye gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico also represents some of my earlier work.