By Aarik Danielsen
We all know the axiom about necessity being the mother of invention. Scott McMahon turns the phrase about, discovering ways that isolation is the parent of creative connection.
A professor and curator at Columbia College, McMahon’s work consistently mines the wisdom embedded in historical photographic techniques to diagram our relationship with mortality, history and memory.
With the ground shifting beneath all of our feet, and the world becoming smaller in a time of social isolation, McMahon used tools both imaginative and elemental — including his home and the woods just beyond it — to expand his view. Crafting camera obscuras, he has created a daily series of images that unites outdoors and indoors, nature and the need to nurture our own health and that of our neighbors.
The Tribune traded emails with McMahon to discuss the design and personal effect of the project.
Tribune: The genesis of this project is rooted in the isolation we all feel right now. Did the idea come to you all at once, or gradually? Did it feel important to you to make art in/about this time, or was the specific project itself the bigger motivation?
McMahon: The idea came somewhat gradually. I use the camera obscura in my classes at Columbia College as a teaching tool. It’s a great introduction to how light travels and how the camera works. It’s also just a beautiful way to experience an image.
A few weeks ago, when we left campus to start planning for ways to shift from an in-seat classroom experience to a virtual one, I thought about ways to stay creative while using a tool that’s foundational in my classes. The initial idea I had was simply to make at least one photograph from inside my home of a different camera obscura projection each day.
After making a few of these, I started thinking more about how being isolated and away from others can, for many of us, be an unsettling experience. For me, being inside the camera obscura for a couple hours each day is helpful in connecting with the natural world. Maybe I’m also escaping for a short period of time each day to find solace in watching the shadows move, trees blowing in the wind, clouds sweeping in and out of view, birds flying across the frame and new growth becoming more apparent each day as we move further into spring.
Tribune: How did you go about visualizing/constructing these camera obscura designs? How does the specific dimension or placement of the room affect what you do?
McMahon: The phenomenon of light forming images has been around since the dawn of time and there are many artists, both contemporary and throughout the history of art and science, who have implemented the camera obscura.
My set-up is actually very simple — I select a room in the house that has some kind of view (most of them so far have been made in two bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom). I use black landscaping plastic to cover the windows. This gets taped around the seems to seal off any light from coming in. I then cut an opening in one of the covered windows for the light to enter.
On most of the images I’ve used a simple diopter lens that is taped over the initial opening. This helps brighten and sharpen the image. I have also made some with just the opening itself — this is essentially a room-sized pinhole camera. The image is either projected on the opposite wall or caught on a piece of fabric, the wall of the shower, the ceiling, the bed, etc.
rted perspectives. Scale can change pretty drastically, depending on how near or far the receiving surface is
Once a composition is determined, I photograph the projection using a digital camera. This is basically a record or document of what I saw, but by no means one that can replace the actual experience of viewing the image inside the camera obscura.
Tribune: What sorts of natural elements did you find yourself missing or most craving? How intentional were you about composition, bringing specific elements in specific rooms, etc.?
McMahon: I’ve enjoyed working with whatever natural elements were directly outside my window. Trees are in most of the compositions, as that is what fills a good portion of the property behind the house. I’ve enjoyed looking at the skeletal structures of the trees and how they become animated inside the camera obscura as the wind moves their branches.
The image inside the room is also inverted and flipped laterally — this also adds an element of mystery and wonder. Since I’m using the room itself and unable to move it, I have a somewhat limited choice of composition and perspective, but that’s part of the challenge.
Tribune: How do the images work on you with a second or third or subsequent look?
McMahon: I’m enjoying the whole process of making the images, the creative problem-solving and the surprises that happen. Right now, the images are like sketches — they might just be records and reminders to myself of where I was and what I was responding to creatively during this time in history.
Tribune: Not everyone will make something as detailed as you did. But do you have any encouragement or advice about how to channel the feelings of this moment into creativity?
McMahon: I’ve been encouraging my students to try and move forward creatively, allow for that creative time to bring a little joy to you and others when it’s needed very badly. Make something every day. It doesn’t have to be a refined or completed thought, or even a work of art. Just the act of making something will be rewarding.