Katharine MacDaid will be speaking at our June talk Photography & Landscape. Her photographs take us to a variety of outdoors scenarios in different countries and cultures.
In the run-up to the talk, we interviewed her about the work and her use of landscape…
Your early projects are mainly portraiture based, what made you shift your interest to landscape photography?
It was not a conscious choice to shift my interest to landscape photography, I made some great portraits in both places, but I decided not to use them. During the editing process, I intentionally removed all the portraits to create a more abstract narrative. In earlier projects, it was my personal relationship to the people that motivated the photography. With these two bodies of work, it was my response to the landscape. I treated the landscape as a personal space, a backdrop for which to contextualize uneasy feelings. Using portraits would change that dynamic, the work would become a story about the space itself.
Having grown up in various countries, what is familiar to you can be exotic to the viewer, who may or may not have experienced those places before. Do the landscapes you photograph have a direct connection with your own memories?
Yes, to some extent, as they were both formative locations in my childhood. Oman was my home until I was nine, and from there we moved to the Pacific Northwest where my father worked in a remote part of Alaska. The experience of both places fostered all sorts of shadows in my imagination, affecting how I respond to the world as a grown woman. However, my work is not about memory, I don’t take photographs to reminisce about the past. I am searching for something that is missing in the present. With both my recent projects, I set off full of longing, but neither landscape offered me any lasting solace. I was in awe, I felt excited, but the spaces were ultimately unknowable and I felt very exposed…
How do you choose your settings? Do you discover a space through photographing it or are your images in response to what you imagine the final picture to look like?
In Oman I was initially drawn to place names I recognized from family stories I’d grown up with. In Alaska, one place or person lead to another. I never rigorously plan my work and leave much up to chance, confronting the landscape as I find it. I work with film and don’t usually shoot more than two or three frames per image. I work quite quickly, I don’t wait around for the best light or return to a location because I need to shoot again. As you suggest, I discover a space through photographing it. The photograph is an indexical record of the encounter, and if I’m very lucky, also has that indefinable resonance that all good photographs capture.
The use of landscape within narrative transports us not only to the location but also to a certain mood and atmosphere. How much importance do the layout and other elements as quotes or text fragments have in your work?
The layout has a huge importance. The edit of the images establishes the structure of the work, not simply in terms of sequencing, but which images stay in and which don’t will shape the narrative. It’s through the images that I understand what my response to the landscape was, a response that comes from a very vulnerable place. And it takes a very long time. It’s a frustrating process ‘reading’ your own images. I have worked with several different people and had to access some uncomfortable truths. Using small texts helps to guide the viewer without revealing too much or telling them exactly what to think. The texts in the Alaska work are fundamental to the whole project. The relationship between the objective stories and the ambiguous images creates the uncertain and uneasy atmosphere that is central to my work.
You are currently working on a long-term project about your exiled Irish identity; can you tell us a bit more about it and any other near future projects?
When I was doing my MA, I photographed my parents intensely for about a year and then left the work aside, unsettled that I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling. It was at their 40th wedding anniversary, some years later, that my father read a letter from his uncle dated 1963, from the Vatican, denouncing my mother as a “bitter Belfast type” (Protestant) that I understood the power of my parent’s union. The complicated culture in Northern Ireland was never something I’d experienced up close, but it was crucial to my parent’s history. When I was sent to school in Belfast after living in America, I was very much an alien…. With my next piece of work, I’m planning to go to Northern Ireland and photograph as I walk the Ulster Way, a 600-mile loop around the six counties. I’m also photographing all my 24 cousins on the Catholic side (there are none on my mother’s side), some of whom were similarly brought up in other countries and none of which I’ve grown up knowing closely.
Tuesday 13th June, 2017. Doors at 6pm, kicks off at 7pm. The Old Market, Brighton.