Next month, Katherine MacDaid launches her new book “The Fireweed Turns” so we chatted with her about the project, it’s genesis, the significance of geography and how it sits amongst previous projects she’s done…
How did the project come about?
Before starting this project, I had previously spent a number of years living in the Sultanate of Oman, which had been my first and longest childhood home. I had moved back there to make a body of work, which became ‘Of Calling Shapes and Beckoning Shadows’. The next logical step in my ongoing photographic work was the Pacific Northwest, where we moved to from Oman when I was nine years old. Like Oman, it had a profound impact on me as a child and was fundamental to my memory and imagination, playing a definitive role in how I learnt to construct my sense of self and place, that narrative we all create for ourselves. Just as my world shifted from Oman to the Pacific Northwest as a young girl, from the bright desert to the dark forest, I shifted my focus in the same direction, this time with some sense of control.
What led you to spend a summer alone in Alaska?
When I first came back to London after Oman and began to closely look through the hundreds of images I’d made while living there, I became quite overwhelmed. I realised I had a long way to go before I could make sense of the work. I was teaching photography and knew I would have a long stretch over the summer months without any classes. I decided to make some new work, that making new work would help me deal with the current work. My photography projects have always seemed to bump into each other quite intuitively, it’s a sort of floating timeline I’m moving through. Travelling to Alaska had been on my mind, and having conquered returning to the Middle East, the idea of heading to America next seemed pretty straight forward. I was single and already had the money saved. I made contact with a Teamster friend of my father’s in Seattle, talked through some advice and practicalities and when I arrived in Anchorage, I made my way to Wasilla and from there rented a vehicle. I knew I could easily park off-road or at rest stops along the highways, and so I bought a sleeping bag, a pillow and a cold box from Walmart. In the end, I only ever slept a few nights in the back of the jeep, every place I went I ended up with offers of a bed…
Can you tell us a bit about how your life growing up in Seattle and Northern Ireland affected this work?
I was nine years old when we moved from Oman to Seattle, my father was running a project on Amchitka, an island on the Aleutian Chain, building a radar for the American Government, to spy on the Russians, he said… He would work away for long periods and when he came home, he would tell stories about the strange Alaskan landscape, the never-ending sunlight or the endless darkness. He’d tell us about the tough and knowing men he worked with, each with incredible past lives you could never guess at. My father is from Ireland and tells a story very well, and as a kid it was thrilling to hear about this far-fetched place that was utterly real. We went to a local Catholic school, we learnt to put our hands on our hearts and pledge our allegiance to the American flag every morning. We watched reality cop shows and MTV. The most captivating narrative for me was the news of Ted Bundy’s execution and the police hunt for the Green River killer. We talked about them in hushed tones at school, real-life bogey men, both of whom had hunted and still haunted our particular corner of America. The fear and excitement were constant, so much more intense and louder than growing up in an untouched desert. It knocked me sideways, it was seductive and very scary. This all became cemented when I went away to school in Northern Ireland two years later. I now entered a world of constricting uniforms and rigorous daily rules. I was on my own, my brothers were at a different school in another part of Belfast and my parents were in America. There was a different, silent threat. There were soldiers on the streets and odd normalities like your bag getting searched by security guards when you went into the cinema. Once again, a huge shift and an absolute adjustment. Again, a contrast so strong it’s difficult to examine the conflicting emotional consequences with any clarity, hence I make work. As I got further and further away from these distant landscapes, the more they became mythical, they became tales I told new friends, or tales I locked away.
The text seems very important to the work, alongside the photos. What role does this play?
The text, which I based on real encounters, gives the work a voice… It’s terse, objectiveness purposely contrasts with the much heavier atmosphere of the images. Images on their own often float about on a sea of meaning, the text guides the viewer, reinforcing their intuition as to what the work is about.
Had you always intended to present the work as a book? How early did you start thinking about an edit, layouts, etc?
I started thinking about this work as a book after I’d spent some time really looking at the images and understanding what had happened while I was making the work, what I had seen and experienced, and why I truly had gone there in the first place. I didn’t know before I made the work that it would become a book project. That developed as I began to understand my motives, what was driving me, what I had unconsciously wanted to face… Then it was a case of an edit, and there were many, many edits, but an initial edit where I selected the photographs that were closest to what I wanted to say.
How (or why) did you choose to present it in a storybook style?
It came about through a long process of reading, experimenting with writing styles and thinking about how text and image could work together. As I tried to make sense of my own motives, I read around Jungian concepts of the shadow and evil in fairy tales. The idea that we face fears through storytelling, that children use stories to understand good and bad… Again, you have to control the context under which the work is read otherwise it becomes another type of work entirely, meaning can be so contested that you have to try and guide the viewer as much as possible. Everyone understands the language of fairy tales and the underlying menace, so it helps key the reader in.
How would you go about exhibiting the work in a gallery?
This is a good question as I am still not sure! It’s really hard to think about the work on a gallery wall, to know how to separate all the elements and yet keep it as a complete piece. I would like to try using recordings of my own voice reading the stories and have the black and white images mounted with circular die cuts, but with a depth of 10cms or so, so you could look at the image as a circle, or peer in and see the whole image at once. The colour images would all be the same size as each other, not too big, about 30cms… This in my mind is all very linear. It would have to be in a small room, painted a dark colour. A contained space, you could begin at either end… In truth, I’d love to find someone who really tunes into the work to help me construct an installation. Working with other people is vital with work like this, work that is on one level so personal, yet also very universal.
The Fireweed Turns will be launched at The Photographer’sGallery on Thursday 14th February, 6pm – 8pm.