“Analogical Thinking”: on photography in the work of Meryl McMaster

by | May 19, 2016 | 0 comments

Meryl McMaster’s performance-based photographic works have been on my mind for several years, but it’s only recently—in an essay for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s catalogue for the exhibition, “In Another Place, And Here,” and now for the Carleton University Art Gallery’s catalogue accompanying McMaster’s traveling solo exhibition, “Confluence“—that I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the ways her work intervenes in and responds to histories of photographic self-portraiture. Writing alongside my brilliant colleague and collaborator cheyanne turions, who has contributed a lovely personal essay on exposure (in all meanings of that word) to the snow, I have tried to think through how McMaster’s work engages the natural world in a way that might illustrate Kaja Silverman’s compelling vision of photography as “the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us—of demonstrating that it exists, and that it will forever exceed us.” Instead of using the camera to go out and collect “pieces” of the world, as Susan Sontag once described it, Silverman argues that photography is the mode through which the world comes to us: “Photography,” she writes, “is an ontological calling card: it helps us to see that each of us is a node in a vast constellation of analogies.”

[McMaster’s work] has stuck with me because of the ways in which it entangles photography in the transmutation and transformation of physical materials. It suggests a primal, even primordial desire to turn the fiery stars into liquid images, to pour the celestial realm into the earth’s recesses, to shrink the magnitude of the cosmos into tiny pools of water. These desires resonate within the history of photography too, driving the much more banal chemical transformations that have made photography possible since its invention in 1839: changes that occur on a much smaller, human scale but that have nevertheless been met with responses of wonderment and disbelief. Although he was only discussing the fixing of a camera obscura image onto a metal plate, Louis Daguerre—the so-called father of photography—wrote to his partner, Nicéphore Niépce, in 1828 that he was “burning with desire to see your experiments from nature.” Early viewers of daguerreotypes were often awestruck by their faithful reproduction of human subjects on reflective metal surfaces encased in glass, describing them as “mirrors with a memory.” Late into the twentieth century, Roland Barthes famously wrote that cameras were “clocks for seeing,” which might still hold deep within them “the living sound of the wood.”

“Confluence” will be on tour across Canada in the coming year, traveling to the Richmond Art Gallery, Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in 2017, and to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and The Rooms in 2018. It’s a terrific opportunity to get an overview of McMaster’s career to date, hot on the heels of her nomination to the long list for the 2016 Sobey Art Award.