Spotlight on: Scott Conarroe
It’s a familiar observation that artists reflect the world back to us. In recent years, Scott Conarroe’s photography has documented large-scale views of land, sea, and mountains, often presenting a depth of detail that the human eye cannot process without the aid of a camera. These elegant images remind the viewer to notice the world we live in, and move through, every day.
We spoke to Scott to find out about his art practice and how he follows through on his inspirations. In the process, we discovered his affinity for 19th-century landscape paintings and learned how his desire to remain inconspicuous has influenced his photographic method.
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FFOTO: Your current exhibition, Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze, presents ravishing views of alpine beauty but the geographical features serve to support the larger thesis of this project. Please tell us about this work and the inspiration behind it.
Scott Conarroe: The series is about the moveable borders that four nations devised in response to glacial melting and watershed drift. As permafrost in the Alps retreats to higher, colder elevations, the terrain below is softening and crumbling. Landscapes are changing shape. Boundaries drawn in earlier eras no longer conform to the ridgelines and drainage basins those treaties were based upon, so Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and France have rendered sections of their borders fluid. When the geography re-stabilizes they’ll establish new boundaries. Rather than insisting these arbitrary lines are inviolable, this is an elegant acknowledgement that we can’t hold back time. It’s one scant silver lining of glacial extinction… so in addition to being a type of glacier salvage archive, Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze considers an avant-garde view of statecraft for a future that is increasingly defined by climate change. “Frontière”, “frontiera”, and “grenze” are French, Italian and German-language words for “border”.
As for the pictures, it’s worth distinguishing the views and the prints from the jpegs online. These are big spaces. To take them in onsite as a viewer you’d have to both pan and tilt your gaze. The series’ earliest “keepers” were a few 4x5 scans stitched together. There’s one in the show. Most of the scenes are built from dozens of MF captures. They’re massive, intricate files that have actually been reduced rather than enlarged for printing. It’s a little overkill but visually fascinating. It’s disorienting. You can focus in tighter and tighter and just keep seeing more and more until some tiny bivouac or troupe of mountaineers resets the scale abruptly. It’s as closely related to Google Earth as it is to the paintings of Turner or Caspar David Friedrich.
FF: Your previous bodies of work, By Rail and By Sea, document rail systems and coastal communities of North America, observing how we humans relate to, and transform, our environment. In talking about that work you said, “If nature wasn’t so interesting, its indifference would be terrifying.” Is this in reference simply to the untamable forces of nature in general, or are you also suggesting the effects of climate change?
SC: The Romanticists’ concept of the sublime commingles beauty with vague fear. It stems from physical and visual sensations, from vertigo at the edge of a cliff, or of a sense of smallness in powerful weather. Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze definitely has this, but there’s also an intellectual terror that comes from the uncertainty of paradigm shift. We know the future could very well be jarring. It’s uncomfortable to imagine, yet I can’t not look. Every day we see adaptations and extinctions. Flora and fauna are migrating north in real-time. In By Sea, and in this project, maps are changing shape at sea level and also at great heights.
FF: You’re a Canadian living in Zurich, and you travel extensively as part of your process. Like painting, the act of photographing can encourage an en plein air approach to making art. Does a wanderlust inform your art practice, or do you instead seek settings that help you to realize a concept you’re developing?
SC: My home life is split between Switzerland and a village a few hundred kilometres from Vancouver. My professional life happens in other places. I’m spread out. I get why you call it wanderlust, but I see my field-work more as digressions within my normal range. I’m extremely fortunate to have this practice to bring with me. I make work for pleasure, sometimes out of habit, but mostly because it allows me firsthand views or even interaction with events I’d otherwise only know from books and films and podcasts. I get some semblance of a stake in things I’m curious about. I tend to work quite generally at first. As patterns and motifs emerge from a topic I address them more deliberately.
FF: Your photographs present a specific, elevated aspect from which a viewer is meant to consider a composition. That vantage point is often several metres aboveground, but never from such a height that a viewer feels detached from the subject matter. Can you talk a bit about that compositional device in your photography?
SC: When I first got a 4x5 I felt painfully conspicuous. I was anxious about the camera and the expense of sheet film. Being jostled on the sidewalk was a discomfort I could get away from, though. I made my way onto rooftops and fire escapes. I came to appreciate how useful a little elevation could be. Pictures became about arrangements of things rather than things themselves. The foreground became simply the bottom of the frame, and viewers could flip back and forth between slightly abstracted spaces and places a person could plausibly enter. I got into the habit of reverse-engineering pictures, of finding a place to plant the camera and deciding what to shoot from there. It made sense to me to build a practice on perspective rather than circling subjects for vantage points.
FF: There is an almost 19th century, Romantic and painterly sensibility to your photographs, which feels intentional. Do you see your work as falling within the tradition of the great landscape painters?
SC: I know what you mean. It’s not exactly deliberate though. The origin of my pretty palette was a gigantic Impressionism book my brother brought home from a semester abroad. It didn’t quite fit on any shelf in our house. Throughout my teenage years it was always just laying around. I’d flip through it once in a while. I read bits of the essay. I gained an appreciation for blotchy, flowery people in hats. When I eventually found my way to art school the “Serious Work” seemed distressingly arid. I did my undergrad in Vancouver, and it was easy to imagine myself in opposition to some orthodox Photoconceptualism. That stance hasn’t been very relevant for a long time, but my shtick evolved from it.
I saw Stan Douglas’s Hasselblad Prize show last month. It was inspiring. Upstairs was the Gothenburg Kunsthalle’s permanent collection. I’m mostly ignorant about Scandinavian painting, but I’d been falling in like with a small reproduction in our hotel room; a woman and man on a deck by a lake; Richard Bergh’s Nordic Summer Evening (1899), cropped into a 5:6 frame. It was the first piece I landed on in the Nordic Romanticism room. I don’t know where my work falls in relation to The Greats, but I felt at home in each of those shows.
FF: You’ve documented communities, civic infrastructure, land, sea, and mountains in your photography. What’s next for you?
SC: Right now I’m articulating what seems to be a study of historical spaces. I’ve been picking at it casually, not really paying attention. Since the weather got cold, though, I’m at the computer more. It looks like a somewhat fleshed out body of work has already occurred.
I’m also preparing to teach some classes that are kind of outside my wheelhouse. They’ve got more directorial bents so I’m looking at Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Stan Douglas and William Notman with new, gleaning eyes. It’s perfectly timed for the direction I’m working in. I’d like to do something about forests.
Scott Conarroe would like to thank the following organizations for their encouragement and support of Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze: The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, The Canada Council for the Arts, and ArtBellwald.ch.