SCOTT CONARROE. FRONTIÈRE, FRONTIERA, GRENZE
© Scott Conarroe, ‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’, Zmutt Gletscher, Switzerland, 2014
Prior to your recent move to Switzerland you lived on Canada’s west coast. Please talk about this transition and what it means to your photographic work.
Scott Conarroe (SC): It’s funny. I grew up in British Columbia. I’ve lived in and out of Vancouver since 1996. I’m habitual faculty at Emily Carr. I’m very much of the west yet almost never identified with it. I tend to be seen as from Toronto or maybe the east coast where I went to grad school.
Early on though -like a lot of Vancouver photo kids- I imagined I either had to defy or defer to the local “Photoconceptualist” brand. It’s a big deal there. And it’s a valuable conversation, but I’m interested in aesthetics and documentary pursuits too; in galavanting beyond such a specific discourse from time to time. Having said that, though, the work I love most does enjoy defending its positions. That’s what the west coast did to me: it instilled cerebral mechanisms in a pursuit that’s essentially about looking.
My wife is Swiss. We’ve lived between British Columbia and there enough to be at home both places. I don’t foresee a dramatic shift in how I work, but I don’t mind surprises. My shtick isn’t particularly biographical. Narrative and perspective feed into each other though. I married outside of Canada; so did my brother. Our parents and grandparents are from various places. On the other hand, my family in Switzerland is rooted in a city that predates the Romans. Perhaps that explains why my landscapes are more explicitly about time these days.
© Scott Conarroe, ‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’, Chaltwasser Gletscher, Switzerland, 2014
Your previous landscape work has largely been based upon the idea that the landscape is shaped by changes in technology and transportation. Please comment.
SC: That’s accurate. A fussier, finer way of putting it is landscapes are conceived of differently as we occupy and move through them differently. My series ‘By Rail’ is about railways and photography and North America; basically contemporaneous developments. Trains compressed distance. Photos abstracted space. European settlement of The New World re-defined Western civilization. This work can be read as visual or as a treatise on railways or landscape or history, and inevitably it’s about the moment the pictures were made in too. It’s got a nostalgic bent, but it’s nostalgia for that present when we first grasped “peak oil” and could’ve responded to that insight, when a woman or mixed-race man was going be president of the United States. Change seemed inevitable even though it wasn’t. History and hope and transformation and inertia and disgrace were strewn together across the landscape. Its companion project, ‘By Sea’, is about similar things, but the thread is our coastline perimeter. ‘The Great Eastern’ looks at China, its confidence and its complications against the backdrop of high-speed rail expansion. Ideals get manifested in landscapes. Technology and transportation -what we do and where we go- say a lot about the things we value.
In the late 19th century Timothy O’Sullivan photographed the American West as a sublime and pre-industrialized landscape. Please comment on this in relation to your pictures of Glaciers from ‘Frontiere, Frontiera, Grenze’
SC: “Sublime and pre-industrialized” butts up against Romanticism. There The Sublime is beauty shot through with vague terror. Up to now I’ve been riffing on Caspar David Friedrich’s vertigo and alpine ennui, but Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins and “unknown photographer, unknown date” definitely overlap. They were photographing more or less alone past the edge of civilization with glass plates and a darkroom tent. I used to just accept that the era’s technologies made their pictures haunting, but maybe that’s the aesthetic of being profoundly vulnerable… Nonetheless, Romanticism was reacting in part against industrialization, the geological surveys O'Sullivan was employed by were instruments of its expansion, and now both are largely preamble to our present conversation that is the 21st century.
‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’ is about the moveable borders Alps nations devised in response to glacial melting and watershed drift. Permafrost thaw at high elevations is causing the landscape to disintegrate; boundaries established in the last century no longer correspond to the terrain. Switzerland, Italy, Austria and France have unfixed sections of their borders until the landscape “re-stabilizes”. When their glaciers are extinct in a few decades, new borders will be drawn to honour the various treaties. It’s an elegant acknowledgement that this moment is incalculable. And these places are truly beautiful. They seem timeless and pristine, but they’re very much expressions of a post-industrial atmosphere. The vague terror of paradigm shift is what makes them sublime.
© Scott Conarroe, ‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’, Glacier de Bionnassay, France 2014.
What was the process of discovery that led you to turn this traditional and scenic landscape into a project?
SC: I like classic obvious tropes. People already know them. Without having to unpack a motif, we can skip right to digressions. I was looking for a topic that could accommodate a range of conversations. I was hoping for something that might help me integrate into Europe a little more. And not long before, I’d come to embrace a category of pretty landscapes I’d have been shy about. I think I came across this four-year-old article in someone’s pile of English language magazines, and moveable borders became a fitting conceptual beard for a scenery project.
© Scott Conarroe, ‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’, Chaltwasser Gletscher, Switzerland, 2014
What are your formal interests in this recent Glacier project?
SC: Ice + rocks is a limited vocabulary, and the spaces I’m looking at are rather vast. The first pictures were kind of boring, too claustrophobic. Stitching exposures into panoramas were one possibility for escape. I decided that since the images were being constructed anyhow, I’d use the opportunity to get into shooting digitally. The pictures I’m building now are very wide compositions from dozens of captures. They pan across and tilt up and down. I’m working this fish-eye view into “credible straight photos”. You’d have to turn your head to see these views in reality. They’re kind of like flattened museum dioramas. I like their surfeit of information (300dpi at more than a meter tall) as well as the series’ curious ambience. One formal delight is the flip from sweeping vista to dense detail, and then pulling out again when you spot a tiny mountaineer or hut.
Even though the digital back renders twilight different than film, I still love shifts of dawn and dusk. Rather than long exposures and reciprocity failure and colour blending, these pictures are made from distinct visual units. Sometimes I adjust exposures as the light changes; top and bottom can describe very different scenes. Sometimes both hemispheres of twilight appear in the same sky; colours shift across the horizon as well as up from it. I guess another formal interest is downplaying these “tricks” so they don’t define the pictures.
© Scott Conarroe, ‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’, Similaun Gletscher, Austria, 2015
You have an exhibit coming up next year in Switzerland of some of the Glacier work. How will it be displayed?
SC: I’m excited about this show. Photographica FineArt is pairing ‘Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze’ with some glacier works by Vittorio Sella. For those who don’t know his work think Timothy O'Sullivan times Edmund Hillary. He is awesome. In a way my pictures have a lot in common with his stiff men on plump glaciers, but there’s also a world of difference between what we’re seeing. I don’t know if the works will be separated or interspersed, or how they’ll be sized. I’m editioning FFG at a larger scale than I’ve done before, but for Photographica and Stephen Bulger Gallery where it’ll also show next year, a smaller exhibition suite might make sense.
A book of your landscapes titled ‘By Rail and By Sea’ was very recently published. Please talk about your experience of seeing the work in this context.
SC: I’m glad to see it resolved. My first book has been a long, slow process. A ‘By Rail’ publication was in the works in 2009, but the institution spearheading it malfunctioned. I kept working, and ‘By Sea’ just tumbled out. They’re both substantial projects. If I were less obscure or they hadn’t happened in such quick succession, I might have wanted a comprehensive tome for each. They define each other though. They’ve got a nice take on symmetry: lines of infrastructure and a line geography going across and around respectively, allusions to an industrial past and an uncertain future, degrees of abjectness against rather orthodox standards of beauty. ‘By Rail and By Sea’ is a very good introduction to my practice. Of course it’d be great to be past the introduction stage, but I’m okay with being more tortoise than hare. The book is modest-sized, but the edit feels good. There’s a lot in each plate. I’m hoping not overwhelming people with page count will encourage slower readings.