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Harbour Photographs by Scott Conarroe
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Essay and Interview by Ingrid Jenkner
In a different light
The ten prints in the Harbour (2004-2005) series were photographed by Scott Conarroe, who initially studied in Vancouver, while he was a graduate student in Halifax. They depict mixed-use and transitional sites, such as a parking lot, an auto dealership and a marina, located within sight of the Halifax and Dartmouth waterfronts. With deliberate irony, this young artist has selected precisely the urban landscapes that would be avoided by photographers seeking scenic material, and he has done so while living in a region renowned for its picturesque scenery.
Halifax is a much-photographed city. In commercial photographs it appears as a place filled with business and touristic interest, as a sparkling metropolis lit up at night and reflected in the harbour, a peaceful Eastern seaboard town dating back to colonial times, or a destination with the sorts of attractions that families can safely enjoy. In contrast, the Harbour photographs present unremarkable locales lit by curiously flat skies and devoid of human bustle. By tracing around the shoreline the port’s seemingly haphazard patterns of development, its multiple economies, and its low-rise architecture, Harbour replaces landmarks with the generic signs of urban sprawl. The raised vantage point and chromatically neutral lighting further counter the inflated rhetoric of the more usual photographs. Viewed from this perspective, the series may be considered documentary, despite the photographer’s detached, almost typological treatment of his subject matter.
Conceptual photography may stage a dialogue with pictorial traditions such as painting. It may define itself against photo journalism by resisting narrative legibility, or by engaging in parodic reportage without a discernable event. By insisting through his use of long exposures and compositional template on photography as a practice of looking and a technology of vision, Conarroe situates himself close to the practice of the conceptual-documentarist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sugimoto has been photographing the interiors of cinemas (Theaters) since 1978, while the film plays. His exposures last precisely the duration of the movie and are lit only by the movie. The resulting blanked screens (emptied by too much information registering on the photographic film) represent the mysterious product of a process in which time is rendered through light. In his graduate thesis statement (NSCAD University, Spring 2005) Conarroe quotes Sugimoto’s quip that Where [modernist] art-reportage aimed for the arrested instant, contemporary photography has in general tended toward a slower engagement.
Harbour was preceded by Conarroe’s graduate thesis series, titled Average Pictures (2004). In these photographs similarly banal scenes are presented within the confines of a rigorous durational and compositional template. The vantage point places the horizon precisely one-fifth of the distance from the upper edge of the image. The length of the exposure is governed by the duration (for dozens of minutes) of dawn or dusk In the morning, for example, an exposure beginning in darkness lasts until each street lamp in the scene goes out. In the evening the shutter opens when the sun drops below the horizon and closes when the street lamps are relit. As Conarroe writes in his thesis, these pictures...are like Theaters in that the temporal parameters of each shot are defined within the frame, within the scene depicted. Time in each instance is at least as important as the visual subject; it is as descriptive as light.
Harbour is less process-driven than Average Pictures, yet its visual incongruities, such as the absence of moving traffic or people, and the illumination of electric lamps in daylight, serve a similar purpose. They may, to echo Conarroe’s thought, serve to prolong the viewer’s glance at the photograph. Perhaps they may also yield a slower engagement with the peripheral landscapes that greet our view as we speed along the waterfront.
Scott Conarroe responded to Ingrid Jenkner’s questions via e-mail on 21 August, 2005.
Ingrid Jenkner: What type of camera and film did you use?
Scott Conarroe: I have an old Linhoff 4 x 5 that another ECIAD (Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Vancouver) alumna was selling. She liquidated her assets to buy a ten-dollar watch kiosk in Santa Barbara. I use Kodak VC160 film.
IJ: How do you position your practice in relation to the Vancouver-based photography of Jeff Wall, Scott McFarland, and others?
SC: Wall is quoting History Painting in a seemingly didactic, deliberate fashion. I am working more along the lines of Impressionism, concerned more with light and ambiance. It is about photographic seeing in a way that is similar to the Impressionists, generally tending to privilege pictorial elements over narrative ones.
McFarland and I are about the same age and, to my mind, working through very similar ideas. Both of us are working with the idiom of documentary photography, but treating our imagery as hypothetical rather than evidentiary truths. His picture of an old quilt constructed from numerous details taken in many lighting conditions is very much like my Average Pictures project in that each condensed passage of time appears in a single plausible instant. McFarland’s gardens are on one hand like my ongoing project about leisure spaces. On the other hand they are also typological exercises, like Average Pictures (2004), At Leisure(2004-) and Harbour (2004-2005).
One of the main differences between their work and mine is that they seem to be in control of almost every aspect of much of their work. I enjoy control up to a point, and then I enjoy letting go of it. That is one reason why I like long exposures so much; beyond a certain threshold of time and light the film becomes unpredictable.
IJ: What subject matter did you photograph before coming to Halifax? How would you characterise the discursive environments you worked in then and now?
SC: Immediately before coming to Halifax I was working on At Leisure and a project that I thought was about the city, Vancouver, evacuated of people. It was a portrait of an empty city but in hindsight it was more about the shifting light, of dawn and dusk. It was a prototype of Average Pictures. The overhead view and the soft palette were attempts to break with my previous work. . .At the time I thought I was doing something very different from the Jeff Wall school of Photoconceptualism, taking my cues predominantly from Hiroshi Sugimoto. Now, with some distance from Vancouver, where Jeff Wall and Photoconceptualism are synonymous, I am more comfortable acknowledging each influence.
IJ: Could you give some examples of the vantage points from which you took the Harbour photographs, and the times of day? At what point in the exposure did the man in Construction Site enter the frame? He seems to be the one discernable figure in the ten photographs.
SC: Promenade: From the Casino Parkade, in two exposures at dusk; first for approximately ten seconds at sunset, and second, for approximately ten minutes after the lights came on. Historic Properties: From the window of my studio, for the length of time it took to answer e-mails in the morning, likely forty minutes or so. Construction: From a dirt mound, approximately three seconds. The man in the frame entered before I took the picture. He was a security guard.
IJ: What is the significance of the DVD’s title, Harbour Doubts? The scenes depicted in the five sequences are different from the Harbour views. Is the sound speed manipulated like the image speed? The conjunction in one exhibition of the photographs and the video seems to make a point of duration, in contrast to the less explicit temporal component in Average Pictures.
SC: With Harbour Doubts I was trying to emulate a type of photographic looking in a video. By editing snippets of a shot into itself, or by creating associations among motifs in an image, rather than a narrative, I was attempting to copy the way one’s eye travels around a still image. The sound is manipulated just like the video. The title refers to way in which editing creates reality...[the issue is one of photographic truth] and draws a parallel around photographic framing and video editing. . .I like how the pun is relevant to the way that Halifax Harbour is portrayed. It is one of five ports around the globe described as the second largest harbour in the world.
I agree with your comment about the conjunction of the photos and video. It is also important to acknowledge that the video and the photos and the Harbour itself are all co-existing in equally truthful or debatable fashions.
IJ: How important is it to you that the template or conceptual system of the project replaces aesthetic decisions on your part? How do your aesthetic preferences interact with the compositional and durational templates?
SC: The conceptual template does not replace aesthetic decisions; it informs them. It is important to me that there be at least some amount of concrete thought to complement intuitive looking. In a way this is consistent with the marriage of abstract imagery and abstract aspirations.
I personally like big overhead views because it is more difficult to privilege any particular aspects of them. To my thinking they become about the picture as much or more than a place or thing.
I tend to prefer longer exposures because they are unpredictable and mildly alien. There is just enough oddity to prolong the glance that a photo, and by extension, the world, typically receives.