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Variations on a scene: photographer Scott McFarland’s new AGO show

Scott McFarland says he’s pretty adept at the perennially popular visual-arts game of Spot the Differences. Place two pictures, each superficially identical content-wise, side-by-side and ask him to find, say, seven anomalies, and “I feel I can spot that stuff very quickly.”

“I like that stuff,” he admitted earlier this week in an interview. “It’s fun.” But, he stressed, “they actually don’t impact my work the way that you think they might.” That work would be photographic documentation, some 40, mostly recent, examples of which are now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in a solo show titled, with a prosaic accuracy that belies the artist’s meticulous legerdemain, Snow, Shacks, Streets, Shrubs.

The career, of course, has been anything but prosaic. Only 38, the Hamilton-born, now Toronto-based McFarland seemed to attract critical, commercial and institutional attention soon after he obtained a BFA in 1997 from the University of British Columbia, where his teachers had been such luminaries of the Vancouver School of photoconceptualism as Jeff Wall and Roy Arden. In 2001 he joined those two and others in a group show at Toronto’s Monte Clark Gallery. In 2009 there was the lauded one-man exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Today his work is housed in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Victoria & Albert, Dusseldorf’s K21, plus numerous Canadian art museums. You want glamour? Belinda Stronach’s a collector. And McFarland’s the only Canuck in Shaun Caley Regen’s Hollywood-headquartered stable of A-list artists, meaning he rubs shoulders, metaphoric and possibly otherwise, with Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, Anish Kapoor, Ryan Trecartin and Elizabeth Peyton.

Man on Ladder, Royal Street, New Orleans (B&W), 2012/Scott McFarland

The Spot the Differences topic arose because Snow, Shacks etc. includes several sets of photographs in which the viewer is faced with two, sometimes three, same-sized image fields of the same scene. In each set, however, there are differences, major and subtle, between and among its constituent elements that send the eye on a compare-and-contrast dance. Take the set called Man on a Ladder, Royal Street, New Orleans (2012). It’s composed of two variations, both 89 by 179 centimetres, of the same site, but one is colour, the other black-and-white. Both tableaus, assembled, as is all McFarland’s work, from digital scans of analog images – they sometimes number in the hundreds – taken by a tripod-mounted 4 X 5 Arca-Swiss field camera, are crowded with crisply rendered pedestrians.

Yet for all its compositional all-overness – McFarland believes “a lot of photography has too many single-area motifs; I think there should be something interesting in different areas of the picture” – each tableau is centred on a busker (an unemployed construction worker, in fact) captured in the same apparent mid-action of climbing a seemingly freely suspended ladder to nowhere.

Main Street Optics, Main Street, Southampton, New York, 2012/Scott McFarland

“[The busker’s] whole shtick is to be still, like a sculpture, static, kind of like a photograph,” noted McFarland. “Yet he’s in the street where there’s this constant movement, change, yet the motion is frozen in the image.”

As with all photography, time is of the essence in the McFarland oeuvre. But as befits our postmodern, digital age where photographs, at least in the art world, are now as much made as taken, he long ago disabused himself of the notion that a single image can only capture a single moment, that any photographic session can result only in one definitive picture and the rest are outtakes. Thus, with Wortley’s Wiggle, Caledon Ski Club, Mississauga Rd., Caledon, Ontario (2012), at 140 by 409 centimetres one of the largest pictures in the AGO exhibition, we have a panorama that begins on the left as a snowscape peopled with skiers, then improbably but seamlessly dissipates into a gully of greening grass and budding trees. Hence, too, McFarland’s interest in sets and series such as Repatration, a collection of some 12 digitally layered tableaus assembled from several memorial services for combatants killed in Afghanistan that McFarland attended at the “Corner of the Courageous” in downtown Toronto. (Two are included in Snow, Shacks etc.)

Sugar Shack, Caledon, Ontario (study 3), 2013/Scott McFarland

“There’s a lot of possibilities to the way something can look and what would be a valid representation of that,” McFarland observed. “So within the tendency of my work I introduce the idea of variation. It gets back to the dialogue in photography about the decisive moment, the singular image. I’m not an advocate for that.” Pointing to one of the variations of Man on a Ladder, he remarked: “This picture could have been made a multiple of different ways and not one of them would have been ‘decisive.’ Therefore, I have to present the variations to convince others that if you didn’t see this one and you only saw this other one, would that have been as total an experience? Isn’t it better to see more, though, at the same time, not too much?”

McFarland first grew dissatisfied with one exposure/one image photography while at UBC in the late 1990s. “I felt this especially when I started to shift from photographing unpeopled scenes to peopled scenes,” he said. “You’d be taking a picture with the tripod from the same position and you’d be photographing the subject multiple times. And I was always, ‘Oh, I wish this person was with this person,’ or ‘I wish it was that guy doing this in this image.’”

Staff Meal, Galatoires, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, 2013/Scott McFarland

Fortunately, the arrival of cheap, sophisticated digital tools allowed him to manipulate his way out of that “what-you’ve-seen-is-what-you’ve-got” ethos while at the same time providing the “this-actually-happened” fiction that photography has long relied on as its special claim to authenticity.

McFarland thinks that while the pictures in Snow, Shacks, Streets, Shrubs have “subtle levels of critique in them” and are the result of complex processes of layering and suturing, they’re also “an engagement with good old-fashioned photography.” They’re all archival inkjet prints. They’re all framed and mounted on walls. They’re all lit by ceiling-mounted spotlights. “I’m not trying to redefine that form,” he declared. It’s about the re-presentation of the world.

Flower Stand, Scuttle Hole, Water Mill, New York, 2013/Scott McFarland

Snow, Shacks, Streets, Shrubs is at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, through Aug. 10 and is one of 13 primary exhibitions at the Contact Photography Festival (

ABC Photocolour, 4th Ave., Vancouver, B.C., September, 2011/Scott McFarland

Follow James Adams on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

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