I will admit that I only took a passing interest in Molly McCall’s art the first time or two I saw it. I know that I’d thought the images interesting, but in this rapid-fire social media pace we find ourselves in, like so many others I’d just moved on too quickly. We get inundated with information these days, and well, it just gets overwhelming at times - we’ve all felt it. Sharing my own work, the work of others, and providing content to feed the media monsters, I myself get so embedded in it that it takes a concerted effort to break out, if only for a short time. I need to find something to immerse myself in and simply relax, reflect, and reconnect with the thoughts that remind me that there is a living, breathing community that I exist within. The connections occur from my past, my memories - and that is where Molly’s work has a deep impact.
After exploring the submissions of Photolucida’s 2018 Critical Mass competition, I had a real chance to connect with Molly McCall’s images, and realized what I’d missed earlier. There are shadows, symbols, icons, and figures that trigger my past experiences in a way that I am still trying to explain. I haven’t figured it out just yet, so I continue to explore her photographs, quite happily. I find association from her methods and process. I have a real and defined desire to explore my own memories with the context of her art, which is both exciting and thought provoking in itself. I have questions, and I thank her for taking the time to provide some answers from the source of this art that helps me disconnect and reconnect in a meaningful way.
Born in Monterey California, Molly McCall was surrounded by infamous photographers and the West Coast Landscape tradition. With a family influence in clothing, she began her creative career designing her own label and selling to numerous specialty boutiques including Henri Bendel in New York, Fred Segal in Los Angeles, and Nordstrom, where she was awarded their most favored designer in California.
Molly’s earliest influence on art making came from her great grandfather, an illustrator for the New York Times, and grandfather, a professional watercolorist in Southern California. She started painting and photography at an early age, and later attended Laguna Beach School of Art. After nearly two decades as a designer in the fashion industry, Molly returned to painting and darkroom photography.
Molly McCall’s work has been recognized with several awards in 2018 including Honorable Mention for her work represented at the 5th Barcelona Biennial of Fine Art & Documentary, Best in Show Award from the Colorado Photographic Art Center, and the EMERGE Award from the Midwest Center for Photography. Several print publications have also featured her work including Architectural Digest magazine, Diffusion Magazine, and The Hand Magazine. Recent exhibitions across the country include the Los Angeles Center for Photography, Griffin Museum of Photography, Midwest Center for Photography, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Center of Fine Art Photography, the Martin Museum of Art, The Center for Contemporary Arts, Houston Center for Photography, SohoPhoto, The Image Flow, Center for Photographic Art, and the Museum of the Big Bend. Her work will appear Internationally for the first time in the 2018 Barcelona Biennale where it has been awarded with two Honorable Mention prizes. Molly resides in Carmel Valley California with her husband Gordon and their German Shorthaired Pointers.
Michael Kirchoff: You studied photography at an early age, however this was not to be your first career. Tell us a little of your previous career as a clothing designer, and at what point, and why, were you drawn back into the photographic arts?
Molly McCall: My first love was theater and costume design. I was interested in historical clothing and how I could create stories and suspend belief using costume. That naturally translated into clothing design as my family had a manufacturing company and I was surrounded by materials to use without limitations. My first few lines were all informed by historical fashion combining modern fabrics with vintage materials, buttons, fabrics, passementeries, etc. I sold to small boutiques in Los Angeles and New York and provided special one-of-a-kind pieces for celebrities in the film industry.
Photography played a key role in my design career. I have always had a darkroom wherever I lived and my interest in photography has never waned. When I was designing clothes, I photographed all of my pieces for catalogs and advertising. It was nice to see my work from both sides. After almost two decades in the fashion business, I eventually burned out. The travel and the pace were crushing my creative energy. I began painting as a respite and started combining it with photography to satisfy both interests. The marriage of the two eluded me for many years until I started working with alternative processes: Cyanotype, Van Dyke Brown, Gum Bichromate…They unlocked it for me and I’ve never looked back!
MK: I notice that your birthplace and the area you currently live in are hallowed ground for photography. The California coast is synonymous with masters like Weston and Adams. Do you feel like your surroundings or the history of the geography of your life has had any impact on how and why you make photographs?
MMC: Absolutely. The Group f/64 photographers seemed as contemporary in my childhood as they probably were in their own time. It wasn’t uncommon to see photographers using big box cameras around Point Lobos and Carmel Beach, and the local camera shop, Camera Craft, was a hangout for most of them. Our family had many friends who were professional artists, and we had black-and-white photographic images in our home that I looked at daily. “Triangles” by Imogene Cunningham was one of my favorite photographs growing up.
Where I live is breathtakingly beautiful and I have never really gotten used to it. I feel grateful every day to be surrounded by nature and the wilderness. This area has not only inspired many fine artists but writers, too, who have also impacted my creativity. Poets like Robert Louis Stevenson and Robinson Jeffers are still in my stack of reading books next to my bed, as well as John Steinbeck, who is one of my favorite authors.
MK: Tell us about the physical process used in the creation of your work. You combine vintage photographs, new photographs, and painting into your images, is that correct?
MMC: I have combined my own photographs with found imagery for many years. I have thousands of vintage images that I have collected and covet each one. Selecting which image to use is a process in itself, and I spend hours sorting through my boxes and hunting for the right ones. I re-photograph the image and then upload it into my computer to start my editing process.
Sometimes I work in new photography into the old as well. I create a digital negative from the computer image and print it in the darkroom. I tone each image with chemical or natural toners; coffee and tea are my current favorites, then the print is ready to paint.
MK: When I view many of your images, the textures and repeating patterns at times make me think that perhaps some of your past as a clothing designer is making its way into your work. Is that an off-base assumption or do you think that there may be some truth to this?
MMC: What you are seeing is more of my need to bring my hand into the process. It’s a tactile sense that I have always had. The camera reflects a relationship between the eye and the machine, whereas painting is between the eye and the hand. It’s how I find my way within a piece and how it simultaneously locates me.
MK: Another thought when viewing your work is the use of the dot patterns that show up in most, if not all, of your work. This, for me, seems to symbolize a bridging of the mechanical types of printmaking with the handmade quality and aspects of your prints. As someone with an interest in the historical, this has a tendency to draw me in even more. What are your thoughts on this from your perspective as the artist?
MMC: Yes. You are perceiving the technique as it is intended…It joins a mechanical process with the hand, but I also utilize it as a visual tool metaphorically simulating a sense of memory; the pattern creates a paradoxical form that both conceals and reveals at the same time; one that is adding information by taking it away.
MK: So perhaps you could say that memories are also triggered by a sense of mystery hidden within or by these patterns?
MMC: Yes. The patterns are part of both a literal and metaphorical transformation. Many artists have used dots for various reasons from Seurat to Lichtenstein to Kusama. Sigmar Polk used dots (the raster technique) to push his imagery in to new interpretations and I’d like to think that I am doing the same. I like to play with materials as an artifice to persuade the viewer to question what is truth and what is fiction; Memory to me doesn’t follow a straight line and is impacted by so many factors, including aging, which is a mystery within itself. Film is the perfect metaphor for the process of memory as well - the record, the fragility, the deterioration.
MK: Do you think of, or refer to, your work as photographs, paintings, or mixed media? Do you feel that it may open up your prospects when it comes to curating your work for exhibition?
MMC: I am choosing to show the work in the photographic arena at the present time because it is the photographic process that is my main area of interest. I consider the work as “painted photographs,” but I also see myself as a painter who uses photography. I have done a lot of work with mixed media as well, adding papers and other objects into the painted photography, but even then, the photograph holds the main focus of the piece.
I do see prospects to take the work in many directions. I am currently working on a new exhibition proposal and am considering several different kinds of locations to send the proposal. I think the work will eventually lead me in the direction I need to go.
MK: Do you think that you would ever offer your one of a kind originals that the editions are made from, or would you prefer to keep them for yourself as artist proofs? Maybe that is a future legacy edition making its way into a permanent collection somewhere? I suppose what I’m really getting at is if you have any long range plans for any of the work, if and when you feel it’s completed?
MMC: That’s an interesting idea and one that I would love to think about more. Rather than use the silver gelatin prints that I already have, I would probably create a special edition of images that were not in any other medium - that would be really unique. I am currently exploring the idea of an Artist’s Edition of fine art prints with a press in the Bay Area. I like the idea of one-of-a-kind pieces and could definitely see this project making its way in to a permanent collection.
MK: What is it that you get out of creating photographs? Is there an overriding theme in your work that you feel best represents you as an artist?
MMC: Making art is how I find balance within myself and my life. It represents an expression that I otherwise don’t have the ability to communicate; it keeps my mind active in ways that are not stimulated by any other form of activity, and keeps my thoughts present and engaged in what’s going on around me and in the world. I have explored many different themes, but the investigation of memory has been driving my creativity for quite some time. It embodies so many levels of thought and imagination, and I am intrigued by the idea that I will never truly discover everything about it. It’s like an endless freefall into an unknown place. Perhaps that is an underlying theme: limitless possibility.
MK: You do a great deal of work in the darkroom, but I wonder if technology has changed your process in any way? Do you prefer to stick to a traditional way of working?
MMC: The darkroom is very important to me and technology has certainly enhanced that process for me. Before I used Photoshop to create negatives, I was making them with Ektachrome slides and litho film in the darkroom. It was a long process with many limitations. With the evolution of technology, I am constantly experimenting with the union of the two. I feel that is the unique artistic factor of the time I live in, like the discovery of egg tempera or the industrial processes that were used in the 60s. The union of tradition and technology is what this artistic era will be remembered for.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
MMC: When I first started putting my art out into the world, I played it pretty safe. I worked very superficially, indulging more in process than content, afraid to reveal too much about myself. The more work I made, however, the more I could see that the stuff I was leaving out was the stuff that made the work interesting: my flaws, fears, and vulnerabilities. My time working with the San Francisco Studio School really brought this to the forefront. Pushing through those barriers and sticking with it has definitely given me more courage to be authentic and express my voice. I still feel like I have a long way to go, but definitely can see the positive effects of pushing beyond my comfort zone.
MK: What steps do you pursue to find an audience for your photographs?
MMC: I have enjoyed participating in Calls to Entry and look for shows that will expose my work to a diverse group of people. I try to use social media to spread the word as well and send a quarterly eblast with images and information on my work. I occasionally use a mailing list and mail postcard announcements when my work is part of a show in a major city, and have hosted several open houses in my studio with friends who usually bring friends who are interested in art. I think any artist today has to reach out in many ways to find their audience. The internet isn’t going to do much on its own; you really have to work on it.
MK: Have you had any particular milestones or turning points that have been a significant boost to your photographic career?
MMC: I have participated in several portfolio reviews that have hugely impacted my work and my direction. Granted, they have not all been positive, but the negative feedback has been just as important as the positive. Having my work selected for exhibitions at institutions or galleries that I highly revere like The Griffin Museum of Photography, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn, Photolucida Critical Mass, or the Barcelino Biennial have all strengthened my sense of direction as well. Interviews and articles have also brought my work a lot of recognition. Each «boost» of interest carries me forward to the next opportunity. Setting goals and then reviewing and setting new goals has become a central part of my studio practice as well, and keeps my head in the art and not on the end result.
MK: How do you see your work progressing into the future? Do you have anything new you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
MMC: I have enjoyed working with found photography and it will always be a part of what I do, but lately I have been inspired to use my own photography. I am keenly interested in looking at memory in an even more abstract way than ever before, and the pursuit toward abstraction has brought me back to using a camera again. It’s been a challenge for me to capture visually what I am trying to communicate but one that is again pushing me to grow.
I am working on a series called “Memento Vivere (Remember to Live)” that involves memory. It is inspired by a short story by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. “Funes the Memorious” is about a young boy who is thrown from a horse, hitting his head, and in an instant, can remember everything that ever happened in his life. I have been writing and sketching ideas from the story for several years and am now working that process into my photography. It is both exciting and scary at the same time to try something new, but I am knee-deep in it and am enjoying where it is leading me.
MK: Thank you so much for your time, Molly. I truly appreciate your words, your work, and your willingness to share your process and ideas with us. It is always gratifying to me to engage with someone who has such clear and definitive thoughts with the work they create. I for one will be watching to see where your photographs and art take you next.
You can find more of Molly's work at her website here.