One offshoot of photography is the debate over the authority we give it, a fact that San Francisco artist Sean McFarland plays with in Viewshed, a solo show up this month at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions. Viewshed contains two separate but related bodies of work: Dark Pictures, a series of large, extremely dark but detailed photographs taken of what look like wild and wooded landscapes; and Pictures of Earth, small, black-and-white polaroids of mostly aerial landscapes. In each case, however, nothing is what it seems. Thankfully, McFarland has such tight control over his sleight of hand that the questions Viewshed poses never become obvious or didactic.
Dark Pictures delivers what its title promises: a series of artfully underexposed, too-closely-cropped wilderness shots. Seen live, the effect is similar to a daguerreotype, with each image so dark that you find yourself squinting to see better. As your eyes become used to the darkness, the lushness of the individual details stands out. In Wall of Plants (2010-2011), thousands of pieces of foliage compete for attention, a battle ultimately won by color alone: a single strand of muted-red ivy weaves its way through the rest of the plants.
Eventually, the tight cropping of the images in Dark Pictures and the lack of any traditional “vistas” become cues of their own, leaving us wonder what may have been left out. It’s not a giveaway, however. The fact that these are actually images of urban “wildernesses” shot within a few miles of McFarland’s house (often during daylight) remains available but not noticeable.
Pictures of Earth functions similarly. In this case, McFarland gives viewers a group of lilting black-and-white polaroids showcasing mountaintops, billowing clouds caught in forested valleys, and rolling hills bathed in sunlight. What is almost impossible to see are the alterations that McFarland has made in his studio, or even in the taking of the photos themselves. What looks like the top of a rolling hill set against a starry night sky is actually an image of the ocean (Wave, 2009); a divided landscape was divided after the fact by McFarland’s own marker-wielding hand (Divided Land, 2010).
The modern human is a funny beast. Despite the fact that we acknowledge how each person views the world as an individual, we also continue to insist that some view(sheds) are more accurate, or have more authority, than others. Without forcing the question, Viewshed gives it us space to wonder what happens when the object photographed misrepresents itself? Or, perhaps, never existed in the first place.