Paula McCartney

Song Sparrow from Bird Watching


Wavepool – Your activity as an artist seems to be similar to that of a scientist. In what ways do you find science and art to be connected?

Paula McCartney – I don’t have a background in science, but am intrigued by it. The activities of science that I bring to my art are the acts of collecting, recording, and organizing subjects for further consideration. I also often remove subjects from their natural environment and present them as specimens to be examined.

Wavepool – While being based in science, a factual field of study, there’s also an intentional manipulation of truth in your work. Can you tell me about the significance of this?

Paula McCartney – In my series Bird Watching, I made a collection of photographs that documented my form of bird watching, which involved placing craft store songbirds in various landscapes and photographing them. I’m not a bird watcher nor was I interested in photographing actual birds. What I wanted to do was to create idealized scenes, where songbirds perched in pleasing compositions as I moved through the landscape. The birds act as jewels, decorating the landscape, making it (at least to me) more interesting than it is on its own. To play with the authenticity of the images, I carefully recorded and presented information about the birds in specimen labels with the photographs. The labels are a mix of truth and fiction, just like the images they are describing. While the labels attempt to authenticate the images, the wires that hold many of the birds to the tree branches and the haphazard paint jobs are not hidden in any way, and clue in the careful viewer that they are looking at a created scene.

I am inspired by the natural world, but in my work either add or subtract elements to more closely match the scenes I create in my mind.

In A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, the subjects are abstracted from their wider environments. Many were photographed at night, or placed against a black background to isolate and accentuate their forms. I categorized subjects by pattern, shape, and line rather than merely by substance. I was intrigued by how the icicles that appeared overnight along my roof shared a similar form with the stalagmites that grew over millions of years in Carlsbad Caverns. I was not at all interested in what the side of my house looked like or the railed paths in the caverns. By isolating the subjects the similarity of forms was accentuated and can be considered without distraction.

The manipulation of truth in this work comes from the project’s title, and juxtaposition of images. All of the elements in the series are of natural subjects, they just aren’t all of snow and ice. The statement that accompanies an exhibition and the essay in the book all speak to this. Individual images are not specifically identified, but like in Bird Watching, I want the viewer to come to a slow realization that the images they are looking at are not what they at first appeared to be. I want my work to address truth in photography, as well as suggesting and encouraging a wider and more open way of looking at landscape.

I used to teach History of Photography and one of my favorite stories from the beginning of the medium is about the faked suicide self-portrait by Hippolyte Bayard that he made to show his disappointment that the French government gave credit for the invention of photography to Daguerre. From the start, photographs did not always tell the truth. I use photography as a tool to illustrate the ideas in my head, rather than to document the world as it exists.

I recently read the Aperture book, Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and The Nude, and in it he writes, “You can create a fiction, but maybe you’re telling a story that’s real in the end.”


(Top Left) Icicle #1, (Top Right) Stalagmite #3, and (Bottom) spread from A Field Guide to Snow and Ice


Wavepool – How do you develop a project? Do you set out with a ‘hypothesis’ of some kind?

Paula McCartney – With Bird Watching I had a specific conceptual idea that I went out into different landscapes to visualize. For A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, I knew I wanted to illustrate the winter of my imagination rather than make a documentary study of winter. I witnessed the snow and ice that surrounded me during previous winters, and knew what places like Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Monument looked like, so my goal was to photograph these elements and places in a way that illustrated how disparate elements could fit together to illustrate an idea of winter.

Wavepool – All the work you make seems to end up in an artist book. What role does the book serve? Are you using the book format to change the viewing process from what a viewer might encounter online or in a gallery space?

Paula McCartney – I began making handmade, photo-based artist books in grad school. I made seven books in editions ranging from 5-10 and the photographs for those books were made just to exist in each book. About half way through making the photographs for Bird Watching, I had the idea to use the photographs in a nature journal inspired artist book, to expand on the theme of the images. I combined the photographs with the specimen labels and wrote text describing my experiences, as I would if I were an actual bird watcher, photographically recording my bird sightings and recording information and my thoughts. This book was also handmade, but since I received a grant from the Women’s Studio Workshop to produce the book, I had to make an edition of 40-which at the time felt huge. A year later I was lucky enough to show the book I had made to an editor at Princeton Architectural Press, who wanted to turn it into a trade edition. By that time, I had finished making the photographs for the series, so I spent several months expanding the 26 page artist book into a 120 page book.

The trade publication of Bird Watching was the first time my book work reached a substantial audience. My artist books are in good museum and university collections, but I don’t think many people actually see them. Books are an important part of my practice, and I appreciated the expanded audience, so for the next two books I made (On Thin Ice, In a Blizzard and Book of Trees) I decided to make press printed editions that were larger and more affordable. I want my books to get out into the world.

I will admit that I initially felt like I was cheating a bit, using images from Bird Watching in a book and in exhibitions. But I have now decided, that if the work makes sense in both formats, I am okay using it that way. I am not interested in exhibiting the photographs from Book of Trees, as they feel incomplete without Andy Sturdevant’s narrative, but the photographs in A Field Guide to Snow and Ice work as an exhibition and as a book. What I am so excited about in the book of this project is that the accordion book acts both like a traditional book that can be viewed page by page, but also expands into a 34 foot long installation piece, and like the exhibition prints, all of the images are the same height, but are three different widths. I was very lucky that Silas Finch, who published this book, was willing to create such a complicated structure. It is a published book that feels like a hand made artist book.

The things that are most important to me about books is that they are not reliant on the time or location of an exhibition, and thus have a much more expanded audience. I rarely see a show more than once, but there are many books that I own that I return to again and again throughout the years. With the press printed books, I am also very interested in the (relative) accessibility of books, the democratic multiple, so to speak. Beyond works that I have traded with friends who are artists, I have a pretty small art collection, but I have a large book collection. In the books that I make, the format of the book feels true to the content of my work. The ideas of the work have been enhanced, rather than lost, in the book format.


spread from Book of Trees


Wavepool – What are some important influences on your practice?

Paula McCartney – I always find inspiration looking at other artists’ work-especially in installation or book form. I am continually inspired by the installations of Tara Donovan and Roxy Paine. In the past year, two shows that are cemented in my mind for the fantastical and complex worlds they created were those of Wanguchi Mutu and Marcel Dzama.

August Strindberg’s misinterpreted Celestographs are also images that I think about often. In the mid 1890s, he placed photographic plates outside so that, as he truly believed, the celestial bodies could create their own image. While the small dots in the resulting images were merely recordings of dew or dust, I find something wonderfully romantic that Strindberg didn’t allow himself to be disappointed by the reality of the situation. He was however disappointed that his work was disregarded by astronomers. (For further information, check out Issue 3 of Cabinet magazine)

I’ll also admit to a new addiction to Instagram. I use my phone camera as a visual notebook, and will make tests of photographs I might want to make. Photographing with my phone and having a place to share the images, has made me look more closely at my surroundings than I ever did before. I am the kind of photographer who never carries a camera around, unless I am going out to make a preconceived image. Since I always have my phone, I now make photographs of some kind every day, especially of light, shadows and other fleeting moments. I also love seeing photographs by other artists I admire, getting a peek into their daily creative practice.

Wavepool – What are you working on these days?

Paula McCartney – I am in the middle of working on a new series of photographs, titled Hide the Sun. I began the project by making images that responded to both my summer garden and trees that were destroyed in a storm, exploring the growth and destruction that occurred at a single point in time. This series continues to explore my previous concerns with the landscape, investigating both the physical landscape that is a part of my daily life, but also an emotional landscape of personal experiences through directed portraits and constructed still lifes.


Untitled from Hide the Sun

To see more, please visit Paula’s website.