Native Scotsman and resident Coloradoan, Roddy MacInnes approaches his photography with much reflection and the effervescence of a person true passionate about photography. Roddy expresses this passion here as he discusses his unique take on vernacular photography (the everyday images, usually not destined to be “fine art”) and his experience with autobiographical photography.
In general, what appeals to you about vernacular photography?
I think it’s the common language. I’m interested in how the majority of people use photography to celebrate and keep a visual record of their lives. It’s unpretentious in that way. Art has this purpose, it’s market driven, but there is something much more innocent, honest, or straightforward, about vernacular photography.
Tell us about the recent residency you’ve been doing up in North Dakota.
I did an Artist in Residency program where I worked with a group of 650 kids from three different schools: Ellendale, Oaks and Lamour. I told the kids to go home, look around their house, look at all the photographs on display, or in albums, and talk to their parents about who was in the photo. Then, they picked one they liked. I gave them a set of questions: who was in the photo, where and when was it taken, and what do these photographs mean to you?
I was trying to generate a conversation about what photographs mean to people in their lives; how they construct identity. I am aware that we do respond to the world in a subconscious way with photography. So the idea was to try to make people a bit more conscious.
Most people look at a photograph and don’t come up with an interpretation of the photograph- what does that photo of your great-great grandpa mean? Your life would not be possible without that person, but how do you derive some meaning from it?
Did the students have any comments that opened up new way of understanding for you?
Not really – it was actually frustrating. My conclusion was that people don’t really know what to say about photographs. It’s difficult to explain who, what, where we are. So, if you try to use photographs to say what you are, it’s almost as difficult to say what they are.
I would walk into each classroom in the school and the first thing I would do is hold up a photograph of me. I would point to the photo and say: “What’s this?” and they would respond: “That’s you!” I would say “No, that is a facsimile of me.” Then I would tear it up. That is how photographs are held up as being real – a representation of reality.
In 1993 you purchased an old photo album at a flea market. This album belonged to Nina Weiss, back in 1917. How did you weave vernacular photography, in particular these found photographs by Nina, into your own work?
One of my thoughts in doing this project was that I’ve mined my own personal history in photography and I’ve used that to try to express something. I consider myself a vernacular photographer because I’ve always kept a visual record of my life. So, the idea with Weiss’s photographs was to look at them like they were my own. Nina had died, then her daughter died and the photographs ended up at a flea market. My idea was to incorporate her family album into my own. Then I played with the photographs for 10 years. I was so familiar with her photographs that I felt as if I knew her.
Now I’m letting it rest a little, but I realized that this is a project I will probably work on for the next 20 years. It’s not necessarily about the photography project; it’s about life.
What insights into identity did these vernacular photographs offer your?
I looked for themes in her photographs and found that there are common threads like the celebration of friendship. I find that really moving. People photograph the milestones, like the birthdays and the weddings and the christenings, the vacations. We all do that.
I think I had the same influenced from my own family. We lived in the country in Scotland and every one else in the family lived in the city. They would come to visit us in the summer time for a two-week vacation and that was when they took photographs. People typically take photographs of things that make them happy. Looking at that, you can almost cut the faces out and replace them in any person’s family album.
The book you put together for this project has letter or journal like entries. How did these writings develop into pieces that were addressed to Nina?
It was a way to create dialogue. She was the inspiration for the project and I used her photographs. I wanted to make her a collaborator, but she’s dead. That said there is something about photographs that keeps people alive. So, I wrote to her to give the project a nice poignancy and connection. It made the project much more personal for me.
Did you write these pieces throughout the photographing stage of this project?
No, I wrote them when I was putting the book together. The dates are fiction, because that kind of stuff isn’t really important to me. The conversation and idea is more important. I wish I were a better writer though; I would spend more time writing those letters.
I am intrigued by the different photographic styles and approaches you used. Can you speak a little more about that?
I wanted to find different way to recontextualize these old photographs. The first approach was that I, naively, wanted everyone to know why they were taking photographs. I first drove up to Oaks and worked with the members of the Historical Society. I got tied up with some people there, even though Nina had been in Ellendale. I worked there and asked people to bring in a photograph of themselves when they were the same age as Nina, when she had been photographing. Then, I would scan that photograph and take my own portrait of them. Then I printed both photographs and placed them side-by-side. I asked the people to tell me what they thought and nobody knew what to say. I thought everyone wanted to think about and intellectualize why they take photographs.
After that, I did a slide show to show this group of people how I use photography in my life, with a growing awareness about what photographs mean. Following that, people understood better what I was looking for.
When you put two photographs together, there is a conversation between the two. I wanted them to tell me about the conversation between the photo of them at 16 years old and the one 70 years old. They couldn’t talk about the photographs, but they could talk about their lives and their memories. The photograph stimulated those memories. One lady said: “When I look in a mirror, I’m always surprised to see an old lady looking back at me. Why do photographs have to be so truthful?” So there is an idea of truth.
Another lady said: ” If my house caught fire, I’d run out with my photographs, but I’m not really sure why.” I think that sums it all up. We would grab the photographs without really knowing why they were so important to us.
You have been talking about photographing people and photographs of paradigm moments in people’s lives. What do you identify as paradigm moments in your own life?
I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on my own snapshots before I went for my undergraduate. I used to take self-portraits, but it was in the context of providing evidence of having been somewhere. I would photograph myself at the Pantheon in Athens when I was on a ship. I was the only kid that left the village where I grew up. I think now about who the audience of these snapshots was; it was my family. I wanted to show them where I had been. Just a photograph of a place isn’t enough evidence that you were there, so you put yourself in the photograph. You become the object.
A big shift happened for me when I went to undergrad. I was going to study geology, but I thought to myself that I’d been doing that for so many years, why not do something different? I had a German girlfriend at the time, Angelica, who said: “Why don’t you do photography?” And I thought “Yeah, that’s what I really love.” I’d done it all my life, but I never took it seriously. I managed to get into undergraduate on the strength of my portfolio.
I wanted to make documentary projects that tell the stories of other people’s lives. But before pointing my camera at other people it was only fair that I should do a photo story about an aspect of my own life. That first self-portrait project was a documentary about my relationship with alcohol. I had become a bit of a drunk at that in my life and I wanted to ‘see’ what I looked like through the lens of my camera. Not just my outward appearance, but also inside. Before in my photos, I was the object, but with this project I became both object and subject: the one doing the looking and the one being looked at. I found the exercise to be quite therapeutic.
I had always been looking outward, but at this point I started looking inward. This, then, affected how I looked outward. I finished this project before starting with Nina Weiss. I got to the point where I was tired of using myself in a lot of my photography – it got a bit narcissistic. Going to ND was taking all this I learned about looking inward, and applying it to look outward.
What are your upcoming projects?
I’ve started a project about Scottish bagpipers in Israel, and will eventually cover Palestine too. I’ve never done a project about Scotland, but being Scottish, I’ve always wanted to. I have a Jewish great-grandfather and a grandfather that was a bagpiper. I’m not a musician, but I am a photographer. I’d like to use music as some sort of neutral thing in a place of political conflict. I’m frustrated about the Middle-East situation, but I don’t want to do anything that has anger. I want to focus on things that connect as well as disconnect.
Interview by LG