Molly McCall interview
Santosh Korthiwada talks with Diffusion IX cover artist Molly McCall about her recent achievements, her history in art, and her thoughts on contemporary photo making.
Santosh Korthiwada: First of all, congratulations on being a finalist of 2017 Photolucida Critical Mass as well as being included in Diffusion volume IX. This must have been a long journey. Can you tell us how you got into photography and did art-making help you find what you are searching for?
Molly McCall: Thank you very much, Santosh. Getting selected for The Photolucida Critical Mass Top 200 was a big achievement for me. It has been a goal for a very long time to participate in the Photolucida festival, so I am inspired to keep going and make it to Portland next time.
Art-making is part of my family legacy. My great-grandfather was an illustrator for the New York Times and my grandfather was a professional artist, both painting with watercolors and drawing with pen and ink. Our family home was frequently filled with artists and craftspeople and I was exposed to many different art methods at a very young age. One of our closest family friends was a photojournalist for the local newspaper and he gave me my first camera at about age 12. It was a Pentax K1000 with a broken light meter and I had to learn how to read the light on my own to use it. I was hooked!
In the early 1960s, my family was chosen to model for the drawings in the iconic coming-of-age story Jane’s Blanket, written by famed playwright Arthur Miller as a children’s book for his daughter. Prominent illustrator and family friend Al Parker lived nearby and needed a range of girls from infants to 7-year-olds to model for the book’s narrative. My five sisters and I fit the assignment perfectly. We were photographed by Parker who later transformed the images into drawings for the book. When the book was published in 1963 we were each given a signed copy along with several of the original photographs and the book would become central to my family’s collective memory. It was the first connection I had between drawing, photography, and storytelling—it made an indelible imprint on my creativity.
SK: You seem to passionately and continuously explore history, memory, and change through photography. When did these topics start to interest you?
MM: My first interest in history came from theater and historical clothing. I have always been drawn to theatrical productions, suspended animation, time travel, and lives that have been lived before our own. My first creative career began in clothing design where I produced a line of handmade accessories using vintage fabrics, button, and ribbons inspired by historical clothing. My search for materials led me to vintage shops and flea markets, and inevitably I would find old photographs as well. I was naturally drawn to them and found myself collecting snapshots of people and places that sparked narratives in my mind. I would eventually use them as inspiration to write short stories and found them to be an unlimited resource for my imagination.
I am certainly not the first artist to explore memory. For numerous reasons, artists have been working on this subject/topic for centuries—to document or preserve the past, revisit a nostalgic era, or simply find their bearings in a tumultuous time. My interest in memory has evolved out of the latter. With the rapid expansion of technology and machinery replacing our memory, and the ability that computers have to homogenize so many aspects of our lives (editing, photoshop, ect.), the vintage images reveal a sense of humanity in a tangible form that propels me to delve into them deeper.
SK: Does it bother you to see old art being replaced by new art, especially because of technological innovations? How do find your voice in these times of rapid development?
MM: No, it doesn’t bother me at all. I see the threads of history in all art and I am inspired by the way that old art is transforming into new art today. In so many ways technology has definitely changed photography—more so by the way people look at and see things. It has also removed boundaries, not only throughout the world but boundaries that have challenged us in regards to the traditional truth of an image. It is no longer enough to just master the techniques of the photographic process. To stay relevant today, contemporary photographers must be informed about so many areas that are unrelated to photography. Every day the world bombards us with digital imagery, and it’s challenging to combat the visual assault.
Technology is definitely a part of my process, but by its very nature is designed for optimum exactitude and perfection, whereas my interest in vernacular imagery is the antithesis.
I am drawn to imagery with flaws and imperfections and it’s those characteristics that I am exploring—those things that are becoming obsolete by the use of technology. I use it to embark on that exploration, but in a very random and loose way.
SK: What is your most cherished achievement/award? How do you think recognition and exposure to the art world can better an artist? Are there any pitfalls to success?
MM: The recognition of my work in the photography community has been a tremendous encouragement to me. I have been making art for so many years, but to actually jump into the arena has definitely given me a stronger sense of my own artistic voice and brought a new level of focus to my work. Since I have been showing my work the past few years, I have met so many interesting and accomplished artists. It has given me a sense of community and support that can’t be found in my studio.
Success is so individual. I certainly have had my share of disappointments. I am fortunate to have several mentors who have given me support when I have felt knocked down, but I am discovering that with each victory or defeat, the results are the same—each is balancing out the other. I suppose that learning this is coming with experience, but as it is revealing itself to be true, I find that keeping this thought in mind keeps my head in my work and not outside in the success or the disappointment. In the end, I am the winner either way because I produce more work. English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote: “…. meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.” As outdated as that sounds, it is timeless in its relevancy.
SK: Your projects seem to take a long time to develop so I’m sure there is a great amount of waiting, contemplation, and painful (maybe not) trial and error. Do you have any advice and suggestions to artists who struggle with executing long-term projects?
MM: Exploration and discovery are really what drives me in my studio. I keep journals and do a lot of writing and sketching, but as much as I plan, it’s the art that leads me. I approach my projects in a way that I can put them down and step away from them to think, without losing my sense of where I am. I find the ability to distance myself from my work has just as much importance as doing the work. Once I have a solid beginning to a project, I allow myself the room to be spontaneous. My mind needs time and space to breathe, and too much focus can sometimes lead me in a circle.
My process is long and methodical but my mind is in a constant state of curiosity and experimentation, which keeps the work new and interesting to me.
I think the systems that each artist develops to support his or her own work can come only from making a lot of it. By necessity, it evolves slowly over time—like the tools we make to work out issues in the darkroom, or brushes we make from old sticks and discarded materials. They evolve from purpose.
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 in the clothing business, Molly returned to painting and darkroom photography.
Molly McCall’s work is in various private collections, has been featured in Architectural Digest magazine, and has been in exhibitions across the country, including the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Center of Fine Art Photography, the Martin Museum of Art, The Center for Contemporary Arts, Houston Center for Photography, SohoPhoto Gallery, The Image Flow, Center for Photographic Art, and the Museum of the Big Bend. In 2017, Molly will have a solo exhibition at the Center of Fine Art Photography in Ft. Collins, Colorado in December 2017. She resides in Carmel Valley California with her husband Gordon and their German Shorthaired Pointers.
Find Molly's work in our most recent issue of Diffusion.