We’re thrilled today to present a Q&A with Rob McDonald! Rob created a series of environmental portraits and interiors for the book Carolina Writers at Home, and he will be holding a book-signing this Saturday in Savannah at Meryl Truett & friends gallery. We love the concept of the book, a series of essays written by authors on the subjects of the homes in which they live and work, accompanied by Rob’s photographs, which provide another kind of insight into each author’s home.
How was the idea for Carolina Writers at Home initially conceived and how did you get involved?
The Directors at Hub City Press in Spartanburg were planning a signature publication to mark the press’s 20th anniversary. As I understand it, it was Assistant Director (and CWAH editor) Meg Reid’s idea was to do a book featuring essays from NC or SC writers who would talk about some aspect of their work in terms of where and how they live—and have the essays amplified in some way (not illustrated) by photographs.
They had the list of about 25 writers but were looking for a photographer. Coincidentally, about the time they were finalizing plans, a show of my Native Ground series was up at Converse College. Meg and Hub City’s director, Betsy Teter, saw the show and decided that I was the photographer they wanted. As flattered as I was, I was also surprised—my work is a bit unconventional: soft focus, less interested in details than in resonance. But it seemed like a fun project and a challenge to work a bit differently, so I agreed.
In your introduction you write “The author photograph is a genre fraught with potential to make a fool of both the photographer and his subject.” Can you elaborate on the particular challenges you faced in this project?
In typical portraiture, the subject is aware that he or she is being recorded, and strives to project an attitude or self-image that the photographer is expected to “capture.” The harder the subject tries, the more impossible photographer’s predicament: he will always fall short of genuine portrayal because persona gets in the way. I think the best portraits happen when there are no expectations on either side. There will be a moment when the photographer thinks he sees some kind of truth about the subject, the person behind the façade, and that is the moment he has to click the shutter. Posing does not work. It’s why every single school picture ever made is a hilarious failure.
The portrait, for me, was the ultimate challenge in working on CWAH. I have never been comfortable focusing my camera on people—it makes me self-conscious, and I believe that energy must radiate to make the subject uncomfortable as well. I don’t even take good pictures of my children! In making portraits like those in CWAH, I wanted to be invisible and let the camera absorb and reflect the subject as naturally as possible.
What inspired the choice to make photographs for this book in black and white?
My medium of choice in this and 90% of my work is medium-format black and white film. I love color, but sometimes it gets in the way. I’m not really aiming for realism—for a literal record of a time, a person, or a place. As I said earlier, my photographs are about texture and resonance, not facts and particulars. Black and white allows you to focus on those things in a way that color may not.
As a girl raised in the Coastal Plains of North Carolina, I appreciate the choice to divide the book into the Coast, the Piedmont, and Mountains. In the course of your work, did you observe specific regional or geographic differences that influenced how you made the photographs?
That choice was Meg’s, and I love it, too. I wouldn’t say that the regional differences made as much difference as the seasonal ones did, as I was trying to fit the shoots into times I could manage to be away from VMI and my family. I got surprised by a snow storm in one of my visits to western North Carolina, for example. The result was difficult light for interior shots (I don’t use any flash equipment), but some evocative and I think lovely landscapes that speak to the writers’ attachment to that part of the world.
What most surprised you about working on this project?
An easy question, and one I write about this in the book: the warmth of the reception I received at each writer’s home. Imagine an unfamiliar person showing up with an strangely minimalist setup—just a 1940s-era film camera on a tripod and a spotlight to illuminate areas lacking natural light—and asking for permission to poke around your home to make photographs that you will never see until they appear in a book! That takes some trust, hospitality of a remarkable sort. I loved every visit. I loved meeting the writers whose works I knew and those I would get to know as a consequence of being involved with this project.
Meg made an amazingly beautiful book of all of the essays and about two thousand negative scans I sent her. I don’t know how she did it, but I was really pleased to see how the photographs ended up truly serving the purpose she had imagined—kind of a visual echo of the words they appear alongside.
Rob McDonald will be signing copies of Carolina Writers at Home this Saturday, February 14, 5:30-8 at Meryl Truett & friends gallery, located at 6 E. Liberty St. in Savannah. You can learn more about Rob on his website.