Thursday, September 7, 2023

Q & A with Kathryn McCool

Kathryn McCool is a photographer based in Castlemaine, Australia, and the author of the recent photobook P.North.

BA: Congrats on P.North. I love the photos but the book didn't tell me much about you. Can you please give me a brief bio? Where did you grow up? How did you get into photography? Etc.

KM: Thank you Blake. 

I grew up on a farm close to a small town named Bunnythorpe which came up around a power substation and the Glaxo factory. It was made up of a core population and then very much a shifting one too. Kids would turn up at the school for a term or two, it seems, and then they’d be gone. 

I think it was here that I really started looking at people around me. But of course we didn’t live in the town itself and so the mythologizing that went on in my head around the various townsfolk, grew pretty unchecked.

When I was in my late teens, my dad went to an auction and got a box lot of stuff and handed me a camera, a Ricoh, and I don’t think it even had a lens cap and he gave it to me to take on a bus trip to Wellington city. I walked around and took photos of people on the street because the only things I knew about photography is that you took photos of people on the street or at weddings or in school photos. 

How did your Wellington photos turn out? 

The photos were ok I think, in color, but not ok enough to recall any in particular apart from possibly one of a Rastafarian leaning against a wall.

Why did your dad give you a camera? Was he a photographer? 

No, he wasn’t a photographer.  It is still a mystery to me that he gave me the camera –he used to walk into our rooms and hand out sweets. On this day it was a camera. I’m glad of it though. I don’t know what else I could have done.

You said "the only thing I knew about photos is that you took photos of people on the street". Where did you come across that idea? 

HCB, Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954 

An exaggeration possibly, but it was a Time-Life book my mother had in the cupboard. I’d often look at this when I was pretty young. On the cover was the famous photo of the boy with the bottle of wine—the Cartier-Bresson one. I used to stare at that boy and wonder: who was he and where was he going and what was he going to do with that bottle of wine and where were his parents.

I love that photo. It's amazing that a mute image can travel around the world and inspire such questions. Where did your photo path lead next? Did you continue to use the Ricoh? 

Well, this is embarrassing. I kept the Ricoh in a paper bag and I left it behind on a beach one day and it turned out the best thing. I wasn't a very technically driven person and so to cover this shortcoming I realized I needed to have a better camera so that is when I saved up and bought the Rolleiflex. I was going to the library a lot then to look at photo books then and knew that Dorothea Lange used one and Arbus and Ans Westra too.

When was that? What age? 

I was 19-20 years old. 

Did you have any training at that time? Any friends or family into photography? 

I had no training. In 1987 I met Michael Stevenson and he was then a painter straight out of Elam School of Fine Art. Michael and I went on a trip photographing in the South Island and sometimes went driving just looking for stuff. We were very much into a very particular aesthetic, which he refers to as the Charismatic Pentecostal Aesthetic and we were quite dedicated to finding and describing it.  Our quest was ‘completely intuitive, completely experiential, and came with no external view.’ (Michael’s words).

What photos were you looking at then, or influenced by? 

I would say my main influences at this stage weren’t so much photographic but came from hanging out with M.Stevenson, music, literature, the Bible for instance, and paintings. I hadn’t really discovered William Eggleston then, for example. I got a few images together and applied to study photography at Elam.

Was this period the start of P.North? Did any of that work make it into the book? 

P.North started before this but work from this time also made it into the book. Then there are a couple of images that were shot in 2017 that are in P.North too. 


How did you find people and approach them? You said earlier "I think it was there that I really started looking at people around me." So you were a good observer. But it's not always easy translating that skill into photos. 

Sometimes the people I photographed were from nearby. The kids were neighbours or kids I babysat or the adults who were my landlords or the lady who did the hem of my school ball dress, etc. But also they were strangers as well. Strangers that I saw around the place often.

I would also spend a lot of time driving around looking. Sometimes it was hard to approach people and usually I’d have to think quickly about composition etc, as usually I only liked to use a few frames. Mostly, I knew immediately if it was working or not. 
It is interesting to see that many of the photos I deemed initially as failures, are now in P.North

Why did you call them failures? 

By failures I meant how it felt to me at the time of photographing them as I mostly didn't even attempt to make a proof sheet to see what they looked like. So I was writing them off before I even saw them. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so narrow in my approach. They seemed like they weren’t working as I didn't feel this certain thing when I was taking the photo. Then there were the photos that I made some mistake with either in shooting or developing: light leak, film incorrectly loaded, film not wound on – you name it. Or that they were trying to be artful. 


Did your assessment of those frames change over time? 

Yes, my opinion of them changed over time. I have, as a consequence, realized that I need to have something like a cooling off period of at least a year or two before I can look at the photo –to really see it and give it a chance. I am also ok with the mistakes- with the detritus that seems to populate my images.

What do you mean “trying to be artful”? One of my main attractions to the book is that the photos don't feel arty. They just seem like you pulled up, asked someone to stand there, shot the pic, done. Your visual approach seems natural and unaffected to me. 

Yes, they were mostly done how you describe but by artful I mean perhaps I was trying to compose too tightly or force something; maybe I could see myself trying to imitate something/someone. Hmm, don’t know really. Some of the artful ones didn’t make it into P.North besides.

Were they were shot around Bunnythorpe?  

They were shot around a number of places in NZ; Bunnythorpe and Palmerston North mostly and about four in Deniliquin in NSW and two in Queensland. 


Did you find photos generally by driving? I have a hard time seeing photo ops from a car. Far better luck walking, for me. 

I have flat feet! 

You have trouble walking? 

I like to drive. I see things, make a note and return to photograph them. I also go to events like rodeos, fairs and gatherings where it makes sense to people that I am photographing. Like I could be taking pics for the local paper although my camera is a giveaway that I’m not.

What kind of photos are you making now? 

I am still photographing people. Of course things have changed in the 35 or so years since P.North. It is harder to photograph. I am more indecisive. I overthink. I find it harder to approach people. But the work still has the similar sense of dislocation and vague time frame aspect to it. 

I have been looking at Mark Steinmetz's photographs and I have read a little about how he works and this has changed the way I see the potential of a sunny day, for example. I used to avoid putting too much emotion into my photographs by avoiding a type of light that could take over and become the central character of the photo. I saw it as disruptive and seductive. But now I see the potential of using light in a different way. 

I also have tried digital.

I love Mark Steinmetz.

Isn't he incredible? His photos are miraculous. I want to go to one his photo workshops. Too scared to.

You should do it.

I might lose my way if I did. 

What do you mean?

Risk someone calling my bluff I guess. I still see my work as a series of flukes or that my last good photo is exactly that. I think in a photo workshop you are expected to wander out, take photos and come back and show them. I go months between taking photos sometimes. 

I don't know what Steinmetz's workshop is like but somehow I imagine he could adapt to flukes. I mean all of the best photos are somewhat dependent on chance. And I think he probably realizes that. 

Also the workshop will need to be in a place that resonates with me. The latest is in Paris and all I can think of is that self portrait of Eggleston flaked out in his Parisian hotel room after days of taking no photos because he couldn't see past all the geraniums in pots on the windowsill kinda thing.

You've mentioned Eggleston a few times. Is he a major influence? What do you think of his pictures? 

I can’t say that he is an influence because I have no idea how he sees what he does. He has been a distraction. I’ve taken my share of Eggleston influenced photos and to this day I am not sure about them. I’ve seen In the Real World a few times and have decided to leave him alone. Like I don’t even try to wonder. He is a genius.

Once I went to Memphis and was walking around and some women became very suspicious of me and stopped me to ask what I was up to. I had no idea it was his neighbourhood. They thought I was casing the place but as soon as I mentioned his name they were like 'Oh Bill, yeah we know him. He lives over there. Want to come meet him, although he did go out last night…’ I declined. What could I ever think of to say to WE.

I had a chance to meet him last fall at a show in New York. But the book signing line was really long, so I said fuck it and spent the morning shooting photos instead. Story of my life, oh well. 

I reckon Eggleston would have approved of that response somehow! 

How did your book come about? 


My son Travis MacDonald is a painter and he urged me to think about making a book. I got the old negatives scanned and entered them into the Perimeter Small Book Competition. I was shortlisted and later approached to make a not so small book.. 

You share work with Travis. Does he get your photos? I'm asking as a fellow photographer who realizes the target audience is always tenuous. 

Yes, Travis gets them. And my son Jackson. They are my biggest editors and the conversation around each of our practices is an ongoing thing. I understand the tenuous thing too. BTW your review has changed some people’s (like family) opinions on my work too. So funny —they needed to be told how to view it. It’s beautifully written too.

Do you take photos of your kids? 

Yes, a few photos of the boys but as they got older they resisted. Lots of photos of them with hands in front of their faces. 

It's great that your kids can offer feedback. Do you give feedback on Travis’s paintings too? 

I am learning to wait to be asked.

What about the photo subjects in your book? Have you shown them the photos? Do you have a sense of how they respond to the images? 

The bulk of the subjects in my book I have no idea how to contact. Don’t have full name or some have deceased or moved —it has been 35 years. The ones who've seen the photos kind of don’t care.

The audience can be tenuous. Can we go back in time for a moment? What happened after Elam?

In 1989 I got into Elam in NZ and finished the year married, expecting a child and back living near Bunnythorpe - later moving back to Australia. So things took a dramatic turn and so did my sense of who I was and what I was doing, as you might imagine.  

Was that Travis MacDonald?

Yes, Travis, the best, followed by Jackson, the best. 1989 was an interesting year as it was also a year in a city and it became apparent that I wasn't good at living in cities. I had to go back down country in order to take the photos. We were required to make a hand-sewn book each term and so this is where the idea of a photobook and how it might look, first started for me. Travis has the books now —a bit wrecked but intact mostly.

Do they look anything like P.North?

They share some similarities. Small photos in a squarish book. Some text every now and then.

Why and when did you move to Australia? 

It wouldn't stop raining in the Manawatu in 1988 and it was not long after I had been completely dazzled by Paris, Texas so I sold my car and went to the nearest warm and blue place: Australia. I had a spell on a sheep station and then moved to a small town named Deniliquin and got this job. 

What was the job?

I was bringing the sheep over from the saleyards and feeding out in the lots so I saw things I’d rather not have seen and it took me a little while to forget them. If at all.  What was also difficult for me was the utter isolation socially. It was a hard place.

You said you weren't good at living in cities. And maybe you found the country life wrong too? Where are you most comfortable?

In my car.

That's a very American answer, lol. 

Yes!  Coming from a biggish family, my car was my room almost — the place you didn't have to share. But I have been thinking about walking during this conversation. Steinmetz describes photography as an athletic thing to do.

I grew up in a very rural setting like you, then moved to a city around age 18. I did that until my late 30s. Now I live near a small city, but in a country setting. Maybe it’s the best of both worlds? But personally I've usually found it harder to see photos in rural settings. Photographically I'm geared for urban material, or at least busy material

I can see that in your work for sure. Did you grow up in Oregon?

I grew up in Northern California. You mentioned my work but I have almost no photos online. Which work do you mean?

Well, I have seen some photos with your name on it —like the one of the car door walking down the street. Is that yours?

It’s possible but I’d have to see the photo to know. 

If I Google you, some photos come up that are very Bressonish decisive moment.

I can't complain about the comparison. I love HCB.

I am the biggest fan of BVM.

Bertien Van Manen?


She's awesome! I love her sense of color.

Bertien Van Manen, Moonshine, Mack, 2014
Moonshine is my favourite. (I sometimes wonder what my work might be like if I had been aware of BVM when I started shooting.)

Great book, and it feeds into the urban/rural discussion. Moonshine was shot in a mostly rural setting. And she was a complete stranger there, at least at first. So it might have been a tough place to find photos. At least it would be for me in that circumstance. But she really made something of it.

In Moonshine it looks like she likes to or at least knows how to, well, hang out. (Like Susan Lipper in Grapevine maybe.) That can be a helpful thing in some settings. You get a sense that she is very likeable. I have taken photos in that kind of place but in Alabama.

What were you doing in Alabama?

I shot a short doco on Sand Mountain in north Alabama. While I was filming I didn't make the transition to stills very easily so the photo record is a bit patchy. The doco is about an old musician named Cast King who was one of the last to record at the Sun Studios before it folded. It really was the vehicle by which I could see a part of the US that I had a longstanding curiosity about. So it is like a personal essay. Hand held and a bit rough.

I'll have to track that down. I know you've been involved in cinema as well as photography. And you mentioned Paris, Texas earlier. Was that film influential for you? Were you already making films when you saw it?

No, I wasn't making films. I was having enough trouble with just 1/125th of a sec, let alone anything longer.  Paris, Texas was way too big to be an influence; it was something else.  I got a video camera and more or less read the instructions on how to use it on the plane going over. My biggest lesson was watching Stranger Than Paradise by Jarmusch. He keeps it really simple in that film; camera on tripod, fixed focus, the slow pans. I looked at that film and thought ok I think I can do it. Of course the reason I thought I could make a film is because I had no idea what it took. Now that I know, I wouldn't ever make another.

Sand Mountain is it? Done?


Well, now I really have to see it.


What was your impression of the U.S.? Was it what you expected? 

My first impression of the US? I could say a lot about this. If you spent any time parked in front of the TV as a youngster, and I did, you already had a very involved impression of the place. I have to say I was smitten. And for so many reasons. But I found myself responding to this low hum of danger, not for myself, but for the people I encountered. Their lives were so difficult. So it was a complex contradiction of feelings. 

The U.S. for me is so infinitely photogenic and often I would be thinking, 'well right now it is like I am in a Stephen Shore or Joel Sternfeld  or  or  or…’. The fingerprints of the greats were everywhere but the minute I put the camera up to my eye, what I thought was there disappeared. It was exhilarating and depressing. Photography is hard work. I learned not to keep driving but to stay still and look deeper. I am hoping for an opportunity to go back to the U.S. again but with my Rollei and see what I can find.

Going back a few questions, when did you settle in Australia for good?

In 1994 with my family for what was thought to be a working holiday. Still here in a small town named Castlemaine. 

Is there a photo community there?

Yes, it’s called Instagram.

You also said you share work with your kids. Is that your main audience for feedback?

Yes. They are super sharp at discussing motives and nuance in my work and can weed out the weaker stuff and put words to an inarticulate feeling I might have about a photo. They were a major pre-edit voice in P.North.

You also referred to "family opinions" of your work. Not sure who that is or what they may have seen. But I thought it was kind of funny that a review could sway them so easily.

It was kind of a complicated thing. Photography in their mind was reserved for magazines, family, famous faces, and then of course weddings, etc. So when I showed up with the photos of the people down the road, they were confused. 

Do you think your book fundamentally changed how they think of photography?

I don't think they'd think about it much.

You also made a comment about how your subjects reacted to the book. "The ones who've seen the photos kind of don’t care."

I thought they somehow expected that they were going to look better than what the photo showed. 

Well that's just it. They DO look better than what the photo showed.

Hmmm. I mean what looks are ‘better’ than others?  A certain look/expression in a given moment that might be more appropriate than others but does that mean that it is a truer look? I did (and still do) shy away from showing people my photos. But mostly I’d say people were pleased to just be considered; to be looked at and photographed; to have been selected. And that is where the curiosity stopped really. Some even just waved the offer of the photo away.

Photography can be a very solitary pursuit sometimes.

Yes, it can and so makes conversations between photographers such an oasis. I actually think these photos are closer to self-portraits than anything else.

Can you elaborate on that?

I think I was not having a good run at being an adult at the time. Add to this the backwards gaze, of not wanting things to change. Add to this an eschatological angst. So I was drawn to the people and places that I thought were representative of those very strong feelings.

If P.North is a self portrait of you at 19ish, what about the more recent photos in the book? Does self-portraiture still apply?

Yes, it still applies. I now also see it as a far off country that is nowhere in particular. One person who bought the book said the photos made her homesick for a place she'd never been. 

The imaginary country of "P.North".

Yes. My time machine.

You briefly mentioned a fling with digital photography. And now you have swung back around to the Rollei again. What was your experience with digital?

I got a digital camera before my first US trip and I feel I was coerced into it by the whole,  'Well you have to get on-board as film to going to cease to exist'. I set off to the U.S. with an entry level camera and shot a lot, but at all low res. Mostly unusable really. I think my older way of shooting worked because it gave you fewer choices. And it also meant you weren’t holding something up to your face while trying to connect with someone. I mean it is interesting that the Rollei is held at gut level and that is the thing that works best in me. 

The Rollei worked for you. Why change?

Yeah. Mugged by digital, as a friend likes to say.

I've been shooting with roughly the same system since 1993. I'm a dinosaur. 

And what is that?

Small hand held cameras, 35 mm film, contacts, darkroom, work prints > show prints, etc.  Everyone else made the switch the digital at some point. But I never did. Analog works for me.


The jury is still out on that.

And you have exhibitions? You said there is not much online if at all.

I've had exhibitions but not much since pandemic. I'll send you a photo album if you want.

Really? That would be wonderful! Thank you.

One stray comment from our last chat left me curious. You mentioned the Bible as an influence. It made me wonder, are you religious?

Yes sir.

Do you think that comes through in your photos?

Do you?

I can put it this way. If you hadn't mentioned the Bible before I'd have no idea it was important to you.

Well, it is there. I was very much hooked into the elevation of the humble. It is in 1 Corinthians. Knowing this, does it change anything for you?

The photos, not so much. But there is that initial text in the book which I didn't really understand before. But now it has more context. And there is something from Ecclesiastes in the colophon which makes more sense now.

The editor really wanted to put that piece of text in. It is kind of like a word photo, that sounds obtuse but…

Why did you choose that particular quote? Was that important to you in some way? Does it describe the photos? 

I think it describes my understanding of faith. That we are known but also that the mystery of this is way bigger than what we can ever know. It to me, implies that we think God is like us. I think if he is like us, he wouldn't be much of a God.

I think there is a connection to Moonshine too. There’s a religious vibe in that book.

For sure. There is an urgency to people's lives in that part of the world. For example, there is a reason why some people took up snakes in churches there, even though they're more or less outlawed now.

One dimension where the Bible comes through P.North is in the focus on kids. Many of the photos show children. Which I'd dismissed before as maybe easy targets or friends or whatever. But they do convey a tone of  pre-fall innocence. I don't know the Bible well but I think there are several references to youth, children, renewal, rebirth, etc. Like, make way for the next wave of salvation or whatever. As for us grownups, we’re a lost cause, haha.

Yes, they do represent those things. And they are the portent of what is to happen, powerful teachers and also capable of malice. In my work they are the ones who pierce you with their gaze.

"The mystery of this is way bigger than what we can ever know. It to me implies that we think God is like us. I think if he is like us, he wouldn't be much of a God." I think that comment relates to photography. There's a common mistake of conflating what's in a photo with the photo itself. But they are two separate things. If the photo just repeated the thing in the photo, it wouldn't be much of a photo.


Maybe Walker Evans would disagree.

OOh I think he might. It is like that whole thing of the map being not the territory.

All photos above by Kathryn McCool unless otherwise noted.

1 comment:

Niels said...

Thanks for another interesting interview.