Constructed Landscape – Paula McCartney | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

this episode of the art assignment is brought to you by Squarespace we're in Minneapolis and we're about to meet up with Paula McCartney she makes photographs and artist books that explore the ambiguity between the natural and the unnatural and cause us to re-examine what those terms even mean projects like Bronx Zoo some McCartney photographing real birds and living plants in constructed landscapes while bird watching saw her photograph fake crafts store-bought birds in real landscapes her most recent work a field guide to snow and ice is a series of photographs and a book that explores her idea of winter which includes images of actual snow and ice along with images of stalagmites and piles of gypsum sand that only mimicked icy forms with paula we're going to talk about how we look at the so-called natural world and how we go about constructing it in our minds and in the images we make hi I'm Paula McCartney and this is your art assignment I moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis and at that time I was really surprised how much winter there was I was used to winter with like three months out of the year but I was not used to winter for six months out of the year and basically in all capitals in this really very exotic environment just like the billing escapes in the Bronx Zoo felt very exotic this amount of snow and ice felt very exotic so I knew that I wanted to to explore that idea so I started the project in what I call the safety of the summer months and I made a photogram of a dried pressed Queen Anne's lace flower it's this beautiful flower that I remember from my childhood and I thought pressed and with made into a photograph it looked like a snowflake the first snowfall of the season in November of that year I went out into my backyard and I pointed my camera up into the sky and photographed snow falling down on me and combini' looking at those photographs um next to the photograph of my Queen Anne's lace snowflake the Queen Anne's lace was a snowflake but it also kind of turned into like a starburst and the the photograph of the snow falling at night looking straight up looked like snow falling but then it also could be an image of the night sky the Kosmos and I really liked how with that juxtaposition and the two very specific things could be transformed or opened up and they could be interpreted in lots of different ways because I was living in this environment with so much winter I was seeing winter all the time and what I really wanted to to illustrate was the winter of my imagination again because I think the the more abstracted things are from the larger landscape the more they become images for my imagination as opposed to documenting the the world as it is so your assignment in creating a constructed landscape the first thing you should do is think about what kind of landscapes you're interested in what kind of environment you're interested in look about the materials that you have around your house are there things that you are excited by like different rocks or minerals or stones think do you want this to be a winter landscape a summer landscape you can go outside and get leaves and flowers you can get some snow you have snow at this time combined take the elements make your landscape take lots of photographs photograph it from above and below really experiment add a few more things into your landscape take some things out of your landscape make lots of pictures look at them think about which picture really transformed those elements that you combine together to make your constructal landscape so maybe something very small looks big or something big looks small or you're transported to a different kind of environment and share your favorite picture with us so like one way I could approach this area is I could make a miniature landscape and then use sort of the tricks of the camera to make it look big yes that's exactly right and there are so many great precedents for this art assignment I'm really excited about it I can think of one precedent every single movie made before 1990 which use the tricks of the camera to turn these miniature paintings into set backdrops yes that's very true but there are others from the art world as well and I'd like to bring up the fact that I have a ton of friends and colleagues that I draw upon for ideas for these precedents like you could think about all Russo's jungle paintings where he visited not the jungle to gain inspiration but actually the Paris zoo in the Natural History Museum I'm also quite fond of SuJu Moto's diorama photographs where he visited the Natural History Museum in New York and photographed the dioramas but in such a way that it looks very realistic or there's Tomas de Mond who makes these really amazing constructions from cut paper that he then photographs in a manner that's incredibly convincing all of this is supposed to make me think about the difference between what is real and what is fake right right especially when it comes to nature and our precedent today actually comes from outside of the world of art history in 1856 Scottish industrialist James Naismith retired from a successful business of inventing and building machine tools to pursue his interest in astronomy a neighbor of his English estate thought they kept seeing a ghost outside carrying a coffin but it was actually Naismith in his nightgown moving around his telescope trying to get the best view of the night sky he soon built his own telescope a powerful reflecting one that allowed him to see it great magnification he made detailed observations of the moon and in 1874 published a book of his findings complete with photographs of the lunar surface however no one had successfully taken non blurry photographs of the moon's surface yet so what were these images Naismith's craters and mountains were actually plaster models he made from his drawings which he then lit from a low angle and photographed from above images are convincingly and remarkably accurate but they're at the same time false and fantastical images like Paula's photographs Naismith's are derived from close observation and engaged the most simple of materials to create and transport us to another fully fledged albeit impossible world I think the idea with constructed landscapes is the almost every environment that we're in nowadays is constructed in some sort of way so your lawn is constructed your garden is constructed and Arboretum that you go to is constructed so all these places that we think of as natural are really constructed so it's always sort of you're deciding the just the degree of something how constructed something is so for my constructed landscape I decided to start with black paper because I like a lot of black backgrounds in my my work and photograph that I just taped here to my studio wall so this is my my foreground and my background and the background is a photograph of birds and flights that I had used in lots of other projects so I have a rock that I collected this summer that I really love the shape of because I liked how it looked like a mountain and then I got another rock out of my garden so I had two two rocks and that was also sort of mountain shape and I also got a giant bowl of sand that I took just from a sandbox and that is gonna that's reminding me of snow so one thing you'll want to consider with your assignment is the idea of scale think about where you are in relationship cheesy objects in your setup your scene to see do you want to make something look smaller than it is you want to make something look larger than it is and really move around your setup so that you get a lot of different possibilities to find out the to find the best thing or the most exciting thing or the most you know how can you make a rockin some Sam look like really monumental and exciting everyone has all these fantastic ideas in their head all these stories that we think of all day long and this is your way to illustrate that idea so see if you can combine things that maybe you haven't combined before see if you can build something that you've never built before experiment to sort of open up a new way of seeing the landscape I think you know we're so used to seeing the landscape I think a lot of times we take it for granted but I do want with this exercise and with my work in general to have people look at the landscape in a new and different way take lots of pictures because the beginning pictures you make are not probably gonna be your best ones think of the first ones those practice take pictures from above your scene take the pictures from eye level when you think of like the war inside view or the bird's eye view you don't just look at the scene in oh I know the perfect perspective you have to move around and look so do you take a lot of pictures like if you're using your phone you can delete them all afterwards except for your favorite one but take like 20 pictures take 30 pictures take 100 pictures really experiment you this episode of the art assignment is brought to you by Squarespace Squarespace is an easy way to create a website blog or online store for you and your ideas Squarespace features a user-friendly interface custom templates and 24/7 customer support try squarespace at forward slash art assignment for a special offer Squarespace build it beautiful you

14 thoughts on “Constructed Landscape – Paula McCartney | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. Y'all should ask a tattoo artist to come up with an art assignment, I'm sure they must have lots of challenges they could come up with for us, since they have the task of making other people's visions become a reality every day.

  2. I did something very similar for my final project of my Art Foundation course in 2008- I used small jars of water and sand, rocks, food colouring, lights and various other things to create images reminiscent of landscapes. Mariele Neudecker was one of my main artist's inspiration for the project.

    I may actually make a blog post on the photographs as they're on my website (that's in need of an update) but I didn't blog to show and explain my artwork at the time. My art naturally progressed away from this but I'm quite excited to revisit this idea and create more ­čÖé

  3. this is a fun one :). Reminds me of the development way back when of the "English" gardens, with their 'naturalistic' fields and hills and follies, in opposition to the 'unnatural' formal gardens such as those at Versailles – of course, neither is very natural at all. Love how this assignment draws our attention to this. As one quote I heard once put it, "nature knows nothing of what we call landscape". ­čÖé

  4. I'm always looking for new ways to express my thoughts and ideas through my photography. Sometimes I feel like photography can be very static, and that your just doing the same thing over and over. I realized I was feeling some burn out when i was taking pictures of a number of models in rather static two dimensional scenes back to back; and became more focused on taking pictures of the center piece on the table.

    I like this idea and intend to play with it.

  5. The first thing I thought of was the abandoned hills of topsoil stripped off of Midwestern farms in preparation for turning them into subdivisions. After 2008, those hills were sort of left as permanent artificial geological upheavals, literally reconstructing the actual landscape.

    41.559256, -88.249599  Street View, Look East

  6. This makes me think of the girls in Yorkshire who photographed fairies, but it was really paper cut outs.

  7. Possibly not actually relevant at all, but this reminded me of William Cronon's The Trouble With Wilderness, discussing how all wilderness is actually constructed and the reality of the nature set aside as wilderness isn't any more valid or exotic than the reality of the nature in your backyard, and our conceptions regarding those sorts of nature.

  8. I love that this came at this time of year, because my mom makes a miniature Christmas village every year, and she's gotten intense about it: she made a snow-covered hill with a river this year, and an iced-over pond, as well as having all the evergreens and roads and houses coated in snow. And don't forget the people. I know it's a little different from the connection with the natural world and how we create what is "natural," but it's where my mind took me.

  9. I just realized that I inadvertently did this assignment the other day. In the Renwick Gallery in DC there is an installation of massive stacks of white card that look like mountains, in the photo that I took it looks like a massive landscape with blue skies in the background.

  10. This assignment reminds me a lot of figure photography ( Especially the photographers Kixkillradio ( and Love Pinkcheeks (, who are known for creating elaborate environments for their figures. It also reminds me of some figure photos that make the figures look life-sized, in non-constructed environments, by eliminating frames of reference.

  11. Why isn't special effects "part of the art world" and why wasn't the precedent "part of art history"? The conflation of the gallery/museum scene with art as a whole really bugs me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *