Photography • Inspiration Exploring Heritage in Pictures


Meryl McMaster carefully constructs her site-specific self-portraiture, from making the props, tripping the shutter, and editing the resulting photos.

For visual storyteller Meryl McMaster, the plains and waterways of Canada’s rural landscapes hold the secrets to her past, the musings of her present, and the unanswered questions of her future. In photographs set amongst craggy mountains, old-growth forests, and rocky beaches, McMaster centers herself as the writer and protagonist of fantastical photographic narratives.

The Ottawa-based artist, who is of Plains Cree and British-Dutch descent, has been working with site-specific self-portraiture over the last decade. “I’m interested in learning more about the history of specific places and how the landscape influences who we are and our identity and sense of self,” McMaster explains. “For me, in particular, I’m searching for a sense of belonging to place in my search for self and learning about my own heritage and identity.”

In some images, McMaster evokes a nostalgic tone with period Western clothing that harkens back to pioneer days. On a seaside cliff in “On the Edge of This Immensity,” McMaster stands alert, a half-sized rowboat teeming with birds perched on her shoulder as her powdered-white gaze peers off into the distance. In others, like “Of Universes We Have Just the One,” a more futuristic aesthetic emerges: Mirrored silver spheres congregate in a bulbous, snow-dusted tower set against a hazy dusk. Only on further examination does the viewer realize that McMaster looks out from the tower—either consumed by, or the source of, these reflected orbs.

On the Edge of this Immensity (2019 | Digital C-Print | 40" x 60" | Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain) and Of Universes We Have Just the One (2019 | Digital C-Print | 45" x 30" | Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain)

To bring each of her complex narratives to life, McMaster goes through an organic multi-part process that can take the better part of a year. “I’m always looking out for interesting landscapes, learning about the histories of places, and delving into my own family’s past,” says McMaster. “I carry a little notebook where I constantly sketch and scribble down my ideas. When I’m coming up with a body of work, I look at the commonalities between the things that I’m writing, reading, and listening to, as well as looking at my little drawings over time, looking at the common threads between some of my drawn images and historical research.”

McMaster travels across Canada to research and scout locations for her photographic series. To create two of her recent bodies of work, she flew to new locations, initially relying on Google Maps and Google Image Search to gain a sense of the landscape and how others have engaged with and documented it. “For the images in As Immense as the Sky, I was working with knowledge keepers within my First Nation community in Red Pheasant First Nation. I was listening to stories—particularly stories about the land—which influenced some of the costumes and locations that I chose.”

The photographer often builds her own objects, costumes, and props from scratch, using cardboard, wire, upholstery foam, and even bike helmets, which work well as the bases for headdresses. McMaster cites her early interest in theater and sculpture as influencing the performative components of her professional work. She explains that she was raised in an artsy household, and her father was a painter with a home studio. “I definitely had influences in terms of seeing an artist at work,” says McMaster.

McMaster often builds her own objects, costumes, and props from cardboard, wire, upholstery foam, and even bike helmets, which work well as the bases for headdresses.

 

A visual learner who was naturally drawn to creative expression, McMaster’s dyslexia also made academics a challenge. “Art was always something that wasn’t a struggle for me,” she explains, and her parents supported her interest with after-school art classes. After first encountering the magic of darkroom photography in high school, McMaster went on to major in photography at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto.

“It really wasn’t until my final year of university when I developed this direction of working. I was feeling like I wanted to do something more for myself, expanding and exploring my other interests within the still image,” says McMaster. “As a kid, I of course didn’t know that my other interests in theater, set design, and costuming would influence me. But I look back and there are all these moments where it makes sense what I do now based on the interests I had when I was young.”

Ordovician Tide II (2019 | Digital C-Print | 40" x 60"  | Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain)

Working in concert with the climate of her on-location shoots requires careful planning balanced with a healthy dose of patience. Waiting for the right weather conditions in addition to the ideal light can delay a shoot by days. McMaster works as both model and photographer, which heightens her intellectual and logistical responsibilities. “There’s a lot resting in my head about those different roles during the photoshoot,” she says.

“There’s lots of spontaneity to the images that I try to maintain,” she adds. “I take a lot of photos at a lot of different angles, and many times I change location, because in many cases I won’t have the opportunity to go back.” The concept sometimes evolves during her time on-location, or later, when editing. “There’s different moods to certain poses that change the initial meaning of what I was thinking for that image,” says McMaster. “Editing is really important.”

Time's Gravity (2015 | Giclée Print | 30" x 45" | Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain)

Lead Me to Places I Could Never Find on My Own I (2019 | Digital C-Print | 40" x 60" | Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain)

Because the photographer works digitally, she is able to review images in real-time during the shoot, but even the difference of looking at the small on-camera display and on a large screen at home can change her impression of a certain image. “Things change because I’m not behind the camera all the time during the shoot: areas are out of focus or lighting shifts—things that I can’t control because I don’t have a separate photographer helping control those technical elements.”

McMaster relies on her gut reaction to individual images as she first sees them during the editing process. She narrows down the photos to five to ten variations per image, and then prints the shortlisted photographs. Hanging them on the wall and looking at the collection as a whole helps her evaluate how they work together.  

At this point, McMaster also begins to consider the viewer. Though she doesn’t focus on anticipated reactions during the creation of props or images, the editing process is a time to reflect on the messages she will ultimately convey. “What ideas does that image speak to? What will the viewer see in this?” McMaster asks herself. “I’m going to see something different from what someone else sees. You have to take yourself out of the position of being the artist and knowing everything about the image. I also think about someone who hasn’t studied art—how are they going to respond to it?”

Phantom Silence (2015 | Giclée Print | 18" x 62" | Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain)

McMaster’s careful evaluations and thoughtfully considered processes of deeply personal narratives have paid off: She has received multiple awards for her work, including the Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award, the Charles Pachter Prize for Emerging Artists, and the Canon Canada Prize. Her photographs have been acquired or exhibited by the Canadian Museum of History, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, among many others. She is currently gearing up for exhibitions in 2020 and 2021, and she'll be the artist-in-residence at Montreal’s McCord Museum of Canadian History, basing new work off items she selects from the museum’s collection.

“As an artist, I am not very prolific, because I work a lot with themes that are personal. My work takes more time to develop,” explains McMaster. “I need time to reevaluate myself and life, because a lot of times my work is inspired about what I’m thinking about in that moment or what I’m going through, and what’s happening in the larger world as well.” McMaster turns the lens on life with her evocative and thought-provoking photographs, sparking stories for the future and prompting deeper consideration of the past. “The camera sees the world in a different way than when you’re just looking at it with your two eyes.”

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