This weekend my old high school friend Jess came to visit at the very same time that New York was hit with the nasty leftovers of Hurricane Noel. The weather was pretty awful, so we spent Saturday wandering the six floors of the Museum of Modern Art – although I’ve lived here for over a year now, I had somehow never been.

I’m not sure exactly what I feel about museums. Being an unabashed nerd, I love to learn about new things. But sometimes, especially in art museums, standing around and looking at the art isn’t enough for me — it seems a little pointless. I want to know about the artist, I want to know about the techniques, I want to know about the original public response. In general, I want context. I like reading the placards and listening to the lame audio tracks. I want the story. Milling around for hours and only looking at each piece for a few seconds before moving on doesn’t do it for me.

But then again, there’s love at first sight. On the photography floor, in the contemporary section, I saw this photograph, “Orchard View with Effects of Seasons“, by Scott McFarland, and was drawn to it right away (as you can see, it’s for sale if you’d like to buy it for me). On one level, the orchard looked normal. But at the same time, it felt otherworldly – or as if it were slightly surreal or just a touch psychedelically beautiful. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I shoved my way to the placard. I noted his name and later, at home, I read all I could about him on the internet.

McFarland, it turns out, is a very young, subtly experimental Canadian photographer. He digitally alters many of his pictures to make them just a little magical – it’s almost like an emotional optical illusion. In “Orchard View”, he took pictures of the same orchard throughout the four seasons and then mixed them together, seemingly picking each plant at its most dramatic moment. While one shrub is gravid with spring blossoms, another, just feet away, is fired with fall foliage.

(For another example of how he alters his photos subtly, look at the one posted above. At first, it just seems weirdly surreal. Upon a closer look, though, you can see that each cactus is casting a shadow in a different direction. The effect is strange — you start to question exactly how much of the picture is real at all.)

Besides his work being extremely striking and affecting, I love the sentiment of his experiments as well. Photography is supposed to be, I would say, the non-fiction of the visual arts. Whatever you snap pictures of is The Truth. It happened, exactly as you see it. It’s a frozen, actual, accurate moment in time. But McFarland seems to know that it’s a lot more complicated in that. What if one wants to capture the truth of a place across time instead of in a single moment? What if the center of what something is really like is hidden – and can only be told only through indirect means? He’s finding ways to make a single photograph capture more than a second in time, or more of an accurate feeling of the place than usual.

And, even though I know I mention this a lot, I truly love that McFarland seemed to be having a lot of fun with his work. Another of his photos, “Display for Porcupines“, is a great example (I realize these images don’t look very good on your computer because they are so small – both this and Orchard View were probably 10 feet long). Sure, it at first seems like a regular old picture of the porcupine exhibit in a zoo, but as you meditate on it — the strangeness of the animals and their artificial habitat, the humans on the peripheries – it is nothing less than fantastical.

Just the fact that after all of these hundreds of years of art and creative thought, artists like McFarland are finding new tools and new ways to use them to express themselves is nothing less than heartening and moving. And perhaps it proves something: that the art that you connect with will insist that you learn more about it, it will make you inquire research, even if you originally planned on nothing more than slowly milling by.

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