Ailish MacDonald Artist Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work

My name is Ailish MacDonald and I'm an Isle of Man born, Glasgow raised artist currently completing my final year of Painting and Printmaking at the Glasgow School of Art. Despite having studied painting since my first year at GSA, my practise has moved in the direction of photography and mixed media conceptual work. A big interest of mine lies in the black and white use of film photography, specifically in relation to capturing the body and the idea of identity in an unusual, and sometimes abstract, way. The body, to me, is something more than the biological shell in which we inhabit. Having experienced and (I'm proud to say) recovered from anorexia, I find photographing the body in the way I do allows me to see the beauty in the shadows of folds of skin and a truth in the rawness of simply being. Conceptually my work is partially fuelled by the ideas of Carl Jung, specifically the individuation process he philosophises in relation to the idea of the properties of identity. 

What first got you interested in photography?

Photography wasn't really an interest until I started studying at GSA. As my father studied marine biology and subsequently dives, my brother and I would have to sit through endless photo's of sea life after his trips away. I think, because if this, I almost turned away from photography as, to me, it was my father's 'thing'. It was only when I was gifted a 35mm camera for my 18th birthday that I really started to consider photography and how to manipulate it to work for me. After rediscovering the medium recently, I realised I enjoyed the almost restricted freedom that came with a film camera - you can't delete or edit the shot you've just taken and therefor the one time film camera shot acts as a vessel for the idea of a moment or memory in time, a theme that continues to inform and influence my work. After years of restricting myself to just painting, I found a freedom with photography I hadn't really allowed myself to have before. Artists such as Francesca Woodman and Larry Clark were interests when I rediscovered my camera with their stark imagery (in black and white) capturing my attention. The surrealist photography of Woodman and the raw, unflinching work of Clark inspired me to push myself out of my comfort zone and allowed me to almost see people and image making in a  different light.

How would you describe your approach to photography?

I wouldn't consider photography as my main discipline, however my approach to photography can be quite ritualistic. It doesn't matter to me if I know the model or not previous to the shoot, but making sure the model is comfortable and relaxed in the environment they're placed in is key to my work. Each shoot is done using the full roll of film. To me, the mistakes or 'failed' photographs are as important as the 'successful'. Each shot captures a moment in time, the invisible dialogue, that the model and I have created. Each shoot is as individual as the person and through making sure the model is part of the creative process it allows me to create shoots that almost represent their identity. As I'm interested in creating an abstract kind of narrative within the work, black and white images have become quite key. As a synesthete, a lack of colour isn't something that is natural to me in daily life so by creating black and white images it means I'm creating a restriction for myself forcing the actual image to stand alone and create it's own identity as opposed to relying on colour to fill in the gaps. I'm also interested in capturing texture and shadows to render the image almost non-representational and to force the viewer to figure out what it is they're seeing without obviously recognisable forms, finding beauty in the things people might not find socially beautiful about the body. 

What do you feel is the most challenging thing about being a photographer?

Something I feel is challenging about making the photography is honestly, probably, my camera choice. I'm a self taught photographer and film photography brings it's own set of challenges. As much as I love film photography and everything that comes with it, it can be frustrating when certain images you thought would render well just don't and it can be hard sometimes to remind myself that it's all just part of the process. The most difficult person to impress with my work is myself and I'm highly critical of the images I produce which can be a natural hindrance to my production of said images. It's very easy to compare your work to others and this is something I still struggle with today which I guess is just a natural human way of being. This being said, the feeling you get when the roll of film is developed and some of the images work well or even better than you thought they might is fundamentally worth it. I've also been incredibly lucky to have very open people around me that are happy to partake in the shoots as without them the work just wouldn't exist.

Tell us what gear you use, what is your favourite equipment to use?

The camera I use is a Canon EOS 3000 and usually use Ilford black and white film but I don't use much equipment per say. Depending on the shoot and the natural light, I sometimes use a soft box light to enhance or eliminate certain shadows and textures but as most of the shoots are usually done either in my home or my models this isn't always necessary. Without the light, the photo's tend to render more softly, with a more pronounced greyness to the overall image which I usually favour in shoots that are meant to be more gentle. This is in contrast to the soft box light which I usually use when I want the image to appear starker and more defined. Saying this, I am interested in exploring more equipment and have started looking at how different lenses could affect the image produced.

What advice would you have for other photographers?

Although I don't define myself as a pure bred photographer in any way, the best piece of advice I could give to photographers just starting out is to just not be afraid of the camera. One of your photo's didn't work like you wanted? Look at it again, turn it upside down, pick it apart and try seeing it with fresh eyes. Even if you still don't like the photo, there could be something in it that is golden and if there's not don't give up. Look at other photographers and ways of image making that inspire you and don't be afraid to experiment. If you're working with film photography it can be fun to try out different types of film too as many of them have different properties. It's all about trial and error, just have fun!


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