In 2011, I made two decisions that would change my life and the trajectory of my work forever. That April, I decided to accept an offer of admission to a new graduate program at Duke, becoming one of fifteen members of the inaugural M.F.A. class in experimental and documentary arts. Two weeks later, I traveled to England on what I thought might be my last trip abroad before becoming a student again.
While on a road trip across the U.K., I made an unplanned stop at Lacock Abbey. Once a medieval convent, Lacock Abbey is best known as the home of William Henry Fox Talbot. Tucked away in rural Wiltshire, the abbey and surrounding woodland grounds became both site and subject of Talbot’s wondrous photographic experiments. It was within the abbey walls, in front of the now-famous oriel window in the South Gallery, that Talbot created the first surviving photographic negative. I spent one sunny afternoon there with my camera, unknowingly making photographs that would ultimately be included in my M.F.A. thesis exhibition.
I can see now that the two decisions were intertwined. After deciding to dedicate the next two years of my life to focusing strictly on my practice as a photographer, it is perhaps no coincidence that I had the urge to make a pilgrimage to one of the birthplaces of the medium.
In the last two years, I’ve found experimental and documentary arts to be an apt description of my practice and the methodology that allowed for the invention of photography. As a gentleman scientist, natural philosopher, and admirer of romantic poetry, Talbot had an approach to image making that was defined by a disciplined exploration of and surrender to the agency of light. He was dedicated to perfecting what he called “photogenic drawing,” but he also delighted in the unexpected results he encountered along the way.
In his extensive journals, correspondence, and essays, Talbot states that rigorous experimentation would lead to “consequences altogether unexpected, remote from usual experience and contrary to almost universal belief.” I can think of no better way to describe both my current approach to image making and my time spent in Duke’s M.F.A. program.
My particular experiments over the last two years have involved pilgrimages to document not only Talbot’s home but also those of Nicéphore Niépce, who is credited with fixing the first photographic image, and Louis Daguerre, who is credited with inventing the daguerrotype. These pilgrimages led me first to read each of these pioneers’ instructions for fixing images and building cameras, and later to create and test cameras of my own design, which became another component of my thesis project. I make these devices from the simplest of materials—scrap boxes—and without a lens, the only constant being the 4x5 sheet film I expose to. I discard any preconceived notions of what a camera should be and instead consider what is really necessary to create an image, namely: a dark chamber, an aperture, time, light, and a desire to capture.
Through this process, I have discovered photography yet again, and have the pleasure of rediscovering it each and every time I make an image. This is the cyclical nature of photography. With the emergence of every new method for fixing images, the medium is reborn, persisting much like a phoenix, cyclically regenerating from its own ashes. Therefore, one could say it is the project of every photographer to reinvent the medium, whether by technical, formal, or conceptual means.
Though the M.F.A. program is young, perhaps this is what we will become known for: Whether photographer, filmmaker, performer, or sound artist, we all are attempting to transform the idea of documentation through rigorous experimentation.
A Durham-based photographer, McCarty M.F.A. ’13 has had her work exhibited at galleries in Washington, New Orleans, Boston, and Berlin. Before enrolling as one of the first students in Duke’s M.F.A. program, she earned a B.F.A. at George Mason University.