INTERVIEW: Matt McGarr

Fòcas Programme Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas India shortlisted artist Matt McGarr, an emerging photographer based in Falkirk, about his project ‘Memories of my Father.’

© Matt McGarr

 F: Matt, your project was prompted by your father’s death in 2010. What made you take up a camera in response to his passing?

M: It was an indirect but related sequence of events, really.  In the few months before he died, we had both been learning to ride motorbikes.  We were both going through some stressful times and we had really been getting to know each other as adults while doing this.  It pains me greatly to this day that this period in our lives was cut short.

My sister and I were fortunate enough to be left some money when he died and used it to travel in Asia and Australasia.  The trip lasted 9 months and despite visiting some spectacular places, I actually photographed very little of it.  I recorded the whole trip on a video camera instead.

It was only when I got back and realised that I’d seen more of China than I had of Scotland that, after a while, I decided to spend more time visiting places around the country on my motorbike.  I got my licence and started going on much longer trips.  It was really here that I started taking photographs for the first time.

When I think back, biking was an activity that should have happened side by side with my Dad.  It actually took quite a while for me to get back on a bike as it was something I associated completely with Dad and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue it without him.  I think that when I started photography, it was a way of sharing those trips that would have been shared with him.

F: Your father is never pictured. We know him through objects – his kilt, his football scarf glimpsed in a mirror. Is that how you know him now?

M: In the original college project, I did have a photograph of him (included at the end) and another ‘photograph of a photograph’.

But I do see him in abstract now, in my head.  I think of him every day but 7 years on, some memories are fading and others gone until stirred back into existence by something I see or hear.

In fact the family house that we had for 30 years was recently sold.  With it went a lot of those potential ‘memory stirrers’.  I photographed the house top to bottom before we left.

© Matt McGarr

F: It seems a project rooted so entirely in your own experience. But in finding an approach to framing that experience, did you look to the work of other photographers?

M: Yes I did.  I wanted the project to be as honest as possible and really wasn’t sure how to portray feelings of grief 6 years later without it feeling too staged.  I looked at Colin Gray’s “In Sickness and in Health” and Philip Toledano’s “Days With My Father”.  Both documented the death of a parent as it happened, so they didn’t share the exact same scenario as I was in.  But what I learned from them was that situations could be set up (I could take an object normally kept in a box and photograph it) if they showed a real vulnerability without compromising the integrity of the project.

© Matt McGarr

F: What’s next for you – and for the project?

M: The project has sort of split off into other things.  It inspired me to convert all of our analogue photographs and VHS home videos onto digital so the editing of those takes up a lot of time.  Every now and then I’ll have a thought and add a photograph to the project but the truth is that the project flattened me at the time so I’m in no rush to dive head first back into it any time soon.  It’ll never go away, though.  It meant too much to me to draw a line under it.

As for me, that’s the hardest question to answer.  I graduated from City of Glasgow College last year so I’m still trying to find my feet in the industry.  “Memories of my Father” did open my eyes to how photography can change your own understanding of things though and while I don’t think I’ll be doing anything as personal as this again for a while, I have been looking at personal interest projects.

I have a long running project of the island of Luing, off Scotland’s west coast.  I visited the island with my fiancée soon after getting my first DSLR and have returned several times since.  It’s a place I’ve come to associate with photography and in more recent visits I’ve tried to look more at the people and aspects of the island that makes that part of the world unique.  I’ll be back there in September.

I also have an ongoing project that looks at the changing face of my hometown of Falkirk.  I think when you reach your 30s, you find that a lot of things that you grew up seeing have changed or have gone entirely.  Sometimes it’s for the better and sometimes for the worse but either way it’s inevitable.  I’ve been photographing that change.

More recently, I finished a behind the scenes documentary of Rosyth & District Musical Society’s production of Sweet Charity.  I was fortunate to gain almost unlimited access and photographed the company from rehearsals through to the final show night.  I think the project was quite successful from my point of view and from theirs and I hope to follow that up with a more in-depth approach when they start their new show this year.

At the moment, I think that some of my project work lacks the intimate element that Memories of My Father has.  I can show you the ‘what’ of something but not so much the ‘why’.  I’m working on that.

Other than that, I just try to put myself in places or situations that might lead to the next piece of inspiration.  And I’m away to Italy tomorrow to photograph my sister’s wedding so I have that to look forward to!

Matt is a Falkirk-based photographer who recently graduated from City of Glasgow College with an HND in Photography. With a passion for documentary photography, he has undertaken a number of self-initiated and on-going projects, including photographing Bannockburn House, the Isle of Luing and a behind the scenes documentary about RDMS’ production of Sweet Charity.

www.mattmcgarrphoto.com