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Massive, Violent, Beautiful Change: A Conversation with Isaac McKenna

Isaac talks with the Brown Art Review about temporality, morality, photography, and degradation as they reflect on their senior thesis show, “Epigraph.”

Massive, Violent, Beautiful Change: A Conversation with Isaac McKenna
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

May 13, 2024
10 Minutes

Isaac McKenna is a senior in the visual arts department whose work spans photography, film, sculpture, and digital media. Their senior capstone exhibition, “Epigraph,” was recently on view in List Art Center. The photography-centered show represents Isaac’s deep consideration of change, materiality, and degradation. The work speaks to existential questions of formation and decay without claiming to provide answers. I was able to chat with Isaac in the gallery while the show was up to get insight into their perspective. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

“Symbiosis 1–2” (2024), 8x10” silver gelatin dry plate, archival pigment print.

Charlie Usadi: Hi Isaac! Thank you for joining me. I appreciate you taking the time.

Isaac Mckenna: Thank you for interviewing me; I’m so excited.

CU: Me, too! These are always so much fun. The seniors in this department spend so much time dedicating such focused thought to their work, so I'm always amazed with y’all’s insights. We should jump right into it. 

IM: Yeah, definitely. 

CU: Could you start with a bit of an introduction to yourself? When you're not deep in the midst of work in List, where could we find you off campus?

IM: That’s a good question. I spend a lot of my time here [laughs]. But when I'm not here, I'm probably at home, honestly. I love my space and my roommates. I definitely take a lot of trips out into nature, seeing as that’s where a lot of my work happens. In terms of background, I grew up in Massachusetts and Michigan. I study Modern Culture and Media (MCM) as well as Visual Arts, which I think has been significant for me. Film and media theory have had a big influence on me.

CU: I’m really interested in discussing that intersection, actually, between VISA MCM, but before we do so, in terms of your background and upbringing, how long have you been creating? Is it difficult to pinpoint something specific, or were there any early influences that really motivated you?

IM: So my mom was a printmaking undergrad, and my dad is also a very creative person. I think you're able to see a lot of creative spark in my family in general. I think all kids experience doing some sort of art or making things, but from a very early age I was on Photoshop and stuff [laughs]. I was definitely a big “digital art-head” from the beginning. Not that any of it was good. I've done a lot of different things; I was a musician for a while in high school, which has been something that I've missed a bit. That was definitely part of my trajectory, making things and creating. 

In high school I got into photography; I got into graphic design a lot. I really wanted to be a graphic designer for a minute. I still love graphic design. I love digital digital art—not digital art writ large, but I guess I’m fascinated by digital tools. In terms of the work I’m making now, I didn't start seriously shooting film until late last year, I’d say. It's kind of a recent thing.

CU: So coming into college, did you know that you were going to pursue visual art? 

IM: No, I mean, I came into college planning to do Modern Culture and Media because I thought it was a film degree, which it's kinda not [laughs]. I wanted to be like a filmmaker. I thought I might also do sociology—some social science. 

CU: Were you making any sort of artistic work at that point? 

IM: Yeah, I mean, I started taking arts classes my freshman year and quickly realized it was more in line with what I wanted to be doing than the production course in MCM was. I was making a lot of digital art. Photoshop art, I was interested in algorithmic art and video art, which is still fun but not the sort of thing I've been making more recently. It's funny now that all the work in this show is super analog. 

CU: How do you think that transition happened? Were there any professors who really influenced it? Were there any earlier works that you think pointed to this current interest?

IM: I mean, I’ve been shooting film for fun for a while. But definitely, working with Theresa Ganz has been huge for me. She has a really interesting perspective on shooting film, on photography in general, on materiality and photography. There have been other professors as well. RaMell Ross has been a huge conceptual influence, and he’s been a big part of my transition into this kind of work. I think there is something significant about having a physical object connected to an idea. It has a very different relationship with the work itself, to meaning, process, and to story, than purely digital work does. I really enjoy the laborious process which a lot of these works have behind them. I enjoy being involved in a process in a really deep way. I think with digital tools, there's sometimes a tendency to feel disconnected from the actual tool itself because it's so heavily hidden by UI [User Interface] and years and years of refinement. It feels like the process reveals itself when you're doing something with your hands—when you’re deeply involved in actually reinventing the procedures and tools and materials for your own practice.

“Document/Material” (2023), Cyanotype on paper, tree bark tannins.

CU: Let’s speak specifically about your show, “Epigraph.” In terms of those processes you mention, there are so many represented in the space: cyanotype, tannin extraction, hand-coating silver gelatin dry plates, constructing your own cameras. What draws you to these processes? I’m also interested in the fact that a viewer visiting this show wouldn’t necessarily recognize how much labor goes into the pieces.

IM: In some ways, there's a funny relationship to “hobby” in the analog photography world that I think I want to avoid. There are these people on photo forums online, which is admittedly really helpful when trying to figure out these things. They’re just super interested in the hobby of photography. They're often enamored with a return to older processes; they're doing this fully for the sake of the process. For me, the interest instead comes from wanting to create a certain kind of image and then figuring out what process feels right for achieving it. So, it's a bit of an inversion of that process-first approach. And then I feel like I end up finding joy in the work itself.

CU: Could you speak a bit about the processes within this show and what drew you to them?

IM: This body of work has really centered around the idea of time and capturing time in an image. It’s about how these images can represent time or hold within them a sense of temporality. 

“In Memoriam” (2023), Cyanotype on paper, acorn and tree bark tannins.

The first thing I was doing this year was these cyanotypes of these trees. These were a huge discovery for me in terms of material and materiality. For these works, I infuse the actual material of the tree into these images, actually embedding it into the image. They’re creating both a physical archive of the tree itself and also recording the image of them. There's this relationship of life and death with different colors and tones coming from varying stages of these trees. 

CU: I’m glad you touched on those pieces first because I agree—they so effectively represent the relationship between material and subject explored throughout the show. Another body of work you’re exhibiting, which, to me, speaks so clearly to that concept, is these glacial granite prints and the degradation represented both within the images and the process itself.

“Weathered Surfaces 1–5” (2024), 4x5” silver gelatin dry plate, archival pigment print.

IM: Yeah, so these images are all shot in Lincoln Woods, which is a state park a little bit north of Providence. It was just this process that I was experimenting with: silver gelatin dry plate. When I took my first few images with it I was really excited by the surface quality of the image itself; the actual negatives have this surface quality which you don't often get from typical photography.

Typically, the idea is to remove the surface of the photograph to emphasize this illusion of depth on a 2D plane. When you try to create the most high-fidelity image, you’re almost looking for a fully transparent surface that one can see through. These images, on the other hand, are really exciting to me because there is a really obvious objecthood to them. There's a really strong relationship, to me, between the failure of the medium to create an illusion of a 3D world and the surface of these glacial rocks that are weathered by time and process. These plates are developed in chemicals and water, and chemical processes are also affecting the surface of the rocks whether that’s lichen, rain, or massive glaciers. So, there are multiple relationships between the surfaces of these images and the surface of the actual objects themselves. It was a huge discovery for me to make these images and realize that there's something there.

“Symbiosis #1” (2024), 8x10 silver gelatin dry plate, archival pigment print.

One of the things that's been really fun about this project is getting to return over and over to the same place, returning to the same kind of image. In the past, I would just go out and take pictures of whatever I saw—it’s a nice way to practice looking at things, but there's also something really nice about being able to focus on specific subjects, to work thoughts out by making the images.

CU: In terms of the images you find yourself returning to within this show, it's so clear that nature is a central inspiration. Has that always been the case? 

IM: I was doing a lot of stuff last year with concrete, which is a very industrial material, somewhat removed from nature. I was also working with digital modeling processes. I’m still working with those—I'm always interested in translating digital into physical objects. But I think with photography, nature feels very close to the ideas I’m trying to work through: time, mortality. There's this massive thing going around us all the time that we are also a part of: decay, formation, entropy, time infinite. It brings up all these existential questions that I've always been trying to work through. Is there meaning? Nature hasn’t necessarily provided answers for me, but it’s provided direction. Maybe there's something larger tying together some sort of meaning, some sort of connective tissue.

CU: The subjects bring in such different rates of change as well, which is an interesting framing device within the space.

IM: Yeah, totally. I mean, these 16-millimeter prints are literally one second of time represented through a series of 16 prints versus these glacial images of rocks that were shaped over thousands of years. The dry plate prints also take time to make, just to prep one even takes a few days. I'm definitely trying to represent macro- and micro- time periods. I think there’s just as much of this massive, violent, and also beautiful change happening in one second as there is over 3000 years. Again, it’s part of that process of self-discovery through nature.

“Untitled (16 Frames per Second)” (2024), 16mm motion picture film, silver gelatin prints.

CU: I would love to speak a bit more about the 16mm print series. One thing which is so interesting in viewing your show is this idea of time and change. My perception of photography as a medium is that it represents an impulse to freeze time, which, of course, feels so contrary to your aim in this show. It’s especially interesting because you've come from a perspective of working with film, which I assume would be most people's first approach to working temporally. So, what's your perspective on that?

IM: I mean, I'm totally excited by that contradiction. The fact that, yeah, these are static objects in some ways. But simultaneously, there's no smallest unit of time; time is infinitely divisible in a lot of ways, so every image that you see—no matter how quick the frame rate was—was still taken over a period of time, whether that's small or large. Some of these drypoints, for example, take a couple of minutes to expose because they're really low sensitivity. So, even in a ‘static’ image, there is time.

“Untitled (16 Frames per Second)” (2024), 16mm motion picture film, silver gelatin prints.

I love film and cinema because it's something that can't really be experienced in a singular moment, it's always experienced temporally. But I wanted to see if I could make a film that wasn't a film, that you could experience in one moment in a static way. Obviously, you're still experiencing this piece in time, but there's a different relationship to time where you can sort of wind and rewind with your eyes as you scan the piece—there are changes happening that are represented simultaneously. Those are things that I'm really excited by. So, I think of this work as a silver gelatin film. It's not a series of silver gelatin prints in the sense that they're not self-contained, frozen objects in the way shooting images can often be. 

I feel like the images also contain the time that I spend with them, which is definitely part of this exhibition. I’m over-involved in the creation of these images by hand-developing the film. I 3D-printed these crazy tanks to develop the film in, which is not something that people typically do and not something that I needed to do. I probably could have just sent them out to a lab.

CU: Despite your work speaking to such large concepts of time, change, and decay, your intimate relationship with them feels really important. Hearing you describe the process and the time dedicated to this work is significant. Do you feel like it's important that viewers of the work know the investment that went into them? Or do you feel there's value in presenting the finished product as stand-alone?

IM: It's something that I’ve definitely been thinking about; I haven’t totally figured it out yet. I think I always felt a little resistant to that, not because it's not a valid idea—there's art contained within the process, for sure. But I don't want to predetermine the viewer's relationship to the objects by including an overwhelming amount of information about how the image was made. If the process is central to the relationship someone has to these images, that's fine. But I don't want that to be the only way that you can connect to them. There are multitudes contained within the way that someone can define their relationship to these images.

Not to mention, these images weren't just made by me; they're also made by natural things outside of my control. So, I don't want it to feel like I'm trying to have control over everything that these images are saying or doing.

“Symbiosis” and “Untitled (16 Frames per Second)” on view in List Art Center.

CU: I’m not at all experienced in photography, but I know that if you wanted to you could have chosen photographic processes which you could fully control. It’s cool that instead, the relationship to the process is really a relationship. It’s especially clear in your dry plate series.

IM: Definitely. I mean, with the dry plates there has totally been a push and pull. I'm still figuring it out—how much leeway I want to give to the process and how much control I want to have over it. That's an ongoing question that I don't necessarily feel like I need to answer—I’m just excited by just having these open-ended questions. 

But yeah, it's a very fickle process, putting a gelatin onto a completely non-porous surface and asking it to stick [laughs]—and it doesn't want to. The material has this desire to remove itself from the plate. I don’t always feel I have to have perfect control over it, some of the most exciting moments in the larger images are those places where there's a failure of the material process to live up to the truth of the image. 

I mean, no images are “true.” Even the images our eyes produce; we all have different genetic makeups, different eyes, different perceptions of color, light, focus. And then the camera itself is a completely different object—no matter how hard we try to replicate the experience of seeing something, we're always going to fall short.

So, to me, every image fails to be exactly what it tries to represent, and maybe that failure is just clearer in these pieces. These have a way of making truthfulness feel more apparent, that it is an image. 

“Document/Material” and “In Memoriam” on view in List Art Center.

And then, with the cyanotypes, these are totally out of my control in some ways. Like basically I shoot the image, I collect materials from where the tree was: bark, acorns. I don't know how potent the materials are before I make the print, so there's something exciting about discovering the color along the way. 

CU: In terms of these rates of change, one thing which I think is really interesting about photography is that oftentimes it isn’t archival; it's sensitive to light and it'll fade over time. I feel like that echoes a lot of the themes you're thinking about—degradation, time. Especially because you’re so concerned with the objecthood of these images, what are your thoughts on the limitations of the medium—the changes within it?

IM: Yeah, the archive is always a question in photography. A lot of these are about archive, I feel. Cyanotype is really interesting again because it's very archival, but I’ve heard them described as being “breathing.” Like, if you take them out into the sunlight, their contrast changes really drastically, but then you bring it back inside, and the image changes again. So, there's a really interesting relationship to archival qualities contained in the process of cyanotypes. There's also an element of “well, how long is this going to last?” How long is the material of the tree going to be in the image itself? What is going to change over time? I think all of those things are interesting. 

There's often an obsession in art with making things archival, making things last, that I think is almost related to wanting to live forever. But all this stuff is going to go away eventually. There's something nice about preserving something for an undetermined amount of time, not worrying too much about them existing forever.

“In Memoriam #3” (2023), Cyanotype on paper, tree bark tannins.

There are relationships between small amounts of time and large amounts of time, that fractal scalability of time. Both that infinite divisibility of time and the infinite stretch of it. There are all of these qualities of time which are so foreign to us, so hard to grasp, but we also live within it, this sort of slippery fluid running all around us we can’t totally describe or understand. I’m fascinated by that indeterminability and ambiguity for sure. 

CU: So, as you've focused on this body of work, I’m interested in knowing if any ideas have emerged that you've had to put on hold until you completed the show. Any sense of your next move once you get back in the studio? Or do you plan to take a pause?

IM: Yeah, you know, this week [the week of the show] has been a little bit of a break, but I’m itching to get to work again. I definitely want to keep working with the dry plates. Pretty much all the images I made so far have been of these rocks because I’ve wanted that consistency throughout this show, which is nice, but I also think it's been a constraint. I don't think I’m going to stop taking pictures of rocks—I don't think I'm done with rocks, and rocks aren't really done with me [laughs]. They’ll still speak to me when I walk past them. But yeah, there are other images, other subjects which I'm interested to see how they interact with this medium. That will be an upcoming project, for sure. This has been a very nature-forward show, but I’d like to think about how these mediums interact with humans and the human body as well. All of this stuff is about time, and I think absent from it is the actual effect of time on the body, on the person, the soul, and consciousness. How does the human enter into this process, into this work?

I am also really interested in how I can cede control over the image-making project process to others or other ways of taking images that don't involve me holding a camera. I’m thinking about security cameras, social media, and there are also all these massive digital archives that are trash in a way. I love trash and this idea of things getting dispersed out there, people seeing them, and then them being stored somewhere forever—or supposedly forever, but obviously not. I want to work more with that idea, with these ever-growing piles of trash, digital archives. That's been something that’s not been related to the show at all, so I haven’t been able to do it. 

CU: It's such a fun direction and so different, which must be exciting to finally get to explore.

IM: Yeah, I’m excited to just mess around. I feel like I’ve been so serious about this work. Not that it hasn't been fun; all of these things are born from a joyful experimentation. I think that comes back to what you're talking about: there is the process that I might want the viewer to glimpse, but my personal relationship to the work is also really important to me. Being able to spend time with the image is really important. I just want to get back into that, discovering new ways of making. I don't box myself in, I guess. I also want to make sculptures, and I have other ideas for physical objects. There's a lot of stuff floating around. 

CU: It's exciting. 

IM: Yeah, it is exciting. 

CU: One last, very important question for readers interested in seeing more of your work. Where can they find you?

IM: Yeah, so my Instagram is @isaacmckenna, and I have an art Insta, @ikey.psd. I started my website, isaacmckenna.com. I'm also here at List a lot, so wanna come talk to me or visit my studio? We can do that, too. I like hanging out with people.

CU: Thank you again, Isaac, for taking the time to speak with me. It’s been so insightful. Congratulations on the show!

IM: Thank you.

(All photos courtesy of Isaac McKenna)

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Massive, Violent, Beautiful Change: A Conversation with Isaac McKenna

Isaac talks with the Brown Art Review about temporality, morality, photography, and degradation as they reflect on their senior thesis show, “Epigraph.”