Feature: Fraser McCallum

Electronic Lights Flicker
OTM talks with photo-based Toronto artist Fraser McCallum.


Fraser McCallum’s photographs bring to mind a scene in the movie Knocked Up: Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd are tripping balls on mushrooms in Vegas. They have a moment in their hotel room where they realize that there are way too many chairs of different sizes and shapes in the room. “There are five different types of chair in this room,” Paul Rudd says “… there’s a guy in this hotel whose job is to pick out chairs.”  It’s a hilarious scene, but it also points out and questions the work that goes into the things we normally take for granted. This is the kind of feeling I get when looking through Fraser McCallum’s medium format colour photographs. His eye for framing and colour make his subjects jump out of the scene in a way that highlights their deliberateness – and as a result makes the subject feel sort of awkward and alien.

McCallum is part of the new cohort that just emerged from Ryerson’s photography program. He’s got a growing portfolio online that showcases two major conceptual pieces, and collections of snapshots and travel shots.

McCallum’s thesis project took a close look at the difficulty of translating religious iconography to film. “I photographed a bunch in Toronto area churches. My project documented different ways churches represent themselves visually and how they choose to represent spiritual, totally abstract ideas in a very concrete way.” McCallum recognizes that religion is at a very interesting point right now, particularly in American politics. What is interesting with his take (though perhaps also frustrating for the viewer) is that he removes people entirely from the series and focuses on small details. The result is a set of pictures devoid of action that bring a small likely oft-ignored detail to the forefront (for example, a hanging microphone or the velvet curtain of a confession booth). His technical approach is what makes a difference: he’s shooting with a Hasselblad with Kodak Portra 160 film. The result is a print radiating theatricality. It gives the hanging microphone such significance that the viewer has no real choice but to ask who put it there and why.

“I use a lot of flash on the camera and I try to separate things from how they  regularly appear and raise them to an  iconic status,” McCallum says. “So I guess representing things in a way that speaks  beyond the specific object to a broader context.”

This feeling of questionable significance is brought out to a greater degree by his snapshots and his travel series.  His snapshots work nicely, aesthetically, but are imbued probably more so with that same awkward feeling. In one shot a young guy sits at with KORG synthesizer on his lap, with a Pikachu tucked under his arm. In another, a young guy sits on the side of the bed and stares impossibly far into the ground in front of him. His hands both lie on top of a book in his lap labeled “Alfred Hitchock, Tales of Terror.”

Fraser is working on a complex but fun project right now with collaborator Sam Cotter that has the two of them making expeditions to the Leslie Street Spit.

“The theme of the show is male genius as seen through a 19-20th century perspective.  A reference here would be Pablo Picasso or expeditions undertaken in early issues of National Geographic magazine.” McCallum explains.

“These are things that are very male oriented and bring out a sort of ‘Renaissance man’ type outlook. One piece we’ve been working on is an expedition in the tradition of 19th century ethnography to the Leslie Street Spit which is where many of Toronto’s ruins are. It’s all bits of bricks and marble that have been pushed from building condos onto Lake Ontario and so we’ve been making this expedition to this place to where the ruins of the city lie. We’ve cast ourselves as 19th century explorers found in the present in this rubble.”

The project is going to be very analog.  “It’s going to be a carousel slide show with slides and stills from 16 mm,” he explains. “We’ve been shooting motion film as stills.”

This should prove to be an interesting project, as it addresses both the politics of space in the city and ideas of gender in art. Toronto is changing rapidly and not necessarily in ways that people agree with – it is great to see the art community addressing that in different ways. We will be sure to share more details about the show when they come about.

See more of McCallum’s work at FraserMcCallum.com