Pensacola Museum of Art welcomes home a local son for their next pop up exhibit “Land Star: Photographs by Richard McCabe.”
From Feb. 23 to March 26, PMA visitors can see Polaroids from McCabe’s recently released book “Land Star” and a series of site-specific Fuji Instax color studies created specifically for the exhibit.
McCabe was born in England and grew up in the South, specifically here in Pensacola. After graduating Gulf Breeze High School, McCabe received his MFA from Florida State University and started his career at the Pensacola Museum of Art in the mid ’90s.
GETTING THE SHOT
His book, published by Savannah, Georgia based Aint-Bad Press, and his exhibit at PMA represent a hometown boy coming full circle in his work. Working with a Southern publisher and creating a new site-specific Fuji Instax color study for his exhibit at the museum where his career began is a “big deal” for McCabe. He remembers visiting his mother in Pensacola while living in New York City and watching the city change from 1998 to 2005.
McCabe is now the curator of photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and travels extensively throughout the South for work. During his personal and professional travels, he explores the rural highways and pre-interstate roads of the South.
The photographs collected in “Land Star” were created with a 1960s era Polaroid Land camera. On his road trips, McCabe always leaves early, giving himself and any travel companions about twice as much time to stop and take photos along the way to their destination.
“It’s about not being afraid to make a U-turn, to turn around and go back,” said McCabe.
He was also not afraid to go back the quirky but beloved format of instant photography. Using his Polaroid Land camera did present some unique challenges on the road though. The season and time of day can make all the difference in instant photography because of the film.
“If the light’s not right, I don’t photograph,” said McCabe. “It’s very fickle.”
Ideal shooting conditions are during the “golden hour”—which is an hour before sunset—in the fall and spring. McCabe often plans his travel to align with the golden hour or keep notes of interesting locations to come back to later if the conditions weren’t ideal.
“During the summer in the South, it’s all blown out. It’s hot and hazy. I’ll go months without photographing and then I’ll do a lot.”
While the restrictions might seem pedantic on the surface, instant photography is an expensive medium and the materials can be discontinued without much notice, so it pays to be particular. But McCabe intentionally chose this medium because instant photography forces the viewer to interact with the object.
“That’s one reason I still shoot with film. I love the object. I like the physicality of it.”
Instant photography also faces similar threats from modern, hyper-digital trends that the small towns he photographs face from interstates and national “big box” stores. They slowly fade without market demand and can become casualties of changing times.
“Back in the day, it was about the memory,” said McCabe. “Now most pictures are made to share on social media.”
CAPTURING THE PAST
Ultimately, “Land Star” is about escapism. The 40-image collection takes the viewer on a long, meandering journey into McCabe’s fantasy world that seems eerily familiar. The non-linear visual narrative becomes a dreamlike memory of fading small towns and rural communities that are connected by back roads and highways, ignored by Interstate travelers.
“There’s an element of nostalgia in it,” said McCabe. “Each place had its own identity and that was a good thing.”
The retro motifs and roadside oddities recall a time far removed from modern interstate culture, but McCabe isn’t trying to freeze time, but rather travel back in it. The “loss, desolation and isolation” depicted in his instant photographs are the very real side effects of gentrification and modern convenience, but in his photographs they are transformed into a parallel world and safe from decay and abandonment.
“At some point it will all be gone,” said McCabe. “About half the things I’ve photographed are no longer around.”
The unique architectural personalities of different states and regions, what McCabe refers to as the “vanishing vernacular” of signage and architecture, is slowly fading into a homogenous exit ramp cliché.
“I just think it’s ugly, without any thought of aesthetic,” said McCabe. “I wonder, is there any point where people are going to look back at these box stores and think ‘Wow, that’s beautiful?'”
McCabe’s photographs capture a saturated, serene and fictional landscape that makes him happy and helps him process the inevitable changes to the cities he experiences, including cities like Pensacola.
McCabe is committed to living in and helping to preserve the unique culture of the South into the future as an artist and a curator.
“It’s dark and mysterious and tragic,” said McCabe. “But in the end, I hope it’s uplifting and people gravitate towards it.”
Land Star: Photographs by Richard McCabe
WHAT: Pop-up exhibit featuring instant photographs and site-specific Fuji instax color studies
WHEN: On display Feb. 23-March 26; gallery talk and book signing 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: $4-$7, free for museum members and children younger than 3