with Scott McMahon & Ahmed Salvador
In a world where the art of photography often adheres to meticulous planning and staging, Scott McMahon and Ahmed Salvador disrupt the status quo. Through their unique collaborative venture, known as 'photo letters,' the artists use mail exchanges of intentionally altered, unexposed film and photographic paper to create images that explore the tension between chance and control. Their daring techniques range from puncturing film canisters to utilizing gunpowder, all in pursuit of an aesthetic that defies categorization. This interview unveils the philosophies and methods behind McMahon and Salvador's thought-provoking work, providing a behind-the-scenes look into their alchemic practices and analysing chance & control in film photography.
You have been collaborating on a project called "photo letters" where you
communicate by mailing pieces of unexposed film or photographic paper to each other.
The packages are intentionally altered to allow small amounts of light to enter during
transportation. Upon receiving the packages, you develop the materials and send the
results back to the sender. Could you elaborate on the specific techniques you use to
deliberately damage the film and its packaging, and how these techniques contribute to
the final artistic outcome? Were you looking for a specific aesthetic or did you let
chance dictate the outcome?
The techniques are used to affect a controlled outcome over a long period of time. We
let chance dictate the outcome, but there’s control and restraint in the way in which
each package/roll/sheet of film, etc. is altered. By misdirecting the pinholes and cuts, we
obscure any image purposefully. Throughout the years of collaborating on this work
we’ve developed a certain aesthetic that fuses attributes of our individual projects with
this collaborative endeavour. Some of the techniques we’ve used include exposing rolls
or sheets of film and then wrapping them with various materials that are riddled with
holes, tears and punctures. Oftentimes the film canister is drilled into after camera
exposure and then mailed to the recipient. We’ve made images that might be
considered more of a “call and response” where one of us would expose an entire roll
and mail it to the other for their additional exposures and manipulation/mutilation. Bang
caps, snaps, canon fuses and gunpowder have also been employed in various ways to
further expose and alter images. I think we follow the Dadaist, Hans Richter’s mantra of
“giving chance a chance.”
How do you navigate the balance between intentional manipulation and the
spontaneous nature of the medium? In other words, how do you know when to stop altering the negative and let the image reveal itself?
We had to discover a balance between adding too many alterations and not enough and
in the early stages we tended to error on not enough exposure, rather than
Since the medium is at the twilight stage of its reign, regardless of the resurgence it’s
had lately, we feel that we need to be destructive and push the limits of the materials.
Like a sacrificial bonfire to celebrate the medium.
There’s a lot of trial and error to make sure our exposures will come out with a sufficient
amount of structure and design. Some images are more complex, while others are
perhaps formed with a little more subtlety in their layers of exposure.
If one was to begin with damaging and altering film negatives to create artworks,
what approaches and methods should they explore first? Can you give us 4-5 practical
ways one can employ to alter film negative and what results one should be expecting?
We would advise people to come up with their own creative approaches. Perhaps
starting with a simple idea or approach and then building upon it by adding more
complexity and intrigue.
1. Do a mail version of bracketing with different degrees of alterations/exposure.
2. Keep notes and document exposures.
3. Experiment with various types of film/paper.
4. Try to emphasize and embrace the impractical and try to accomplish something
that the medium was never prepared for.
5. Be prepared to push your envelope out “into the mailbox”.
Can we go in-depth about the process behind the GUNPOWDER COMMUNIQUE
and how you obtained those images?
It’s about controlling this very brief flame or spark so that it doesn’t overexpose the film.
We’ve used canon fuse, bang snaps, bang caps. An example of a project under this
title: we wrapped film and fuse together and placed it in a box of soil. As the fuse was lit,
the soil helped mask the amount of light exposing the film.
With the bang caps and snaps we relied on the brief sparks emanating to expose the
film. This would rarely overexpose the film, but create bursts or pockets of light.
We’ve increasingly been interested in animating our images and presenting the work in
sequence. With Gunpowder Communique a lot of the exposures are formless but
framing them out for animations highlights certain elements and creates an automatic
composition. Through repetition you see more of the entirety of the image and process.