by Megan Kelley
Suggestions of waves rise, bulge, and push out of the sea; the edges of ships become reclaimed spaces where the ocean rushes in to fill the known. In creating photographic collages and animations of shipwrecks and marine disasters, McLean Fahnestock draws from a deep and personal history of exploration, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-uncle’s documentation expeditions into the South Pacific.
In seeking to engage common threads in visual commentary, a history of appropriation weaves through her process. In addition to utilizing images, sounds, and clips from her family’s past, Fahnestock often turns to the Internet to pull images, researching archives of open source work, creative commons, and free stock photography for themes. By utilizing a broader, less specific, and global conversation based in archival institutions, Fahnestock investigates methods of finding individuality within a shared context of similar experiences and harnesses the power of the voices of the past to narrate her own explorations.
The loss of a ship during an expedition forms the crux of Fahnestock’s current work. “This series is very much about loss,” Fahnestock explains. “Looking at the images of my grandfather and great-uncle’s shipwreck, I couldn’t help but question how you move forward after disaster.” This presence of absence speaks articulately in Fahnestock’s collages, the submersion created through a careful manipulation of digital layering and a push-pull dynamic of “ghosting” the original image through transparencies while simultaneously creating her own evidence of suggested shape, contour, and physical failure through additions and edits.
By removing identifying features, Fahnestock inserts the viewer into the ambiguity of unspecified disaster. The unexpected colors of blue ice or green swamp dislocate the viewer and evoke new locations; the sheen of rainbows hints at misfortune and consequence not actually revealed. “We use these visual identifiers to process place; we refer to our own experiential frameworks as guidelines when building new experiences.” Removing these cues creates an archetype of experience. By engaging erasure and replacement, Fahnestock acknowledges similarities in events. Their repetition could suggest the impotence of action or helplessness, but rather than detachment or normalizing disaster, the works instead create a universal understanding, a familiar feeling of being ungrounded through a dramatic shift in circumstance, and an awareness of how destruction becomes a personal catalyst to change.
“Shipwrecks are a slow process. There’s a lurch, and you wait, and wait, and wait, and suddenly it hits you: you ask Wait, are we okay?” In exploring the uncanny boundary where the known passes into liminal space, Fahnestock’s ships create a juxtaposition of loss and discovery, evoking the balance of disaster and risk at the heart of a journey and the place where decisions are made to continue on. “There’s the moment where the journey becomes worth taking, despite sacrifice; the need to see something for yourself, despite danger. We have an urge for forward momentum, despite risk.”