Shane McFadden is a VisArts resident looking to take virtual spaces and make them real through darkroom processes. He completed his BFA in Photography + Film at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2022 and has been practicing photography since he was 16.
In this interview, Shane and I sat on his porch and wondered what it takes to transition from a learning artist to a working artist, and reflected on the strangeness of art school in the pandemic. We talked about community, accepting rejection as a practice, and cultivating an audience that sees you.
Who are you? What are you doing right now?
So I am a studio access resident at VisArts right now, which is conveniently like two blocks that way. I am making prints in the darkroom right now, I guess I’ll just pull them out.
Darkroom printing is not something I am super good at. And it’s frustrating. But it’s the only studio at VisArts that I know how to use. The residency grants us access to 17 studios or something like that. All different mediums. And the only one I know how to use is the darkroom. So I was like, well, I might as well try.
I started going to develop film that I just had sitting around, but it wasn’t really inspiring me. So I tried to find something else– I asked myself, “Well, what do I want to do right now?” And I was like, all I really want to do is play video games. So I started playing video games and looking for interesting things. And then I would find something, take a picture of it, or a screenshot, just to somehow get that image.
This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while– looking to take virtual spaces and make them real. I was like, “Oh, well, I can use the darkroom.” And that’s the point of making a print in the darkroom– using a real object.
Can you explain to me the process of your printmaking?
Definitely. The process I’m using is pretty modern. I don’t know anything about the color darkroom, I only know about black and white– I’d never done color. But I assume they’re pretty similar. You take the film, you put the roll of film through your camera, develop it, and then you have your negative. Then you take that back into the darkroom, and you enlarge it. So you can have a negative that’s as big as your thumb, and you can enlarge it to a legal size sheet of paper or something. And that prints onto a photosensitive paper– well, how in-depth do you want me to get?
You can go as far as you want. I have no idea how this works.
So yeah, you print the negative, or you enlarge the negative onto a piece of paper. And it is photosensitive. So the light parts that are exposed to light turn dark. So this negative image turns into a positive image when you develop the print.
Okay, so it’s like a reverse action.
Yeah, it’s a switcheroo.
So what are these pictures of?
They’re pictures of video games. Like landscapes, or interior space images that I thought looked nice or would stick in my head all the time. And what I would do is take a screenshot or photo of it, so I could have a digital file that I can make a negative out of. I’m doing a process called contact printing, which has been around forever, but you would use a glass negative. I’m inkjet printing onto transparency film, I can print a negative of anything I want, which is pretty cool. And then contact printing– so instead of enlarging– I’m putting this directly onto the darkroom paper. I just need a light source, and then I can develop it. I’m also printing on receipt paper to keep a digital pixelated look. I’m really interested in film and darkroom processes, but they take too long for me. I started with the digital processes that I know, and am seeing if I can use them to make the darkroom process faster.
What is residency? Is it an extension of your undergraduate education? Or is it something totally different?
It’s something totally different, but I found out about it through undergrad. It’s a program that’s open to anyone. You don’t have to have a formal background or a degree in art to apply or anything, you just need to be an artist. You submit a portfolio, and a statement of purpose to apply. The residency gears more toward people that don’t have access to these studios, which is really cool. And I’d said in my application that I had these ideas for darkroom purposes. I was losing access at VCU, and I said that which I think helped me in the application.
When did you first get into photography?
I got into photography when I was like, 16. My granddad was always into photography. And I had a couple of friends that were into taking photos at the time. I wanted to hang out with my friends, so I was like, “Hey, Grandad, you know a lot about cameras? Would you mind giving me a camera for Christmas?” And he did. Which was super cool. That was like, a dope-ass gift.
What was the camera? Do you remember?
Yeah, I still have it. It was a Nikon D 3300. I used it all the way through my undergrad. So from the time I was 16, to this past spring. So yeah, I was kind of grandfathered into it.
Oh wow, nice pun.
Yeah. I’ve been working on that one for years. But yeah, it was just like, I saw something my friends were doing that was cool. And I guess I liked it more than them, so I just stuck with it.
What is it really, that you think, attracted you to photography? What do you like about it?
I think if I can see something, it’s real to me. It’s hard for me to pay attention to something if I can’t see it. Visual things are the only thing that really captures my interest. That makes it really easy for me to look at an image and figure out what I like about it.
How would you say your transition has been from VCU undergrad to VisArts?
So, they’re not formally connected, but organizations in the art space in Richmond try to mesh as much as possible. The way I found out about the VisArts residency was through a portfolio review at VCU, which is something that’s pretty big in the photo world, which sucks because it makes it sort of pay to play. Like, if you pay X amount of money, this person, this gallery coordinator, will look at your work.
Oh, you have to pay for reviews?
Normally you do, but VCU puts one on for the photo seniors, which I think is super cool. I think Richmond art organizations try to uplift VCU as much as VCU tries to uplift them. So it’s like, I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
The gallery coordinator from VisArts was doing portfolio reviews for VCU students and I had mine with the gallery coordinator, Emily Nixon, at VCU. And she was like, “Have you applied to the residency?” And I was like, “It was open in a tab for four months, and then the deadline had passed.” And she’s like, “Okay, well, you should apply for this next round because I think what you’re doing is cool. And you have a good chance at getting into the residency.” So that was the nudge that I needed to make the application.
Do you have to pay tuition for the residency?
No, it’s completely free. There’s a membership, essentially, which is like 100 something bucks a month, and you get all of these perks plus access to resident-only workshops in the studios. So you can learn processes while you’re there as well, which is super cool.
I think I didn’t realize that there is this pay-to-play aspect of the arts before I started art school. I actually started out undeclared during my first year at VCU because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. During my senior year of high school, I was like, “Oh, I want to go to school for using cameras.” I didn’t even think about the idea of art school. I was like, “Well, I got accepted to VCU. I’m sure it’d be easy to get into the art school.” <laughs>
Pretty quickly into my first year, they’re like, “No, you can’t do that. You have to reapply.” So I just did work toward a psychology degree in the meantime and ended up in Psych minor, which is pretty cool. Then I had to rush to do a four-year degree in three years because I had to do Art Foundations which is where you do all kinds of different art, which sucked for me because I only know how to use a camera and they’re like, “Go make a painting.” So I struggled through that and then had to fit the three-year photo program into my junior and senior years.
I really did enjoy it, but I was also frustrated a lot. Every day, I was grateful for the fact that my education was learning how to use the camera. I was like, “That’s ridiculous. I can go to college to take pictures.” But, at the same time, there was very little career-building or career-readiness focus. As a part of my undeclared classes, I had to talk to someone who was in the major that I wanted to be in. And they told me that VCU’s photo school is only good to prepare you for an MFA. All it’s geared toward is making you an MFA applicant. And then I forgot about that as I was applying, and then I finished the program, and I was like, “Oh, my God, like he was right.”
I was like, I don’t know how to market these skills that I have. I did get a lot of skills from VCU, but I feel like it’s a program that you have to take what you want out of it. I wanted to learn how to use a camera, and the deal they offered me was, “Okay well, first we have to teach you how to be an artist.” And I was like, fuck, okay, whatever. Let’s do that.
I do wish they would have taught us more about being a working artist. I don’t have a problem with the school being arts-focused, because I ended up being really interested in that, but they should have also taught us how to make money as an artist. If the STEM school or the engineering school taught you how to be the best engineer in the world, but you don’t know how to send an email, you’re not getting any jobs. Which I think is just a problem with the education system as a whole. Like, even in high school. I was like, “Why the fuck are we doing algebra if you’re not going to tell me why I’m using it?”I probably would have had these frustrations at any school. But that was the biggest one that I had, like– what do I do now?
I can understand that. I studied creative writing at school. And I really, really enjoyed that. But I feel that I’m almost in the same predicament as you where it’s like, “Okay, now I’m out of school. And I don’t really know what to do.” I feel like it can be really hard to transition from a learning artist to a working artist– regardless of what your medium is.
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s true. I’m also frustrated by the fact that I feel like I can only talk about the art world through the lens of photography if that makes sense. The program only taught me about the photography art world. So I feel even more pigeonholed in that way. I ended up working with a gallery right now in sort of an editing position. But that gallery only does photography. Whereas if I went literally across the street to Quirk Gallery, where they do everything else, I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
Um, I lost my train of thought, I don’t know how we got there.
I think I was complaining about something and then you wanted to complain about something.
Yeah. <laughs> We did a complaining spiral.
What are your feelings about the Richmond photography scene?
I think the Richmond photography scene is cool. Not like, oh yeah, whatever, it’s cool. It’s genuinely cool. Because there is such a variety of what’s going on. I know someone, they were one of my professors at VCU, who now works at NASA. Most recently, I know they were working with archives, and digitizing NASA’s physical photo archives. Which is super dope. For a while, her day job was as a wedding photographer, and she taught art school at VCU on the side and would teach classes at the VMFA as well. And then she completely transitioned to working with these scientific photo archives. And I feel like she’s putting her feet in so many different aspects of photography. And she’s just one person, you know.
Another professor at VCU could be working with AI over here, and then also be doing commercial headshots over there. With any lane of photography that you want to do, there’s someone here that you can talk to about it.
So with the VisArts Residency, would you say that most of the people in that program have an undergraduate degree in some sort of fine arts?
Off the top of my head? I think everyone does. Now that you say that, I think everyone does. But I think going to school for anything makes you just so much more competitive.
Yeah. That makes sense. I definitely appreciate my school experience and your education is something that you should be proud of. No one can ever take that away from you. But I also sometimes get frustrated that in order to even be considered for a lot of opportunities, you need to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on tuition. I know that’s not the situation for everyone though.
Definitely, definitely. And that’s something that I’m thinking about a lot now. I feel like I am in a privileged position to be on the other side of photo applications so young in my career. I mentioned I’m working with Candela Gallery on a book project that they’re doing. And I’m sort of in an editing role, next to the director and founder of the gallery. It’s so interesting getting to see him, and the people he works with, look at photos, and see what they think of submissions that are coming to them. And as I’m sitting next to these people making the decisions about who gets in the photobook, and who gets in this exhibition, I’m also applying to exhibitions.
I’m getting a lot of no’s right now, which is frustrating, but it’s also a practice. Sometimes I’ll get a response where they’re like, “Oh, that’s a great photo, but we already have a photo like that in the exhibition. So we’re not going to include it.” It’s a practice of learning to not let those things discourage me and learning what to say in these kinds of applications. Yeah, I feel like I would not have access to that if I hadn’t gone to school for photography, which is crazy.
There are better photographers than me out there. There are people that know more about photography, that have been doing it longer, or they’re just more dedicated, but they didn’t go to school for it. So it’s like, I come in with the test curve toward me.
Yeah. Do you want to get more into your timeline or journey with photography?
Yeah. So, I started doing photography when I was 16. Just like, learning and messing around. When I first learned how to use a camera I actually started doing videos, more than photos. I would find a song that I like and then go hang out with my friends and record us hanging out and then edit it to the song. Our computer at home had this old cracked version of Adobe Premiere. It was like, “Oh, I got these videos, I got this software, let me learn how to do it.” And I learned that I was really bad at editing and shooting videos. It is really hard.
So I started doing still images and then found out that I just liked taking photos better. So I stuck with that. And I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m gonna go to school for something anyways, why not make it something fun?” So I eventually got into art school. And then finished that over the pandemic, which was crazy. Taking a darkroom class during the pandemic underwhelming.
I imagine. You’re what? 23?
Okay, yeah, we’re like the same age. I remember the first time I ever submitted something for a writing competition and it was accepted, I was so excited. But then, we were gonna do a reading, and it was just on Zoom. So I was sitting in my room reading my little story to all these black screens.
At least turn the camera on.
<laughs> It was a really odd experience.
Yeah, I feel like that’s similar to critiques in art school. Because, usually, you would be in the same room with someone and have a physical item to look at. But during the pandemic, we were all just in the same Google folder. Scrolling left and right. And the photos were all in different orders and shit. It was crazy.
I think a part of the reason why school is such a valuable resource is because you have access to your peers. Do you think that’s something that you’ll miss when you’re done with residency?
I definitely enjoy the process of making art by myself, because I’m really distracted by other people. It’s hard to focus. But I think my favorite thing about art is sharing it with other people. And then receiving something back from them. Critiques are cool for that. Receiving their words about my art, and then their art as well. It feels really inspirational to me, to talk to other people about art.
But at the same time, because we’re coming out of a COVID period, this round of residency doesn’t feel very social, which is kind of frustrating.
That is frustrating.
I have gotten to know some of the people in my residency. But I’ve never spent time with any of them outside the context of VisArts. But I’ve known a couple of the past residents and worked with them in different settings, which is pretty cool. Whenever I do work like that, it does feel like a community.
Do you feel like your residency is doing a better job of preparing you for being a working artist?
I think so, in the fact that to get in, there was an application that I had to fill out with a portfolio that’s attached to it. And that’s what it feels like a lot of the art world is– working in an area that keeps you close enough, so you know about what’s going on. So that you know about applications. There’s a newsletter that they send out, talking about which local exhibitions are looking for submissions. Finding a community of artists is really important to working in the art world.
Knowing people off the jump is always helpful. But I think also being willing to put yourself out there, and receive that rejection is very important. Because you just have to be out there as much as possible. And that naturally, yields a lot of no’s, which is deterring. But you take the good with the bad, I guess.
Yeah, I feel like you have to learn to not take it personally, which is hard.
Definitely. But I feel like critiques in art school prepare you for that, especially my first year, because people were not shy about telling me that I was bad at painting or drawing. I think that was what I needed. I needed the art world to crush me to know that that’s just what it does. And I was like, “Okay, cool, you can bounce back from this.” Because as long as you keep making, you’ll find the people that you’re making art for. And that feeling of finding those people is better than forcing the people that it’s not for to see it.
More information on Shane can be found at shanemcfadden.com
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