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You probably don’t know Kate MacDonnell, but she once asked, nicely, to visit your home.
“In the summer of 2001, a friend and I placed an ad in an Upper Marlboro newspaper,” says the 27-year-old D.C. photographer. The ad introduced the two as local artists in search of people willing to have the inside of their houses photographed. “We basically wanted anyone who would let us in. We even offered a free 8-by-10 family portrait or a photo from the shoot in return for allowing us into their homes,” explains MacDonnell, whose work explores the interior landscapes of American suburbia. “But we didn’t get much of a response.”
Only two people replied, in fact—and both were family acquaintances. MacDonnell and her collaborator gladly photographed their homes anyway.
Access to the great indoors is key to MacDonnell’s work, because although her photos don’t feature people, they’re packed with the details of private lives. “I think my photos are about the people who live in the spaces,” she says. She believes her unpopulated interiors, with their mute testimony, “open up the lives” of the absent occupants more than portraits could.
In one shot, a television sits ready for viewing on a stand at the foot of a comfortable-looking queen-size bed. In another, someone seems to have just walked out of the frame: On the floor beside a bathtub, still-damp footprints create deep tracks on a sky-blue towel.
In a photograph of a living-room wall, a large framed photo of a man and woman standing near a wooden fence hangs above a mantel. “I took this one at my family’s house,” says MacDonnell. The picture also captures windows, curtains, and plants, along with a small black chain that hangs unexplained from the ceiling, and even a small photograph of MacDonnell and her sister.
MacDonnell has photographed many domestic interiors since the mid-’90s, when she became intrigued with the notion. “I took some photos while I was house-sitting,” she says. “I was a guest at a party when I shot some other pictures.”
When photographing someone’s house, “I’m interested in different solutions to problems,” MacDonnell says. In one home, for example, a square mat of gray carpet rested on a floor covered in the same material. “Putting the square in the room was just an interesting little choice that the person who lived there made,” she says. “I’m not sure why they did it, but I think it created a little, beautiful moment in an ordinary setting.”
Last fall, a curator at the Corcoran College of Art and Design—where MacDonnell studied photography and currently manages part of the library—asked if she were aware of any artists doing anything about suburban America. “At first, I thought he was kidding,” she says. She showed him some work at her studio, and the two settled on six untitled photographs to include in “Homeland,” a group exhibition that opened earlier this month at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (“‘Burbed Comments,” 1/24).
The show considers issues of security and surveillance in contemporary suburban America. One 3-D animated piece evokes police-style spotlights shined on the exteriors of blocks of suburban homes. Others capture the fragility of the houses and efforts to secure their exteriors. None of the pieces in the exhibition are visibly populated—but that’s not the only point of intersection between MacDonnell’s work and the rest of it.
“To me,” says MacDonnell, “my photographs in the exhibit are about the normalcy of home. I think they round out the show by detailing—in some domestic way—what is being guarded by the surveillance.” —Matthew Summers
“Homeland” is on view to Monday, Feb. 10, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 639-1700.