Fine Art Photography Daily

The 2023 Paula Riff Award Winner: Paula McCartney


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, handmade ceramic sculpture, custom wood frame, 20x20x5 inches overall, unique, 2023

The Center for Photographic Arts and Lenscratch are thrilled to present the 2023 Paula Riff Award to Paula McCartney! This award was created in honor of a beloved artist, Paula Riff, who elevated the photographic medium by her investigations into color and alternative processes. Paula was an innovator, using lensless photography and historical processes to create objects of remarkable beauty.

The annual Award is open to artists whose art is challenging conventional photography through work that reflects the artist’s hand, either based on the historical/alternative photographic processes or with physical intervention through cutting, sewing, etc. We received hundreds of submissions for this year’s competition from photographers across the country and around the world. Juror Douglas Marshall had quite a challenge selecting a single artist, but after first whittling it down to 24, then 10, then 4 artists, he finally decided on 1. When asked about the jurying process, Douglas said he made a criteria of the aspects that he thought made up Paula Riff’s work… playfulness, handmade, challenging but a little quirky.

Paula McCartney has a long practice that examines the relationships between light, form, and the natural world. McCartney’s project,  In/Direct Alignments was selected for the award and is currently in the exhibition, From the Studios, at Euqinom Gallery in San Francisco, through August 26.She will be giving an artist’s talk through The Center for Photographic Arts  on November 14th.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, handmade ceramic sculpture, custom wood frame, 20x20x5 inches overall, unique, 2023

Paula Riff (1952-2021) was a Los Angeles based artist known for creating one of a kind camera-less photographic works on paper that embrace bold colors, form and design. She combined the historical processes of cyanotype and gum bichromate allowing her a physical and intimate relationship with the materials that she used to push the boundaries of the medium while considering themes of abstraction and the natural world. She was a beloved member of our community and after her passing in 2020, the Paula Riff Award was created in her honor.

Paula McCartney makes photographs, photo-based artist books and ceramics that illustrate her collaborations with the natural world and consider ways that light activates both objects and environments. McCartney holds an MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute a certificate in Creative Studies from the International Center for Photography, NYC. She has taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design since 2007.

McCartney was a 2020/2021 inaugural McKnight Book Artist Fellow at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and has received grants from the Women’s Studio Workshop, the Aaron Siskind Foundation, the McKnight Foundation (2 photography fellowships) and the Minnesota State Arts Board.

McCartney’s photographs have been exhibited nationally at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Kopeikin Gallery in LA and Klompching Gallery in NY.

She has two published photography monographs: Bird Watching (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) and A Field Guide to Snow and Ice (Silas Finch, 2014). Her photo artist book/sculputre, Staged Geometries, published by DeMerritt Pauwels Editions, debuted at the CODEX Book Fair in 2022. McCartney’s books are included in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Museum of Modern Art, Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), Brooklyn Museum, New York Public Library, Getty Research Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, among many others.

Instagram: @_paula_mccartney_

Instagram: @euqinomgallery, @centerphotographicart,


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood frame, 20×16.5×5 inches overall, unique, 2023

In/Direct Alignment

In/Direct Alignments combines my photography and ceramic practice to explore the interconnectedness of light and shadow; presence and absence. The series uses the language of black and white analog photography with its negative and positive, minimal palette and strong contrast.

The vertical wall pieces include an unglazed hand built geometric ceramic sculpture (the positive, light, presence) juxtaposed with a photograph of the sculpture’s shadow connecting with the lines of a minimal architectural space in my studio (the negative, dark, absence). The shadow in the photograph expands the form of the sculpture and holds as much presence as the sculpture itself. Presented as a single piece in a custom wood frame, the photograph and sculpture echo each other connecting form, light and time.

The table works are comprised of a geometric hand built ceramic sculpture placed on top of a photograph in a custom wood frame that sits horizontally on a table. The sculpture is positioned into conversation with the lines of light and shadow in the photograph. At times it almost feels as if the ceramic object is casting a shadow on the photographic paper. While the photograph is always a record of a past observation of light, the sculpture’s dimensional presence brings the experience into the present.

These abstract works dialog with my concrete experiences as a mother, satisfying a continuous yearning for balance and connection. As with the object’s relationship to light and shadow, an inseparable connection exists between my son and me. The photographs record and cement a carefully composed, fleeting moment of natural light and shadow. I can predict where the light will project but cannot control its duration. The ceramic sculptures are deliberately placed to align and connect, cementing a peaceful existence and clear dialog that I constantly strive for but sometimes miss in my relationship with my son.

Creating these works fulfills a deep need to make work with my hands. As I moved to print my photographs digitally, working with clay to make ceramic sculptures that extend the conversation in the photographs as well as making the custom frames for the works provided a way add a handmade materiality to my work. – Paula McCartney


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood frame, 20×16.5×5 inches overall unique, 2023

 Congratulations on the Paula Riff Award! I’m curious if you were familiar with her work and practice?

Thank you, Aline! I’m honored to have received it. Sadly, I didn’t learn about her work until your beautiful remembrance on Lenscratch. I was immediately drawn to the way that Paula abstracted nature in her photograms and the amazingly energetic colors in her work. Looking at her works I felt the joy you described that she always emanated as a person, artist and mother.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood frame, 20×16.5×5 inches overall unique, 2023

Congratulations on the award! Can you describe the landscape of your childhood and what brought you to photography?

I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, when there were still vast fields of land and sky between towns. I had no interest in that landscape at the time, but after leaving realized how that geometric, minimal, organized landscape shaped how I saw-or at least wanted to see-the world.

I moved to NYC when I was 18 and I was first introduced to photography during college while studying advertising. I fell in love with the medium-especially the magic of printing in the darkroom-and switched my major to photography. A few years later I did the Creative Studies Program at ICP and it was while studying with many practicing, exhibiting artists that the idea of being an artist entered my consciousness. After living in NYC for 10 years I moved across the country to San Francisco for graduate school, to focus on making work and so I’d be able to teach


©Paula McCartney, Installation view of table work from the series, In/Direct Alignment, 2022

Tell us about the inclusion of ceramics into your practice. I love your incredibly creative way of joining disciplines.

Thank you! When my son started grade school (and my studio time increased), I took a functional ceramics class through the parks system. I was horrible at it for the first 6 months, I even remember my teacher saying to me that as an artist, she thought I’d be a lot better, but then I started going to the open studios and got just slightly better but really fell in love with the feel of clay and working with my hands. Even through grad school, all the photography I did was analog-and since a lot of it has become digital, I’ve felt a little disgruntled that this was not what I signed up for, I’m not happy sitting at a computer-which also accounts for my interest in making artist books. So, I was spending a lot of my studio time making mediocre pots but being really happy working with the medium so I made the switch from wheel throwing to hand building pieces that could dialog with my photographs and books. I think the way I’ve succeeded in joining disciplines is that the ideas I’m expressing are consistent throughout the different mediums I use.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood fame, 16 x 1 2 x 2 inches overall, unique, 2022

The dimensionality you have achieved is so exciting. In looking at your work over the years, form and shape have always been an integral component. What draws you to this way of working?

Yes, they have! I think those threads become evident the longer an artist works. Beginning with A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, much of the work I’ve made is one long conversation and investigation into the repetition and dialog of form throughout disparate subjects and mediums. For example, in that series, I abstracted and recorded both the icicles hanging from the roof of my house and the enormous stalagmites at Carlsbad Caverns. In picturing ideas of winter, what really excited me was the conversation that occurred when photographs of different subjects were placed next to each other. One subject so fragile and temporary, the other rock hard and formed over millions of years though both so visually similar in form.

It is similar with this new work. The flat framed works in In/Direct Alignments are made from photographs of light I took over the years and geometric ceramic sculptures that were inspired by, but not originally made to be combined with photographs. One day in my studio, the photograph and ceramic piece in In/Direct Alignment #1 were on a table near each other and I realized that the ceramic would fit perfectly inside the lines of the photograph. Combining them felt so satisfying. I then deliberately made the rest of the works in the series from my archive of photographs and ceramics. Now, I cannot imagine them separate. Paired together in dialog with each other, they feel like complete works.

The dimensionality extends the conversation which ideally extends the time a viewer considers the work. Instead of only looking at the work strait on, there are so many possible views and with those different views, a multitude of ways the lines of the ceramic piece cross or align with the lines in the photograph. The works encourage an active viewing experience.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood fame, 11.5 x 11.5 x 2 inches overall, unique, 2022

It’s so interesting that you reference motherhood in your statement. How did creating this work help you consider the balance of raising children and being an artist.

I don’t know that I’ve found a balance between being a mother and being an artist. It’s more like I’m just doing both and some days my son gets more attention and some days my art practice does. Being a mother and working with clay are two very humbling experiences. These works make visual both the aspects of photography that attracted me to the medium as well as my continuous desire to feel a thoughtfully aligned and peaceful connection to my son.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood fame, 11 x 9.25 x 5.25 inches overall, unique, 2022

I’m curious as to the “failure” part of working with clay…and photography!

My failures in photography these days come from my seemingly constant battle with our finicky Epson inkjet printer. The ones with clay are more nuanced. Even though my ceramics are hard edged and geometric, the clay often has a say in how they turn out. I start with paper templates, and while it is easy to cut and fold paper, the clay isn’t so interested in being folded along a hard edge, so often it will warp, crack or break. On a good day, I appreciate the challenge and like working with clay in a way that someone with an education in ceramics would probably advise against, but on a bad day, there are tears. I find the medium the perfect lesson (for life and motherhood) that I’ll never have complete control and not everything works as neatly or as easily as I hope, but when it does, it feels so rewarding and amazing.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood fame, 12.25 x 10.25 x 5.5 inches overall, unique, 2022


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood fame, 12.25 x 12.25 x 2 inches overall.


©Paula McCartney, from In/Direct Alignment, Archival pigment print, ceramic sculpture, custom wood fame, 12.5 9.5 x 4.75 inches overall.

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