A to B
Autumn 2011 - Daniel Jewesbury in Source, The Photographic Review
For hundreds of years, until the end of the 18th century, condemned prisoners in London were brought west from Newgate Prison in the City, through Holborn and the infamous rookery of St. Giles, along Oxford Street, to the large gallows at Tyburn, on the present-day site of Marble Arch. John MacLean’s A to B is a symbolic revisiting of this dolorous route.
His series of views, produced on a number of walks between the two historic sites, comprise abstracted shapes silhouetted against the sky – the interlaced struts of a viaduct, densely clumped foliage, single wandering branches – so that almost the entire book features only black and blue. These shapes become suggestive once one knows the context of the book: a twig curls round to form a noose, two rough squares of blue resemble eyeholes in a mask. Most threateningly, towering trees swathe entire pages in black, and at the end of the book a (waiting?) crowd is caught under a huge black wedge.
MacLean’s approach to the photobook, as an affective, abstract investigation of a place and the spirits inhabiting it, is powerful and novel. The photographs at first appear to be totally non-representational, since any foreground detail in them is entirely erased; yet they convey simple, intimate meanings, the shapes and patterns invoking the familiar, repeated nightmare of going inexorably to one’s execution, just as they re-create a residual memory that might almost have been found, concealed, in the place itself.