The Photographic Works of John MacLean by Wayne Ford.

1386 Words

Over the past few months I’ve had a number of conversations with photographers, curators, and others involved in the world of photography. Whilst none of these conversations has had a fixed point of departure or theme, they became linked through a singular coincidence, with each of these people recommending that I look at the work of one photographer, John MacLean.

Born in England, MacLean spent part of his childhood in both the United States and Canada, taking his first photograph at the age of 14 after encountering a copy of American Images: Photography 1945-80 (Viking, 1985), a book edited by Peter Turner former editor of Creative Camera, and featuring the work of Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), Robert Frank, Lewis Baltz, and John Gossage, the later having a significant influence on the young photographer, with MacLean remarking today, that Gossage is the one photographer whose work he views on a regular basis.

Having initially studied mathematics, physics and geology, MacLean went on to study photography at the University of Derby, and following a period working at the Royal College of Art, he launched his freelance career in 1998. Today, his work has been acquired by numerous private collections and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, as well as being exhibited internationally, most recently at the Flowers Gallery, London.

In 2007, he self-published his first book, 21 Recent Photographs, and the following year released, 48 Recent Photographs (Hunter & James, 2008), both these books feature colour images from his City series, an expansive body of work produced around the world. But MacLean does not seek to to document a specific city or its occupants, but to create or construct his own metropolis through a series of images, allowing his own ‘internal world to overlap with the external.’ It is here that he fuses the two together to create a third place, where forms and chance encounters are recored, becoming ‘a catalogue of my ideas and values.’

The themes explored in his first two books, are continued and overlap with the third and fourth, City: Book One (Hunter & James, 2009); and City: Book Two (Hunter & James, 2010). Throughout these four books, we see MacLean utilise real street names from the cities in which he works, for the titles of his work, with each of these street names reflecting a personal influence on the artist, names like, Brandt, Walker, Lynch, and of course Gossage.

‘City is a microcosm of calmness, but one empty of the qualities most easily celebrated,’ suggests MacLean, who liberates the everyday object from the ‘drudgery’ of its existence in his images, and in doing so, ‘Each questions its own history — how it came to reach this place. Here, the photograph can exalt a hosepipe into an object of affection or recast a tree into a flattened, synthetic structure. A machine registers as a nocturnal beacon of light, a collection of trophies seem to have waited their whole lives to come together. In City, the aesthetics of science are cherished in a world of geometries, energy, interference patterns and diffracted colour. Random motion distributes seedlings on a white car bonnet. A block of ice radiates before entropy erases its outline. Underground, neon light generates a deep glow of blue. Chemicals bleed across concrete whilst the camera records the quality of light and the quality of surface.’

As we can see by the titles utilised in the earlier work, MacLean’s influences are far wider than artists simply working within the realms of the photographic medium, and in his next series, we see the influence of American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who in the 1950s established a simple methodology for his Combines. ‘If I couldn’t find material to do an artwork walking around the block once, I wouldn’t do it,’ an approach reflected in MacLean’s series of 69 images produced between March 2008 and May 2009. Whilst his City series was produced around the world, Neighbourhood (Hunter & James, 2009), saw the photographer document the streets around where he lives in southwest London. Marked with the distinctive visual signature now so familiar of his work, each image is simply titled by date and time, with the non-chronological narrative forming part diary and part archive, but it is also ‘part lament on the passage of time, part psychogeography and part playful push-and-pull of photographic conventions,’ writes MacLean.

The interest or influence in Rauschenberg’s work can also be felt in, Two and Two (Hunter & James, 2010), MacLean’s sixth book, where he turns away from the single photographic image, or ‘decisive moment,’ towards a multi-dimensional view which presents two distinct views of the same subject. ‘Two and Two asserts that there is more than one way to take every photograph,’ writes MacLean, ‘and that two different photographs of the same subject represent two distinct choices. By presenting these two choices together, I aimed to define my decision-making process and thereby learn something about my use of photographic language.

In his most recent book, A to B (Hunter & James, 2011), the graphic quality that is seen throughout MacLean’s work, is taken to a new level, becoming more abstract in nature, a sense heightened by a restricted colour palette of rich blacks and vivid sky blue. Having watch a documentary about Stanley Kubrick in late 2009, in which it was revealed that the director frequently shot more than 30 takes of one scene in order to ‘wear down’ the actors — to force them to work through the obvious approaches and find something new, MacLean began to explore how he could employ the basis of this process in his own work.

As the title suggests this work depicts a journey, ‘Looking at the 4ft wide map of London on my studio wall, I decided to choose two points (A and B), one east and one west, and take photographs as I walked repeatedly from one to the other,’ writes MacLean, who in total made 37 journeys between these two points. Although initially intending to select these points at random, MacLean had for sometime been aware of the Tyburn Tablet, a memorial to the site London’s ancient gallows near Marble Arch.

‘The tablet, circular and set into the ground, resembles a full stop, writes MacLean, ‘And indeed it was a full stop for the thousands of condemned prisoners who were transported three miles from Newgate Prison in the east, to their demise on this site — a process that ended in 1783.’ A to B, is not a literal interpretation of this historical journey, but by selecting these two ‘macabre points of arrival and departure, hoping their significance might add a subtle layer of influence to the images I produced.’

The 42 photographs produced between August 2009 and February 2011, are arranged chronologically, and one can immediately see a progressive link to two earlier images from MacLean’s City: Book Two, Bloom and Nix are both marked by an abstract quality, which may represent in MacLean’s words ‘unfinished business’, or what Charlotte Cotton calls ‘itchy scratchy’ photographs (the transitional pieces, the precursors of a new phase or project).

‘The “itchiness” of these earlier photographs had arisen, I think, from the fact that they represented two embryonic strands of a new investigation,’ says MacLean. These two embryonic strands, can be characterised in two forms, firstly the already mentioned abstract nature, which addressed a question that had been on the photographers mind, what makes a photograph a photograph? ‘Specifically, if the information in an image is reduced to the point where the object-matter is unrecognisable, when is a photograph no longer a window to look through but an object in itself?’ And secondly, we see an attempt to explore ‘the resonance of an image that looks from darkness into light.’ Something that MacLean had been aware of in W Eugene Smith’s (1918-1978) A Walk to Paradise Garden (1946), and in Anthony McCall’s Solid Lightworks.

For MacLean, Bloom and Nix were the first photographs where he utilised light to silhouette an object rather than as a means of illuminating it, and it is this approach that is seen throughout A to B, the latest chapter in the work of one of British photography’s most exciting artists.
48 Photographs, City: Book One, Neighbourhood, City: Book Two, Two and Two, and A to B are published by Hunter & James, each in an edition of 800, and are available from