2010 - Source Magazine Interview by Richard West
An interview conducted by Source editor Richard West which accompanied the publication of Neighbourhood in issue 61.
A commitment to place is a common theme for the three photographers in this issue. John MacLean has chosen to operate only within a five minute walking radius of his house in south London. A process that has forced him to re-explore a place dulled by familiarity. Pacing out the same terrain repeatedly he picks up on the minutiae and incremental changes in his neighbourhood.
Q: What is your neighbourhood?
A: For the purposes of this project, I defined my neighbourhood as an area within a five-minute walk of my house.
Q: Do you think of the work as a particular ‘project’ with a start and end date, and an objective?
A: Initially the project was just an exercise. I thought that I would use it to explore the effect of a strict geographical limitation on the type of photographs that I made. I just wanted to drift and see what happened. After about four months I could see that something more interesting might be emerging.
Q: What started you on this project?
A: It was the most difficult thing that I could think of doing. So, I thought that it would do me good.
Q: Why did you suppose the project would be particularly difficult?
A: I had begun to realise that when I couldn’t find a photograph to make in a particular place, I took the easy option – I moved on to a new place. This had become a habit. Continually moving on is exhausting – but moreover I questioned whether it was always the right thing to do. I wanted to break a habit.
Q: Are all the pictures taken in places that you would usually pass?
A: I was already familiar with each place through day-to-day experience, but never through ‘switched-on’ photographic experience.
Q: A number of your pictures are of the same thing photographed more than once, are these over a long period of time?
A: One pair of images is separated by only one second while another pair is separated by seven months.
Q: When you take a picture in a place do you plan to come back and photograph it again?
A: No, it is not planned. It only happens if I pass by that same place again and notice that something significant (to me) has changed.
Q: Can you say something more about what ’switched on’ photographic experience is, how do you switch on and what is the difference in the state of mind?
A: I think that in order to take photographs we have to be able to mentally process appearance into image at an incredible rate. Only by doing that can photographers sort through the myriad of possibilities that confront them. So, to be ‘switched on’ is something like seeing the world as a series of stills. It’s not a relaxed state of mind, so it takes a conscious effort to remain ‘switched on’.
Q: Why did you photograph the moon in a loop of rope?
A: I had been watching Jacque Tati’s film Playtime. A vicar is shown standing in front of a sign that reads “Drugstore”. The letter “o” becomes a halo over his head. Tati’s films are full of photography’s tricks.
Q: Your pictures don’t have many people in them.
A: I often try to make photographs that question how people interact with their surroundings and each other. However, my photographs are not of constructed situations, so these telling moments can be infrequent.
Q: Are any of your pictures jokes?
A: I never start out wanting to make visual jokes, but I am interested in both errors of perception and the absurd, and this often results in quite humorous images.
Q: What is absurd in a picture?
A: A subject can be absurd in itself. For example, a house that is physically divided down the middle because the two owners are in disagreement. But more interesting perhaps is an absurdity created because the camera excludes context – either the context which is outside the frame or the context of what happened in the moment before, or after, the photograph was taken.
Q: Can you describe some of the things that would motivate you to stop and take a picture?
A: Although I don’t leave the house with any preconceived notion of what to photograph in mind, I do have a mental reservoir of images and ideas that I am constantly topping-up through a process of scavenging – books, films etc. Anything with a particular resonance may be retained for future use – some less consciously that others. When I am trying to take pictures I will stop when I see an overlap with something that I have already been thinking about – it’s like a ‘hit’ of recognition. I visualise what the subject in front of me will look like as a photograph, and if it seems exciting, I take it.
Q: Why do you photograph strangely shaped trees?
A: A plant or tree that has contorted itself in the search for light has a curiously human quality to me – a kind of vulnerable ambition. It also seems reasonable to record distorted objects with a medium whose fascination (for me) lies in its ability to distort.
Q: Do you see the things you are photographing as sculptures sometimes?
A: No, I always see them as photographs.
Q: Are you interested in photographing shapes, patterns or abstraction, and if so, why?
A: Only if they occur in combination with other ideas. A photograph of a shape is not enough on its own, even if that shape offers visual pleasure. But if it is visually arresting and throws up a question, it makes a stronger image.
Q: When you photograph something, like a pavement in two states (wet and dry), or the movement of the sun, are you recording the passage of time?
A: In these examples my primary interest was in trying to photograph phenomena. I wanted to explore whether it is possible to photograph the effect of a rise in temperature, the earth’s movement, a gust of wind or a cloud moving over the sun.
Q: How do you edit your pictures?
A: In two ways: from the beginning, I edit as I work. That way, as the folder of successful photographs grows, it can inform the direction that I take from there on. Finally, when I have 60 images that I am happy with, I edit them down to 40. Usually this edit runs in parallel with the sequencing of a book, so it is a process that I like to ruminate over for a couple of months.
Q: Do you find the things you photograph beautiful?
A: Occasionally. However, I don’t find that ‘beautiful’ subject matter is a great help to me at all.