New Colour Guide

Text by Wayne Ford

929 Words


In his latest work John MacLean uses colour as a ‘guide and structure’ to inform his image-making process and to question the very DNA of colour.

From the very earliest days of the photographic medium, experiments where directed at capturing a colour image; however most of the early processes that where developed — such as the Hillotype, by the American Levi Hill (1816-unknown) — exhibited an extremely limited range of hues, or where frequently unstable and in practical. However, these early faltering steps would not halt the scientific passion and desire to capture the photographic image in colour; and over the following decades science would continually strive to harness the visible spectrum. In 1855, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), became the first to suggest the tri-colour method that would become the practical basis of all chemical and electronic rendering of colour, and in 1861, during a Royal Institution lecture on colour theory, he demonstrated the first practical use of his process.

But it would not be until the advent of Kodak’s Kodachrome film in 1935, and Agfa’s Agfacolor Neu the following year, that the realm of colour photography really came into it’s own. In the same decade the American photographer Paul Outerbridge (1896-1958), was one of a handful who began to work exclusively in colour; and for Outerbridge there was one very important difference between colour and monochromatic photography, ‘…in black and white you suggest; in colour you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty,’ he would write. Despite the work of Outerbridge, who worked with the carbo-colour process, until 1943 — when he all but retired from photography — and other early adopters of the medium, it would still be another three decades or so before colour photography would reach widespread acceptance by the artistic community, when the likes of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore adopted it as their primary medium.

‘In our day-to-day lives, colour is largely secondary to form by practical necessity: the shape of a tree is more immediately important than its colour,’ writes British photographer John MacLean, who is known for his colour work that he disseminates through a series of self-published books. ‘In art history, colour has rarely been considered a worthwhile subject, but has been a discourse continually expanded by visual artists.’ In his latest book, New Colour Guide, MacLean utilises colour not as a ‘means of understanding colour (even if that were possible),’ but rather as a guide and structure to his image-making process.

In this cleverly constructed narrative, it is colour that leads the viewer through the visual sequence, connecting one image to the next. In a triptych of images, we see a group of parents and children gathered around a museum display in, Disc (museum). On a white plane that cuts diagonally across MacLean’s composition, a disc of vibrant orange sits. In the second and visually largely unrelated image, Disc (park), we are transported to a snowy landscape, the purity of white is broken by the brown of winter foliage, and in the centre of this composition, another disc of orange. And in the third and final image, Disc (river), the shattered fragments of ice, float on a rich black film of water, and on one of these shards of crystal, another spot of orange. In another sequence of photographs, Spectator I, II and III, various onlookers to an unknown and unseen event are photographed from behind, isolated against a rich black, that heightens the vibrancy of colour found in their clothes. But each figure at the centre of the composition wears a translucent white shirt, that mutes these colours that linger just below the surface.

‘In a contemporary culture where images that cannot be explained by words are mistrusted, colour remains defiantly ineffable, mysterious and uniquely able to highlight the enigmatic nature of human visual perception,‘ states MacLean. In this complex visual narrative, we see the photographer raise colour from the abstract to suggest narrative and meaning. ‘It can infer value through hierarchies, provide form, depth and resonance and be connected with feelings of order and disorder. Crucially these qualities are only palpable to the viewer because they have acquired the necessary experience and conditioning from early childhood to interpret colour. Colour can create context but, paradoxically, cannot endure without a context itself,’ he writes.

Frequently, we see MacLean embrace the digital errors that would lead many photographers to dispatch their photographic image to the electronic trash bin of the computer. ‘In making these photographs I first welcomed, and then engineered, the file-transfer errors that can disrupt lines of binary image-code and result in colour distortions.’ In an image dominated by shades of red, and horizontal bands of dark blue, that cut across and disrupt the abstract composition, we are reminded of the the paintings of Gerhard Richter. But there is a disconnect in this image. How can an abstract image dominated by such vibrant warm hues, be titled, Sky?

But this is one of the strengths of this conceptual work, in that the constructed narrative, pushes at and questions our understanding of colour and photography itself. MacLean asks, ‘if a photograph is ultimately nothing but a white page, variously graded and spotted with colour, where is the tipping point when a million coloured dots becomes a recognisable image?’ And if a digital photograph of a sky is rendered completely abstract by a file corruption, can it acquire qualities of ‘skyness’ simply by being titled Sky? And possibly the most central question at the very core of this, ‘how do we get ideas into photographs?

Wayne Ford 2012