Outthinking the Rectangle
2018 - Text by Duncan Wooldridge
If the sharply defined edges of the photograph mark something of the medium’s ‘disciplinary frame’, it is also the case that we are quick to concede, rarely confronting or overturning it in our uses of photography. Why are we so passive in front of the photographic process and its resulting image? What has led us to assume, in our gestures and as well as within our theories, that photography is such a fixed and neutral object producing mainly representations?
We concede not only to the photograph’s discipline as a sharply defined image – when it is more accurately an accumulation of cones of light – but also that its meaning exists in what it shows, over how it comes into being. Perhaps this has something to do with how photographic theory fixates on the image and its melancholy relationship to death: we are resigned to the image escaping our original intention to become a document with some alternate, informational purpose after our lifetime; we forget that gestures, actions and propositions matter because they mark both the potential and the consequence of an image.
John MacLean’s ‘Outthinking The Rectangle’ proposes to work with and against the photograph and its frame. In his project, comprised of an array of observations, surfaces, spaces and gestures, MacLean teases from the image a space beyond its straight edges and conventional geometries, a space where the image is active and has agency in its forms. The possibilities he explores – to break with flatness, to slice, extract, bend, re-arrange – take the resulting image beyond a melancholy fixation with depiction and the past. What emerges is both a space of play and a search for critical strategies that, it might be argued, seeks out something that is closer to approximating or revealing what is often called ‘the real’. The real is something that a photograph claims through its direction and unmediated presence. This is, of course, a fallacy, for the photograph is in itself media, a mediation at its core. Instead, the real emerges from both the combination of the image and the processes of its making – the real is the mediation of the world as we see it.
MacLean’s sharp sense of the image’s logic acknowledges that photography is both technical and industrial. This fact can be easily left to one side: it is inconvenient if the expression of the self is being exalted, or the facticity of the picture is being declared. Photography’s hard edges attest to its industrialism, as does its smooth appearance and surfaces, but the technologies’ encounter with the human ‘operator’, to use a Flusserian term, invokes a jolt, a jump, or a rupture. It is not so much a glitch, as if the machine itself stutters; more the sense that the camera has always been somehow suggesting ways that it should be used, which the artist and photographer must engage with and overcome.
As experimentally minded artists test what the image can and cannot do, they enact the discovery of new images and new ways of looking. The camera’s ability to produce images that can be quickly absorbed and made redundant is resisted. If anything, Outthinking the Rectangle begins, as do so many of MacLean’s photographs, with an image that we think we know, only to discover it is not exhausted by its first encounter, and in fact cannot be taken reductively as a ‘picture’. We are drawn towards the properties of the photographic on a number of occasions, as MacLean places it within the image: a vignetted edge of a picture is rearranged to become a horizon in its centre; a limousine is cropped shorter and so becomes more ‘real’; the viewfinder’s focusing zones find themselves singed into the surface of a road. The photographic tool does not remain within the camera, as if its industrialism was a secret: it acts out in the world with concrete and comic effects.
As the image is examined more closely, its edges move from being frames to becoming subjects. MacLean has a recourse to the ambiguous white of the photograph, as do many key artists who interrogate photography: it begins with the edge, with the white canvas, or white edge of the print and its border. White bounds the image and affects all that is contained within, giving form to composition. Because of the white of the page, photographers print flat monochromatic skies into darker tones, and those objects which are to our eyes a rich vivid white are often underexposed so that to the paper support retains a purity as it defines the limit of the image. At the other extreme, white is a signifier for the information contained within the image. Bleached or washed out, white is both too much and too little, saturated with information while providing none. A ‘Theater’ by Sugimoto compresses a movie into one white rectangle, containing all of its frames, though none can be seen within. White burns itself into the film and onto the sensor.
MacLean’s ‘Picture Plane’ shows a solitary car parked up against a white surface: a wall which may be so reflective as to disappear (only a long look at the white reveals its shadows and marks). The car and its grounding to the tarmac are solid, but the wall appears like a void. It is as if the photograph itself is threatening to disappear, and we scour the image for detail to reassure us of more familiar pictorial qualities. In another image, ‘Ladder’, the bottom portion is both surface (a wall, lit by the sun) and the white of the photograph’s paper. A ladder offers a route into the image but it is, perhaps more significantly, also a route out. Is the white like a pool we could swim in? Or has MacLean realised a means for escaping the limits of the picture as we have long known it?
‘Outthinking the Rectangle’ has been made at a time when photography has entered into an expansive practice of multiple forms. It is often conflated with collage and some of the assemblages of sculpture. It is tempting to read some of MacLean’s images, especially those which break the image into parts, as collage also. Yet such a characterisation of his work would require at least a little unpicking. Though it would be easy to conflate his gestures with those of collage, we should be wary of what might simply be another convenient disciplinary frame. It is significant because his images do not leave the space of photography, but show how the medium necessarily involves the spaces it occupies, on the page, and in the world. To claim otherwise would be to suggest that a detail cut from a larger image is not still a photograph (ontologically it is strange to want to make such an assertion): Photography itself cuts and fragments.
MacLean’s images cover the full world of the image, outthinking the rectangle to place it in the world. He proposes a complex process of seeing, framing, modification and encounter, which takes control of the photographic apparatus at the moment of its making. Collage’s use of the found image finds logics within the visual culture of a society; MacLean wrests control from the technology of photography at its source. Collage was the modern image par excellence. But as we attempt to exit our technological late modernity, we must return to how we make images in the first instance: to hack, or detourner the image before it produces its spectacle.