Two and Two
2021 - By Tomas Weber
Our perception of time was transformed by photography. The ability to chemically fix the camera’s image, invented in the nineteenth century, allowed us to see the flow of time as composed of discontinuous snapshots and slices. It made it possible to isolate moments of time, to see how what seems like flux, or flow, is made from freezable moments. The galloping horse, the jumping gymnast, could now be broken down into individual moments and arranged sequentially, revealing the building blocks of continuity.
In Two and Two, MacLean’s diptychs show photography to be a practice that is as sensitive to time as it is to light. Each pairing is absorbed with the question of photography’s relation to time. 16.2.18 (11.57 + 19.21) is a diptych of a vehicle bodyshop on a London street, taken on 16 February 2018. The first was taken a few minutes before midday, the second in the evening, at 7.21pm. While the midday and evening scenes are transformed, both contain a man sitting on a bench, turned away from the camera. Facing the same direction as the viewer, he appears to be reflecting on the scene. Is this the same figure as before? Has he been waiting all day? Or has he just arrived? He is wearing a different top, but it is impossible to know.
The transformation of time by photography in the midst of industrialisation caused some to worry. Among them was French philosopher Henri Bergson, who considered photography to be complicit in the illusion of ‘clock time’, the idea that time is composed of discrete moments, one moment giving way to the next, like pearls on a string. The truth of time, he thought, is rooted in the experience of duration. A temporal moment is not a quantity but a quality. Not a standardised unit, not something that can be made into a grid, time stretches or contracts according to mood, activity, and place. Sometimes an hour feels like ten, sometimes more like a minute. Even moving images, cinema, he thought, were part of the illusion, providing only an impression of duration and movement out of sequences of inert images.
MacLean’s diptychs challenge the idea that photography cannot express duration. It appears that he is uncomfortable with the idea of time as a sequence of discrete elements, or perhaps with the mechanical chronicle of time offered by the camera: thus he allows the two moments at the bodyshop to seep into each other. There is a premonition of the evening in the bright chaotic daylight. The scene evolves, empties out, light softens into blue dusk, and memories of the afternoon seem embedded in the objects in the second image—a stack of white tires, a building, the grid-like manhole cover, a tree. Time, as represented by his camera, is not only an action sequence but also an extended waiting around, a lingering, where nothing happens other than tiny adjustments of position, like a person shifting on their seat.
MacLean also comes up against the notion that change happens in decisive, singular moments. His photographs show stretches of extended durations, and change, when it happens, occurs at different speeds. And multiple temporalities are presented at once: there is the diachronic, sequential progression over the course of an afternoon. But there is also the duration of the two separate photographic exposures, the exposure at twilight being longer than at midday. His images work within different durations, caught up within temporal flows without finally tying them down, capturing them.
All of the 40 images in the series involve a repetition of some sort, a return to the scene, and occasionally, the second shot is taken less than a minute after the first. Other pairs are taken years and continents apart. In one pair, of an office worker on a cigarette break (22.9.17 (11.32.16 + 11.32.25)), both the photographer and the subject are moving in the nine seconds between shots—there is no simple ‘capturing’ of a moment here. The camera is, like the subject, caught up in a continuous movement through time and space.
Through MacLean’s gestures of repetition, within a minute, a day, or a decade, the camera manages to record moments of uncertain duration, states of drawn-out expectation, persistent uncertainty, or vacancy. And this is in spite of the viewer knowing exactly when the photographs were taken, sometimes to the second. MacLean’s return to the scene, whether frenzied or dawdling, complicates photography’s relation to time and reveals the camera’s power to transform our perception of it. Time is experiential, here, not quantitative.
The diptychs also consider the changing nature of photography, at a time when the most common way of consuming photographs is by scrolling between them. A flow of images has come to replace the isolated photograph, and these works offer an alternative to the idea of the photographer capturing a decisive moment. The feeling is one of being caught, undecidably, between two times. MacLean’s diptychs show us the time just before, or the time just after, the other photograph was taken. In this way, they conjure the sensation of living inside an open present, a time that is not quite past and not quite to come.