John MacLean – New Colour Guide

Photographs ©John MacLean

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. In art history, colour has rarely been considered a worthwhile subject, but has been a discourse continually expanded by visual artists.

New Colour Guide (NCG) is not intended as a means of understanding colour (even if that were possible), but rather a project where colour was chosen to guide and structure my process of image-making. Why? Because, 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.

NCG leads the viewer through a photo-world of schools, markets, offices and museums; forests, rivers and skies; artist’s studios, laboratories and crime-scenes. It is populated by parents, children, teachers, pupils, tourists and spectators. Colour here overlaps art and science; it is added and removed by both the people photographed and the photographer. Outside, only the winter season persists; snow provides a background for colour but can erase it too.

We see that colour can rise from abstraction 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.

NCG is a wholeheartedly digital photo-guide. It acknowledges the parallel natures of the human light-eye-mind image and the photographic light-lens-processor image.

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. Normally corrupted images would be discarded, but here they expose the digital medium’s chromatic building blocks. They ask: 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? Furthermore, 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’?

Colour arrangements in nature are largely the result of natural selection but in NCG all colour is contrived and the result of artificial selection. The photographer’s camera generates electric light (flash) which creates reflected light (colour). When recorded, this provides us with a layer of information which helps us construct a photo-world, but the discrepancy between colour’s physical fact and psychic effect is ultimately imponderable. If any meaning can be gleaned it is cultural, leading me back to one, central question: how do we get ideas into photographs?

John MacLean has been a freelance photographer since 1998, using commercial, architectural commissions to support an independent, fine-art practice. His exhibition of Two and Two was a solo show at Flowers Gallery, London. John’s work has appeared widely in books and periodicals and he has self-published seven photo-books. These are held in the National Art Archive at The Victoria and Albert Museum and in private collections around the world.

I read the statement (essay) for New Colour Guide and found it interesting but when I looked at the photos I sort of forgot about it. I just enjoyed them as a sequence of interesting photographs. Sure, colour held them together in a certain way but if you’d come up with a completely different statement with the same photos I’m sure I’d probably buy it. I suppose my question has to do with the relationship between statements and photographs. Did you fully flesh out these ideas before you started making the photographs or did the process of creating them help you develop the ideas? Make sense?

Each project starts with a simple idea or question and the process of taking photographs becomes an investigation of that. Editing the images begins almost immediately and if an interesting direction emerges I follow it.

I tentatively start writing an artist’s statement about two-thirds of the way through a project: putting pen to paper helps me recognise the strongest elements in the work and enables me to start thinking about how I could bring the project to completion. I am comfortable taking photographs that are ahead of my ideas so there is a degree of reverse engineering when it comes to writing (pulling the project apart to see how it works).

When a project is finished my artist’s statement can be means of drawing conclusions but these are personal conclusions and shouldn’t suggest a right or wrong way of interpreting the work. For that reason, I never include text in my photobooks. Ideally, a text should add a layer to my work without the work depending on this layer to function.

“I am comfortable taking photographs that are ahead of my ideas so there is a degree of reverse engineering when it comes to writing (pulling the project apart to see how it works).”

I like that statement. What did you discover once you started to ‘reverse engineer’ the photographs from ‘New Colour Guide?’ I’m curious about the title too. I almost get the sense that you’re using that particular language as a way of throwing off the viewer before they even look at the photographs.

An example: the first of my corrupted digital photographs were accidents but I had an inkling of their potential – so I started to make them in a more controlled way. At this point I hadn’t imagined what their contribution might be but I felt they were questioning something that I wanted to question. Starting to write a statement forced me to try to understand what that question might be; it made me realise that the project was less about colour theory and more about ‘the tipping point when a million coloured dots becomes a recognisable image’.

I decided on the title ‘New Colour Guide’ particularly with the book in mind, and yes, the idea that someone would pick up the book expecting one thing, only to find another, was appealing. The title has a tone of authority but really it explains very little: it’s tongue-in-cheek.

So, what comes after ‘the tipping point when a million coloured dots becomes a recognisable image’? Maybe that’s just a rhetorical question. There’s an interesting blend of photographs of people mixed with the still life images. Why are there so many photographs of people taken from above and behind? Was this intentional or was it a pattern you started to recognize during editing?

…the image fades (sand to sandcastle to sand again)?

I had noticed that people in families or groups often wear colours that are harmonious with each other. Photographing from above seemed to clarify these affinities. I wondered if the photographs could even playfully suggest that people have an unconscious desire for colour harmony, and arrange themselves (and objects) to satisfy it.

An early idea was to make colour charts by compiling photographs of people wearing monochromatic clothing, and the way to get a block of uninterrupted colour was to photograph the person’s back. Finally, it was the accidental colour combinations of bag straps, belts, scarves, and coats that proved more interesting.

Do you ever think about whether your projects are non-fiction or fiction? Does it matter? Or perhaps it’s the blurry line that you’re after?

I think if a photographer is trying to invent a project that is completely fictitious, they will always be struggling with a medium which is repeatedly grounded by its qualities of non-fiction. I would say that my projects are conceived with an awareness of that.

When you start a project do you think about with a book in mind? And how much does the book making process impact the way you edit a project?

Definitely. I start with a title and the knowledge that I have space for about forty photographs in each book – that gives me a useful project framework. In the beginning, I keep my edit down to ten images, then when I have a strong base I start to build on it – but always with that upper limit in mind.

When I first started making photobooks I was shooting in quite a rigid way – only taking photographs in landscape format – now I try to shoot roughly half the images in portrait format so I can create a rhythm within the book’s structure. I compose some images with a full bleed in mind, others that can live with being small on a page, and some as sequences. New Colour Guide is my eighth book and the first where the photographs themselves have influenced the book’s structure. An example of this would be the inclusion of gatefold pages to accommodate the triptychs.

That’s interesting that you changed the way you shoot (adding portrait format) with the book in mind. Do you have any moments of hesitation where you might feel restricted in any way? Meaning, your projects seem to be rather well planned out – specific formats, number of photographs for the book, etc. Does that ever feel restricting in any way or is it more improvisational than I’m thinking? And do you ever make photographs with no project in mind?

I am trying to set myself limitations that require inventive solutions. For instance, in my project Neighbourhood I allowed myself to take photographs within only a five minute walk of my flat. After a few months I was fed up, but it was this frustration that forced me to try new ways of working – I was in a corner and I had to photograph my way out. I think there is a balance to be struck when setting these limitations: rigid enough to stimulate creative responses without being so restrictive as to stifle them.

I am an avid reader of artist’s biographies and it is through these that I became more aware of the influence of limitations. Some limitations, of course, are imposed by circumstance, such as a young De Kooning using black paint because he could not afford to buy expensive materials. However, I am more interested in the self-imposed limitation, as in Arbus preferring to work with difficult cameras, or Rauschenberg walking no further than one block to collect materials for his Combines.

It seems like every other month someone is declaring photography dead for one reason or the other. Digital cameras and the internet are two prime targets. This is mostly rhetorical, and just a way to discuss how photography is progressing, but there does seem to be this sense of perpetual crisis with photography. Part of me thinks this is just a reaction to the explosion of photographs we’ve seen in the digital age but others like Joerg Colberg have stated that they think photographers generally play it too safe. What do you think about the state of medium as 2012 comes to a close?

To my eyes, photography is alive and kicking in 2012 – it is kicking at its own boundaries and looking to move in new directions.

The arrival of the internet and digital photography has clearly made the medium less exclusive (much to the chagrin of some photographers) and consequently more abundant. The camera has become a tool much in the way that a pencil is: it can be used to make a doodle, a list, a diary entry, a record, a quick observation… or something with more intent. And the internet provides a ready audience (or perceived audience) for any image.

However, even though photography is now one of the easiest mediums to become competent in, I think it is still just as difficult to hone it into a form of self-expression. Even though the internet gives the photographer an audience, thinking of an audience can often result in less adventurous work.

Photography’s rapid expansion could be an excuse to feel disorientated but could also be an opportunity to reconsider the medium’s defining qualities and change our ideas about what a photographer can be. It is healthy for contemporary photographers to embrace these new developments and try to push the language of the medium forward.

You can view the magazine through the ‘web viewer’ below. If you want to BUY a physical copy, or download the PDF, click HERE. The features will also be published right here on the web over the next few days. Special thanks to Alexi Hobbs for all his hard work designing this issue. Thank you for supporting LPV!


By LPV Magazine in LPV Magazine

110 pages, published 11/9/2012

Featuring work from Amani Willett, John MaClean, Nicholas Calcott, Alexi Hobbs & Tabitha Soren. Including an introduction and essay by Bryan Formhals