In Conversation with John MacLean

John MacLean is a London-based independent photographer represented by Flowers Gallery (W1S). We met on the morning of August 6th to discuss his most recent series, ‘Outthinking the Rectangle’ (which I will henceforth abbreviate to OTR). I’d like to thank my friend Joshua Bareham for introducing me to John’s work and naturally I’d like to thank John for giving up his time to speak to me.

LAKE: I read in your artists statement that “a digitised photograph has a plasticity which undermines its previously reassuring, shuttered finality”. I’m interested in what you mean by that because I assume, you’re referring to the flexible data file that we now have – the raw file. But, how is that different to a negative where you can make infinite copies?

MACLEAN: In the pre-digital photographic process one would put a negative into an enlarger and project the image onto sensitive paper—then develop. That chemical process is much more limited in terms the image’s plasticity than a digital raw file, where the interpretation of binary digital information to visual information is infinite. 

LAKE: The infinite possibilities reminded me of some of my favourite work. I’m interested in unlimited readings; I love the Hilliard’s ‘Causes of Death’ – the four photos; the one composite which is cut into four. It reminds me of your dad, being an editor. I know in the media there’s anchorage, you can anchor a meaning to something, and you can crop things to change the meaning - that’s my understanding of unlimited readings or infinity.

MACLEAN: You’ve made me think of an old television advert for The Guardian newspaper, which can be considered in parallel to the John Hilliard piece. The ad shows a man running along a street which is then replayed from four different camera angles—so the situation can be interpreted in four different ways. OTR also suggests that the context of an image is incredibly important. Today, a digital photograph can be ‘dropped’ into the internet (a system) where it can be recontextualised thousands of times—all of which are out of the author’s control.  

LAKE: Of course. In a newspaper you put a piece of text above an image and you change everything. There’s one artist from the 1800’s (I am thinking here of Alphonse Allais) who was using monochromes and captions together and I can’t remember his name, but there’s a white monochrome titled white girls in snow, I think. (actually titled ‘First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow’). I love the use of text.

We talk a bit about the power of context, the archetypal art gallery and psychogeography in general.

MACLEAN: I feel ambivalent towards the ‘white cube’ gallery space. On the one hand, it is a safe space and calm space for contemplation: It allows me to think clearly. But on the other hand, it’s a highly charged, ideological space and that concerns me sometimes. Having the way I see and think shaped and controlled in an art space makes me feel uneasy. I don’t want to be told what to think.

LAKE: In what way?

MACLEAN: Sometimes I feel everything in a gallery is too neatly packaged—the experience feels almost condescending. Gallery architecture, curation and text give the viewer direction: “you should be looking and thinking about this in a certain way”. One of the great lessons of Duchamp is that the same object can be both art and not art at the same time—the viewer should be free to make that choice.

LAKE: I think he rotated the urinal in a way that removed its function. When you strip something of its function you can easily observe it because you can’t think about using it.

MACLEAN: Objects in art galleries have no function other than as art. I’ve often thought if I was a sculptor, I would be really frustrated by the fact that you’re never allowed to touch sculptures in art galleries but perhaps that’s for the reason that you’re talking about. If you could touch or climb on a sculpture it would become functional—if a gallery visitor is permitted to spin Duchamp’s bicycle wheel what happens then?

LAKE: The irony in killing things to preserve them reminds me of what you said about a sculpture – when you’re working on a sculpture, to then not be able to touch it, is a bit ironic.

MACLEAN: It’s absurd and controlling.

LAKE: A lot of people kill animals to stuff them. Why can’t you watch them live? I think it’s to do with immortality in art.

MACLEAN: Art is a denial of death.

LAKE: People want to live forever. I think graffiti art is a bit of an immortality thing. It stems back to the ice age. Cavemen and their cave drawings. In school people write on the table. It’s a psychological thing. I think Michelangelo said “I know the creator will go, but the work survives. That is why, to escape death, I bind my soul to my work.” It’s true. Whenever I make work, I like to think it will live forever.

MACLEAN: So, you’re thinking about your legacy already.

LAKE: I am, yeah.

We talk about my work for a bit. I soon bring the focus back to John.

LAKE: Duncan (Wooldridge – artist, writer and course leader at Camberwell) said, your work is an attempt to reveal what is often called the real. What do you think he meant by that? I didn’t really understand.

MACLEAN: I struggled with that as well and I asked him about that sentence more than anything. It comes from the philosopher Vilém Flusser, who has some quite specific ideas about ‘the real’ in relation to photography. When Duncan’s talking about ‘the real’, he’s referring directly to Flusser.

LAKE: Do you think your works about the real?

MACLEAN: No, but when I re-read Flusser’s book I understood more why Duncan would write that. One example in Flusser’s book, which was a ‘penny dropping’ moment for me, is when he talks about the relationship of black-and-white photographs to ‘the real’. He explains that a colour photograph is more abstract than a black and white photograph, because a colour photograph is obscuring its own nature—it’s being dishonest—it’s trying to be window showing the world. Whereas a black and white photograph is palpably a photograph – it’s more ‘real’, because it abstracts much less from what it actually is.

In retrospect, I didn’t totally understand what John meant here so I e-mailed him with some questions. John’s answer (pictured below) helped me to understand Flusser’s ideas by emphasizing that a photograph is inherently surreal; any duplicate of the world is surreal. It can’t be real life. it’s always going to be an interpretation. The black and white photograph embraces this with its abstract nature and is thus a more genuine photograph, in my understanding.

LAKE: Are you interested in falsifying things?

MACLEAN: Conventionally, photographs are thought of as being truthful because they are accurate documents of how we perceive reality (for example, a passport photo). But our manifest experience is very different that anything captured by a camera. My manifest experience of this current situation (being interviewed by you at The V&A) is created by many more layers of sensation: sound (the sound of people around us talking) for example; touch (the feel of the cold glass of iced water in my hand); memory (the fact I have spent time in this room before) and so on. All of this (and more) influences how I create my own reality and my conception of what is true. So, a photograph of you talking to me in this room is far from truthful (to my mind). It’s not very close to my reality at all. It’s more like a parallel reality connected by a thin piece of thread to my reality. So, I’ve never struggled over whether photographs are true or false. Even a straight photograph is a distorted screen.

LAKE: It’s surrealism. When it first came about (photography) it was magical.

MACLEAN: It’s an invention that is inherently surreal. Think of all the technology we have today: iPhone’s, airplanes, the internet and so on, then imagine that photography was just invented, in 2019, it would still blow your mind, wouldn’t it? It beats them all!

LAKE: It’s timeless in that way. You say somewhere photography can “offer a momentary stay against confusion”. I think the process of taking a photograph makes sense of the world.

MACLEAN: The idea of “a momentary stay against confusion” really came to me from watching the way people act in art galleries. They look at (for example,) at a painting and then they take a photograph of it, rather than think about it. I do this too sometimes. The sense of relief is palpable because taking a photograph compresses and crystallises experience into something which is more manageable that the experience itself.

LAKE: It’s a way of understanding. There’s a photo in OTR - a car in a car park which looks like it’s in a void, but it’s probably in a really build up area. I’m interested in cropping to distort a narrative, is it fair to say you do that? I don’t know how the series was made, but when I was making Black Cat, I cropped my monochrome photos and laid them on a black backdrop to create a sense of abstract infinity.

MACLEAN: OTR is a project where the rectangle (the viewfinder, the frame, the page etc) becomes subject matter rather than merely a ‘container’ for the images in the series. In our day to day lives our brains struggle continually with an overload of information; in this moment, the bright sunlight, the noise in this room and so on, distract me when I’m trying to concentrate on what you are saying. So, the information my brain filters out is maybe 99% of the information coming in. Our brains are constantly cropping and reframing in that sense. Framing is a term used in psychology frequently—how we frame our reality is often closely connected to our personal wellbeing. A camera’s viewfinder cropping a scene is not dissimilar to our mind cropping information.

LAKE: What do you think about escapism?

MACLEAN: I’m all for it. Photographs offer that. It’s a kind of tourism.

LAKE: You know Schrödinger’s cat?

MACLEAN: Yeah, that’s such a complicated idea.

LAKE: The core of it is you can choose to believe whatever it is, and I like that. Ignorance is bliss in Schrödinger’s theory.

MACLEAN: One thing I find problematic about contemporary photography is that we are expected to explain our work again and again. We can’t enter our work into a competition without ‘explaining’ our photographs with text first. I find that a little absurd. For me, a photograph should be very free—something that’s open to many interpretations—and that’s part of the medium’s strength. I often read photographer’s project statements. Currently it seems fashionable for photographers to claim that their projects are about memory or memories. But how can anyone claim their work is about memory? That’s so ridiculous! No one even knows what a memory is. I think this pressure to explain often comes from galleries, because they are looking for a ‘hook’ to hang a photographer’s work on. They are hoping to write a succinct press release that explains exactly what a photographer’s work is about in four lines or fewer. But this can be very inhibiting to an artist—to feel that their work needs to be explained or it won’t be shown—it can be a burden.

LAKE: For me, if someone’s written a really concise statement it subliminally implies confidence; it gives the impression the artist is comfortable. I try and keep my statements short as you know, but before, someone’s seen something I’ve made without seeing the statement and they’ve said something that I would’ve never thought about. It makes me think sometimes I don’t know what my own works about.

MACLEAN: I think it’s okay to say that, you know. Very few artists admit to that. One thing I’ve said in the past is that my work is often ahead of my thinking… and that I have to ‘catch up’ after I have made it. Which is an odd thing to say perhaps because it infers that I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s true, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. A project is a process of evolution—of trial and error.

We talk about the photography degree show at Central St. Martin’s which I visited days prior to our conversation. I’ve included an example of the work below.

LAKE: I don’t think there was a photo in there, it was mainly theory based, works that had come from theory.

MACLEAN: That kind of depresses me a little bit, to be honest.

LAKE: I’d never seen that before, so I was captivated. I feel that all the works linked back to thoughts inspired by photography.

The show’s catalogue is contextualised through a foreword by course leader Dr. Daniel Rubinstein. My favourite part reads “the students on this course understand the image not merely as a two-dimensional visual surface, but as a multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial spatial, material, conceptual, existential and political position that shapes our relationship as citizens societally and to the environment around us”. In my opinion, Rubenstein echoes Walter Benjamin who said that, photography, whether an art form or not, irrefutably changed (and will continue to change) the world forever. It’s everywhere and it demands respect.

MACLEAN: There should be a place for good work whatever it is. The idea that something can exist in the Photography department (of a university) but not in the Painting department is over; that boundary is blurred, and I think that’s great. But there’s also a part of me that thinks these barriers are pulled down because there is a general insecurity about photography as a medium.

LAKE: Definitely.

MACLEAN: The idea that a photographer can take an intelligent picture (with a camera) and get ideas into a photograph without manipulation is still viewed with scepticism. But if that same photographer cuts up a picture or paints on the surface the attitude changes – ‘ok, now I see what’s happening, I see that the hand has entered the frame and I feel more comfortable that this is art…’. 

LAKE: I can’t remember the Walter Benjamin quote, but he said something about painting being easier to appreciate because any sort of labour is visible, evident man-hours are invested, a characteristic photography doesn’t naturally have. Photography is hard to appreciate for some people, but shouldn’t it be the easiest because it’s most accessible?

MACLEAN: I think my fascination with photography began with the apparatus (the camera). The camera-machine has created a level playing field as you’ve said yourself – it’s made photography accessible for everyone. You have a camera and everyone in this room has a camera too. But how can Tom Lake take a photograph that is recognisably by Tom Lake and how can I make a ‘John MacLean photograph’ with the same machine? It’s incredibly difficult to do. Photography is difficult to appreciate because it’s ‘easy’ and we all do it now, but not many people can push or pull the camera in new directions—their own direction.

LAKE: I’m trying to find my thing. If I was writing my statement now, I’d say I’m interested in psychology.

MACLEAN: Psychology is probably your ball-park area. There’s a bit of sex and death in there as well.

LAKE: What’s after OTR?

MACLEAN: I’m working on a project which is called ‘Your Nature’ and I hesitate to put that in a nutshell because we’ve just been talking about how ridiculous that is!

‘Your Nature’ is available to view here.