Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Q & A with John Maclean

John Maclean is a photographer based in London, and the author of the recent book Hometowns.

BA: How did you decide which artists to include in Hometowns?

JM: I sat down and made a list of twenty artists who I consider to be my… mentors-by-proxy —that is, artists whose work I go back to again and again when I feel stuck or I am looking for inspiration. I haven’t necessarily met these artists in person, but I feel that I know them (somehow) through their work. And their work has influenced mine.

How did you go about photographing the hometowns? Did it require a lot of exploration or did you have a certain place or theme in mind? What was the process?

Initially, the process involved researching as much biographical information on each artist as possible, whilst refreshing my memory of the artworks which had prompted me to travel to their hometowns. Before setting off, I explored each neighbourhood using Google StreetView —to scout for locations. I was looking for places which might provide clues to the development of the young artist —although what I am constructing here is a kind of ‘fantasy documentary’. I’m not suggesting that, for example, the stack of car tires I eventually photographed in Robert Rauschenberg’s hometown played a direct part in his artistic development. 

Hometown of Robert Rauschenberg, Port Arthur, Texas

I spent three to five days in each location trying to make what is essentially a photo-homage but at the same time, trying to make images that had my own personal, photographic imprint on them too. So even though time-consuming research was undertaken, I wanted to allow myself room to react to both chance occurrences and the uniqueness of each place too.

Where's your own hometown?

I think of my hometown as Montreal—it's where I spent my formative years... but my parents took my sister and I out of school for almost a year during that period to drive around the US. I think that trip shaped me a great deal.

What years did you spend in Montreal? Have you gone back to photograph there?

Ages six to ten. I was there in 1976—the year of the Olympics. But this was before I began taking photographs and I haven't been back since.

Do you think Montreal had any effect?

I remember that as kids growing up in Montreal we weren't allowed to wander off our block, so that's where we created our little world. We tried to have as many adventures as possible within that limited geographical area. Creating frozen 'lakes' in the backyard during winter, that sort of thing: using what we had at hand to create new games and avoid being bored. So perhaps what Montreal winters gave me, and it’s something I take pride in as a photographer, is being able to make something interesting from limited material.

If you were going to treat Yourself/Montreal as a subject in the book, how would you photograph it? What would you look for and how would you photograph it to express your 'fantasy documentary'?

I think the best approach would be to go back and see what memories were triggered. That would be much more interesting than to try and preplan anything. See what falls into place and just react.

One premise that I draw from your book is that the childhood hometown of an artist can shape that person's later creative development. Do you think that's an accurate assessment? Or is the book more about you and your contemporary experience in those places?

I think it can have a huge effect, but of course, the childhood experiences within that environment are important too. At that age we are absorbing and processing everything around us and it shapes who we become in later life. But I'm not suggesting that these particular places were the reason their inhabitants became artists… just that the places (perhaps) influenced the art they made in later life. In my fantasy-documentary I'm imagining how these lives and personalities might have taken shape. And yes, my direct experience of each place influenced the images I made too; I wanted a layer of my own responses to be in the mix.

Was there anything you noticed as you traveled to these 24 places which they shared in common or which would tend to foster creative development? Or are they just random locations?

The places didn't have anything in common, but every artist I feature in my project wanted to escape their hometown. I gleaned that from reading their biographies.

That's strange. You picked 24 international artists and they all just happened to abandon their hometowns? Is that something artists do as a matter of course? Do any artists stay in they place they grew up? Maybe part of the leap to becoming an artist is shedding your past?

I imagine it's probably quite common for artists to feel ‘out of place’ in their hometowns. Perhaps artists feel a bit ‘out of place’ wherever they are. One question I am asking is: what makes us feel connected with some artists and not others? Could it be that these great artists are able to put something of themselves into their work? Are they able to translate their experiences into images? Is it more than just a coincidence that the artists I chose to feature in my project are linked biographically in certain ways?

There's only one person in the book whose hometown is close to my mine and he's one of my photo idols —Lee Friedlander from Aberdeen. I tend to shoot like him. It's hard to say if that's because we grew up in similar places, or if I've just looked at too many of his pictures. But I've always had a pet theory that his photographic style was molded by the place he was raised. Western Washington is densely forested to the point of claustrophobia, and Friedlander's photographs embody that feeling. They're chock-full with vegetative layers. I wonder if living in a place so thickly forested, he just had to learn to see through stuff. If he'd grown up in Arizona, for example, maybe he'd never shoot that way? Your photos from Aberdeen are nicely Friedlanderish, by the way.

Hometown of Lee Friedlander, Aberdeen, Washington

I like that: ‘learning to see through stuff’. I know that he left his hometown primarily because he loved jazz and that passion for music took him to the big US cities. So I imagined this Friedlander kid, growing up on a farm in a logging town, listening to jazz and longing to be somewhere more vibrant and less predictable. The music he listened to might have brought images to his mind. One of the photographs I took in Aberdeen is of this young guy, lying on the bonnet of his car—he is surrounded by trees but behind a fence; he is looking up at the sky.

I always think of Friedlander as ‘a photographer’s photographer’. What I mean by that is he makes photographs which are able to stand on their own two feet—they don’t require supporting concepts. I highlighted this in my research. In an interview Friedlander describes an early childhood memory—when he asked his father how to fix a lawnmower his father replied: 'just look at it until you understand it.' Later in life, when he was asked to 'explain' his photographs he would use exactly the same response.

Good anecdote. It makes sense. Maybe the next book project should be "Parental portraits of artists"?

I think if anyone makes a list of their artistic heroes and starts digging around in the early parts of their biographies... the overlaps in childhood experiences jump out. I think my Dad would have said something very similar to me, so perhaps that’s why I picked up on that.

OK, so what overlaps did you notice as you visited these places?

I haven't really thought about what the places have in common —my preoccupation has been with what the artists have in common and why I might have chosen them for my list. But looking at the list of places now they do all seem to be backwaters... not hives of creative activity...

That goes back to artists needing to leave their hometown. It raises the question, what about those artists born in New York or Paris or some art hotbed? Are they any? Is that mobility and leaving behind an integral part of becoming an artist? Just wondering out loud...

We spend all our lives exploring, but really we are just trying to get 'home' again.

(insert Thomas Wolfe title here)


I’m sure there are just as many artists who grew up in big cities; I think Strand, Klein, Arbus, Shore and Sternfeld are all New Yorkers. I don’t think they were desperate to escape their hometown so perhaps there is something in the work of artists who come from small towns (and who wanted to escape them) that I relate to in particular. Is that a long shot? Perhaps it is, but it’s interesting to speculate.

When I first learned of your book my initial thought was in relation to museum shows. One of the primary pieces of information with any artist on the wall is their year of birth/death, and their hometown (or, to be more accurate, birthplace). So there's apparently something vital in that information. Why do you think museums include hometown as an integral part of captions?

Perhaps because any biographical information adds another layer of interest to the work. Artists try and express something about who they are, how they see the world, and where they have come from —all in an image sometimes. When I watch people wandering around museums I see people not just looking at images but thinking about the artists who made them too.

Wouldn't "current city" be a more relevant piece of information?

Not for me. I am more interested in where they grew up. Robert Rauschenberg's childhood home still exists in Port Arthur, Texas. I sat on the front steps and just let my imagination go back eighty years, wondering what factors might have shaped such a huge body of work.

In understanding an artist, how relevant do you think birth/death years are? I mean not the specific year but general lifespan dates.

 The artists featured in my project do share very similar lifespan dates. If you ask someone to list the artists they feel most connected to, or have a great understanding of—they frequently choose artists who lived in their own lifetime. I think this comes down to a recognition of shared feelings and experiences which is evident in the work.

Aside from Friedlander there are several other artists whose hometowns you depict in a style which is fairly representative. Ruscha, Turrell, Baldessari, and Baltz are a few that jumped out at me. 

Hometown of Ed Ruscha, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

I think of my photographs as being made through the 'afterimage' of each artist's work. Because I can't deny that every new image I make is an accumulation of other images I have seen. 

It was a fun exercise for me to browse the book while ignoring the artist info, to see if I could guess which artist you were channeling. I think the book's design helps foster this method because you include that info as a side note in the gatefold.

Yes, the information is there if you need it, but it can also be ignored. 

The book's overall design is quite original. What was the design process? 

The first thing to say here is that I worked with a great designer: Wayne Daly. 

The book’s hardback cover is gatefolded so that an index of the artists’ names and hometown locations can be referred to by the viewer (if they feel it’s necessary) as they turn the pages of the book. In the book dummies we made, the index was either at the front or back of the book—which meant the viewer had to go back and forth to access the information. I took the dummy to portfolio reviews to test these early designs and found they didn’t work well—the suspense or anticipation I sought was just replaced by frustration. So testing the book dummy with an audience was essential to the design process.

The paired letters on the cover of the book are the initials of the artists whose hometowns I photographed. But they are printed with a transparent spot varnish—so they appear and disappear as you tilt the book. This is a self-published book, so both Wayne Daly and I were trying to incorporate design elements which a mainstream publisher might think too… risky because they were too subtle? We both wanted a book which would reveal itself to the viewer over time, and the design plays a key part in that. 

Some of the most interesting photos in the book are those with post-exposure manipulation which make the viewer question what's happening. I think they're very effective in a context of unmanipulated photos. How did you decide which photos to alter and how to manipulate them?

I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t use a blanket approach to photograph each hometown: I wanted to photograph each place in a way that would reflect something unique in the artist’s life or work.

Hometown of Robert Cumming, Mattapan, Massachusetts

One of the photographers featured in my series is Robert Cumming; your phrase to ‘make the viewer question what's happening’ immediately brings his work to mind because (broadly) his photography addresses the mechanics of human perception. Both photographs I made in his hometown have post-exposure manipulations because I wanted to reference the ironic and absurd ‘reversals of expectations’ that are present in Robert’s work. Even though Cumming was working in the 1970s I think his work looks very contemporary today: it was made before Photoshop existed so the effects he achieves are the result of cutting negatives then drawing and painting on them—I felt his spirit of adventure gave me license to do anything… to try something new.

John Gossage’s photographs are, above all, those I have struggled most to find my way past (artistically). I imitated them for a long period during my time as a student. So I photographed his hometown using corrupted flash cards and then further erased each scene using post-production; I’m acknowledging Gossage’s artistic influence on myself whilst erasing it, in the way that Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning drawing. But I’m also reacting to circumstance: I arrived on Staten Island the day before a polar vortex blew through—when I woke up on the first day to shoot, the place seemed almost erased by snow-whiteness anyway.

Hometown of John Gossage, Staten Island, New York

I'm curious about your use of corrupted flash cards. I know you used this in an earlier project too, and it's an interesting area for me. I think the idea of failure and mistakes is pretty integral to art, but tough to harness. What are your thoughts about mistakes/failure? Are they important in your photography? Is it a common thread among your art heroes?

I can see how rapidly my own photography has progressed since I started shooting digitally—for exactly that reason—I was able to make more mistakes... thousands of them…

But when I was a student of photography (back in the day) our tutors gave us only ten sheets of film to use each week (that was the discipline)… so we could only take ten shots. That didn't work for me. Mistakes are integral to human evolution and I don’t see why artistic evolution is any different. 

Not all of the photographers featured in my project are well known. You may not be familiar with the British photographer Raymond Moore’s work—it’s not really talked about today and his books are out of print. But he embraced the accidental in his photographs by using double exposures, and he was fascinated by the unpredictable layering effect of shooting through reflections in windows. So I’ve used a digital means of image-layering because I want to reflect my interest in working in that serendipitous spirit too. 

Which photo class was that? Back in the film era?

I studied photography in Derby (UK). I graduated in 1990. Firmly in the film era. 

Did you begin using 35 mm film too?

Yes, I used to buy those big, round cans that contained 100 feet of film—and cut it into 36 exposure strips myself. I loved my darkroom.

I shoot 35 still partly because it's liberating exposure-wise. I would have a hard time limiting myself to 10 photos per week. But maybe I should try.

I traced some of your books back through your website, and the early ones seem a bit looser project-wise. 48 Recent Photographs, for example. Or 21 Recent Photographs. How do you view those projects now? Does your photography feel more structured?

It definitely feels more structured now. But sometimes I wonder why photography has become so structured and project based, is it some kind of insecurity? Is taking interesting but unconnected photographs now seen as being too easy? 

Do you still make time for unstructured photography outings?

Not any more. The concept is now the engine that drives the work, but I still welcome mistakes that take me in new directions, and allow myself to wander off track. It's a balance. I don't want to be tied down by an idea—so the idea has to be flexible. 

The hometown project strikes a nice balance. You've pinned it to a place and concept, but within that you're pretty open to shoot however you want. I had a similar project a few years back photographing Portland and Eugene systematically in small chunks of map, one per month. It was fun, just the right balance of structure and freedom.

Every artist I feature in my project has produced structured work, but I think the best kind of structure is when the work is just recognizably their own—so that’s the underlying structure. I’m thinking particularly of Eggleston here—he doesn’t have to work within narrow projects or label his work with concepts—his photographs knit together because they are just… obviously his. That's an incredible achievement, I think.

Hometown of Bridget Riley, Padstow, Cornwall

Yes, but also a natural progression. I think anyone that shoots for a years tends to develop a recognizable style. It's like handwriting or a speaking voice. You can't escape it.

I’m not sure I agree. I think there are many photographers who never achieve a style or voice.

If I draw a picture with pencil and paper, it will always look like mine. I think photography may be similar.

Really? But we could take exactly the same picture. The camera’s mechanism is exact and the lens is tyrannical. But if you can bend the camera-machine to your will... you have won! Photography fascinates me in this respect: that we all use the same impersonal tool but the goal is to find ways to personalise it.

I've gone out with friends to photograph together. We walk in the same place at almost the same time. And looking at the resulting photos later, my friends' photos are almost unrecognizable. Where the heck was that thing? Where were you? What made you shoot it that way?

Well, that's great.

This idea gets back to mistakes/failure. On the surface they would seem to defy style, because by definition they are unplanned and uncontrollable. But what you've shown in the book is that they can be harnessed, and maybe that's where some of the real artistic breakthroughs can occur. 

I think artists are good at reframing mistakes so they become opportunities. Mistakes give the artist images that they couldn’t create using their intellect only. William Klein was great at this, I think. His technique of no taboos—use whatever happens—throw away preconceived hierarchies of what is good and bad.

That raises a good question for someone who has just finished a book channeling the style of others. Is there something in this book that's still inherently your style?

I find it difficult to pin down what my style is. But I know it has evolved by looking at work made by others and thinking: that's incredible! How did they do that? And why? Then I try and reverse engineer what they have done, take it apart, change some bits and then put it back together in my own way. I’m interested in trying to get ideas into my photographs but I’m also interested in aesthetics and visual pleasure. Achieving both is where the challenge lies.

I think you do have a recognizable style even if it isn't obvious to you. Part of the fun in the book is seeing your style blend with the styles of your heroes, and try to see whose influences are evident in which photos.

Thank-you, then it works. That’s a relief. Working on this project always felt as though I was walking a tight rope.

After you visited all these hometowns, which one did you enjoy most? Were there any which you'd feel comfortable settling in? Which hometown did you least enjoy?

I tend to photograph in a state of frenzied panic which isn't a fair way to experience any place. But I'd been to Mexico City before and I love it. The people are amazing and it's a city that would confound anyone's expectations. It wouldn’t be a 'comfortable' place to live, but I'd be kept on my toes and I'd value that. 

Which hometown did you least enjoy?

I didn’t enjoy Port Arthur, Texas. At least, I didn’t enjoy photographing it: it seemed that every homeowner had a ferocious dog that would launch itself at me as I walked past (thankfully there was a fence in-between us).

Wait, what? Frenzied panic?

Yes, a constant feeling of 'I can't see anything to photograph here!’ or 'this isn't working and never will!’. Panic! Isn't that normal?

I don't know what normal is. I sometimes take a little while to adjust to my setting and start seeing well. But I wouldn't describe my feeling as frenzied panic. But maybe when you know you have a limited amount of time in a new city there is a certain amount of performance anxiety?

Yes, there is that. But I thrive on that too. The panic creates adrenaline which leads to a heightened sense of awareness.

We could probably trace that feeling back to Montreal :-)

Perhaps we could. It’s fascinating trying to untangle what makes us who we are.

I was born in Berkeley but I consider Briceland my hometown. Any psychologist who knows me and that place could probably create an interesting analysis.

Briceland. I'll have a look on Streetview. 

1 comment:

Marilyn Andrews said...

Briceland on Streetview, now there's a concept . . .