Strategies of Seeing: An Interview with John MacLean

HT of Lewis Baltz II

Hometown of Lewis Baltz, Newport Beach, CA, USA, from the series Hometowns


In beginning to consider how we see and encounter the world around us, the complexities involved quickly start to appear nearly insurmountable. After all, the absolute centrality of visual experience to our lives (and what might loosely be called western culture) would seem to obscure the possibility of a truly critical perspective. In most cases, then, common-sense answers appear to suffice precisely because the experience of seeing itself is understood as fundamentally transparent, without condition. But if we were to reverse these assumptions and to conclude that the conditionality of visual experience (of seeing and so, of photography) is what makes it possible, then whatever questions we have might have to begin with, in turn, seem far more comprehensible – if not any easier to answer. Those conditions, ranging from the material to the cultural, mean that there is no ‘seeing’ in itself; instead, visual experience is necessarily the sum of the conditions that shape it. A consequence of this, of course, is the fact that such conditions can indeed be understood critically; they involve particular strategies and have histories that can be traced. John MacLean is a photographer who has produced several distinct, but conceptually linked bodies of work that go to core of these issues.

While the innate, material aspects of visual experience and cultural habits that overlay them are, generally speaking, inseparable, they do receive different treatments at different points in MacLean’s work, so it will be useful then to unravel some of these explorations. Indeed, in the first case that is an apt term; with Hometowns, he undertook to visit the places that had shaped the visions of those artists who had influenced him and to depict them in a way that not just references, but actually embodies the work of the artist in question. The result is a sort of stylistic pilgrimage that takes in a number of the expected photographic stops, but also a few surprises, and that displays a through-going visual inventiveness. If modernist thought cohered around the notion of an autonomous pictorial space, what MacLean seems to be pointing to here is the inherently tactical nature of how that space can be navigated. This reading of style is viral and mobile, a flow that can be continually redirected to new ends. But neither does he affirm those reductive post-modern tropes of the lost author and of artistic production as an endless cycling of predetermined meanings. The coding of visual experience is shown instead to be at once collective and individual; however apparently unique the style, these borrowed tactics can still offer a result that moves beyond their original use. Influence, then, is revealed as a shared understanding of art’s potential for transformation.

Such experiments amount to a vocabulary that MacLean is able to draw on in successive projects, where it is steadily expanded upon and refined. Strategies of seeing – or rather, strategies that show the contours of seeing – are applied to familiar contexts in order to get beyond our habitual assumptions about how and what constitutes visual experience as an active shaping of what is seen. With his project City, for example, this takes the form of a composite view of the city as a space or a set of encounters that constantly unfolds within a mobile perception. At the same time, the result is still very much in the form of a conventional photographic narrative, however well realised, and these themes also find a wider expression in more formally ambitious projects, which combine the observational nature of photography with a ‘conceptual’ structure. Indeed, it is characteristic of MacLean’s approach that the same essential concerns circulate freely between distinct bodies of work. The result is a stimulating and highly productive sense of openness, suggesting that no idea is ever fully resolved. This is especially well demonstrated by his series Two and Two, where distinct images of the same scene are paired together. This conceit can also be found elsewhere in MacLean’s work, notably in Hometowns, but he emphasises the effect differently in each case. Here it undermines the familiar assumption that a photograph can show anything in a definitive manner. Every perspective he offers has its alternative; each of these moments are unique, but none of them show the ‘real’ view. The photograph is necessarily provisional, incomplete, so that the time being described here is not linear, moving from one frame to the next, but essentially fractal, constantly unfolding into a new dimension of itself.

Arguably though, the fullest statement of such concerns is MacLean’s New Colour Guide, an intriguing and multifaceted body of work that follows some of these ideas to their fullest extent. Consisting of linked vignettes broken up by digitally altered interludes, MacLean’s rigour goes to the heart of what it means to navigate a reality that is increasingly mediated by digital technology. At stake here is unravelling the conditions and the conventions of this new landscape, rather than a merely formalistic concern for the properties of the medium itself. The inclusion of abstract elements (still retaining some trace of the original image) made from corrupted digital files is a comparative departure for MacLean, but makes complete sense in this context. They suggest that the coherence of our shared realities is inherently fragile and that the ‘frames’ holding them together – material as well as cultural – are liable to fragment when stressed enough, just as digital images violently reveal their construction once the code that makes them up has been sufficiently altered. MacLean seems to be driving at the conclusion that we ultimately see (and experience) nothing as it is, but that everything must be understood only as we see and experience it. The treatment of colour as a subject demonstrates that visual experience is a complex synthesis of many different elements and never just a simple transcription. All reality is mediated, and indeed, is only made possible in this way, but in the digital age understanding the process by which this occurs is infinitely more difficult.


Ht of William Eggleston I

Hometown of William Eggleston, Sumner, MISS, USA, from the series Hometowns



Room, from the series New Colour Guide


Hometowns suggests a considerable range of artistic influences, but still remains very much connected to photography as a medium. How did you first get involved with photography in particular?

My father worked on a national newspaper and brought home photography books after they had been reviewed. I consider this, and my father’s interest in taking family and travel photographs, as my introduction to photography. My first photo-book was called Laughing Camera for Kids. I still have it, somewhere. Eventually I asked for my own camera.

Is the way you use diverse formal strategies or techniques such as photographing the same scene from different angles, for example, intended to get outside of conventional assumptions about photography and narrative?

Photographing the same scene twice (and presenting the resulting photographs as a diptych) is a strategy I first employed in my 2008 project Neighbourhood as a means of describing certain temporal phenomena. For instance, snow melting to reveal an object or a shadow moving across a path as the earth rotates. But what began simply as a means of circumventing a photographic limitation, evolved into an investigation of photographic rhetoric in my 2010 project Two and Two. Stepping outside the photographic convention of the single image has continued to be something I find productive — productive in addressing assumptions about photography in general, I’d say.

In terms of strategies, then, it seems like you’re applying these – for want of a better word – conceptual tactics to a way of making pictures that is still very much about going into the world and reacting to what you see?

Yes, it’s a combination of the two. I am going out into the world trying to find images that will fit into a conceptual framework — but not making that framework so inflexible that it doesn’t allow me to react to what I encounter. I wouldn’t be interested in starting a project if the middle and end were already in place. And an allowance for a degree of meandering is essential; the work being made must retain the ability to change the direction of the project.


HT of Rachel Whiteread III

Hometown of Rachel Whiteread, Muswell Hill, London, England, from the series Hometown


Would you say that much of your work to date is concerned with uncovering the mechanics of seeing itself, something that we take for granted in everyday experiences?

Yes, I’d agree with that. However, to be more specific I would say that the relationship between our visual perception and the mechanics of digital image-making is the source of fascination at the moment. A photograph is a distorted representation of our visual experience but this is not something I consider problematic — just the opposite — it is the essence of the medium’s appeal to me.

Your project New Colour Guide in particular addresses the synthetic or constructed nature of visual experience. Why do you feel it is important to explore these ‘philosophical’ questions in your work and what do you see as the potential of photography as a medium to offer meaningful answers?

At the moment I feel that, instead of starting a project by deciding on a particular idea, and then taking photographs, it is more useful to start by taking photographs and letting photography lead the way. I’m all for playing to photography’s strengths: encouraging it to do what it does best. So if New Colour Guide is about the constructed nature of visual experience (and I hope it is) it is because I’ve recognised, through the process of making work, that it’s possible to say something on the matter — then pursued it. Photography doesn’t offer any meaningful answers here — only meaningful research. And if you enjoy pondering on imponderables…

New Colour Guide also includes a selection of images made from corrupted digital files. Was this an accidental discovery you subsequently decided to incorporate into the work or were these elements planned from the start?

Working a few years earlier (with my first digital camera) I discovered that image files often became corrupted under particular circumstances. Whilst this was frustrating at the time, it planted the seed of an idea in my mind. Consequently, when working on New Colour Guide in 2011, I set about making the process of file corruption much more controllable. It was important to be able to produce images which were only partially corrupted (that still retained recognisable elements of the scene which had been in front of the camera) both as a means of linking the digital photograph to its ‘building blocks’ and of highlighting the delicate balance in photography between image and abstraction.


HT Wassily Kandinsky II

Hometown of Wassily Kandinsky, Khamovniki, Moscow, Russia. from the series Hometown


HT of Robert Rauschenberg I

Hometown of Robert Rauschenberg, Port Arthur, TX, USA, from the series Hometowns


James J. Chittick trick, HT of Robert Cumming

James J. Chittick Trick, Hometown of Robert Cumming, Mattapan, MA, USA, from the series Hometowns


River IV

River IV, from the series New Colour Guide



Church, from the series New Colour Guide


Parent, detail

detail, Parent, from the series New Colour Guide


Family II

Family II, from the series New Colour Guide



Tourist, from the series New Colour Guide


Written by Darren Campion / Published 24 October 2014