Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Mary Maclean

photographic emulsion on aluminium
60 x 75 cm

photographic emulsion on aluminium
93 x 116 cm

Banbury #2
photographic emulsion on aluminium
87 x 126 cm

Sherburn #3
photographic emulsion on aluminium
87 x 126 cm

Leicester #1
photographic emulsion on aluminium
87 x 126 cm

MM: What I’d like to do is show a small group of slides without saying too much and then read from something that I’ve written around the questions we were sent, circling around them somewhat.

[Slides are shown]

They are life scale, or one to one scale and they’re made in a very particular way which I’ll go into.

I work with photography and try to minimise the presence of the lens so that the images behave as re-visualised scenes rather than as photographs. The works are made on a one-to-one scale and are shot straight on. The drama of perspectival diagonals is lacking and the process of building the image through layers aims to interrupt the habitual mechanised sheen of the photograph. The spaces I photograph generate an ambiguous quality. The interiors of domestic and institutional spaces exude a kind of melancholy at once repelling and compelling. The viewer finds him or herself reflected subtly in the surface of the work and positioned back into its space. The works attempt to unpick the viewer’s processes of recognition and ask what the re-encounter with this space might be through the image. I link ideas which develop through the work to literature; writers such as Calvino, Sebald, Proust and Borges offer passages which have pushed forward my thinking on the scope of the work. This reading gives substance to ideas of perceptual ambiguity, the functions of memory and the extension of time within the image. The works are large scale and have an insistent physical presence. The interplay of silver gelatine and the metal support never fully resolves itself. The plane of the picture seems to recede into the surface and equally the muted reflectivity of the metal comes forward to inhabit the image. There is an indeterminacy of distance and proximity within the work. This quality that became apparent through the methodology was instrumental in determining a further body of work which looked at the question directly. I photographed views from a series of windows, partially obscured by net curtain. This lightweight screen became the irresolute point at which interior and exterior space coalesced. After making a selection on what to photograph, an image is held in my mind as to how it should look, this leads to decisions on a flushing out of information, crucially a careful selection of the parameters of the photograph is made. I usually experience a shock on seeing the final image although I have examined contact sheets, proof prints and test strips. The misalignment between what I had expected and what is physically present remains and only adjusts itself after a passage of time.

My approach to making the work depends on procedures and systems. My understanding of the materials is never complete, small or large departures from the expected behaviour nearly always take place. It is a fragile balance of materials. Something of the precariousness and slowness of the procedure is apparent in the finished work. This quality seems to interrogate a notion of time within the immobility of a single image. The work’s aesthetic is intended to sit to the side of photography, with the elusive depth of the work and the blips and un-evennesses which occur in the coating of the surface, combined to suggest the layered constructions of a painting. The material qualities are crucial to the potential significance of the work. The image is both shadow and substance.

I know the work and it's very different to seeing it in slide form. It is very difficult to communicate the precise quality in the form. So, I hope that some of what’s come up and what I’ve written has tagged itself to the questions that were sent but I’m aware that some of them remained unanswered.

RF: You were talking about your reading and the writers that are important. Could you explain how that reading affects your work?

MM: When I was writing the passage, however obliquely or peripherally, I had these phrases lodged in there and I’d say it’s a kind of parallel activity which floats in and out of the making procedure or the activity itself. It sits in the background and more often than not takes place after the event. A passage that I might locate whilst reading may have a particular resonance or acute sense of recognition, and it’s post the event of making, usually.

RF: Are there are particular writers or writings that are attached to particular works?

MM: I’d say it was more to do with a kind of push and impulse underpinning the work overall, I wouldn’t tag it to a single image.

RF: You said something about the selection of the parameters of the image and I didn’t quite understand what you meant by that?

MM: I suppose one of the properties of a photograph is that it gives you an enormous amount of information, perhaps some information that you don’t want, don’t need. Basically it’s a question of what falls off at the edges, so I’m often losing a lot of what’s on the negative. The negative has a whole lot of detail I’m not interested in, so it’s to do with a loss of that and coming in closer to the boundaries of an isolated section of the image. I mean there would be any number of ways of flushing out information. You could scan it in and work through the computer and manipulate and so on but it’s that strategy which I use which is to get rid of things at the edge.

RF: Even when you’re printing the images yourself, when you get the final print, this is a shock?

MM: Yes, nearly always, and it never fails to surprise me, it’s a way of working which in some ways is predictable, but there’s always this element that doesn’t match what’s held in my mind. There’s a confrontation and it’s almost as if I have to walk away for about a week or so and not look at what was made and then come back to it and it moved off into a place where I can recognise it and line it up with what I held in mind.

RF: Is that kind of frisson something that keeps you making?

MM: Well, I think that is one of the qualities I’m interested in. They are very still images in a way but they are also a little bit unstable because they catch the specifics or particularities of where they are shown, so I’m very interested in that flux - it doesn’t settle, your eye scans across it and there’s always this thing That isn’t static in the end. I suppose that’s also something that keeps me making the work, somehow it doesn’t appear to be finished and I hope there’s something open-ended about it.

RF: I hadn’t realised that you printed the work yourself. Why do you do that? Why don’t you take it to a lab? What happens when you’re printing, could you take it to someone else to print it?

MM: I don’t think there is anywhere that is set up to do this process. If I had an unlimited budget I could get a team but it’s a self-evolved system of how I process it. If I was making large-scale colour prints of course I would be taking them to the lab. but it’s a very particular route which has evolved over time. And as it happens I am very interested in deploying the work elsewhere but that needs looking into and is another question.

MC: May I just ask what they’re printed on?

MM: They’re printed on to aluminium so it has a kind of neutral reflective quality to it.

RS: Are you making choices during the printing process as well? Choices in terms of what’s happening with the imagery. You mentioned something about if you could deploy it elsewhere you would do but are there creative decisions made in the process of actually printing the image, are there changes that happen in the printing?

MM: To some extent there are small changes and you’re right, I would then lose control of those. It is to do with the positioning of it. Going back to that question of what falls within the frame and what falls without the frame and that isn’t decided until very late on in the image, so there is that point to consider.

BH: Can I just ask about the failure rate? I mean you were saying that you make the work and then there’s a kind of shock involved and you have a time when you go away and then come back to it. What sort of rate of rejection is there in the making process?

MM: Probably something like 1:3, or two or three which aren’t how they should be and one which goes forward. It’s interesting how much you tolerate……'wait a minute this is going in an odd direction', but it’s a precarious procedure. That’s what I was trying to bring out in what I was saying, this fragility of how that medium exists on its support. It’s almost like a coaxing or an encouragement and the pieces sometimes do go in a direction that is too much to do with a process which is then fore grounded and that’s all that you can see. Other questions just disappear and then the balance makes no sense or is not what I’m intending for the work.

NW: There is no person in there; it’s hard to conceive of your work with a person in. Is that accurate?

MM: Yes I suppose it’s that interest in surrogacy, it is almost by default, this whole template, this idea of socialised behaviour, or environments which are constructed around our needs. It’s by default, we are in there, we’re embedded in there……

NW: Of course. But if there’s a person in there that would alter the whole meaning of the work and the whole tone and mood of the work wouldn’t it? You’d also start reading a narrative.

MM: Yes. I think it does of course accrue a storyline quicker.

NW: But does that relate back to those parameters which you talked about because there is quietness and a stillness on the edge of banality. Once you get human interest that would be completely destroyed, so is that need for an overall mood and tone one of the parameters that you’ve described?

MM: Yes, I mean you photograph a settee and of course on one level it’s absolutely that, that is all it is, but through various choices I hope it gets pushed towards other points as well which are not connected to that well-worn everydayness.

NW: But they also intersect in a quite abstract way don’t they, in a formal ordering of them. There’s simplicity and a pleasing order on a purely abstract level, almost like Barnet Newman’s Zips there, in the proportions.

MM: Yes, I mean, I think of course something like the framing of a window is the ready-made frame, I mean it restates the frame.

NW: But obviously where you stand in relation too, it’s going to alter that frame considerably …

MM: I am trying to minimise the presence of the lens to make it equate to the initial seeing experience of these environments.

IK: I was just thinking in terms of there not being any person in the image. It’s also an issue of subject and the subject comes back on the viewer looking out the window and the attention comes back to us looking at it, in terms of how you think about this image or the intelligence of the image. It’s more to do with ourselves than the subject we’re looking at.

MM: The viewer as subject? Yes. I mean, I don’t know if it emerged from what I was saying but I tried to suggest that in the overall scale of them. One point is the reflectivity, you are somewhat in there in looking at them, is that partly what you’re saying?

IK: I know the medium here, it’s reflective, so there is a mirror image of the viewer looking but also just, in the slide, where that’s not apparent, there’s still that emphasis, because we’re not focusing in on anything. We’re actually taking part in looking through the window on to the world, so it’s a kind of way of looking.