With his tenth photobook in ten years of collaborating with graphic designer Wayne Daly of London-based studio Daly & Lyon, John MacLean delivers a project that works against both the conventions of book design and the curated experience of the art gallery. Outthinking the Rectangle is an unbound book which addresses the traditional presentation of images and the impulse to arrange, frame and confine the images we receive, whether that be via the white-cube space of the gallery or the linear flow of pages in a book.
Presented as a limited artist’s edition of 100 copies, each consisting of 24 photographs contained within a clamshell box, John’s book plays with the notion of “thinking outside the box.” As he states: “Modern culture continually reinforces an instinct to see rectangularly through the prevalence of pages, frames and screens and I wanted to emphasise this visually. In contrast with my previous book Hometowns which was very punchy and colour-saturated, this book is intentionally restrained and ‘cool’. It reflects my ambivalence towards the contemporary art scene and the sanctity of the Modernist white-cube art gallery.”
Summing up his photographic style, John says: “I try to make complicated photographs that require time to decipher. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the psychology of seeing, and this is beginning to be reflected in my style. The camera sees geometrically but we see psychologically; I’m interested in how this discrepancy can be illustrated in photographs.” The photographs comprising Outthinking the Rectangle interrogate concepts of the viewer, viewed and photographic representation. This body of work, John tells us, “grew from a desire to think about – and push against – the rigidity of the photographic apparatus, to try to interrupt the continual flow of rapidly redundant images.”
In terms of the art direction and the practical execution of the book itself, John says that “the most important part of the design process was getting the box size and the weight of the cards exactly right. I wanted the book to be substantial – like a brick – so that the physical weight would contrast with the lightness and slightness of the photographs. The text is important in this project but it’s equally important that it is not read in its entirety until the photographs are viewed. So a decision was made to have the text printed on the inner lining of the box – revealed only when the cards are removed.”
When it comes to materials, John reveals: “The photo cards were duplexed from two different premium paper stocks. The consideration for the front side was primarily for image quality – to achieve both a neutrality and smoothness in the grey tones – so we chose Heaven 42. The reverse side needed to be tactile because the viewer’s fingers rest there, so we selected Colorplan Pristine White. It has both a subtle texture and a subtle colour temperature difference to the front of the cards so seemed perfect.”
“In all honesty,” John considers, “I think it teeters on the edge of not being a book at all.” As he describes it, “the pages can be reordered; they can be arranged anywhere outside the box too and hence form new rectangles. They can even be distributed individually – they can escape the box!” With its strong emphasis on the book and the images as material objects, and with its insistence on the tactile experience of viewing, Outthinking the Rectangle is an immersive rethinking of the conventions by which we present and receive images – mimicking those conventions only to subvert them and accentuate their absurdity.