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Best Books - Book Reviews: New Colour Guide

New Colour Guide. By John MacLean.
Hunter & James, 2012.
New Colour Guide
Reviewed by Janelle Lynch

New Colour Guide
Photographs John MacLean.
Hunter & James, 2012. Softcover. 68 pp., illustrated throughout, 6-1/4x9-1/2".

John MacLean sees with an awakened eye. His New Colour Guide is as much about artful visual perception as it is a query into the power of color.

MacLean clearly delights in observing the world, and that is one of the implicit themes of this book of photographs: "Look at all there is to see!" Playfulness fuels his vision as if his investigation were a kind of game. In fact, he began this—and all of his prior book projects—with an idea or question related to place, culture or the medium. From there, his adventure unfolded. For New Colour Guide, MacLean asked, "How does colour influence our perception of an image?"

New Colour Guide, a plastic-covered paperback with forty-five images, is MacLean's eighth self-published book since 2007. Museums, markets, tourists and teachers provide a canvas for MacLean's study. He approaches it like a forensic investigator with a flair for form and freshness. His views of bruises and belts draw the viewer in to reconsider the quotidian, as if seeing it for the first time.

New Colour Guide, by John Maclean. Published by Hunter & James, 2012.

The image Tourist shows the back of a sweat-drenched striped shirt on a closely cropped male torso. The subject's arm and neck are included in the frame as is a glimpse of a young man, a hand, and an unidentifiable object. The curiously symmetrical oval perspiration mark darkens the sky blue fabric to an ominous hue. MacLean's gaze captures a moment in a narrative with subtext about the color blue, its symbolism, and psychological and physiological effects.

On the opposite page, in one of the book's many clever juxtapositions, is Blood I, a depiction of a flat, snow-covered oval object that mirrors the oval sweat mark seen in Tourist. Drizzled on its surface is a red substance identified in the title as blood. But is it really? The question is one of MacLean's guiding interests. When asked about his relationship with color, he said, "We are born with certain responses to colour, and others are cultural…we have strong associations with certain colours that are either taught to us during childhood or are already in our collective unconscious."

New Colour Guide, by John Maclean. Published by Hunter & James, 2012.
Shelter, a double-page spread, depicts a white hammock in a barren interior corner cradling wrapped objects and red and blue seat cushions. Framed this way, the hammock takes on a sculptural quality, as if it were installation art. Besides the unusual vantage points and cropping techniques employed to decontextualize his subjects, MacLean uses digital tools to create black backdrops that highlight color. A continuity of vision is supported by his use of flash, which provides a consistent quality of light.

New Colour Guide, by John Maclean. Published by Hunter & James, 2012.

MacLean made the images in New Colour Guide with a digital medium format SLR over the course of a year, though winter dominates. The images Snow I, II and III depict overhead views of snow-covered land. At the center of the vertical frames are roughly shaped forms: red square, green circle, blue triangle. Random foliage adds texture. The images conjure colored inkblots used in Rorschach tests by psychologists to examine patients' personality and emotional functioning. They also recall Josef Albers' series of paintings, Homage to the Square and book The Interaction of Color, from which MacLean drew early inspiration. His images champion Albers' goal: "the revelation and evocation of vision through art." Red with streaks of color, the cover photograph is a detail of a file-transfer error. Other similar images are interspersed throughout the book. MacLean said that he "first welcomed, and then engineered" them to "expose the digital medium's chromatic building blocks" and to pose the question: "if a photograph is ultimately nothing but a white page, variously graded and spotted with colour, where is the tipping point when a million coloured dots become a recognisable image?" These images add another layer to an already rich, complex exploration causing the book to feel conceptually, if not formally, crowded. It merits a separate project.

New Colour Guide, by John Maclean. Published by Hunter & James, 2012.

While the book's design suits the "guide" concept of the title, the images might have thrived in a more generous layout and without the thumbnail index and gatefolds that interrupt the book's flow. The work elicits questions and associations that warrant thoughtful contemplation not typically aligned with guidebooks. New Colour Guide does, however, fulfill its role in that regard, as it inspires heightened perception and awareness to discover the world anew.—JANELLE LYNCH

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by Aaron Schuman.

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JANELLE LYNCH is a photographer, teacher, and freelance writer. She is also a 2012–13 Fellow at The Writers’ Institute, CUNY Graduate Center.