Some artists display their hometown pride (or lack thereof) all over their canvases: One of William Eggleston’s most famous photographs, for example, was shot near where he grew up, in Sumner, Mississippi. Other artists’ work offer little direct evidence of where they were raised; you’d be hard-pressed to guess where, say, Wassily Kandinsky was born just by looking at his art. But even in these cases, as London-based photographer John Maclean suggests in his photo essay Hometowns, an artist’s childhood surroundings powerfully shape his or her visual style.
The sprawling project started with a simple idea: Maclean wanted to photograph the hometowns of his heroes. “When I sat down and made a list, I realized my heroes were all visual artists: photographers, painters, and sculptors,” Maclean says. “That made me wonder if there were any ‘clues’ in the places where ‘my artists’ spent their formative years that might help me understand the visual language they developed in their adult, artistic lives.” To explore these questions, he set off on a series of pilgrimages, traveling around the globe to the hometowns of 21 of his favorite artists, from Gabriel Orozco (Mexico City) to James Turrell (Pasadena, California).
Somewhat painterly in their own right, Maclean’s photographs of these towns channel the styles of the artists who lived in them, revealing how these early surroundings shaped their aesthetics in ways both subtle and obvious. His shot of James Turrell’s hometown of Pasadena, California, features a water tower bathed in a column of light, the artist’s favorite medium. Ed Ruscha’s hometown of Oklahoma City is filled with signage in big block letters, resembling his famous word paintings. Bright, jagged bricks peek out of white snow in Wassily Kandinsky’s hometown of Moscow’s Khamoviniki district, like the jazzy shapes in the abstractionist’s compositions. And the otherworldly light of England’s west coast, where British painter Bridget Riley grew up, seems to illuminate many of her Op0art compositions.
The images are meditations on how a physical place impresses itself upon our visual memories, how the climate and hues of our childhood landscapes seep into our color palettes and interests. In the same way that you might suddenly understand an eccentric friend after meeting her eccentric parents, seeing artists’ hometowns offers insight into the origins of their styles.
The research for Hometowns was extensive. In addition to his globe-trotting, Maclean read 50 artist biographies, getting to know the details of how their upbringings influenced their work.
“Some biographical details directly informed the way I took my photographs, others just helped to build a clearer idea in my mind of the spirit in which each artist worked,” Maclean says. He particularly enjoyed one episode in John Baldessari’s childhood: “His father owned a number of properties in National City and, as a chore, asked the young John to paint them,” Maclean says. “But he only gave his son four different colors of paint to work with — exactly the same colors that Baldessari uses in his paintings to this day.” At their best, Maclean’s photographs offer the same kind of ah-ha moment as this Baldessari anecdote.