Ian McDonald is a photographer from the north east of England. Born after the war and Middlesbrough was a town embracing industrial expansion with optimism for the future. This had a profound effect on the young creative mind. McDonald relentlessly documented post-industrial England, images which are renowned in the photographic world. His images capture a time, a place, and a change fading from the landscape.
McDonald began taking pictures aged 10 using a standard box brownie camera. Little did he know that these images of family holidays by the seaside was the beginning of a visual journey which led him to document the most dramatic looking places in the north east. One of the main places that instilled a belief in photography and drawing was Grentheam Creek, an old sea march with houseboats and fishing boats in the banks of the river tides. Trips here as a young man shooting and observing the wildlife would go on to influence his work as a photographer.
“I always had these ideas and wanted to get them down the things that were around me. When I feel there’s something, there’s some kind of buzz, there’s some kind of feeling going on about the things that I believe in. And when I make a photograph I have to get out into the atmosphere, go out into the world. And when you put yourself into the environment things begin to happen and you make responses to that”. And so MacDonald believes one should go out into the atmosphere, absorb it and respond to it.
He likes to find people in the world, people like fisherman Ken Robinson. MacDonald continuously sought out such subjects that live in these ways, people operating in their own world within the wider world and frequently visits these places. The image of Ken is one MacDonald distinctively remembers taking because it communicated something of the spirit of a person, “In his dress, the way he chose to dress and position himself. It shows the way I developed with the 5×4 camera, the way of finding to express what their environment was”. The images show the shed, the boards are weathered. It’s a wonderful reflection of the world outside. It became problematic because MacDonald became obsessed, in constant pursuit of people like Ken. “Pictures are little stories and adventures but sometimes they can tell big stories. Those pictures are the significant ones.”
The first things MacDonald remembers seeing and have influenced him are things from his childhood holidays. He began drawing the things he saw. The impressionists also found inspiration from these environments and MacDonald wanted to make images like them, “ Found photographs very instantaneously, and you could get an impression, an image which meant something”. MacDonald studied at the College of Art, it was slightly naive but possessed a strong desire to create pictures. The key thing for MacDonald is that he makes his images entirely. He shoots, processes the film and makes the prints, “Everything has to be right.” When making his images MacDonald operates in silence, “I don’t like a lot of noise”. The working environment is important.
London became a poignant protocol. Francis Hogson followed the work of MacDonald for over two decades; “Ian still asks questions about how the world works before he questions how to fit the world in the frame”. Hogson believes his images encapsulate history, people and a time, which fit into a cultural continuum. He stimulates an intellectual process. For example, photographing landscapes. MacDonald is aware of previous versions of it. People can sometimes be naïve about photography, as if the world will just impregnate itself onto film in a neutral way. MacDonald however is highly literate in previous photography. Instead he creates a vision. The things he chooses to photograph are not glamorous. He has something to say. For example, his image of Cote Hill. The sky is noticeably heavy and striking, offering a psychological gesture and courage, “weighing heavy on the mind”. Has great portraiture. They exude an element of class, a background, real characters and time, completely striking and touching.
“People have significant photos for themselves and we mustn’t forget that”. MacDonald met a collector of photographs who was only interested in how photographs exist as an object, the weight, the smell, the quality and so on. This struck MacDonald. MacDonald is anti-exhibition, only as bi-product. MacDonald’s print of Ken, there is additions and subtractions to ensure the things that interest him come through in the image. When creating prints, he leaves the edges of the photograph creating a sense of completeness.
MacDonald’s most challenging project was of Rescar Blast Furnace, the largest of its type in Europe creating 11,000 tonnes of iron per day. MacDonald was fascinated by the sheer physical demands of the job he decided to follow the shift patterns of the workers day and night. The images share and encapsulate their experiences, which proved to be some of his most powerful images. “I like to use the visual language we’ve got to celebrate, to show people things. To convey character and what they are”. The shift workers changed as soon as their shift began. They became a team member and operated within a team, they were happy. Photography grasped this; it showed people the power of them and gave the subjects strength.
The image of Ken will always remain as long as there is paper and chemicals. So many influences come through, reflecting who you are. Middlesbrough became MacDonald’s empire. He possessed a basic instinct to find out. Sitting and watching, his childhood, his drawings all draw him back and satisfy his needs and curiosity. “My life is in the past. Time passes us by all the time. I hope my images talk to the future and values I believe in”.