It is very difficult to know people…for men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them.

The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham

Artists’ biographies frequently concur on one point: their subjects first awaken to the idea that they may be able to make art when they encounter the work of an established artist. This means that most artists are converted to art by art itself. This first creative affiliation encourages the fledgling artist’s latent ambition and bolsters their self confidence.

Peruse the book collection of anyone with a serious interest in art and you will find a similar network here too—an inner circle of “desert island artists” represented by the most-thumbed books on the shelf. While a prevailing aesthetic may be evident, any suggestion that the relationship between the viewer, the image and the artist is just a mutual appreciation of formal values is to deny that artists are able to tap into something that runs much deeper.

One could speculate that good artists act as conduits, putting the experiences of their lives into their work. So if art can explain the artist, I would suggest that the art we surround ourselves with explains something about who we are, too. The qualities we admire in an artist—which we “know” through the emotive function of their work—are the qualities that either we value in ourselves or aspire to have. If paths run through people as surely as they run through places, the art we revere represents a crossing of the artist’s path with ours.

John Baldessari’s hometown of National City, California. When John was a teenager, his father owned a real estate business in National City—as a chore, he asked his young son to paint the houses he owned. He gave him four colors: blue, orange, pink and green. Baldessari uses the same colors in his paintings to this day. © John MacLean. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Artists evolve by absorbing what they need at any given time, from any given place. Through their own prism of insights, limitations, obsessions, certainties, and vulnerabilities, they collect and refract a spectrum of influences into their art. For example, Peter Fraser does not flinch away from the creative influence of William Eggleston, nor Eggleston from Cartier-Bresson, nor Cartier-Bresson from Degas. Each artist has a personal vision strong enough to prevent their art from being inundated by outside influences, but at the same time knows that embracing intertextuality prevents their art from stagnating. They absorb existing ideas, re-energize them, make them new, and pass them on. Artistic influences may be amplified or compressed as they pass through artists, but their passage through history is recorded in the open-ended volume we call tradition. Every image is constructed through inheritance and reciprocity; all images and artists illustrate a lineage. Paradoxically, whilst the creative desire is always to look forwards, “original” art is always, at least in part, an encoding of work from the past.

“Hometowns” takes a reflexive look at this process of encoding. It began life as a line in my notebook: “Photograph the hometowns of your heroes.” Two years later, that line has become a sixty-five-image photo homage to a unique group of artists who have been my mentors-by-proxy. It is an endeavor to untangle the strands that connect me to their work.

Hometown of William Eggleston, Sumner, Mississippi © John MacLean. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

In total, I have traveled to twenty-five towns and cities—the environments where the artists spent their formative years. Every trip was preceded by a period of biographical research, which inevitably refreshed my memory of the photographs, paintings and sculptures that emerged (at least partially) from these neighborhoods. Important artworks persuaded me to travel to these locations so, unavoidably perhaps, I photographed each hometown through their afterimage. But each place provoked an individual response, and I found myself swimming with and against those currents.

Herein lies the paradox of this series: these photographs were formed by a process of unraveling. So I have tried to find opportunities where I can add my own “twists and turns” to these representations. Overall, I hope they have an underlying quality that reflects the ambivalence experienced by every artist—the simultaneous anxiety and ecstasy of influence.

—John MacLean

Editors’ note: MacLean’s work will be shown at FORMAT17, an international photography festival held in Derby, UK. This year’s edition runs from March 24-April 23, 2017, exploring the theme of HABITAT through varied narratives and imagery that document the worlds around us. Through the end of the show, we will be sharing some of our favorite photographers from the program. LensCulture Editor-in-Chief Jim Casper will also be on hand to review portfolios. We hope to see you there!