Flicking through Complements by Michael Mahne Lamb we can’t help wanting more. We want to know more about the image (‘Where is the dog going?’, ‘Did that ute back into that piece of metal or was it busted beforehand?!’) We want to know more about what is going on in the scene. After interviewing Michael, we seem to be none the wiser — but we do realise that this is what he is looking for. He is not content with an image being ‘pleasing’ or ‘nice to look at’ (could anything be more of a backhanded compliment than ‘oh that image is nice to look at’?) he wants you to feel something, he wants you to be uncomfortable or comfortable. Simply being ‘content’ or a passive viewer of his work is not his intention. When you look at his work you better feel something dammit.
To further explain this we went to catch up with Michael and discussed his first body of work, Complements;
I remember when you were getting all your images scanned, how did you select them all?
I had been shooting for the last two, almost three years. To start editing I made contact sheets. I went through and made A4 contact sheets and went through with a pencil—
Oh so you literally went through in a manual way off an index sheet?
—yeah, so I ended up with around 350–400 selected and made small work prints. I had this stack and went through with ‘yes, no and maybes’ and I just culled it down over time. I ended up with probably 100 or so I was really happy with.
The process was just intuitive, naturally one image or full spread would somehow lead to the next, and that’s how the final edit and sequence was constructed.
Multiple times I revisited the pictures that didn’t make the sequence to see if there was any that I might of missed, and could or should be included.
Even a couple of my favourite ones, that I thought would definitely make the final cut, just didn’t have a suitable pair, or didn’t sit well in the sequence.
That was my next question was there an image that you wouldn’t ordinarily have put in there but because it complimented another one so well it made the final cut?
Yeah definitely. I think there was a couple in there, actually, there is one of a concrete floor with a spill of water going across it and that laid up really well with the image of a river bank. It must have stood out for me to pick it off the contact sheet but once those two paired up it just worked as a spread. By itself it could be seen as a nothing image but paired together it evokes something more.
I’ve noticed all of the images are shot portrait (orientation) is there a reason for that?
I’d say 90% of my images are portrait. I just found myself instinctively seeing images like that. I’m really drawn to strong graphic images, I like geometry and tension within the frame. I feel I can achieve that more with vertical images. Also whenever I’m composing something in camera I always have an idea of where the golden ratio sits, that’s why I love the 35mm format, just because of that perfect ratio and that’s an influence on how I shoot.
What’s the reason you shoot film?
I can go through a film in two days or a film can sit in my camera for two weeks, but every time I get a contact sheet back it’s a range of images. The most I’ll shoot of a scene is one or two images, and I’d rather see that as it’s almost like my first selection has already been made for me.
I guess it comes back to the usual reasons that a lot of people shoot film, it slows you down, like you’re not gonna blast off 50 images of a table and chairs and umbrella.
Yeah but it also speeds you up, I’ll shoot one frame and keep walking. I don’t have a screen to look at, like the picture you mentioned, in the moment you just shoot it and move on.
The book was shot between 2015 and 2017, you’ve obviously been thinking about it for a while. Was there anything in there that you shot specifically for the book?
The kinds of pictures I increasingly found myself making, I knew I was creating a body of work, whether it be a group of smaller projects that had a common visual language or one overall project I wasn’t sure.
Your images are quite lonely, like you see the backs of people's heads and you crop out faces, there’s a lot of shots where there would be people around, was this intentional or was it more a case of how you shoot and compose? Also, where did the title come from?
A book that really developed my thinking about the work was Rudolf Arnheim’s ‘Visual Thinking’. In one chapter he explains this concept called ‘Amodal Perception’ which is more or less the ability our minds have to complete obstructed views of objects or scenes subconsciously. These incomplete views are described as amodal completions or ‘complements’. As well as the fact I knew I wanted to present each spread as a pairing of two images which ‘complement’ each other made the title fitting.
For a while there I thought the cover image was fabric and it looked like stitching all until you emailed me the cover image and I realised it was an image and not a texture, how did you land on that as the cover image?
Like you said it doesn’t look photographic. It was one of my favourite images before it became the cover — in terms of what I was saying before — the golden ratio, the geometry and the flattening of planes.
How did the link up with Bad News Books come about?
Early last year, I briefly spoke to Harry about the concept behind the book and he said to get in touch if you ever need a hand with editing or opinions. Later in the year, once I had the rough dummy together, he gave me positive feedback and helped me in terms of tweaking a few things here and there and that conversation stayed open. It ended up being a Bad News Books title so that was really cool, Lucy helped with some of the final type design and they’ve been a huge help with promoting it and helping me with the whole logistics of selling it and making it accessible to people. It’s hugely appreciated.
So, what’s next?
I’ve recently made some of the work in the book into prints. I want to see what these images look like on a larger scale and translated to the wall, that’s been really rewarding so far.
Complements is available through Bad News Books here: http://www.badnewsbooks.com/new-books/complements-michael-mahne-lamb
Interview and words by sean aickin for Splendid.nz
All images Copyright Michael Mahne Lamb