Things Come Apart

Todd McLellan is a photographer and fixer from Canada. He was formally educated in photography at the Alberta University of the Arts but gained the bulk of his knowledge working in the field. He works both in the commercial photography/motion world as well as developing his personal work. His most recent photo series ‘Things Come Apart’ is a teardown of our everyday objects. The series is also currently touring North America with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) until 2021.

Things Come Apart: Accordian

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Todd McLellan: It started in a kindergarten finger-painting class and grew from there. The only reason I say that is it was the first art work I can remember at a young age.

I was born among the golden wheat fields of Saskatchewan, Canada. It was actually the small city of Saskatoon surrounded by wheat fields. Raised by a carpenter and an electronic technician, I became fond of the hands-on approach. Always building things, I began at an early age in my father’s wood shop and that carried through to many other forms of creation. In high school I was introduced to the Pentax K1000 SLR camera and loved working in the darkroom. Although photography interested me greatly, I wanted to get into graphic design.

I moved to Calgary Alberta in 1997 and began what I thought would be the start of my graphic design career at the Alberta University of the Arts. After a short stint in some design classes I realized that this wasn’t the path for me and switched my major to photography. Sculpture was a close second. It was here that I cultivated my passion for photography and realized it could be more than a hobby. After graduation I moved to Toronto to grow my photography and motion work. I worked as an assistant for a few years at a top end photography studio where I got a good grasp of the digital world. I started as a full time photographer a few years later. I’ve photographed everything from animals to automobiles. I am fortunate enough after many years in Toronto to have the opportunity to move back closer to family and where it all started in Calgary Alberta.

Disassembled Walkman

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

TM: I am really just an observer of the world around me. I gather my inspiration from conversations, sounds and sights. It could be someone having a conversation with someone else as I walk by. With those snippets you can create a whole vision based on two words.

I am a fan of Renaissance art, well painting in general. I could spend hours in museums just looking at the textured pieces. I should really be in tune to how this has affected my work and if I look back I could place some correlations but nothing that is conscious. I think over all I gather complex work and break it down, literally.

Old Camera

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

TM: I love showing things as they are with little twists. Using light and lensing we, as photographers are able to create a unique version of the things around us. I use this in all my work. With my automobiles I am photographing something that is already beautiful to the naked eye. I want to make what the original designer created pop off the screen. It’s easy to take something that is already beautiful and show it as is but if you change it somehow still representing what was meant to be it can be a whole lot better. My photography tends to focus on one object at a time, centre frame. They are very descriptive photographs and lets you come away with your own feeling and not just mine. At least that’s how I try to capture them. With my current series Things Come Apart it is about breaking these objects down and showing them in a very simple way.

Things Come Apart: Macintosh

RB: Can you say something about your series Things Come Apart?

TM: This came about as I grew my collection of discarded objects. When I moved to Toronto I was shocked that every garbage day people would toss tons of gold to the curb (Gary Vaynerchuk would agree). These pieces soon became a part of my world and lived at home and the office. Although I’m not a pack rat I do have a soft spot for discarded perfectly good anything. I wanted to show these objects I collected in a new life. This is where I dug into my past and worked on them in the way I knew best, physically. I had a job putting together pieces for home centres when I was in college and remember the assembly diagrams that would come with it. It was a breakdown of every part that the object had been built with. I believe they are called assembly diagrams.

I wanted to recreate these diagrams with the pieces I had collected over the years. The first one I started with was a black rotary phone. I got to work tearing it down to its basic components. Then I laid the pieces on glass plates to try and visually create these diagrams. It was a complete failure. I was so disappointed how much post production was required to finish the image. Because I work in commercial photography, I didn’t want to bring that into my personal work and didn’t feel these objects needed it. At that point I scraped the shoot and laid them out on the studio floor. This is where I knew that I had something that would properly represent what I wanted to show.

I always joke that I am a Gemini and have two sides. One very neat and organized and one very chaotic. The neatly laid out image needed a pair and simply put, I had the pieces tossed in the air to catch the “Apart” images. I think of it as setting them free. This project was photographed using layers and put together in post. I was ok with that as I have my true laid out version.

It fascinates me that older objects were so well built, and were most likely put together by hand. These items were repaired when broken, not discarded like our devices are today. Older objects have given people service and enjoyment for many years, only to be replaced by new technology that in turn will be even more rapidly replaced. I wanted to get inside them, to show the quality and beauty in these once treasured, now rejected objects.

Things Come Apart: Wind Up Clock

In many ways new technology is the opposite. There is a powerful mystique to the latest designer gadgets, and manufacturers strive to maintain that by making it extraordinarily difficult to even peek inside the cover. But the truly curious are not so easily deterred. Once inside, you can see the beautiful design of the technology itself, which has to fit into the small package it occupies.

The series has seen its way into two books. Things Come Apart 2.0 was release in May 2019. There is also selection of images I’ve made into a STEAM based show with the Smithsonian that is currently traveling North America.

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you hoping to communicate with this series?

TM: My current work may look busy but it is still actually one object with the contents displayed. I would compare this to a documentary film on a person. The words that come out of their mouth can create a very complicated image of the single person sitting before you. Although I like people to come to their own conclusions of what the work means I do like to convey a sense to not be afraid of the world around us. This works on many levels but if we understand what we deal with on a day to day basis we can make lasting relationships. No you can’t have a relationship with a object but you can make it last longer.

Disassembled Motor Bike

RB: Can you say something about your working process when disassembling objects and creating something completely new?

TM: It is very important to the process that the disassembly is done by myself. This way I can fully understand how the piece works and as I am taking the objects apart I can build a visual on how I see them laid out. The pieces as they come out of the objects are organized into sections so they can be easily put on set. It can be difficult taking a 3D piece and creating a 2D layout. There are some rules that I follow to keep the photos looking the same throughout the process. That said some pieces are laid out a little further away from where I would like them to be.

I like to work from the main ‘shell’ in the middle of the composition and work my way out. In the layout, it has to make sense to how it came apart. The phone for example wouldn’t have the receiver at the bottom of the image as this is something that came from the top of the object. Most of the photos are created over a couple of days. I like to leave it overnight and then come back to it in the morning with a clear head. In the end I come away with one photograph that has been worked for hours. In the laid out image there is very little post production but does require a lot of cleaning.

Disassembled iPhone

RB: What criteria do you use for choosing which objects to disassemble?

TM: Originally it was based on mechanical objects that I had collected over time. These were mostly old retro items that didn’t really have a place in the modern world. After shooting several of these mechanical objects I realized that I needed to juxtapose them with more modern technology. I had stayed away from these pieces because I felt I knew what would be inside. Some boring circuit boards. I was pleasantly surprised how much these could add to the photo and be compared with what was created back in the day. Most of the newer pieces that I disassembled and photographed were collected from friends and second hand stores.

RB: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered during the disassembling projects?

TM: This is a hard question. There have been so many unique surprises from the disassemblies. Most of surprise comes when I open the object up and find there are way more pieces than I had anticipated. The accordion is a great example of that. I have to schedule my time between shoots and for that one I went way under on timing. There were so many pieces and most of them were stuck on with wax. It took forever to get all the reeds out of the wax and clean it up so that it wouldn’t make a mess on the set. I went from early morning to the wee hours getting that one apart.

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

TM: The Things Come Apart series is something that I will continue for years to come. There is so much more to explore.

On top of that I will have mini-series. The side one I’m working on is shooting a collection of fruit. When I say collection, I mean I had some of them for years. Who knows were that one will go or if I will even show anyone. I tend to shoot a lot and keep the results to myself.


All images copyright and courtesy of Todd McLellan

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