Web Exclusive – July 22, 2013
A fascinating look at the inner workings of gadgets disassembled
Professional photographer Todd McLellan was always a tinkerer. A few years back, he started collecting everyday objects—including a fire extinguisher, snowblower, accordian, record player, microwave, iPad—taking them apart, meticulously arranging their components and then photographing them. The result is a series of truly fascinating photographs collected in Things Come Apart.
The book also features what McLellan calls "drop" photos, in which the components were arranged on a platform near the ceiling and then dropped, at which point they were photographed in mid-air. A handful of essays from the likes of Gever Tulley—founder of the Tinkering School for children—dot the book, providing perfectly timed pauses between photos that have a tendency to invite prolonged, intricate study. More than just a gorgeous art book, Things Come Apart is also a visual feast for the curious and the nostalgic, who giddily turn each page to devour what awaits on the next.
We asked McLellan about the inspiration behind the project, his creative process and whether he has a favorite photograph.
Did you take things apart as a kid?
I was very young, but I did it with a hammer and not specialized tools. I can’t really put a date on it, but I was younger than most. I also remember using a soldering gun at a pretty young age and having a workbench in my bedroom with a pretty heavy-duty electrical tester that my mom brought home from work. At the time I had no idea what it was for, but it looked pretty cool.
How did you come up with the idea for this series of photographs?
I wanted to show some of the objects that I had collected in a new light or different way of seeing them. The standard portrait of them was quite boring. I tried to take the assembly diagram approach, but it required more digital work than I wanted it to take on and the complex objects would have become unrecognizable. I do enough of that in my commercial work. I ended up taking the pieces and laying them out how I had taken the object apart. It stems from my fascination with how things work and photography.
(Swiss Army Knife, 2000s; Victorinox; Component count: 38)
What was your selection process? Are there any objects didn’t make it into the book?
I started collecting things years ago, then started to photograph them in 2009. They came from second-hand shops, street curbs and were stuff people gave me. They were all objects that people had discarded or given up because they were no longer needed. As I moved along with the book, I began to actively search a little more but still wanted to follow this discarded path. There are many objects that didn’t make it into the book. Some I enjoy individually but weren't a good fit with the others.
What was the first thing you photographed? The last? How many years were between them?
The first photograph from this series was the rotary phone and the last was the airplane. There were three years between them.
Aside from the airplane and piano, which object took the longest to take apart? How long? Is it the same one that took the longest to arrange for the photo? If not, which was? And how long did it take you to set up?
I went to the manufacturer for the airplane, so that disassembly was non-existent—but it did take a long time to lay out. The typewriter took about a day and a half, but I think the accordion and the snowblower ended up taking the longest. They seemed pretty simple but had so many different elements.
Do you have a favorite object/photo? If so, can you share why it’s your favorite? (Mine, by the way, is the juxtaposition of the digital and mechanical watches. Also, the flip clock, I think for nostalgic reasons.)
I used the flip clock for a while and had one almost exactly like that one when I was a kid. It was a hard one to take apart. I change my idea of which is my favorite all the time. At the moment it’s the snowblower. The weight of the object and quality of the steel were amazing. The color and composition is much different from the other photographs.
(Snowblower, 1970s; Mastercraft; Component count: 507)
Was it a conscious decision not to include photos of the object pre-disassembly? If so, why?
I like making the mind work. It gives viewers the opportunity to look at the pieces and make the object whole in their heads. The objects are what everyone has seen before—it's what’s inside that most people haven’t seen.
Was there an object you really wanted to take apart but for whatever reason just couldn’t make it happen?
The aircraft almost didn’t happen. This was the object that I was searching for for quite some time. There are many objects that I didn’t get to take apart but will get to them at some point in the future.
You mention in your introduction that only one of the “drop” photos is actually one shot. Can you reveal which object this is?
I managed to capture the phone falling in one shot. I did use some frames from another image to replace some pieces in the end. I tried getting some of the other objects in one shot, but I lost control of the design that I had in mind.
(Bicycle, 1980s; Raleigh; Component count: 893)
What did you take away from working on the project?
It’s the design of how things are made and how different manufacturers build them. I wanted to follow what people are discarding and what’s readily available. When you look at some of the manufacturers on the lower end and some of the manufacturers on the higher end and compare they way they fit things into spaces . . . it’s interesting. Some polish the insides, some don’t.
All photos ©2013 Todd McLellan and reproduced with the permission of Thames & Hudson.