Canadian photographer Todd McLellan likes to dissect things. More than that, he likes to photograph all their myriad components, from the tiniest of screws to the bundles of wires and plastic parts that make them work. He does so by neatly laying out each item, or by capturing them as they tumble through the air, so that the original device — a laptop, iPad, typewriter or Walkman — appears to have exploded.
The resulting pictures (some 50 of them) are visually compelling studies of the inner workings of everyday objects. Now, they’ve been published in McLellan’s new book “Things Come Apart 2.0” — a ‘sequel’ to 2013’s “Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living,” where some of them first appeared.
“It’s an ongoing project,” McLellan said in a phone interview. “I originally started with retro objects — a rotary phone, a flip clock, a mantle clock. Over the years, I’ve begun adding modern items. There’s something about ripping things apart to see what makes them function that I find endlessly fascinating.”
Featuring 580 separate parts, this digital SLR camera is one of the most complex objects in the book. McLellan tries to understand what each component does before creating his compositions. Credit: Todd McLellan
The updated edition features 20 new teardowns of technology and mechanical products, arranged first by size then by intricacy. There’s an AC unit and a gas meter, a ceiling fan and a cassette tape, but also a 3D printer, an ECG machine and a brand new Amazon Echo.
Many of these items are presented both as painstakingly laid-out still-lifes and in disarray, reflecting what McLellan calls his “dual artistic persona.” A collection of essays from notable figures of the DIY world discussing historical examples of disassembly and reverse engineering accompanies the images.
“The idea is to show how even what look like the most complex objects can be broken down and, ultimately, understood,” McLellan said. “Each photo is an exploration of modern and old technologies — the efficiency of the former and the quality and intrinsic beauty of the latter.”
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But McLellan’s teardowns aim to be more than strikingly crafted compositions. In portraying both past and present items, the photographer said he wanted to inspire a reflection on how we constantly make and replace things, even when there might not be any need for it.
“Some of the mechanics behind the objects of today and those we now consider obsolete aren’t actually that different,” McLellan said. “But we’re just so obsessed with the concept of ‘new’ that we don’t even notice. The moment something no longer works, it gets thrown away. In away, the photos aim to shock viewers into making that realization.”
Vintage objects, like this 1970s toaster, are a regular part of McLellan’s project. Credit: Todd McLellan
“Things Come Apart 2.0” draws a clear line between the disposable culture we live in and the inherent environmental decay that comes with it. The most technical of the essays in the book is an article by Joseph Chiodo, inventor of Active Disassembly (AD), a clean, non-destructive technological method of disassembling products into their separate components. In his essay, Chiodo asks readers to consider alternative recycling methods in order to minimize waste, and repurpose products in more efficient ways.
While at the start of the series McLellan tore down mostly discarded objects, he’s now using contemporary, fresh-out-of-the-box gadgets — like the Amazon Echo, which he said was one of the most beautiful pieces to dissect for the new book. Sometimes, he has people reassemble the items to continue using them once they’re shot, so as to reduce the environmental waste he himself might create, and demonstrate the functionality of the items post-deconstruction.
The Amazon Echo was McLellan’s favorite objects to shoot for the new book. “Its simple apparatus is a thing of beauty,” he said. Credit: Todd McLellan
The disassembly is the most important aspect of the entire process. “I really need to understand how each object comes apart in order to visualize it and create a logical image,” McLellan explained.
To do so, before photographing the objects he carefully lays them out to form a composition, working with a team of mechanics to clearly label what each component is and how it works. For the mid-air shots, he has an assistant drop often hundreds of pieces from the ceiling to catch them on camera. “I like to think I’m setting them free,” he said.
McLellan began the series by portraying old objects, like this 33-part lensatic compass. Credit: Todd McLellan
Between the set-up and final portrait, each photo can sometimes take days to compose. “I like to get ‘inside’ each and every object,” McLellan said. “And really grasp what goes into creating a product, how it can be deconstructed, and what that deconstruction means for the environment around it.”
“For me, it’s essential to start thinking about how to regenerate things,” he added. “My photos’ intent is to encourage that.”