Please join us in conversation with photographer Jennifer McClure.
- Overall your work encompasses a coherent theme and a particular tone. Can you talk a little about the nuances of you work?
I only recently realized that there is a consistent theme in my work. I don’t set out to make similar types of stories. I start a project because I have something that nags at my brain and my heart, a question that keeps me up at night. Apparently, I think a lot about how we connect as human beings--about what it means to be alone and what it takes to be with someone else.
- Primarily your work concentrates on self-portraits. I find very interesting the fact that although you are photographing yourself, it feels that you are documenting the life of another person. Elements of fiction and reality are present but also an emotional extensive narrative. Can you talk a little about story, and execution of those portraits? What is the level of difficultly when going beyond the standard self-representation?
When I’m doing self-portraits, I always have to imagine a narrative. If I try to shoot without one, the portraits seem boring to me. The character is always based on my self and my experiences, but there is definitely a separation that has to occur when one is both the subject and the artist. I find myself thinking about “her” and where “she” needs to be in the frame. I set up the beginning of the story but I never know where it will go. I have to shoot through all the expected and clichéd plot progressions and then the real ideas start to come. And that’s the exciting part, to see where we all end up. Sometimes that never happens. I have many, many shoots that weren’t able to go beyond the standard.
- Is there a connection, or progression between “Laws of Silence” and “You Who Never Arrived” and the “Singles” series? I think there is definitely a consistent aesthetic approach in all of these projects. How important are the aesthetics of your work in delivering your message and why?
“You Who Never Arrived” is an exploration of my failed relationships. I thought I would find out what was wrong with all the men I dated, and of course I realized that I was the reason I had never been in a long-term relationship. “Laws of Silence” looks at why I have so much fear about making such a connection and whether the pressure to be in a relationship came from an actual desire or an internalized expectation. The Singles Series (so far) seems to be about acceptance as well as really examining all of the excuses we use to avoid putting ourselves out there. I don’t intentionally use aesthetics to convey the message. I only know that I like dramatic, cinematic lighting and not too much clutter in the frame, which does give all the projects some consistency.
- Is ‘Singles” inspired or connected from any of your previous projects? I ask this because in one of your previous projects you are investigating your own past relationships and single status at that time, and in “Singles” you are delving into the relationship status of stranger.
The Singles are definitely inspired by the others. I might never get married and I wanted to look at all sides of that situation. I want to see people who are happily single and people who never give up. All of the stories are fascinating. And sometimes I can only realize that something I say to myself is a little off base when I hear someone else say the same thing out loud. I’m learning how to be much nicer to myself.
- How difficult it was to find singles to photograph and are the subjects strangers or people you know? Please talk about the process and the interaction between you and then in delivering such an emotional body of work?
It’s very hard to find singles. I do both strangers and friends. I get a lot of rejections, which doesn’t bother me. There are dark times where I tell myself that the reason I’m single is because I’m inherently unlovable, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I’m not sure I could meet with someone and be honest about my insecurities and then make a portrait. I’m always blown away when someone agrees to this. I definitely have an easier time when people are solid and positive about being single. But then again, I think all of our feelings change about the situation on any given day. It’s a spectrum of emotions, and probably the same spectrum that people in relationships are feeling. I have to be careful not to impose a point of view on someone. I really try to make each shot a collaboration. We talk ahead of time about how people feel about their situation and come up with a concept together. And we actually spend most of the time talking, not so much shooting. I think it helps for people to have the subject on their minds, and then the emotions show in their body language and their expressions. I don’t give a ton of direction, but I do try to find the right setting and light to fit the mood.
- There is a contemporary trend in thematic work that concentrates on the meaning behind the work deprived of any aesthetic considerations. Your work is ingrained both with aesthetic qualities and meaning that I believe makes it utterly successful. What is your opinion on the current trend?
Meaning is very important, especially when we are so inundated with images these days. Digital photography makes taking a technically perfect and beautiful photograph much easier for everyone. And if a photo is not perfect right away, we can filter and manipulate it until it is. Some aesthetically gorgeous photographs leave me cold, though I appreciate the effort behind them. Other photos become better to me when I know the story behind them. I like to know that a photographer is thinking on a level that goes beyond visually pleasing. I love smart conceptual photographs, ones that I think about long after I’ve stopped looking at them.
- Your images, like life, are very poetic, dreamy and feel as they are inspired by literature. Is reading an important constituent in your collective work?
Absolutely. I love poetry and short stories. I love the craft involved in conveying powerful emotions in shorter forms. It’s not easy. Sometimes one sentence or phrase can give form to something that’s been circling in my brain for months. I don’t consciously try to make that happen in my photographs, but every now and then it does.
- Where do you find inspiration for your work and who is your favorite photographer and why?
I watch a lot of movies. I also watch a lot of series these days, because the lighting in shows like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” is phenomenal. The emotional inspiration usually comes from something that’s happening in my own life, but I take visual cues from great directors. I wouldn’t be able to pick one favorite at all. The photographers who first inspired me to take pictures were Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems and Diane Arbus. They were all able to imply a story that was happening just outside the frame.
- What advise would you give to students and emerging photographers in order to create a successful body of work?
I would tell them to follow their hearts when making a body of work. We’re all curious about something, and we all have passions and obsessions. Make a project about those. And be prepared to learn something, to find something new. I was a TA for Amy Arbus for a while, and she would tell her students that if the project turned out exactly the way they thought it would, then they had failed. Something unexpected has to happen. I wholeheartedly agree. It’s so important to be open throughout the course of a project, to give up some control.
- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography and the work that is promoted by photography dedicated platforms and social media?
I think we’re at a very interesting time in photography. Conceptual photography is really taking off. Many people are making photographs that are mostly about physical and digital constructions, and the actual print is just an artifact. At the same time, many people are using old techniques in new ways that are still very much about process and creating unique physical objects. And then there are documentary photographers and photojournalists who are required to really flex their artistic muscles in order to stand out from a crowd of cell phone observers. In the end, I think the best photography is still about telling a good story. There are so many photography platforms available for promoting all of these different kinds of work. People have to do research and be persistent about getting their work on the right platforms. We make the work we have to make and worry later about where it goes. Everything has a place.