Sometimes I want to write questions that impress others and make me seem like I’m more intelligent and worldly than I really am. It’s a bit like a first date and the whole trying to impress mentality, followed closely by some self-examination of what had transpired during that universally understood and awkward time. There are questions, but sometimes you don’t know for sure just how to ask them, or at least ask them in a way that truly helps find the answer. That’s where Jennifer McClure stands head and shoulders above the rest of us. Not shying away from possible criticism about personal history or the choices made in one’s life, Jennifer is about as informed as anyone I know when it come to processing these feelings and expressing them in photographs. She knows how to answer the questions, or at the very least, begin to start that conversation. She has put in the work, learned from mistakes and successes both, and helped us to address our feelings of inadequacy (ok, maybe that’s just me - but I digress). We need images that express feeling and emotion from a solid, human perspective. Jennifer knows how to do that - and we are all better for receiving this gift of her efforts. She set out to learn about and heal herself, but accomplished the task of helping all of us along the way.
Like a true artist, she may argue my interpretation of her as a rock solid person who knows how to build a body of work with thought and substance. She can do that later though, because I never share these intros until the posts are published… (insert winky eye emoji here). So here are my hopelessly inadequate questions (there I go again) that I pray have some form of meaning and can enable Jennifer to get her point across….
Jennifer McClure is a fine art and documentary photographer based in New York City. She uses the camera to ask and answer questions. She is interested in appearances and absences, short stories and movies without happy endings. Her work is about solitude and a poignant, ambivalent yearning for connection.
The child of a Marine, she moved frequently and traumatically. She decorated her walls with traces of her past; photographs became anchor points. After acquiring a B.A. in English Theory and Literature, Jennifer began a long career in restaurants. She returned to photography in 2001, taking classes at the School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, where she was a teaching assistant for many years.
Jennifer was awarded CENTER's Editor's Choice by Susan White of Vanity Fair in 2013 and has been exhibited in numerous shows across the country. She has lectured at the School of Visual Arts, Fotofusion, FIT, NY Photo Salon and Columbia Teacher's College. She has taught workshops at PDN's PhotoPlus Expo, the Maine Media Workshops, and Fotofusion, and she was a thesis reviewer and advisor for the School of Visual Arts Master's Program. Her work has been featured in publications such as GUP, The New Republic, Lenscratch, Feature Shoot, L'Oeil de la Photographie, The Photo Review, Dwell, Adbusters, and PDN. She also founded the Women's Photo Alliance in 2015.
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives them into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and what were your early influences?
Jennifer McClure: I started taking pictures when I was a kid as a way to remember all the different places we lived. Those photos lived on my wall and provided a narrative for my life, but I never thought they could be anything more than fun. I flailed around for a while after college, and at around thirty realized I needed some direction. I was enamored with the photos of Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Robert Mapplethorpe and Alec Soth. I knew this was a language I wanted to learn. I started taking continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts and later at ICP.
MK: Before asking about some of the more nuanced aspects of your photographs, I’d like to address a couple bodies of work that seem to have received a bit more attention than others of the past. You Who Never Arrived has the quality of being both personal and engaging at the same time to so many. Meant to examine the shortcomings of past relationships, how did this work start and do you feel that it served its intended purpose?
JM: I started this project to find out why my relationships had crashed and burned after short periods of time and what was wrong with all of the men I dated. I based it on a story by Raymond Carver called Gazebo in which a couple locks themselves in a hotel room to determine the fate of their relationship. We reenacted all of my breakups in hotel rooms that I rented, with friends, family and strangers standing in for my boyfriends. We ended up having intense conversations as we hashed things out and I was horrified to learn that the problem was me. I always ran away when things started to get real. So it did serve its intended purpose, much to my chagrin.
MK: From my own observation I’ve never thought of you as a self-portrait artist, though you do appear in your images quite frequently, but viewed you as more of a storyteller drawing from personal experience. With the follow up series, Laws of Silence, what changed? What stayed the same?
JM: I was feeling stuck with the self-portraits. I was repeating the same gesture in the same settings. My face was in every photograph. I took a workshop with Cig Harvey around this time, and it really expanded my practice. I learned how to make a more abstract but emotional kind of self-portrait, and also how to use objects and text to add to the story. I was telling the same kind of story but in a more nuanced way. I was trying to make photographs about a feeling rather than a specific incident, but still based on my experiences.
MK: What mental preparations do you make to execute a particular shoot or project that you are excited about? Do you ever look back and find that nothing you had planned is what was done, yet you feel completely satisfied with the outcome?
JM: I usually have a solid project idea first. The shoot ideas come over time. I keep a master list going. Sometimes I jot down an idea or an emotion, sometimes it’s a specific place that carries meaning. Then I match them up and think about the time of day I need and what the clothing looks like. When I get there, I shoot what I had envisioned right off the bat. And then I improvise. Sometimes I end up moving somewhere else nearby that was nothing like what I’d planned. But I trust that if I’m in the right head space, something will happen. And nine times out of ten, I end up with a better photo than what I had pictured.
MK: In the past you’ve been quite open about the time you’ve used to experiment, shoot, try again, make plenty of mistakes, and learn from the process…your process and what that means to you. Do you remember the time a light went off and you felt like you knew what that direction was and where you wanted to go with it?
JM: With the hotel series, I learned that if you dive deep and stay open, you can learn something huge about yourself. I knew that objectively but I’d never experienced it before. I used to TA for Amy Arbus, and she said that if you finish a photo project with the same conclusion you had in the beginning, then you’ve failed. All of this taught me that it’s fine to start a project with more questions than answers, and that’s the way I wanted to work.
MK: It seems that maturity and personal growth show a clear line of sight connection between so much of your work in different collections. I’m wondering how that process has worked with one body of work informing another?
JM: They definitely all feed into each other. Life is a constant process of growth and change. I’ve never had a time where I thought that I was pretty perfect and everything around me was too. I’d figure out one thing, such as whether or not I had an addiction problem, and then tackle the next. So I made work about not being in a relationship, and then the next project was about why I thought that was even important. I looked back at how family influences and personal myths can confuse our perceptions of what we want. And then the next project was about rejecting those traditional family values and looked at what it means to be single. I reach a point in my life where things feel confusing and scary and making work helps me make sense of it all. My photo projects are basically an artistic game of existential Whack-a-mole.
MK: Once you felt that you’d found your voice with the work you were producing, did you continue to find inspiration from the same places, or did your sensibilities go through any perceivable changes that resulted in a need for further examination?
JM: I’m always looking for more inspiration. And I haven’t figured out how to make it go with my own work, but I adore conceptual photography. My own photos tend to be more emotional than intellectual and I’d like to add that layer in. That’s my next challenge.
MK: The more I view your work, the more I see a cinematic viewpoint. Is there an influence from the film world that creeps into how your images are produced? Are there favorite styles, directors, or themes that you lean towards?
JM: I love movies! I study the light and the mood, and I definitely try to make my own images cinematic. I like Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, Miranda July, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders and the Coen brothers. I love dark, moody and lush. And Lost in Translation had a huge influence on the hotel series.
MK: Your photographs are intensely personal and extremely relatable. Was there, or is there any fear behind revealing so much about yourself?
JM: Oddly enough, no, which is strange considering the amount of fear I experience on a daily basis. I had my feelings quite hurt when some work went public widely and people made horrible comments. But I’m not going to change the work, I’m only going to be more careful about where I let it go. And at some point, I have to stop reading the comments entirely. I might never make work again if I let comments steer the boat.
MK: In addressing the body of work, Single, not to mention work prior, I know that your own life has had some dramatic changes with not just entering a relationship, but getting married and starting a family. Do you feel that this will ultimately change the direction of your work in an equally dramatic way, and how do you now look back on your images? I suppose that what I’m really asking is, has the relationship with your own work changed as well?
JM: Everything feels a little crazy right now, but in the best possible way. At first, I couldn’t reconcile my previous work with my current life. I’d made all of that work about defining success for myself and not needing to get married or have kids to feel complete. I looked at being single and realized that I was whole on my own. I certainly did not make the singles work with the intention of not being so. I wondered if getting married and having a kid wasn’t aligned with my feminist principles, if my previous work was hypocritical in some way. I was terrified of becoming a cliché. These are all things I need to explore now. I made some work during my pregnancy about the fear and the joy of having a kid, about committing to intense and long-term relationships with chosen family. Changes are happening faster than I can keep up with, and I’m open to that happening with my photos as well.
MK: You spent some time receiving your photographic education at ICP and SVA, and have returned to both as either an instructor or speaker. You’ve also spent time as an instructor at Maine Media Workshops. How has this return felt to you? Is giving back yet another form of your creative process?
JM: I love being around other people who are trying to make art and grow. Signing up for these classes, especially a workshop, is a big commitment. I’ve had people generously change the course of my life, and I’d love to be able to do that for someone else. I’ve been given incredible gifts. People have gone out of their way to give me a leg up, and I’d be nowhere without that. I have to keep the flow going. And the more I spend time talking about work, the more I learn about my own. It’s a constant exchange.
MK: Always one in support of your fellow photographer, in 2015 you started the Women’s Photo Alliance in New York City. I’d love to know more about the why, who, and how behind starting this organization and what it means to you. How can others help? How can they connect with you?
JM: I’ve had great things happen for me through the support of other women. And I realized that women are underrepresented in galleries, museums, libraries, newspapers and magazines. I thought we could create a space to network and share opportunities, to ask questions without mansplaining responses. I wanted all of us to feel supported and understood and seen. I’ve met many wonderful people, and I’ve loved connecting people who can work together or help each other. I wish we could make an exhibition happen. We’re mainly a Facebook group and Instagram page (which people may join or follow) but we’re working on a website. And we’re all volunteer. People have been so wonderful about giving their time and expertise. I’d like to put a board of some sort together, especially as I get busier with my kid, to make sure in-person gatherings happen. So within the social media groups, we’ll post about how people can help out.
MK: In speaking to future generations of photographers, do you have any words of wisdom to those setting out to make their own mark in the photographic world?
JM: I’d say to learn all of the rules, and then break them. Look for the oddball photos, because that’s where the magic lies. Try to make photos that you’ve never seen before. Be honest in your work. And be kind to everyone, absolutely everyone, because it’s the right thing to do and because you will meet most of these people again.
MK: So wrapping up - what’s next for your photography? Any new projects or exhibitions you have in the works?
JM: I have a book on the hotel series coming out later this year from Peanut Press, part of a larger group release of eight artists’ books. I’m putting together text for the Single series and will be sending that out to the world soon. I let it sit for a while. I needed time, and now I’m coming to it with fresh eyes and I’m excited about it again. I’m also finishing the writing about the work I shot while I was pregnant. I’ll be sending that out, too. I’m shooting my kid as much as possible in between all of this. I’m teaching a class in Maine again this summer on how to use your personal life to start a photo project. I’m also putting together a syllabus for a self-portrait class and will shop that around to schools and institutions. Fingers crossed for exhibitions when all of this happens!
You can find more of Jennifer's work at her website here.