JENNIFER McCLURE: Divining the Personal

Untitled from the series “Laws of Silence“ 
Photograph © Jennifer McClure
double-click to enlarge

Untitled from the series “Laws of Silence“ 
Photograph © Jennifer McClure 

Untitled from the series “Laws of Silence“ 
Photograph © Jennifer McClure 

“When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don't work. It's like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. “ – Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 

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I’m a huge fan of Jennifer McClure’s intimate introspective images. Fine art and documentary photographer - and founder of the Women's Photo Alliance - Jennifer McClure is one of the most interesting contemporary voices in photography today. She uses the camera to ask and answer questions and turned the camera on herself after a long illness limited her access to other people. Join Jennifer for a week of storytelling, "Divining the Personal: How To Bring Your Life to Your Projects,"at the Maine Media Workshops in June.

I first interviewed Jennifer McClure in 2014, when her work won an award in the Castell Photography Gallery’s sixth annual exhibition I juried, NEXT: New Photographic Visions, following in the footsteps of my mentor, collector and curator Wm. Hunt. Our Interview below:

L’Oeil de la Photographie Magazine, Fall 2014

JENNIFER McCLURE is a fine art and documentary photographer based in New York City. Born in Virginia and raised all over the Southeast. “As 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, she returned to Photography in 2001, taking classes at the School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography. She is currently a teaching assistant at ICP. Her work has been exhibited in numerous shows and publications, and most recently was awarded CENTER’s Editor’s Choice by Vanity Fair’s Susan White.

EA: Is your photograph, Untitled, part of an ongoing series?

JM: This image is from a series called “Laws of Silence“, which is about personal mythology and fear of letting go of the life I was programmed to live. I was taught that having a family and a home and a church and a regular job meant that I was successful. My own family life was difficult and displaced, not something I wished to replicate, and left me distrustful of both people in general and the whole idea of the American Dream. I didn’t buy into any of it, but I didn’t know how to rewrite the story line. Eventually I realized that l don’t have to, that I just have to be comfortable with the unknown. The water is an important part of this series because I had a bad experience in the water as a child; I love the water but I’m also afraid of it. I often feel the same way about people. I’ve learned that neither is as scary as I’ve let them become in memory, that what feels overwhelming can actually be soothing and healing.

EA: Can you tell us something about the experience of shooting this image? What captured your attention to take this photograph? 

JM: I wanted to show the experience of immersing myself in something that terrifies me, of feeling lost and groundless but doing it anyway. I had just put myself out there in a personal relationship and it didn’t work out, so I was feeling very vulnerable. I wanted to disappear. I had only intended to show myself awkwardly underwater with no real frame of reference, and the bubbles were an unexpected surprise. We shot it in my friend’s pool with a cheap underwater camera. We both had to go under at the same time and shoot blindly and hope for the best. I had no idea if we got anything until I got home.

EA: Is there a quote  – your own or anyone else’s – or descriptive paragraph to accompany your image/this series?

JM: ……I read that Thomas Roma likens the making of photographs to Robert Frost’s idea of making a poem: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness, a lovesickness.” My pictures come from that emotional space of longing, of wishing for things that never were and might never be. I don’t know if I’m telling a story as much as trying to find a way out. I can only see a feeling clearly when I disarm and immobilize it, pin it to the wall and examine it with the others.

EA:  How did you originally get involved in photography?

JM: I shot a little for an independent newspaper in college, but I never took classes. I was en English Lit major, and I didn’t realize the storytelling power of photography until much later. I started taking continuing education classes at SVA and then moved to ICP. I was shooting anything and everything. The first real series I did was about nine years ago. I had just gotten clean and sober but I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea. I put an ad in the Village Voice to photograph substance abusers. We spent a lot of time together, and I got to ask them the questions I was afraid to ask of myself. We had different circumstances, but the same emotions and desires and needs, the same flawed coping mechanisms. This is what fascinates me, whether I am photographing myself or others: how we come to be the people we are, and how we choose to handle the lots we are given. Since then, I’ve continued to take classes that focus on this aspect of photography, the emotional rather than the technical.

EA: Is there a photography icon you met, would like to meet, or wish you had met, that has influenced or inspired you? 

JM: I recently met Sophie Calle at an opening. We weren’t introduced, but I told her I loved her show and I took a picture of her feet. I would love to have a conversation with her. The photographer who has had the biggest influence on me is Amy Arbus. I took her class as a student and then continued on for many years as a teaching assistant. I can’t begin to condense everything I learned from that experience, but here’s the most important: there is often a huge difference between intention and execution, there is no shame in reshooting, you must be genuinely interested in your subjects, and your photos have to tell a story. I was also lucky enough to meet Elisabeth Biondi. Her editing skills and advice are truly phenomenal.

EA: Apart from developing a great body of work, what are your objectives; what are you working on NEXT?

JM: I’m starting a new project on single people. I read recently that more than half of all Americans are now single. Some are happily single, some are looking, and some have given up. I’m looking to photograph all types, all ages. I can’t wait to hear these stories.

Divining the Personal:
How To Bring Your Life to Your Projects
Date:  Jun 17 – 23, 2018

 Maine Media Workshops
70 Camden Street
Rockport, Me. 04856
toll-free 877-577-7700

Photograph © Jennifer McClure

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