One Mother’s Story: Jennifer McClure Explores Intimate Relationships in Portraits

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As she approached her 40th birthday, Jennifer McClure decided to take stock of her life, using photography as a vehicle to explore why things had never really worked the way she thought they would.

Her previous work with self-portraits offered a basic framework for making the pictures, yet nothing could prepare her for the discovery she would make from the photographs themselves, which was the opposite of what she had expected. “I was just shocked,” she admits. “I didn't know self-portraits could take me there.”

Photographs © Jennifer McClure

Looking Inward from the Subject

Initially, McClure gravitated to self-portraiture due to the immediacy and comfort level of always having a subject close at hand. “I didn't have a huge idea for a project when I started out,” she says. “I wanted to learn photography, but I didn't love landscapes. I didn't love still life or street photography. So, I practiced on myself because I liked portraits, and I always had access.”

In her earliest pictures she experimented with a variety of styles—from Richard Avedon-influenced group portraits on white seamless to combining her face with different objects to represent emotional states. “At first, I feel like I was just getting to know the process and getting comfortable—being honest,” she explains.

McClure’s extensive use self-portraiture over time has taught her “to rely on the photos to tell me something about what's going on with me.”
McClure’s extensive use self-portraiture over time has taught her “to rely on the photos to tell me something about what's going on with me.”

This honesty took on a new meaning, and a single-minded determination, when McClure’s decision to quit smoking suddenly triggered an autoimmune condition, leaving her with overwhelming exhaustion. For the next three or more years, she focused in on creating intimate views to explore this shift in her physical and emotional being. “I had limited energy,” she says of this time. “When I could use it, I knew what I needed to get done, and I was able to do it.”

Exploring Relationships with Staged Portraits

As she regained her health and reconnected with her previous social life, McClure shifted the focus of her work, seeking to find the cause of past romantic relationships that had failed. “Why do I keep picking the wrong men?” she asked. “What is it that all these men have in common? What's wrong with all of them?”

When staging past break-ups, McClure’s best collaborators were actors. “We ended up talking out a lot of stuff that I didn't realize was buried inside me,” she says.
When staging past break-ups, McClure’s best collaborators were actors. “We ended up talking out a lot of stuff that I didn't realize was buried inside me,” she says.

McClure decided to reenact scenes from previous break-ups, asking male friends to play the role of would-be suitors and staging the pictures in hotel rooms. “I started at the Chelsea Hotel, because I knew that every room there was different, and also laden with memories, and ghosts, and history,” she says. “I thought, nobody's watching, I can do everything in one spot. I did the first three or four shoots there, and had just started finding my groove, when they closed for renovations, and they haven't opened since.”

Devastated, yet even more determined to continue the work, she turned to the Internet, spending hours researching on hotel websites, trying to match the decor to the mood of scenes to be acted out. After discussing a given storyline with her subject in advance or upon arrival for the shoot, McClure would ask for their input. “Some people had really great ideas that were better than mine,” she admits, with a further touch of insight. “This is how my relationships could have been all along. We could have been collaborating.”

After acting out the scene described below inside the hotel room, McClure decided to step onto the balcony and shut the door. “It wasn’t until then that I truly understood my role in perpetuating yet another fantasy,” she says.
After acting out the scene described below inside the hotel room, McClure decided to step onto the balcony and shut the door. “It wasn’t until then that I truly understood my role in perpetuating yet another fantasy,” she says.

For added context, McClure describes one scenario about a boyfriend she felt was shutting her out. “He had told me from the start he didn't want a girlfriend, and I just refused to listen,” she says. “I thought, ‘Surely I'll change his mind.’ So, he wasn't actually shutting me out, he was just setting a boundary from the beginning and sticking to it, which is completely normal. But my interpretation was totally different.”

After progressing from picture making to image sequencing, a new dimension of the work revealed itself. Says McClure, “I had been looking to find out what my type was, what my pattern was with men, so I could avoid that in the future. But after looking at the pictures, I noticed that I was often in the middle, and there were a lot of solo shots involving just me. I suddenly realized, it wasn’t a dialogue; it was like a monologue with a secondary actor. It was all about me, and what was going on in my head,” she contends. “And you can't run away from yourself.”

Formative Influences

One essential building block in McClure’s photographic journey were photo workshops she attended with instructors Amy Arbus and Cig Harvey. “Amy taught me a lot about taking portraits, and being willing to play and experiment,” she says. “She also taught me not to be afraid to say, ‘I didn't get it, can I try again?’ Which, in essence, means being willing to admit that you're wrong. And Cig’s work is so lyrical, with these beautiful metaphors. It showed me there are many other ways to make a portrait without a person being present.”

One of a few photos McClure made about physically leaving the narrative behind and finding an exit from the pattern. “There was a small patio right outside the window,” she says, “but I like that it looks like I’m stepping into the unknown.”
One of a few photos McClure made about physically leaving the narrative behind and finding an exit from the pattern. “There was a small patio right outside the window,” she says, “but I like that it looks like I’m stepping into the unknown.”

Harvey also encouraged McClure to trust her subconscious. “So, having an idea and going out to shoot with the belief that your subconscious will somehow get the job done,” she attests.

The subconscious, intertwined with family history and personal myth, would soon bear fruit in McClure’s next body of work, after she turned to therapy to probe her relationships with men further. She says, “With many therapists, you end up going back through your childhood and family history, to figure out whether you're acting out unresolved issues. And that’s basically what happened with me.”

Putting Trust in the Process

Coming from a family with deep Southern roots, much of McClure’s upbringing was staunchly traditionalist, with life goals focused around marriage and children. “My parents grew up in small, Southern towns, with the mindset that you don't talk about anything unpleasant. Everything is nice and polite,” she explains. “And there were rules about children, and how children were supposed to act and behave, and how women were supposed to act and behave. My mom used to tell me quite proudly that she was not a feminist.”

A letter McClure received from her grandmother before a backpacking trip to Europe. “She asked if I might perhaps find a husband. I was 22,” she says.
A letter McClure received from her grandmother before a backpacking trip to Europe. “She asked if I might perhaps find a husband. I was 22,” she says.

As McClure mined her past and drew from literary references inspired by her college major of English Literature, the process behind her series Laws of Silence grew rich with intuition and metaphor. Before photographing, she often made use of a creative exercise called Mind Mapping that she had picked up from Harvey. “Just sitting down and writing a couple of paragraphs about how you’re feeling before you shoot can somehow guide what you're doing, even if you don't know where it's going,” she explains. “I was just making pictures and trusting it would make sense at some later point.”

As she worked, pictures based in and around water surfaced as a repeated theme. McClure says, “I couldn't figure out why I was drawn to the water so much. And it's through therapy that I remembered this traumatic experience of being put in a swimming class as a kid that was way too advanced for me. I couldn’t stay afloat, and I was terrified. I kept telling my parents about it,” she recounts, “and they told me to stop complaining and just do it. When the water kept appearing in my pictures, I realized that I was using it to work through my unease with relationships. The water was a metaphor for not feeling heard or taken care of and feeling like I don't trust.”

McClure made this self-portrait in a friend’s pool. She explains, “We both jumped in at the same time, and she took as many pictures as she could. I knew what I wanted, but I was honestly surprised that we got it.”
McClure made this self-portrait in a friend’s pool. She explains, “We both jumped in at the same time, and she took as many pictures as she could. I knew what I wanted, but I was honestly surprised that we got it.”

Coming to Terms with Being Single

After delving into her past and the conventions of her upbringing, McClure became more comfortable with the idea of life on her own, unattached. This led her to embark on a new series of portraits, titled Singles. She expanded from the exclusive realm of self-portraits to photograph and interview other single people she knew or had connected with through social media, situated in an environment they identified as making them feel the most single.

As McClure says in a presentation about her work, “The more I talked to people about this subject, the more I realized I would be OK being single. It would be fine. But I also realized that I had never really given a relationship a try. I’d never fully committed myself to something. And that was the part I couldn’t live with, that I hadn’t tried. And I thought, that would be a shame if I go my whole life being too afraid.”

This Singles series portrait exemplifies essential advice McClure picked up from Cig Harvey: Follow the light.
This Singles series portrait exemplifies essential advice McClure picked up from Cig Harvey: Follow the light.

At this point, McClure was receiving increasing attention for her work, resulting in articles, exhibitions, and awards. One of her award-winning pictures caught the eye of Brad Smith, then photo director at Sports Illustrated, who invited her in for a portfolio review. “We both knew immediately that I was not a fit for the magazine,” she says. “But I had decided to go because I thought it would be practice for me. Then we became friends. And then we got married in 2017.”

Exploring New Beginnings

A few months later, after feeling the telltale exhaustion of her past autoimmune condition, McClure took a pregnancy test when preparing for a doctor’s visit. “Every doctor had told me that a baby wasn’t in the cards for me due to my past health issues,” she explains. “I thought I was going through menopause, so we were shocked to learn that I had gotten pregnant on my wedding night.”

McClure sometimes asks others to help with image capture for her self-portraits, such as this balcony view made with her husband’s assistance.
McClure sometimes asks others to help with image capture for her self-portraits, such as this balcony view made with her husband’s assistance.

During the last several months of her pregnancy, McClure turned the camera on herself yet again to document the mix of apprehension and awe as her body changed before her eyes. “I made photos as a way to manage my anxiety, to bring order to the chaos,” McClure writes in her project statement. “And as I watched myself grow in the pictures, I saw that my body and my child were on their own path. The act of photographing allowed me to observe the process as though it were happening to someone else.”

As she had done previously, McClure immersed herself in literature for inspiration in making the work and finding her series title Still the Body. “I started with Google but realized that only gives you the cheese puff on top, not the good meaty stuff. Then I found an anthology about maternity, and one of the poems kind of shook me. It was part of a long form piece called Plot, by Claudia Rankine, which is all about pregnancy and being terrified.”

After repeated emails to Rankine’s office, McClure obtained permission to excerpt short passages from the poem, which play off against each photograph as its title, while also forming an experimental narrative when the series is viewed in sequence.

McClure’s Photographic Tools

McClure’s working methods and photo gear have evolved over time, from her initial use of a Mamiya twin lens film camera, to Canon DSLRs, to the Leica cameras she shoots with today.

McClure made this early self-portrait with her Canon 5D and a wireless remote, seeking to convey the feeling of holding on to nothing.
McClure made this early self-portrait with her Canon 5D and a wireless remote, seeking to convey the feeling of holding on to nothing.

Her use of medium format was short lived due to challenges in working with her Mamiya’s bulb setting and self-timer attachments. After switching to digital, she graduated from a Canon 5D to the 5D Mark III, equipped with an intervalometer that she would often set to continuous shooting. “Even though I ended up with 200 extra pictures on continuous, there's always a moment with self-portraits where I get really self-conscious in front of the camera,” she admits. “I start to overact, or perform a little bit, or I make a face that I’d never make in real life. But then you exhaust all your tricks, and you're in the moment—in your own head. And that's usually when I get a portrait that I can use.”

McClure began shooting with Leica gear after receiving a Leica Q as a wedding present. She now also works with a Leica CL and a Leica SL2. When asked about a favorite, she says, “They each have a distinct personality, and a different tonal quality.”

Portrait of McClure’s daughter, Esme, in the garden, made with the Leica CL, which she finds to have a warm and golden tonal quality.
Portrait of McClure’s daughter, Esme, in the garden, made with the Leica CL, which she finds to have a warm and golden tonal quality.

Due to its small size, McClure has been known to throw the Leica Q around her neck before going outside when she sees that the light is good. “When I get to my destination, I look around and set the adjustments on my controls, so that if a picture starts to present itself, I can just turn the camera on and press the shutter.”

When working with the Leica CL, McClure finds that the LCD’s touch screen capabilities have boosted her success rate. “I realized that I was missing shots because I was taking so much time to focus and compose, and I was losing the moment,” she says. “It's not 100% accurate, and you can end up with a lot of blurry shots, but it still gives me a higher hit rate than if I try to stop and focus. And when photographing kids, you have to be really quick.”

Finally, after a pause, McClure admits that her current favorite is probably the Leica SL2 that she’s been trying out on loan. “It’s heavy, so I can’t carry it everywhere,” she notes, “but the quality of the files is insane.”

Settling into Domestic Life

After McClure’s daughter Esme was born, in August 2018, the pair missed out on some of the traditional cocooning time due to an extended hospital stay. But less than 18 months later, McClure and her daughter found themselves sequestered together for months due to the pandemic. “In a weird way, it felt like I was getting that time back, because there were no other obligations,” says McClure. “There was nothing.”

McClure’s daughter at play in her living room during the height of the pandemic. “We read, we sing, we dance, we look for magic,” says McClure. “She forces me to be present in spite of my worry.”
McClure’s daughter at play in her living room during the height of the pandemic. “We read, we sing, we dance, we look for magic,” says McClure. “She forces me to be present in spite of my worry.”

This focused time together gave rise to a new body of work, Today, When I Could Do Nothing , which McClure initiated at the start of the quarantine and is continuing as an ongoing series. These domestic scenes with her daughter as focus have a darker palette than her earlier work, featuring a rich contrast between vibrant highlights and rich shadowy blacks.

As McClure points out, “In New York apartments, you don't always get a flood of light, you get a bit between buildings. At first, we didn't leave the house,” she adds, “so I had to really pay attention to where the sunlight was coming in and expose for that.”

While she could easily pull up the shadows in post, McClure likes the look of these images as captured. Another added benefit to such deep shadows is to hide the clutter of children's toys that now invade her living space.

Making Portraits as an Act of Love

Life with a toddler is always unscripted and photographing one can be even more off-the-cuff. McClure is the first to admit the process is harder now that her daughter is a toddler. “The first time Esme said, ‘No camera,’ I thought my heart was going to break,” she says.

Using the Leica SL2 with an intervalometer, McClure used fallen petals to illustrate the concept of beautiful things that do not last, lighting the scene with a Profoto b10.
Using the Leica SL2 with an intervalometer, McClure used fallen petals to illustrate the concept of beautiful things that do not last, lighting the scene with a Profoto b10.

As a tip for parents facing similar circumstances, McClure emphasizes finding the right balance between taking photos and giving the child your full attention. “If I spend too much time on the photo part, she notices and will stop,” she explains. “But if I make sure to pay attention to her, and then to the camera, and alternate back and forth, it’s much more successful.”

As an incentive to photographic literacy, McClure and her husband decided to give their daughter a camera of her own. “But I was so disappointed in how amateurish her toy camera was, that we also gave her an old point and shoot a friend had given us. It's funny, she would always just click, and click and click,” adds McClure. “And then a couple of months ago, I noticed for the first time that she picked it up and looked and composed.”

This spring, McClure and her daughter visited the cherry blossoms wherever they could around New York City. “They symbolize rebirth,” says McClure, “which seems appropriate as we emerge from this strange pandemic year.”
This spring, McClure and her daughter visited the cherry blossoms wherever they could around New York City. “They symbolize rebirth,” says McClure, “which seems appropriate as we emerge from this strange pandemic year.”

Yet, McClure’s most important tip for anyone seeking to photograph their child is not to get so focused on your need for control over a situation that you overlook the child’s wants and needs. As an example, she describes a classic tantrum. “Maybe Esme doesn't want to leave the playground, or she wants to take her shoes off,” she says. “In moments like that, she needs control. So, I have to go to her and say, ‘Can we be a team on this one? Can we help each other out? Can we cooperate?’ She responds to the idea of us working together.”

In closing, McClure adds, “I don't know how much she gets of this yet, but I try and explain to Esme, ‘Mommy loves you, and making pictures is one way that I show love.’”

To view more of Jennifer McClure’s work, or for copies of her recently published book You Who Never Arrived, visit her website.

And join McClure as she talks about using your personal life to inspire photography projects in this December 2020 presentation for the B&H Event Space.

Do you have tips to share about photographing children or making self-portraits? Please share them with us in the Comments section, below.

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