Jennifer McClure – Fine Art and Documentary Photographer

(warbly high pitched music) – Hello and welcome to
the I3 Lecture Series hosting by the Master’s in
Digital Photography Program at the School of Visual Arts. We’re thrilled to have
photographer Jennifer McClure as tonight’s guest speaker. After completing her BA in
English theory and literature from the University of
Florida, Jen went on to study at the School of Visual Arts and the International
Center of Photography. She has been awarded CENTER’s
Editor’s Choice in 2013, and has been exhibited in numerous shows across the country most recently at the Griffin Museum of Photography where we were shown
together, it’s always nice. The Los Angeles Center of Photography, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Front Gallery New Orleans,
Fall Festival Leiden in the Netherlands and at
Photoville in New York. Jen has lectured at PhotoFusion and at Columbia Teacher’s College, and her work has been
featured in publications such as Lenscrtch, Feature Shoot, L’Oeil de la Photographie,
the Photo Review, Dwell and PDN. Looking at Jen’s work, I’m always struck by the honesty and candor. I admire the depth of
feeling in her images and she manages to strike a
chord of absolute longing that I think resonates with all of us. So (laughing) please help
me welcome Jennifer McClure to our lecture series.
(applauding) – Can you guys hear me? – Yeah.
– Yeah OK. Thank you for that lovely
introduction, that was so sweet. And thank you all for coming out, I know how busy you all
are so it’s an honor that you all showed up for
this, I’m very flattered. I wanted to start with
a photo that was pivotal in my development as a photographer. Class picture day in kindergarten. I had big glasses, I was
coming around the cubby hole, someone was coming the other way and they broke my glasses. And I was devastated because the photo was not going to be perfect. I knew even then how important it was to have every detail right in
the photo and I was a mess. We took another one later
and I wasn’t prepared and I was wearing a Cap’n Crunch t-shirt. I couldn’t find that for you. This was my first art
directed self-portrait. My brother was the button pusher, Cindy Sherman had button pushers. I like to feel like Cindy Sherman and I were on the same page even then. This is from around 2003. In between the first
self-portrait and here, I went to college and I
got a degree in English, I thought I was going to be a professor. I’d always taken photos
when I was growing up and I had a big wall and
I would put ’em all up on the wall because my dad was a Marine and we moved constantly. So the photos on the
wall were a way for me to remember where I’d been, who my friends were, what happened. But when I got to college,
it just didn’t seem like photos could be a career,
I didn’t have any notion that I could do something with that. It didn’t occur I couldn’t do anything with an English degree either
(laughing) until much later. (laughing) There was one class for non-majors. I could never wake up
early enough to register so I learned how to take photographs through the independent newspaper there. I remember driving out
to a field in Florida where a woman had a
trailer with a darkroom and I fell in love with the photography. But then I moved to New
York and I was a mess for a lot of years, and I
had no idea what I was doing, what direction I was taking. Eventually, after I turned 30, I realized I needed to pay
attention to the things that gave me joy at some point in my life and I started taking photos again. And this was the old camera I
used, the Pentax, the K1000. I made a lotta awful photos. I think it’s important to share these so we know where we all
started, photos like this, like this,
(laughing) like this, like this. This one I actually don’t mind. This is one of the
first photos I ever took where I was like there’s
something going on here. You know, maybe there
is something you can do. Well hello.
– Hi. (chuckling) – So I was just taking classes
at School of Visual Arts for the technical, every now
and then a portrait class. I had no idea what I was
doing but I knew I loved it, I knew there was magic in the air and I knew I had to keep going. This is when I thought
I was Richard Avedon. This is when I thought I was Diane Arbus. I thought I was Elliot Erwitt. (laughing) And these, this is from my second
self-portrait shoot as an adult. The first one was for an assignment. And I was wearing a big hat
and I had a cat at the time, and I held the cat in
front of my face and, there’s no record of it because
I think I destroyed them. And my teacher said where are you in here? So I tried again and
this was the beginning of the self-portraits as an adult. I took a lot more awful
pictures between that and what I’m gonna show you
next, but you get the idea. This photo was important
because it started a different direction in the photography. Prior to this, you know, I
was just all over the place. I was shooting everything,
bicycles in the snow. Like there was no concept,
there was no project, there was no direction. I had no idea what I was doing. This photo was a shift. You can sort of see it in there. My hand there is bruised and swollen. I used to drink way too much
and get in a lot of trouble. And one night, there were a
lotta nights I hurt myself, but there was one night
in particular where I fell and I really hurt my
hand and it swelled up like a bear paw and it was a disaster. And I don’t know why but
I took photos of that. And it’s not something
that I’d ever done before. And it was the first
time I had been in pain and taken a photograph and realized it could make me feel better. It could make me see the
situation in a different light. So that was the beginning
of self-portraits. But even then I wasn’t
quite ready to go there yet. But it did begin the next project, well my first project,
the first work I ever did with a project in mind. So even though when I look back on it now, it’s as clear as daylight
that I had a drinking problem. At the time I still thought I don’t know, I’m good, I just work in
a restaurant, that’s all. And I didn’t think I had a problem. So I decided what I wanted
to do was hang out with and photograph people who clearly did have some sort of a
problem and were willing to admit it and talk to me about it. So I put an ad on the back
page of the Village Voice when that was still a paper,
and some people answered. And I would go and hang out with them. Like for a day at a
time, and I would go back a couple times and I would shoot. And they’re not the best
photos in the world. I’m not saying that for any… I mean they’re not, it was
very early in my career. When I look back on it, it makes me cringe ’cause I could’ve done
better, but it was important as a project to get me
where I needed to be and to learn how to put
myself in these situations. And there was also a valuable
learning experience on a personal level ’cause you know, I can’t remember who said this, someone, who was it that said “the
camera gives you a license.” Does anybody remember?
– Arbus. – Was that Arbus?
– Passport. – Yeah.
– Yes. – Yeah so you have the camera in your hand and you’ve agreed you’re gonna shoot and I would go hang out with everybody and I could ask them
all the questions that I couldn’t really ask myself. And we both knew what we were there for so we were brutally
honest with each other. And that was amazing,
the honesty blew my mind. So we’ll just go through
these pretty quickly. And what I learned from
going back day after day and photographing the same people, was that nothing ever changed. You know we hung out
and did the same thing every single time, and they talked about everything they were going
to do when they weren’t high, and then I would come back the next time and it was the same thing. They’d talk about what
they were going to do when they weren’t high. And by the end of it
I was like oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I sound like. And there came a certain point
where I realized you know, I’m done, like I shouldn’t
be here. (laughing) Like it was very obvious to me that I did have a problem at that point which was the lesson I got
from this whole project. And I did take this
project around and show a couple people because you know, it was so important to me
and I couldn’t understand how it wasn’t important
to everybody in the world. But yeah this is also around the time when Jessica Dimmock’s project came out, do you guys remember that
one, The Ninth Floor? That was so good, it
was an amazing project. And it deserved all the recognition it got and you know, but everybody
looked at this, said to me, well have you seen Jessica
Dimmock’s work? (laughing) I was like all right. (laughing) I get it. But this was also
important for me to learn how to photograph other people. To show up at a stranger’s
house and walk in and hang out and, when do
you pick up your camera? How do you pick it up? Do
you direct? Do you not? I did a couple other projects after that. I don’t wanna bore you with all of them. But I did wanna show you this one because I started
photographing myself again. But, I still wasn’t able to really
look at myself with a camera. So I was putting myself
on all these objects. (laughing) Brad remembers these. (laughing) So, I had a good time with these! These were kinda fun. This one’s kinda funny,
I had a temper tantrum in the grocery store because they added all this extra frosting.
(laughing) Do you guys see that there? It was supposed to be down below and I’m in the grocery store just literally almost in tears, I was a wreck. Arguing with somebody with this dumb face looking up at me from the cake. (laughing) And I realized the whole
thing was ridiculous and I just had to go shoot what I had. (laughing) So one of my
ideas, I had a shot list. One of my early shots on the list was to hold the cake up in
front of my face and shoot it, and I forgot about gravity.
(laughing) So I got three shots
of the one on the left, tried to hold it up and
it fell to the floor. And this is when I was
using a shutter release that I hit my toe on the button. So I didn’t have the
wherewithal to actually do it when it was falling. But then the second after I got it. And that’s the shot we ended up with. That was a Rubik’s Cube, before and after. It’s about not being able
to get what you need. And I had such fun with these you know? I didn’t know what they
were, where they were going. You know I put stickers
of myself all over Paris, I went everywhere. That’s Jean Paul Sartre and
Simone de Beauvoir’s grave. And I’m showing you this work
because it leads to this idea. I’ll read it for you, I know
it’s hard to read in the back. “Of all the pitfalls in our
paths and the tremendous delays “and wanderings off the
track, I want to say that “they are not what they seem to be. “I want to say that all that
seems like fantastic mistakes “are not mistakes, all that
seems like error is not error, “it all has to be done. “That which seels like a
false step is the next step.” And so I didn’t know it at the time. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that this
was fun and I loved it and it never went anywhere. I mean now it’s something I
show in a slideshow as a joke. But it was important ’cause it got me to where I needed to be for the next one. And this is not the name of
the next body of work I did but that’s the overwhelming feeling. Because shortly after I
was finishing that project, I got pretty sick. And it wasn’t deathly ill,
but it was the kind of chronic illness that
just leaves you exhausted and no doctor really has
any answer and it takes a long time to get somewhere
to where you feel better. So I was just so tired I
didn’t even know what to do and it was hard to leave the house. And I tried to make pictures about it. And I, I mean I did, I did my best here. And I thought I was gonna
do something with these but the thing about a project like this, is that, as heavy and as tired as I felt, that’s what came across in the photos. And this was an important
lesson too because I realized, I mean whatever you’re feeling, or whatever your subject is feeling, it’s gonna come across with or without any kind of direction. And that’s when I realized
how powerful emotions can be in photographs. And this one I kind of,
again, these are not the best pictures in the world, it’s just important, I feel
like to show the progression. So for this one, I used to
shoot with hardware lights that I would get. You know you get those silver reflectors and just a bulb on the cord. And so I had this set
up and I tried to gel it and I knew nothing about lighting. I didn’t have a lot of training in this. So I had it clipped up
there with something and I was laying on the
floor trying to shoot it and then it just fell on top of me. And I was so frustrated I
just kept hitting that thing with my toe, and I ended up looking like I was a frozen piece of ice. And I was like those
are the happy accidents that you all wish for
and you can’t plan for and you have to be open to just shooting even when you think everything’s
ridiculous and awful. And so a lot of these are about feeling old before my time. And feeling like I was
a ghost in my own life. And again, you know, I
would show these to people and I could see sometimes,
by the time they got to the end of these they
were just like, ugh. (laughing) It wasn’t pleasant for either one of us. And I was like all right. (laughing) Maybe we’re gonna let these go. (laughing) So after all these, I started to feel better. And I started to feel like I wanted to get my life back on track
and I started to think that maybe I was ready to date again. And I started looking back at a lot of my past relationships,
and why they didn’t work, maybe what they had in common there. And what I realized is that
they were all fairly short. And I never got in there
too deep, you know, soon as things got real I
would get out, you know? As quickly as I could. And so I started this project thinking I’m gonna find out what’s wrong with all of these men that I dated. (laughing) What do they have in common? (audience laughing) That was the goal.
(audience laughing) Oh man, how did I not see that? (audience laughing) So, (laughing) so you know I’m a big fan
of short stories and poems ’cause I feel like often photographs and photographic series can
be short stories and poems whether by themselves or as a group. So there was a Raymond Carver short story that I love called Gazebo and it’s about a couple
that goes to a hotel room and they stay up all night and they decide to hammer it out, are they gonna break up, are they gonna stay together? What are they gonna do? And I couldn’t get that
image out of my mind. And I thought hotel rooms
man, that’s what I have to do. ‘Cause hotel rooms are
short stay, you know? And they’re not lived in,
there’s no personal items around. And I didn’t want that, I didn’t want a family photo in the background or someone’s favorite
poster or anything that made the set look lived in. So I thought hotels are
perfect, I’ll do that. So I would get hotel
rooms and I decided to use friends and family. And what we were gonna do is
go through all the breakups just like they did in the short story. We’re gonna reenact the breakup or somehow reenact the emotion, you know,
and try and get through that. And I would show up early
or I would stay after, I always stayed the night,
and I would just shoot. And I loved that high you
know, just 24 hours of shooting with a little nap in the middle. And that’s when magic happens too when you just push yourself beyond where you think you can go. So I started out shooting
at the Chelsea Hotel ’cause every room is
different, it was awesome. And then that closed, that was hard. (chuckling) The unavailable man. And this one’s a little
hard to see but he’s, you can see the wedding ring there. And it was interesting sometimes because when we got in these rooms, we would talk to each
other about OK, I’d say this is your part, this
is who you represent. And sometimes we would end up actually talking to each
other like the characters. And I say character because it felt like I was going back somehow. And it was weird because
you know like I said before, I would always bolt and
run, there was no closure, there was no debriefing or exit interview, there was nothing, it was just gone. So this was like an exit interview, but really kinda painful. So I got to hear all these
things that people never got to say to me and it
was kinda devastating. But it was also really,
and I got to say things I never said to people
too, that was pretty great. This makes me really miss that hotel. I mean how do you take a bad
picture in a room like that? And these are, I used to bring these Chinese lanterns everywhere. You know, those big white paper ones and I would just hang a light bulb, a couple I singed, that did happen. Just hang the light bulb in there and you can put it on a dimmer. What’s that movie with Scarlett Johansson? In Tokyo, Lost in Translation. I believe that whole entire movie was shot with those Chinese lanterns
and that was beautiful. I copy a lot of my stuff from movies. I do some research and
try to find the light. And a lotta times I would
go to these hotel rooms and they wouldn’t be the one
that I saw on the website when I picked it out, and
I’d go downstairs again, I’d say I’m so sorry it’s our anniversary. (audience laughing) It’s a very special evening,
is there anything you can do? This one was in Paris
and my good friend Brad introduced me to a woman
over there who knew an artist and we showed up at this
hotel room in the morning, he didn’t speak a word of
English, I don’t speak any French. She gave us an intro and
explained what we were doing and she split, and so he
and I are standing there looking at each other and we’re like, and he was an actor, thank goodness. But that was one of the
more fascinating shoots we’ve ever done, just
realizing how important the body language is in
these kinds of shoots. And again it’s not about the language, it’s about the emotion. That’s my nephew because I used to like to date manchildren.
(laughing) This one took forever, I had
to find the right gray room, gray outfit, it was all about ambivalence. I was like it has to be perfect! (laughing) This one looks dangerous but
there was a ledge right outside a little garden ledge. Smoke and mirrors here. This one was a pay-by-the-hour motel. I mean if you guys ever
need hotel recommendations in the city for anything, I can help you. And so by the time I got
to the end of the series, this is a screenshot from the whole thing. By the time I got to the end
and put all these together, I realized the problem here,
and if you take a look, I’m in the middle in all of these. I didn’t know I was doing
this while I was shooting, but that’s what I was also doing with all of these relationships. It was all about me, I was in the middle. I was the writer, I was the star, I was the director, I was the producer. And if somebody dared
show up and improvise, I was like whoa, whoa, whoa,
this is too real, I gotta go. So that was a huge
important lesson, you know? Just how to… Let other people participate and get rid of this whole fantasy. So as one does after they
do a series like that and realize perhaps they are the problem in all their relationships,
I started going to therapy immediately after that. And then I began this next series. And this one was a
little different because with the series prior,
I had you know, a list of these people I’d dated and I was gonna cross all them off and
get to the bottom of ’em and that was that. But this one I had no game
plan, I had no shot list. You know, I was just writing and writing and writing and writing. And then shooting and shooting
and shooting and shooting. And this one is called Laws of Silence. “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 hopes of forgetting “that the house is burning.” While I was going through this I was also reading obsessively and I was
reading Tennessee Williams. There’s a few other pieces in here, I’ll point ’em out as we go. So this is basically about figuring out why I had such
unsuccessful relationships, and where that started, and what happened, and of course, it does go back to the parents a lot of times. So I started to realize,
like my parents had sold me on this idea that I had a happy childhood. And meanwhile I had all
these letters and stuff where they were like you
were such a difficult baby and you’re such a problem and you did this and you did that and we
knew there’s something wrong with you, and
I’m like wait a minute, something’s not working here. And they, as I also looked
back on it too I realized my parents really sold marriage and kids and family and religion and the house, but I was looking at them like
neither one of you are happy. Like you’re not really
selling this as a whole. I’m not buying it. So I started to do some
digging, and you know, It had a lot of strange consequences. We had a lot of awkward
family conversations. But I did kinda find out
that there was a lot wrong with my childhood, and
there was a lot of anger and you know, there was some neglect. You know there was a lot of
emotional stuff that goes on. And it was rewarding ’cause
I felt like I wasn’t crazy. And I finally realized this, I was right. I was a lonely and anxious little kid and now I realized there
was a reason for all this, I wasn’t out of my mind. Sorry this is a really long introduction to this body of work, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense without all this. So. This is from a diary entry
it says “I feel small. “I wanted you to love
me more than you did.” There’s a lot of water
images in this series. I had a bad experience in the water when I was a kid and I was
always afraid to go too deep. And that’s pretty much how I was with all of my relationships
in my adult life. So this was a departure from
every series I’d done before in that it was much more conceptual. And I never knew what it
meant while I was shooting it. And it was hard to find a
direction to go when I got stuck. And it’s not till I worked
with a really fantastic editor at the end that it
all started to make sense. That one’s about holding
your own self back. And again that whole American dream thing that I just was not buying. And I did have help on some of these. You know, the button pusher. This one I couldn’t have taken
by myself, there’s no way. Did I explain this properly? Does this make sense with the photos? OK. (laughing) You never know, it’s
such a personal project. I never know if it’s coming
across the way I intended. That’s another pay-by-the-hour motel, FYI. That’s from the Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock which I used to read obsessively as well. I wasn’t sure why I identified with this middle aged bachelor who never found love. Those are all of my high
school corsages which I had no idea that I saved,
and letters from boys. That was my actual music
box from when I was a kid. And it’s hard when you make work like this ’cause it is so personal, you
don’t know really who cares. And I even took it to
some portfolio reviews and I had people say to
me why should I care? And that’s a hard question,
I was like I don’t know. And then I have other people I show it to and they’re like oh my
God, I totally get this. So it’s just, it’s an important
lesson about your work. You’re not gonna please
everybody all the time. And now that I’ve been doing
this for a little while, if people tell me they don’t get my work, I’m like that’s fine,
that’s great, thank you. Thanks for looking, it’s OK. This one was taken at the Rain Room. It’s about walking through the raindrops. I had a friend who used to
say that to me all the time whether it was emotional or physical, she said walk between the raindrops. I’m like what are you talking about? (laughing) So you know we did this project, I had all this pain and
angst and I was talking to a friend of mine and the
editor who looked at my work and she said something’s
missing, you need healing. And so I flew to Iceland
and went to the Blue Lagoon and got permission to do a shoot. We looked at places all over the world and this was the only one we could work ’cause I didn’t drive. And again, the Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire. My parents started calling me a spinster when I was in my early 20s.
(chuckling) This is Florida the Spanish
moss outside their house. This was a letter from
my grandmother asking me when I’m going to find a husband. I was 22. And this is a healing temple. People went to offer their prosthetics, it was in New Orleans. And that one was really hard to make ’cause all my cameras were failing and I had an underwater EasyShare thing that I just held up
and hoped for the best. And it actually worked. And so this project was
incredibly healing for me ’cause it got me to a
place where I realized all these things that
I thought were failings about myself weren’t at all. You know, what they were
was someone else’s ideas of how I should live my life. And so doing this whole
project let me identify those and then kind of set them free
and let them go on their way. Louise Bourgeois is one of my favorites and she always talks about emotion in work and how important it is
and how if you feel it it will come across,
and I do believe that. She says “Art is restoration,
the idea is to repair “the damages that are inflicted
in life, to make something “that is fragmented – which
is what fear and anxiety “do to a person – into something whole.” And that’s kind of always what it, what it has been for me. ‘Cause I make work about something that keeps me awake at night. You know, when you’re lying
in bed and you can’t sleep and the same thoughts keep
running through your head? The only way I can get rid of those is to make some kind of work about it. And that’s what that project did for me. I felt like I was something
whole by the end of this instead of someone who was lacking, I felt like I was complete and I was fine. Which leads us to the next series, The Singles Series. So after realizing that I’d
been sold a bill of goods that was a lemon, I started
to think about this idea of being single, and about solitude, and about what that meant. You know and, this is a complicated
issue and I’m still working on this project, so
forgive me if my thoughts are a little bit scattered. But you know in America
especially we’re sold this idea too, like it’s not just my parents, it comes from everywhere,
it’s on television, it’s in movies, it’s in car commercials. It’s everywhere you go that you need to be paired up with somebody. If you’re paired up with
someone you’re happy and everything’s great,
and that’s the goal. I mean I started
researching singles cruises. And on the photos for the singles cruises it shows two people together. Singles cooking classes, they show two people cooking together. So even activities that
are geared towards singles are geared towards singles
finding someone else. And people who are just single and happy seem to be a threat to people, not all of them obviously, it’s a sweeping generalization. But they can be a threat
to people who are not. And the idea that single people are happy and not a problem that needs to be fixed is still not common enough, it should be a lot more common I think. And I’ve done a lot of
reading on this and you know, it’s hard for me to talk about it ’cause I don’t know whether to talk about the statistics and the
sociological aspects of it or more of the emotional aspects of it. So I do kind of go back and forth. But the truth is more and
more people are single now than ever before. So it is something we’re all gonna have to start thinking about, whether people are married and divorced or never married, single people are the majority these days. So I decided I wanted to hang out with all kinds of single people and find out what they thought about it. Whether they were happy about it, whether they were looking,
whether they’d given up, whether they were taking a break. And so I started out
with a set of questions that I gave everybody. And we did it, we talked a lot in person
but I always told everybody what we talk about amongst
each other is private. But what you write might
go out into the world ’cause I’m very concerned
about peoples’ privacy and I’m also very concerned
in this day and age about comments because
you do have to expect that one day your work is gonna go online and there will be comments
and I wanted people to have a measure of control over how they’re representing
themselves to the world. So we would do these questions, you know, what’s your most favorite
part about being single, what’s your least favorite? How long have you been
single? Do you feel pressure? And in the beginning I
would shoot everybody in their apartments. And I showed it to an
editor and she’s like why are you doing this? This is getting boring. Well that’s where I feel the most single. She said no, no, no,
no, no, you have to go and shoot everybody where
they feel the most single. And then once I started doing that I was like holy moly, I
love this project again. And so that’s where we are with this. I mean never say never,
but I think I might be done shooting this one. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to talk about it, what to title it. So we’ll go through. And each of these sessions are kind of like a date, you know? I show up and we hang out
and we talk, we go to a bar, have a cup of coffee, we do something. We get to know each
other and then we kinda look at each other we’re like all right do you wanna do this?
(laughing) (laughing) Should we, you know? (laughing) And some people I keep
in touch with after. Other people want nothing to do with me. Some people I ask for a
second date ’cause I didn’t quite get it right the first time. And sometimes they say yes
but I also get ghosted. And it’s funny ’cause a lot of this can be like a Rorschach test you know? I did a little mini
residency in Texas and I had about 16 of these up on the wall. And some people would
go in and go oh my God everybody looks miserable. And other people come in and
go wow, this is so great! Look how happy everybody is. I was like wow! That’s intense. And one of the funny
things about this work, and the interviews too, and I don’t know if I’ve shown this necessarily
as well as I could but, you know when I ask people
what their most favorite aspect about being single
is, they say their freedom. And then when I ask people
what their least favorite aspect of being single
is, they say being alone which is also their freedom. And sometimes people told
me the most amazing stories while we were hanging out and I knew I couldn’t use ’em and it broke my heart. Like this guy was in an arranged marriage that he broke up and had
to pay the bride’s family hundreds of thousands of dollars. And then I gave him his
interview and he did yes, no, yes, no, and I swore I had no
yes or no questions in there. And he did. She dates married men. And it’s hard with editing these
because I feel like people, you know, they share so much of themselves and it kills me every time
I have to take somebody out of the group. You know I feel like
they’ve given me this gift and then if I didn’t get a
portrait that was good enough I feel like I failed and it just kills me. Which I guess is when you have a bad date sometimes. She didn’t want a second date. (laughing) And so many people had pets. I went back and forth over
whether or not to show these. But I figure you’ve
gotta have one in there. But there were so many
people who were just stiff and wooden and nothing would happen. And then I put my camera
down, they’d open the door and let their dog in and then they were a
different person entirely. I was like all right, we gotta have one or two of these in here. And it is really hard to
try and match a setting to a person’s emotional state. And it didn’t always work. Sometimes you show up and you
try everything in your power and you just can’t get the two to jibe. But every now and then something
happens and you’re like I couldn’t have asked for
something better than that. And when I first started shooting these everything was very
literal, very straight on. And as I kept going with these, you know I had to shoot
that out of my system, all these straight on shots. And also about halfway
through someone looked at all those and they
said eh it looks like the real estate section
of the New York Times, and I was gutted, I was like (groaning) That’s not the emotional
magic I was going for. Then I had to rethink entirely
where I was going with this. And yeah sometimes you show up for a date and the person just goes
what do you want to do? What do you want to do? We’ll do whatever you want to
do, what do you want to do? I’ll eat anything, what do you want to do? And then other people you
show up and they’re like, I’d like to go here, I like this. And those are the photographic subjects where you’re like, ah, thank you. And that is actually The
Met, that is not her house as some people assume.
(audience laughing) In case you were feeling bad about your New York City apartment. (laughing) And this was luck, we had 15 minutes. We had to run through here with a camera and just hope for the best. And that is actually my ex boyfriend, which was a difficult shoot. Look I have a smiling photo! (laughing) She was lovely, she’s
actually a cop in the Bronx. And a poet. She was fascinating. This guy, very proudly told me he
slept with 100 women. He was very excited, he considered that his life’s greatest work.
(audience laughing) Especially considering he’s not that tall and not that handsome. I mean it could’a been
a lie, I don’t know, but it was a good story
so I sat there with him and I went along with
it for the entire time and asked him all these questions. And he was kinda cool
so I was like really? You say you’re gonna
call and you just don’t? He was like yes. I was like, I knew it! (laughing) There wasn’t an accident, your phone didn’t get cut off, I knew it! All those lines. And a lotta times you
know, in these interviews, a lotta the same situations kept coming up again and again and then it’s a matter of how do you photograph that? How do you really show that? And I felt awful that I
cut this guy’s head off but it was a better photo! You know, the cooking alone is something that came up over and over. And the eating alone. And you know this is
a case where I went in with big plans and all these lights and my flashes and bounces and everything I could think
of and nothing was working. And then she crawled under
the covers and did that and I knocked the lampshade
off the lamp by her bed and tipped it over and I
think that worked better than anything I had planned. This woman is a piece of
art, she kinda blew me away. And this man was a confirmed
bachelor and a writer. He had one of the best
interviews I’ve ever read. I do need to figure out how I’m gonna put the text with these
whether I’m gonna caption or whether I’m gonna layer it in and out. You know maybe we don’t have the text next to the person who said it, maybe just pull the best pieces. There’s a lotta possibility here. And it’s harder to get
men to do this than women. I think as you would expect. So I’m always just blown away when a man does agree to do it and shares a lot. (whispering) – [Man] I’m sorry what do
you mean harder to do it? To agree to do the piece or to open up and pose for the
photo the way you want? – [Jennifer] To agree to do
the piece in the first place. – [Man] Can you repeat the question? – [Jennifer] Oh I’m sorry. He asked whether it’s harder to get a man to open up while we’re shooting or harder to get a man to agree. And it’s harder to get a man to agree to even go through the process. And a lot of men agree
and then it comes down to I give him the questions and sometimes they never send the questions back. Sometimes they fill out
the questions and go wow, that was cathartic, and then I try to arrange the shoot and
I never hear back from them. Much more so than for women as well. And I had to put myself in there as well. And we’re back in a hotel room. Everything always comes full circle. I mean, this is the
kind of project where I, you know I was asking a lot of people. And I had to give a lot of myself as well. It’s just like a date. You can’t show up for a
date and just go uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, you’ve
gotta talk about yourself and reveal stuff about yourself too. So I did feel it was
important to put myself in the project also. So I had to change it, I
didn’t wanna look, you know. So when I first started this project, I put an ad on Craigslist
in the platonic section. And that turned out to be
a crazy idea. (laughing) I’ll read it for you “how do
you feel about being single? “Do you love it? Do you hate it? “Are you trying to stay single
or looking to couple up? “I’m doing a photo project
on all kinds of single people “looking for many different perspectives. “I’m female and single but
this is completely platonic. “Send me an email and we’ll talk. “I’m interested in your story.” And I got tons of responses. Most people just wanted
to talk and that was it. I did get some stuff like this. “Hello, looking for a
strictly platonic relationship “to be used as a toilet. “You can come over drink wine forever, “then when you have to go
pee just do it in my mouth, “then we continue a friendly chat. “Would you be interested in
this type of relationship? “I got Netflix too.
(audience laughing) “34 year old white male here.” “I got Netflix too.”
(laughing) As if I was on the fence, oh, Netflix! Netflix, we’ll watch Kimmy
Schmidt after, that’s awesome! (laughing) So then, you know there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of writing. I spent a lot of time doing this. So this guy and I had
exchanged several emails. And then we get down to
the point where I’m like well what about–
– This is a different guy than the–
– Different guy yeah. Yeah yeah, different one. So this is what I wrote,
“I think a lot of people “in New York feel that way,
that they work all the time “and don’t enjoy what they’ve earned. “I understand, “so let me know if you
would like to do a photo. “Take some time and think about it. “I can usually do Fridays and Saturdays.” He wrote back “I really don’t understand
what you’re saying.” I wrote back, “the whole
point of the ad is that “I would like to make a photo
of the people who respond.” And he wrote back “Respond about what?” And that happened over and over. One guy is like, you know
I said I’m shooting people in their apartments but we
should meet and talk first. He’s like why don’t we meet in my car? I’m like oh my God!
(laughing) So after that, I started
going to social media. And so you know, I was asking people if
they knew any single people who were willing. I had some wonderful friends
who helped me out a lot, David did quite a bit. A lot of people helped me,
and I felt better about that. It felt safer with a little
personal recommendation. But even then I started
to exhaust everything and I felt like I was begging
on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, I was trying it all. And again, this is how
I would date, you know? I wouldn’t date somebody on Craigslist. You know, but I would
date a friend of a friend. You know, and then I thought
about this time in my life when I had done online dating I was like all right, let’s try OKCupid. Let’s see what happens. So you have to have a photo. I have a business card that says Single. But they wouldn’t take
that so you had to put a photo of myself, and this
is what the profile reads. It says “I’m a photographer,
and I’m currently working “on a long-term project
on single people in NYC. “There are more of us now than ever. “I’m not looking for dates,
but I’d love to take your photo “and hear about your experience. “We’ll work together on the
concept for the portrait “and hopefully also end
up with a new headshot “for your own profile. “Message me if you’re interested
and I’ll send you the link “to my website and the work
I’ve done so far, cheers.” I also put a link to the work just in case they couldn’t manage all that. And you know there’s all
these questions on OKCupid that you’re supposed to
answer, and I only did a couple but I made sure it was all about photos. You know, what I’m doing
with my life, making photos. I’m really good at, making more photos. I tried to make it crystal
clear this was all about photos. “Hello, I like your profile. “You seem like someone I’d
like to share some time with “and get to know. “I’d love to meet you in person. “Let’s see if we connect.” I got a lot of these. I can tell from your profile
we have a lot in common. Like, are you doing a
project on single people too? (laughing) Shit! Oh sorry.
(laughing) “I’d like to get to know you.” With little heart eyes emoticon. Next time, eh, “I’d like
to get to know you.” I got a lot like, I
don’t know if they forgot that they’ve written
and they just try again. I got a lot like that. This guy sent me several
messages, and several emails and again this is the
guy you never wanna date. “Look at my photos. “If you really think you
can help me, I’m interested. “This site is slowly draining
my soul and making me feel “more and more like the elephant man. “Every woman’s profile here
says that what they are “really turned on by is great
manners, a world traveler, “honesty and a great sense of humor. “They leave out that they want
that from George Clooney.” So already bitter, like
he’s screaming bitter. So I wasn’t gonna write
him back from that. And then he sent me a bitter email, and then he sent me an angry email. And then he said “I’m guessing
that you’re not interested “in either using me or
letting me hire you, “but I had to tell you
that on a dating site “to be blown off without even
a I’m sorry, project’s done “or something is a special
kind of hell, thanks.” – Aww.
– I was like oh honey, if you think that’s hell, I know! That’s your idea of hell? We can talk about what
hell is but this is like… This was my favorite, “hey.” Sorry, Huge_mistakes_ no
longer has an account. (audience laughing)
I’m like who would answer an ad from Huge_Mistakes_? (laughing) And then finally, this is my whole philosophy
about photography or anything. “Tell your own story and
you will be interesting.” It doesn’t have to be self-portraits like what I’ve done, it just
has to be your own story that you tell in your own way. You know, you can do street photography and that’s your own story
if you’re doing it your way. You know there’s a million
things you could chew. But it has to be your story
and it has to be your way. And as we saw, that took me
a long time to figure out and I don’t think it’s
something that anybody figures out overnight. You’ve got to shoot a lotta
garbage in order to get to the really original
and interesting stuff. That’s it!
(applauding) – [Man] So that was great. You sound just like you on
the podium, isn’t that great? Your pictures tell a lot about you. I have a question about the singles thing which I probably should know but I don’t. Are these people anonymous
other than seeing them, do you talk about who they are? Does that make sense?
Do you say their names? – It’s unpublished. – [Man] You know I get all that. And we’ll talk about that later. – Yes but, (laughing)
– But I’m just wondering if you put their names on it.
– When it does come out I will use their first names. – [Man] And they agreed to that? – [Man] It’s like a caption of the photo you’re talking about?
– If I decide to do captions. – [Man] ‘Cause this is a weird idea that they don’t necessarily
want their names on there but they’ll put their
faces, or some of them. – Well they’ve agreed to
have their name on there. Yeah and I have the releases. And again that’s why I
have the written interviews ’cause I want people to
know what about themselves is going to the world.
– Sounds like a great book. (laughing) – I agree! (whispering) – [Woman] Thank you for this Jennifer. You said one thing that somebody said just walk through the
raindrops and you’re like what the hell does that mean? But now you feel like you have
an idea what that does mean. What does it mean to you? – I’m still not entirely
sure what it means. But I kinda figured out
what it meant for me. You know and for me in that whole series what the water represented was going in too deep with people. I’m not gonna be able to
explain this correctly at all. This is why the pictures
work and (laughing) I forget who it was
where somebody asked them to explain a photo and he said
you want me to tell it worse? I can’t remember who that was. But for me that meant
finding a way to walk through and not go back to that kind of trauma. Does that make sense? Like it’s there but you
don’t have to go there all the time, you could
see it there next to you but you can walk between all that stuff. Does that make sense at all?
– That’s good. That was excellent. Nobody could tell it worse.
– OK. – [Man] Jennifer just, roughly how long have you been working on this series? And the other series, how
long does it usually take from beginning to end
or could you describe that process a little bit? – Yeah my hit list seems
to be about three years. And I don’t plan it that
way but you know how it is sometimes you get to the end of a project and you just know that you’re done. And it’s a really weird feeling. And there’s sometimes as you’re shooting where you’re like I am so ready to be done but you don’t feel it in
your bones that you’re done. And every now and then you just take a certain kind of shot and
you’re like now I’m done. And then there’s a whole
different set of work that comes after you’re done with the shooting part, you know. – [Man] Can I ask you
how many single people you photographed? – Roughly right around 50. – [Man] So yeah and I presume
you have multiple photographs from each person. – I do.
– And do you know how many people are gonna actually end up in the edited series, you don’t know? – I don’t know, it’s so hard to say. Because there are some that I love and that I adore that didn’t quite make this particular edit. You know and it’s the kind of thing where it depends on the format
that you’re showing it in. You know, online is one kind of format. There’s a certain attention span. I’m going to a portfolio review next week that’s a different kind of
format, that’s 20 to 25. Then you have a book format,
and then you have free reign, you can do whatever you
want for a book format. And you know, we’re human
beings, we’re people. And being single is a complex issue. It’s not ever just a person smiling. There’s also a picture
of her on the stairs who’s really sad about it you know? People are complex and
sometimes it does take more than one portrait
to tell the whole story. – [Man] Were the dates a
particular amount of time each one about the same amount
of time or did they vary? – It varied, some people
I would spend hours with. Again, like a date, and
other people I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. (laughing) – [Man] Thank you. – [Man] So the single series,
as it now is completed, how has it changed you, how
do you view being single if you still are single? And from how you began this
concept to where you are today? – It was really interesting. You know I don’t wanna get too self-helpey on the whole thing because
again, it’s a complex issue. And one day I would be very, very happy about being single, and the next day I’m curled up in a ball
on the floor and crying that I’m gonna die old and alone. But this project was great
to talk to other people. And again it was that
thing where I was doing, where I was focusing on a
lack instead of focusing, you know I was focusing on an absence instead of a presence. If that makes any sense. So I was able to appreciate
all of the positives the more I talked to people about it. You know there were just
things I didn’t see before. And the more research I did about it and the more I realized
how many people are single and how so many of these ideas we have are completely wrong. And also when I was talking to a lot of these single people and
we’d have conversations and I would hear some of the things that they would say about themselves. You know ’cause we all do
it, we all have these voices in our head, one day you’re like nobody’s every gonna love me, there’s something wrong with me. And when you say it to yourself it sounds perfectly rational. And when you hear someone
else say it out loud about themselves, you’re
like you’re absolutely crazy. Why do you talk to yourself that way? So it was important for me to learn just how I talk to myself. That was a little self-helpey, sorry. (laughing) – [Man] How big a role
does New York City play in the singles series? – I think it plays a pretty big role. I tried to get quite a
bit of New York in there ’cause I think New York
is its own special beast. And a lot of people said
that in their interviews, you know that the city was different than wherever it was they moved from. And they say you come to this city and you can lose yourself in your career, and that’s acceptable, nobody
notices, you don’t notice. You know if you were in
a small town in Illinois, and you were one of the only single people living by yourself in your apartment, it’s just a different thing. New York you can be more anonymous. – [Man] Maybe an extension of that is what are some of the things
you looked for in your edit as you’re going through these portraits? What are some of the things that signal a better shot than another? – That’s a very good question. When I first started
shooting I was very literal. You know if somebody said that they felt the most single
when they were at a bar, I would go into a bar and shoot
them with a beer at a bar. And a lot of those ended up
getting taken out entirely and we started going
towards the one that had a little more mystery to them
and a little more enigma. You know? I forgot the second part of the question. – [Man] As you go through a situation, where is the success as a photographer? Do you look for, is it
more for formal quality or is it really about
intimacy or what do you privilege in your editing. – The intimacy and the mystery. And I do like a little ambiguity. I didn’t want this story
to come out with an ending. I didn’t want it to be
being single is great, or being single sucks. You know I didn’t want
either one of those. And the editing part is
really, it’s interesting. How just like a turn of
a shoulder can change an entire photo you know? And you can see like,
I mean I’ll be honest. So, the very last photo is of me. And I’ve never, you know
when I took those photos I didn’t take them with the intention of them being a part of this project. And I’d never done nude photos of myself. And there were a ton of them in there that we could’ve possibly chosen. And in this one you can
see some of my body parts that I’m not necessarily comfortable with and people in my life aren’t
necessarily comfortable with. And we looked at every other
possible photo from there just to see which one would work. And they’re just slight
differences and slight turns of the body and it’s so crazy ’cause when you know you know. – [Man] Can you talk a
little bit more about the use of we in this context? (laughing)
Is you and… – Well I’m not single anymore. – What? Betrayed.
(audience laughing) – Yeah it’s funny, it’s hard because I am going to be showing this work for the first time and when
I was shooting it, I was. And that was a connection
that we had together is that we all related. And I do feel like it’s another
reason why it’s now over. – [Man] Don’t you think
that’s interesting? – Yeah.
– I mean really. – Right? But I have to be honest
about what I’m saying and what I’m shooting. And it’s just a different
dynamic, you know? It’s different now. – [Man] I was wondering if you could talk about
what keeps you going. Like is there, these sound like really long projects, and there’s a moment
in there where you’re, I know there’s times you sort
of feel like giving them up. So is there something
that keeps that moving? – Sheer stubbornness. Pretty much. (laughing) I mean I don’t, you know again, these are some of the questions
that keep me up at night. And if I don’t finish the project, then they’re gonna continue
to keep me up at night. You know ’cause it’s always a question that’s burning in my
head, and if I don’t get to the bottom of it then
it’s still gonna sit there. It’s still gonna come up at me. There’s a gweat, a gweat, a gweat quote (laughing) By Wobewt Adams.
(laughing) (laughing) By Robert Adams. (laughing) And he’s talking about how this profession is pretty short on
dignity and you get bumped and you get bruised and
you get knocked down. And you get rejected. And you know why on Earth
would you keep going? And then he says, well why
quit when you’re losing? (audience laughing) And that’s kinda how I feel! Why quit? Keep going. (laughing) That’s it.
– OK, thank you so much for a great lecture. – Thank you.

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4 thoughts on “Jennifer McClure – Fine Art and Documentary Photographer

  1. Why quit when you are losing? I also felt the same so that I will hold my sheer stubbornness and keep trying until I achieve my dream. Thanks for this inspiring speech!

  2. I've been binging on this i3 series for the last few days and so far this is the one I've enjoyed the most – love the images and her insights…just a cool presentation overall.

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