One of the most difficult things to do when creating art is to get the hell out of the way. The art of photography has a leg up on, say, writing, when it comes to minimizing editorialization. Many—myself included—would argue art is all about the artist injecting the self into the art. No argument against that here. It’s a question of how much and how well-crafted the editorialization is, and how well it strikes a compelling balance with the subject matter. The success of these two individually and in harmony enable us to love the art or quickly forget the art.
It’s not an unreasonable statement to claim the art of documenting something with a camera lands slightly closer to an idealized bullseye of pure objectivity than interpreting the same thing with dance or music or painting. Photographers have almost countless tools at their command to force a narrative on every image they produce. Whether you are Tim Wolcott on your hands and knees in a field with a series of framing cards or Mary Ellen Mark directing subjects while street shooting or anyone applying Curves to an image in Photoshop, photographers make viewers see what they want us to see. The very presence of imposing a frame on any scene edits the rest of the world out of the subject matter. This is editorializing the art of taking a photograph, and with that act, the artist has injected their subjectivity into the shot.
Lindsay McCrum has achieved something in the tradition of grand portrait painters from centuries gone by. Her latest book, Chicks with Guns, is generating a tremendous response from within the photography community and far beyond it. The depth and breath of coverage the book has received in the mass media is astounding. Publications and sites as diverse as Time, Marie Claire, Field & Stream, NPR.org, The London Telegraph, El Mundo, Der Speigel, and Kuwait Times have all featured stories about McCrum and Chicks with Guns. Whether those and other editors covered the publication of this book for its subject matter, artistic merit, political agenda, fascination with America’s gun obsession, or any other reasons, McCrum has done something as much as the not-altogether-objective vehicle of photography could possibly allow. She has taken the wise choice of artistic self-restraint and permitted her subjects, their props, and their surroundings to dictate the tone. The fascinating women documented in Chicks with Guns deserve nothing less. The heavily editorialized subject of civilian firearms in the United States has demanded it for decades.
No matter what your views on the issue of firearms are, you bring your own baggage to this collection of images. Objectify the women in Chicks with Guns, worship them, laugh at them, or fetishize them—McCrum has succeeded in building a group of beautiful portraits which document a way of life for American women of all ages who just happen to love their shotguns, rifles, and handguns.
The controversy and clamor over Chicks with Guns overshadows the quiet demeanor and accomplishments of Lindsay McCrum before the media whirlwind surrounding this book took place. Originally from the East Coast, McCrum studied painting at Yale. Between her junior and senior year, she got a scholarship to Yale at Norfolk, a summer program where only 30 are selected to attend an eight-week course in Norfolk, Connecticut. Students were expected to not only paint, but show proficiency in drawing, printmaking, and photography. Handed a 2 1/4 camera at the beginning of the summer, McCrum had never used such a camera, nor had she taken photos in a formal manner.
Studying with Baldwin Lee and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, by the end of the summer, Lee told her, “Lindsay, I think you should seriously consider quitting painting and become a photographer.” She returned to Yale and entered the Scholar of the House program, where twelve seniors were selected to devote their entire senior year to independent study. She was treated as if she was a graduate student at the Yale School of Art for her senior year, and counts the experience as a highlight of her formal education.
After graduating magna cum laude from Yale, she attended San Francisco Art Institute’s summer M.F.A. program in 2001. The president, Ella King Torrey was very excited about the emerging digital technology of the time. She made a substantial push for mid-career artists, teachers, and others to learn the new technology without disrupting the rest of their year. McCrum attended for three summers. By her last summer she was shooting a Hasselblad she had inherited, and something changed inside her. “At the risk of sounding incredibly hokey, I’ve always loved painting, but when I started doing portrait photography it was like finding true love. It was really spectacular,” she recalls.
The cross-platform collaboration and fluidity she found at Art Institute encouraged McCrum to experiment in different fields. In 2003, she fully completed her transition from painting to the camera. Her study of painting, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries, continues to influence her lighting and composition in photography.
By 2004 McCrum was still shooting the 2 1/4, but then purchased a Mamiya 645 with three lenses and a Polaroid back. This prompted her to do an entire series with 4 x 5 and Polaroid Type 55 film. This same Mamiya 645 has been with her all these years. Coupled with an Aptus 17 and an Aptus II 6 28-megapixel digital back, it was used to shoot every image in Chicks with Guns. Every image in the book was shot on location.
The roots of Chicks with Guns did not start as a book. “It was never my intention to do a book,” McCrum says. “When I first started photographing the women with guns—since I’m a fine art photographer—my initial intent was just to get anywhere from 12 to 20 strong images for an exhibition. It was the women themselves who were so enthusiastic about the project that it took on a life of its own.” Interestingly, McCrum discovered her subjects entirely by word of mouth. A photo shoot with one woman would start. Invariably, she would have a friend who owned her own firearms, and would be recommended to McCrum.
Photographing each subject in a location of their choosing, McCrum started the series using the Mamiya 645, the Aptus 17 back, and one Metz flash. She then began to incorporate a tripod and a Nikon SB-800 used through an umbrella. Eventually, the gear list began growing, with two backs, PocketWizard Plus II transceivers, several SB-800 units, and two umbrellas, however she still prefers the look of natural lighting. “I don’t like a flashy look at all, so I usually sort of replicate natural light,” she says. “Obviously, if you’re filling in, any photographer would know, but I always like it when you look at the image and you’re not really aware of artificial lighting.” She dials in correct exposures by employing a Sekonic L-358 light meter.
For a few portraits, such as black and white of Pamela with the taxidermy specimens, McCrum felt she couldn’t light the room with speedlights, so she rented Profoto lights and packs. Overall, she favored lighting solutions which were as simple as possible.
Typically, McCrum would encourage collaboration with her subjects, relying on their knowledge of local places appropriate for shooting. She would arrive, and things would move quickly. Rarely did a shoot last a full day. “We’d do a quick spin around the place to see what would frame up really well for a background,” McCrum says. “Sometimes you can look at something and it’s stunning but when you put a person there you realize it’s not that interesting a photograph.”
With subjects wearing their own clothing and holding their own guns, McCrum photographed 280 women over three and a half years. Only 81 were included in the book. Oddly enough, McCrum was unable to get clearance from the military to photograph our women in uniform with their weapons. Additionally, the vast majority of the women in the book are not involved in law enforcement.
Before Chicks with Guns, McCrum shot a series of images of very young children in adult clothing she refers to as “the dress-up series.” Boys four to six can be seen wearing commando squad uniforms and carrying toy assault rifles. Little girls are dressed in evening gowns. The images address “whole concept of playing dress-up, which was an examination of notions of popular culture—notions of fashion and beauty and how popular culture influences young girls—and self-image,” McCrum explains. This series has been exhibited at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre Museum.
Another series she is proud of is her documentation of skateboarders shot with a 4 x 5 camera. The subjects are taken out of their element by not being photographed in action. These are portraits of individuals who are meant to be in motion. The effect is similar to seeing Jenevieve of San Antonio wearing a wedding dress, veil, and holding a flintlock pistol in Chicks with Guns.
McCrum is routinely asked “Where did you get this idea?” An artist long before she was a photographer, McCrum feels all art mirrors a larger life around us. “It’s a reflection of its time and it’s not just about responding,” she says. “It’s about reading. It’s about being aware of the history and what’s going on around you in a much broader sense. I think that’s really important because all those elements are going into your work.”
As the long media blitz surrounding Chicks with Guns continues, McCrum laughs and says she has “three new hair-brained ideas,” for new photography projects. It’s still too early to speak about them, but judging from the trajectory of her previous projects, the velocity will only continue to accelerate. All the attention she’s recently gotten won’t change her workflow, her style or much else, she feels. After all, her previous art was a discipline practiced for many hundreds of years. She gets out of the way, captures what she sees, and lets her subjects speak to us silently as they will.
McCrum makes the art and leaves the commentary to others. “At the end of the day it’s always about the picture,” she says, smiling.