Interview: Erica McDonald – Perception of Photography

Erica McDonald

Photographer Erica McDonald with "Bean".

I enjoy the work of photographers who seem to be able to create their own universe through their photos. I get that sense while looking at the work of Erica McDonald. McDonald began working in the field of photography under the tutelage of esteemed photo dealer Joe Folberg at Vision Gallery in San Francisco, a “mini-mecca” for photographers. When the chance came for her to briefly manage the gallery at The Maine Photographic Workshops, she was rewarded with the opportunity to learn through the company of some of photography’s greatest image makers.

Name: Erica McDonald
Place of residence: New York City
Profession: Photographer
Food: Aspiring vegan
Transportation: Mostly by foot

McDonald now works as a freelance photographer and has invested herself in the dark light of this nothing – a book project of portraits, interviews and documentary street photography that focuses on the remaining working class in a changing Brooklyn neighborhood.

Besides serving as a contributing editor to the book Connections Across A Human Planet, a collection of photo documentary stories from around the world, she also has reviewed portfolios for the PDN PhotoExpo / Palm Springs Photo Festival and works privately as a photo consultant. In 2011, McDonald also joined the Advisory Committee for Rehabilitation Through Photography and the Editorial Committee at Photojournale.

McDonald is currently working on a project called DEVELOP Photo to provide resources for the enrichment of the photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography community. The website for DEVELOP Photo will launch soon. In the meantime you can visit the DEVELOP Tube (YouTube) or the DEVELOP Tube (Vimeo) channel, which is a facet of DEVELOP Photo. DEVELOP Tube is an educational resource which features interviews, profiles, lectures and films about photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography.

Erica McDonald

The dark light of this nothing.

Can you tell me something about the very beginning of your photography – the problems, the joy – you’ve been facing?
The very beginning was long ago, in early childhood. I used to set up portraits so I could document my life with the family Polaroid camera. Fortunately, I had a very indulgent grandmother who kept me flush with film. There wasn’t a lot of angst in any of that, just fun and purpose. Photography remained important to me throughout high school and into college and after, but I wasn’t trying to shoot professionally. In my twenties I put the camera down for a number of years; it’s a longer story, but essentially I wanted to be sure my intentions in photography were something I could respect and that my eye was free from any mental chatter. But more recently, problems and joy … I think there is great personal reward in working on a longterm project. It has been an opportunity for creative growth, to clarify my aims and explore my impulses, to move forward and to confront, or at least examine, my shortcomings.

Can you tell us something more about DEVELOP Photo and why you started this project?
The idea for DEVELOP was organic and gradual, and came partially through conversation with other photographer friends, and in part as a response to what I saw as an unmet need in our field. I’m working to tailor something specific to the field of photojournalism/documentary photography based on my understanding as a photographer and from my experience on the other side of the industry, and to then centralize the information in a new way. Fine art photography is included too, but this is a tricky term and I wish there were a better way to describe that third component that DEVELOP covers. DEVELOP is actually a wide umbrella that aims to be helpful in multiple ways – by providing a platform for discussion and interviews, through an online research library and the video channels, and through workshops and consulting. There are aspects of DEVELOP which are aimed toward the emerging photographer, and aspects which exist to facilitate connections for the professional photographer, the educator, and toward others who are involved in the industry. Without question there are countless fantastic organizations and tools available to us now, and I’m not trying to trivialize that; rather I want to make sure that those very resources are spotlighted.

How has the internet changed your perception of photography?
Much of my photography education has come through the photobook, and of course from the practice of shooting, but an equal amount has probably come – though in a circuitous fashion – by way of conversation generated though photography forums like Lightstalkers and burn, and more recently through discussions on Facebook with my friends there and in groups like the Flak Photo Network and the newer Handmade Books by Artists. In that way, the internet has influenced my conceptual notions of photography, but probably not my sense-perception of it. With regard to issues of the medium of photography being experienced differently online, I still perceive the negative or print (or original file) as being the the ‘source’ image, and the online image as the symbol of that thing; so when I view work online I always have its basic correlate in mind.

… and how has teaching photography changed your way of photography?
Teaching is amazing. I’m still learning the ropes but as far as I can tell being a teacher serves me as a photographer in many ways – it makes me verbalize what I intuitively know, it helps me to generate new ideas for subject matter, it humbles me and puts me in a position of awe, opens my heart and makes me want to know more and communicate better. It’s the impetus to practice what I preach.

Do you have any sort of routine? When do you go out to photograph and where?
I’m not a carry-the-camera-everywhere-I-go type of person. I have rituals more than routines, little games I play, rules I follow, superstitions I indulge. If I am working on something specific, longterm, those rules may involve routine: chase the 4:30 pm light, only let myself leave the house with one roll of film, not allow myself to return home without at least one maybe, that kind of thing. But I’m not good at faking it when it comes to personal projects. I try to honor the muse and will work obsessively when she’s around, and not at all if she isn’t. But when I’m not actively shooting, I am always, constantly, watching, and ready to be awakened by a gesture or an expression, a tone or a bit of light. I experienced a pristine inspiring occurrence today. I was without my camera, mesmerized watching a young, tired man on his 10 minute break from work. I watched through a window, it was like a perfect movie made up of perfect stills, unfolding in slow motion. I fall in love with these moments, and even though it would have been fantastic to photograph it, it is equally fantastic to be moved by it.

Erica McDonald

40 Days - St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner, Brooklyn, New York .

Talking about your photography series 40 Days, the forty day period in the Christian calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes with Easter. For the Catholics who observe Lent, it is a time of reflection in which to mirror Christ’s withdrawal into the desert for forty days. When you reflect on this series and take a look at the photos you’ve made, what lasts in your memory?
What I remember is this: the challenge of trying to fix onto film a sense of quiet reflection that was somehow symbolic of something larger, in total chaos. The photos were made in the few moments after people left Mass. The leave all together in a rush, and I had to simultaneously explain, ask, clear space, bond, shoot at a 1/30th or something on the Rollei with one hand while I held people out of the frame with the other and the door open with my foot. Invariably, because these were made at the same time of day, there was also this little 3 year old boy who would play on the church steps while he and his grandmother waited for the bus. He was a wild, wild thing and the neither he nor his grandmother understood a word of English as far as I could tell, so my pleas for a little space went unanswered.

Erica McDonald

Park Slope, Brooklyn Portraits.

Your Park Slope Brooklyn portraits are “talking” about a vanishing neighborhood that was once rich in diversity. And probably the people living there will have to move because of high-rise investments. Do you think this is a price we have to pay for the sake of economical growth and globalization?
When I started the series I had my own ideas about what was good for the neighborhood and what wasn’t. Now, after talking with many long time residents, I realize that the piece is really a personal narrative based on my own mythology. I still have my opinions, but I feel less inclined to try to speak for anyone.

What do you think personally is your best series you’ve photographed and why?
It’s pretty easy for a photographer (self included) to alternately celebrate and recoil from his own work – the same work. But, as the dark light of this nothing (see photographs down below) is what I am still shooting, albeit slowly, it is the work I care about the most. Also, I hope that I am learning daily, that my sensitivity improves daily, so the answer to this question should probably always be, for me, that my best work is whatever I am working on now. ❚

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© All copyright remains with photographer Erica McDonald.