by DENISE M. WATSON
photography by ERIC LUSHER
One of the best things that ever happened to Glen McClure was getting bored to the extreme one day in November 1998. He’d had those itchy moments before when he’d get up, stretch and walk around his studio on Colonial Avenue in Norfolk and stare out his window at life moving below. Most of his photography business was advertising gigs, quite a bit different from the diverse view outside. He wanted to capture that stream, to focus on people being people.
“I finally said, ‘Stop thinking about it and do it,’” McClure says now.
So he set up a mini-studio on the sidewalk to take photos of passers-by. It was his first “street shoot,” and it led him to change his focus to photographing people and life. His images, intricately detailed yet simple in the same breath, have been featured in museums here, such as the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Mariners’ Museum, as well as nationally and internationally. He will have an exhibit in Italy this year.
McClure, 58, likes to sidestep the accolades and says his photography works because it gives viewers the frozen moment in time that they want.
“It’s a way that you can look at people that you couldn’t normally do,” he says from his studio, now on City Hall Avenue. “You can’t just stop and stare at people. But this allows you to do that.” It helps, of course, that he likes people; “I will,” he says even now, “photograph anyone who will let me.” That six-hour street shoot in 1998 introduced viewers to people they see all the time but don’t really see.
Using a 4-by-5 view camera – and film, back then – McClure shot subjects in black and white, his favorite mode.
He caught, for example, the steely-eyed look of a man who was living in a halfway house and had been in various hospitals trying to control his schizophrenia. The portrait of John Majette captured everything from the scar across his nose to the tweed of his fedora. McClure had seen him often, walking along Colonial, well-dressed, in a parade of different hats.
McClure took the images, with vignettes about each subject, and collected it all into a book. He named it after that block of Colonial: 2100.
McClure never considered photo-graphy when he was growing up in the Ingleside section of Norfolk. But serendipity, he says, pointed him in the right direction. When he was 19, he was working in a department store and walked by a stand of cameras. He bought a camera, flash and tripod and began to teach himself how to shoot.
“I loved it,” he says. “I’d take my camera with me to parties, everywhere.”
By his mid-20s, he still didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with his life but he knew he liked taking photographs. So he wrote to every studio in the Yellow Pages.
He heard back from one and was hired, to do office help. He absorbed everything he could about the craft. He found heroes to emulate, such as Paul Strand, known for his intimate and unvarnished portraits of urban life. Another was Josef Sudek, a Czechoslovakian photographer who saw art “out of photographing the trash on his desk,” McClure says.
McClure later got work in advertising. His photography – not just on the street – has taken him around the world. He’s captured natural shots of soaring birds in Ireland and townscapes in Spain.
Last year, he was asked to shoot a project in the Blue Ridge county of Floyd and photographed 74 people from all backgrounds, from farmers to New Age artists. Portrait of Floyd was exhibited there at The Jacksonville Center for the Arts.
For McClure, it’s the textures, the wrinkle of a brow, the stain on old overalls or details on a belt buckle, that all help convey the subject’s personality. But, too, he’s well regarded for his technical skill. Jeffrey W. Allison, manager of statewide programs and exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, says he considers McClure one of the best technicians of the craft. It is “his use of light, his ability to create extraordinarily beautiful prints,” Allison says. “He’s an incredible maker of photographs. What creates the impact on the greater level is that he has a great ability to work with his subjects.”
Allison, who first saw the 2100 project years ago during an exhibit in Virginia Beach, asked McClure if he could put on the show around the state. They’ve worked together on various projects since.
At Floyd’s Jacksonville center, Lore Deighan is gallery coordinator. In a book on the project, she wrote about how McClure’s simple, honest images gave her a better appreciation of her neighbors.
“It became more than just an exhibition,” she wrote. “There is so much to the human experience and each of us carries incredibly rich, diverse, and complex life stories, even within the small town.
“I was reminded that all those folks you pass on the street have families and stories – and rich lives of their own.”
And that’s what Glen McClure wants people to see when they stop and stare at his work.
“I hope people notice things they would not see otherwise.”