“LOVED offered so much to look at in the photo and while it could be considered ‘busy’, it was simple and I found that the photo kept calling me back to view it each time I was on the site. I loved the composition and the textures along with the tonal range of each of the photos parts. It had elegance to it even though it’s the side yard for trash!” Susan Spiritus.
This year we had two, first place selections from our juror Susan Spiritus in our call for submissions, One
Holly Northrop and E.E.McCollum
Today we share our interview with E.E. McCollum.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
Sure. I was born in the Iowa and spent most of my life in the Midwest until I moved to the DC area almost twenty-five years ago. Despite having grown up three blocks from cornfields, and having grandparents who were farmers, I now find that the city feels like home. I am nearing the end of a career in a very different field than photography and, while it has been very rewarding, I’m anxious to set that bucket down and devote more focused time to making photographs.
How did you get started in photography?
My parents gave me a Kodak Brownie Synchro twin-lens reflex that shot 127 film when I was maybe five years old. My dad and I learned to develop the film and make little contact prints and later enlargements when we could use the darkroom at the university where he taught. Ever since then, photography has come and gone from my life, often like a bad relationship, alternating hope and heartbreak. My struggle was always with the technology. I usually had a vision but wasn’t skilled or patient or diligent enough to get it from my eye into a print. When I made an image that matched what I wanted to portray, it felt like luck or magic. I left photography behind for years although I usually had a camera and shot (bad) vacation photos or family candids. In 2004, when a good friend and colleague was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I really had to ask myself if that had been me, would I be satisfied with what I had done with my life? I decided that I had neglected my artistic side for too long and came back to more serious photography. Digital technology and focused dedication gradually led me to be able to make images that felt like I had made them and not that they were the result of a stroke of luck. Funny that just a few months ago I suddenly had the desire to shoot film again. I bought a used medium format camera and am slowly working my way back into it.
Although I struggled with the technology, I never tired of the field. I was always looking at images. That interest deepened when, in 1972, I took a course in the history of photography taught by Beaumont Newhall who had recently left Eastman House to become a professor at the University of New Mexico. Suddenly photographic images had a historical context and a new meaning. He shared so generously his personal experience, his viewpoint, his friends – Ansel Adams accompanied him to class one day when Adams had come through town for a visit. He has been a model for me as an educator as well as giving me a foundation to try to understand photography. Someone remarked about Newhall as a professor, “He was not an art historian, he was a source of history.”
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
So many. I certainly admire the 20th century pioneers – Weston, Stieglitz, Kertesz, Walker Evans, Avedon, Bullock, Gordon Parks. And some guiltier pleasures – Helmut Newton, for instance, and Sam Haskins was an early influence.. Most of the photographers I admire are not ones I strive to emulate. The National Gallery here in Washington had a major retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work last year. Seeing how it worked all together, curated so well, I finally was able to really apprehend what Winogrand did. I wandered through that exhibit several times, absolutely in awe of his work, even though it is nothing like what I am trying to do. As I have grown as a photographer, I have come to admire other photographers who challenge me more. It has taken me a long time to begin to appreciate the new landscape photographers, for instance. And I also am seeking out photographers who reflect, both in their work and in their writings, on the nature of the medium and how that nature can be harnessed for artistic purposes.
Did you have a mentor?
I don’t have a mentor, per se. Many people have helped me along the way. Some have shown interest in my work when I was unsure that it was worth pursuing, others have taught me the technical end of things, and others have served as what I think of as an “intermediate audience.” I think we all need that, a group of people with whom we can share our work in development, people who appreciate, criticize, sympathize with the struggle.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Just one? Again, there are so many. I was quite taken with Wynn Bullock’s work early in my life and many of his images stay with me. Seeing his images made me want to do this, regardless of how frustrating it was early on. “Navigation without Numbers”, “Point Lobos Tide Pool”, “Child in Forest”,”Nude by Sandy’s Window”, “Woman and Thistle” all stay in my mind.
But if I had to pick just one, I think it would be Edward Weston’s lovely nude of Charis Wilson sitting in a sunny doorway ,”Nude 227″. The wonderful angles, and play of highlights and shadows, made human by the slightly crooked part on Charis’ hair always moves me.
If you could spend the day with another photographer living or from the past who would it be?
I want to pick two. I would love to spend a day with Richard Avedon. Much of my work involves photographing people and Avedon seems to have thought so carefully and clearly about the relationship between photographer and subject. It is a complex relationship, much more than simply setting up the lights and clicking the shutter. It depends on what you believe about people, about performance, about deception and presentation. And it’s about power. Avedon was able to articulate this so well and so fearlessly. He told someone he had photographed, “You were there, but in the end I have the control. It’s lending yourself to an artist.”
I would also like to spend a day with Diane Arbus, but for very different reasons. I have a very visceral, and negative, response to her work. To me, she portrays marginalized and hidden people in ways that reinforces their otherness. She helps us keep our distance from them, like creatures in a freak show. Following her as she worked, wondering about her intent, her understanding of what she was doing would, I think, be really valuable. Sometimes I learn the most from moving toward the things I don’t like as much as I do inquiring more deeply into the things I do like.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
I don’t know. I’d love to say unequivocally that, of course I’d continue to make images, that the work has intrinsic meaning. I’m not so sure that’s true for me. I think of my work as an interaction, a relationship, and that it is intended to be seen. Several years ago, when I had just come back to photography, I faced the possibility that I might lose the vision in my dominant right eye. It was a terrifying experience. Would it curtail my ability to make photographs? Would it take away this artistic medium I was just rediscovering? Would I not be able to shoot with my left eye? As that possibility began to spin itself out in my thoughts, I immediately thought I would return to writing as a means of expression – something I had done earlier in my life. I could keep creating something to be shared. For me, art is an interaction.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day is for you.
Two things occur to me in answer to this question. Especially when I am working with a model, I try to go into the shoot with a concept in mind. I may or may not envision a specific image or set of images that I hope will come out of the shoot but I generally have in mind one or more directions I’d like to go in. These directions are often connected to a project that I am working on. At other times, my process just involves wandering around with camera in hand as an invitation to just look at things and see what images might emerge. This process usually isn’t connected to a project or series of images and usually results in images I like but that live in isolation as opposed to projects where the images inform each other. All that said, sometimes wandering around photos can begin to coalesce into a project and then my work with them becomes more intentional and focused as I move forward.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Time. Both time of day and time of life. Jim Croce said it best a long time ago – “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them.” And that is my story, having found a serious world of photography when I don’t have the years of a 20-year-old ahead of me. It makes some of the moments of my creative life incredibly sweet and poignant, and others drip with frustration.
What is next?
Keep shooting. Keep learning about this medium. Keep connecting with other photographers. One of the wonderful things about social media is that I have been able to connect with people all over the globe whose work I admire. And keep trying to make images that establish relationships.
Thank you for sharing your work and your words.
To learn more about the work of E.E. McCollum please visit his site at, e.e.mccollum.
Click, Navigation without Numbers, to learn the story behind the image. We highly recommend listening to the audio version.
To learn more about these photographers please click on their names.