By Janine Latus
Glen McClure sat in his back yard, pouting. The pandemic had stretched on for an interminable month, and the photographer couldn’t take his cameras to the streets as he normally did to capture pictures of shipyard workers, roller derby queens and random people walking by.
He couldn’t fly back to Ireland to collect more images of dramatic scenery and St. Patrick’s Day parades, and he could pretty much forget his planned project to create portraits of the unhoused people who make up The Norfolk Street Choir.
So he closed himself up in his studio and began playing with light. His subjects: old wrenches and hammers and drill bits. The lights: old-school tungsten hot lamps, the kind that throw a hard beam that creates harsh shadows, accentuating texture and adding drama. He was having fun again.
One day a former crew member from another project stopped by the studio to say he was leaving town. “I said, ‘Hey, man, before you go, I want to do a portrait of you,’” McClure remembers. “I had all my hot lights set up and said, ‘I’ll use these.’ And so I did it. And it was awesome.”
The next day he told another friend about it, and that man sat for a portrait. “And I went, damn, I think I have a project,” McClure says.
Since then, more than three dozen people (including me) have sat under McClure’s hot lights, holding stock-still as he moves this lamp and then re-angles that one.
“I was sitting in the chair and just baking,” says Seth Feman, curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art, who has shown McClure’s work and sat for this project. “It was fun watching him work. He’s so fluid, he was moving back and forth, adjusting lights, changing my position, changing things in the background, keeping the conversation going. It was all second nature for him. You kind of forget you’re sitting for a portrait. It was more like talking with a friend.”
The portraits aren’t “pretty.” They’re more akin to paintings by the Dutch Masters than to the headshot you’d get taken for a church bulletin or corporate report, where subjects are moved through, one after another, the lighting all the same, as if faces are all the same. McClure is going for the look in an eye, the shimmer of light on the flat of a cheek.
“I have a main light coming across the front of the subject,” he tells me, adjusting my hands, stepping back, coming close to move another light, while I try to hold as still as an old hammer. “And then you are probably wondering, like, what’s going on with these lights behind me? I call them rim lighting or skim light, just like right now I’m looking at you, you have a skim light on the side of your face. So that’s coming from behind.” He moves another lamp, looks through the camera’s lens again. “I might just really light the face, or it might just be hitting the shoulder, or maybe just coming across the hand. So, it’s a buildup.”
McClure began as a lowly photographer’s assistant back in 1977 (“the week Elvis died”) and built a career as a commercial photographer that began in 1980 with Arthur Polizos Associates in Virginia Beach before he went out on his own in 1988. Back then he preferred soft box lighting, diffused through a screen to be gentle and forgiving, as if on a cloudy day. The tungsten bulbs allow him more precision.
“I’m very attentive to how the light looks in the eye,” he says. “I’m trying to put a highlight in each eye if possible, a little white dot, and then I’m trying to light one side of the face more than the other to give it a little drama.”
McClure is a hospitable raconteur, telling stories and relishing hearing the ones his subjects bring to the studio: “I get to talk to so many interesting people every day,” he says. “It’s cool, man. It just lights me up.” When jazz musician Jimmy Masters lugged in his 100-plus-year-old upright bass, McClure used eight lights to get his portrait right: “I wanted to light his hands, and I wanted parts of the bass, but not the whole thing,” McClure says. “I wanted some of it to fade in and fade out. So you just build it up as you go along.”
McClure calls his new project “Spotlight,” both because he’s using old spotlights and because he’s aiming attention at interesting people in the community. He’d love for it to turn into an exhibition, which is not unreasonable for a man whose work has been shown in the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, the Charles H. Taylor Visual Arts Center and the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center.
He’s published nine books. The most recent, Apprentice to Light, showcases his love for the dramatic landscapes and people of western Ireland.
With Spotlight, he’s not going for glamour. He’s not smoothing skin or removing wrinkles. “I’m just trying to make an interesting character study and do unusual light,” he says. He’s had subjects—including me—look at the finished work and say they’ve never looked as good in their life, but that’s not his goal.
“A lot of people in the digital world use retouching programs that make everybody’s face just perfect. I’m not trying to do that. I will take away certain things and accentuate some others, but I’m not smoothing everybody up to total, unbelievable perfection, because we’re not that way,” he says. “I think most people are pretty spectacular just as they are.”
Learn more at GlenMcClure.com.
About the Author
Janine Latus is a freelance writer who spent a lovely decade in Coastal Virginia and now lives in Chapel Hill, NC. It’s her delight and job to talk to interesting people about fascinating things and then play with words. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister’s Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation.