Lindsay McCrum: Girls Just Wanna Have Guns
“As for the guns, once you’ve held the work of art that is a best-grade London side-by-side in your hands — especially if made in the ’30s (the golden age of English gun-making) — you will never forget that miracle of balance and weight.” — Sarita
Portrait photographer Lindsay McCrum has an innate eye for unearthing the forces that have shaped the subjects in her provocative series Chicks with Guns — be they cops, trophy hunters, subsistence hunters or competition markswomen. McCrum’s portrait book, due out October 2011 (Vendome Press), is a thoughtful and rigorous exploration of women and their personal firearms that crosses varying landscapes and political climes, although that’s not how it all began.
If it seems that Chicks with Guns might be an investigation of liberal versus conservative gun views, or even firearms and femininity, McCrum is quick to state that the effect was not intentional. Her sole objective was to lightly steer her subjects more deeply into the context of their personal stories, which are revealed in words alongside the photographs to captivating effect. McCrum may not have been aiming at a statement, but she got one anyway.
“I think that people are going to read a lot more into this in terms of deconstructing stereotypes,” she says. “There really wasn’t an agenda with this project. I said repeatedly throughout that this was, through portraiture, one part Margaret Mead, one part August Sander and one part [Diego] Velasquez, who is one of my heroes, though, believe me, I’m not in any way comparing myself to him.”
McCrum, who received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and her Masters of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, is not a gun enthusiast herself and has no political or cultural axes to grind. Still, she found a country divided on the subject of firearms — with or without women shooting them.
“It was interesting, and it wasn’t what I thought,” McCrum says. “I learned a lot along the way, but there were two things in particular: One, on the subject of guns, nobody is neutral. The other thing is, when you get outside of the blue state cities, everybody’s got a gun. When you live in a blue state city, your construct of guns is completely in the context of urban violence.”
McCrum came away from the project, she says, “profoundly moved.” It was a democratic journey. Some of the women presented grew up as ranchers’ daughters with a ready affinity for shooting, some were nudged by the need to support their families and/or protect them, and some just came to like kicking rump and taking home a ten-point buck. What they all share in common is a no-nonsense, common sense, non-exploitative approach to gun ownership. It’s part of what makes these portraits so nuanced and compelling.
Each woman’s story was unique, and McCrum welcomed their ideas during the shooting sessions. She was also insistent that each photograph had to tell a story, which is why she opted for the environmental portrait mode.
“The location has to tell a story or tether the viewer to that particular region,” McCrum explains. “I wanted to get a sense of place and who these women were, and I think with an environmental portrait, you are getting other pieces of the puzzle.”
Chicks with Guns was originally supposed to be a few stills for an exhibit. However, thousands of miles and years later, the series assumed a seriously large-scale perspective.
“I never set out to spend four years of my life working on this project.” McCrum explains. “It evolved organically. I will tell you, it was the women’s enthusiasm and excitement about the project that really kicked it into high gear.”
The women not only range by sociodemographic but also in use of weaponry, and age at which they became involved with shooting. McCrum sought diversity — and got it. But her grand portraiture style confused some viewers who believed she had only chosen a certain demographic. One of her subjects, Jen from Emigrant, Montana, was raised by a father who was a subsistence hunter.
“Because she’s so lovely looking, I had this curator in New York who said something like, ‘There are too many wealthy women [referring to Jen] in it.’ I said to him, ‘Her husband owns the Emigrant General Store.’ That is why I think the stories are really interesting. Whenever any of us look at a photograph, we obviously project an enormous amount onto who we think that person is.”
McCrum got the idea for the series after reading an article in The Economist on the policy of hunting and guns in the United States that appeared in the wake of the 2006 episode when then Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his friend while hunting. The article stated that it would have been political suicide if a European politician had been shown shooting animals.
“I thought that was really fascinating, because at that time John Kerry got laced over going hunting,” she says. “From a sociological point of view, in Europe it’s really the domain of the upper classes, because real estate is in short demand, whereas in the United States it cuts across all sorts of social, economic and regional currents. With this series, I really wanted to get a sense of diversity. I think a lot depends on how one was raised and where you were raised in terms of how you feel about guns or how you use them.”
McCrum found something uniquely interesting in each of the women who posed for her. The diminutive Pamela from Monte Sereno, California, who hunts with a 454 Casull handgun because a rifle is too heavy to carry during long trips, explains that she can handle the gun’s kick because she doesn’t resist it, whereas men, she believes, feel the need to control it.
“She is tiny and had the most amazing presence,” McCrum says. “Most men can’t handle that gun because it has so much recoil. She’s shooting these animals at 150 yards. One of the things that emerged is that many of these women are world-class athletes.”
As the project grew in scale, so did McCrum’s process. She began shooting hand held with a small on-camera flash, switched to a tripod-mounted Nikon SB 800 with an umbrella for fill light, then progressed to two Nikon SB 800s with a main and a fill light. When shooting interiors, she would sometimes rent additional lights. She eventually ended up using a Mamiya 645. In an age of easy digital shooting where it seems that stopping time would be easier or more “real,” the essence of a subject can actually be lost, though the irony isn’t.
“Everybody’s a digital photographer, and you have this instantaneous quality. I am more interested in slowing things down,” McCrum says. “I also think when you are shooting with a large camera, the subject is fully aware of the process. It was about collaboration, and I really valued their input. When you slow it down, people give great thought to how they are going to be presenting, and I was really curious to see how these women would do that.”
There is a relaxed quality to the poses in McCrum’s photographs, with no aiming of the guns and no editorial posturing. The series is about the relationship between woman and gun, not gun and prey, or gun and target. Some subjects hold their guns pointing down, some close to the chest, but all handle them with a quiet and guileless confidence.
“You give someone a gun, and their whole posture and body language will change,” McCrum says. “But there was none of that kind of chip on the shoulder. These women were very, very grounded, and when you are handling a gun, there’s no margin for error. You have to be very present. They are aware of the grave responsibility.”
Some of the women in Chicks with Guns came late to shooting, like police officer Anita from St. Paul, Minnesota, who looks more like a suburban soccer mom than a cop. In her story for the book, Anita describes her firearms training: “I lifted my gun and quickly found my sights 20 yards down range. I was taken aback in awe at the power I held in my hand. It was at this moment that I came to terms with my commitment to the profession that had been my calling.”
“I just adored her,” says McCrum. “Many of these women know that they can take care of themselves because, let’s be realistic, even if you had a black belt in tae kwan do or karate, if you are confronted by a 300-pound man, you are not going to be able to do much other than bide for time and get away.”
McCrum stresses the importance of the women’s personal stories. Rachael, a succinct, tiny 22-year-old from Livingston, Montana, reveals: “I got interested in hunting because my dad is a hunter and ever since I was little I knew that I was going to be a hunter too. I have been shooting since I was little because my sisters and my dad taught me how to shoot a .22. My favorite gun is the 250 Savage, because that’s the gun I used when I killed my first Elk. That’s all.”
“It’s not so much about shooting as it is about seeing,” McCrum explains. “Art is a reflection of the time, and its job is to make you look at your world differently. People have so many ideas about this subject matter. Hopefully they would look at these portraits, hear these stories and think about this in a different way. I think guns are a serious and complex issue and deserve more than sound bites geared towards people’s fears and ha