If you’ve come to this blog before you will be familiar with Mary Claire’s beautiful photography. She is my collaborator and friend on this lovely space. She, time and again, takes my breath away with her beautiful work. Her ability to capture beauty in all it’s subtly is something I’m not even sure how to truly describe, but I am always emotional when she sends me new photos. She has the ability to capture someone’s true essence, someone’s heart in a photo. What a gift that is.
I met Mary Claire when she was a little girl. I am not even sure what age she was, but she was little, and I on the verge of adolescence. She and her family moved into the house next door to mine. Our neighborhood was/is the kind of neighborhood where you are not just neighbors, but friends.
I’ve watched her change from a young girl, to a teenager, and to a woman. She has always been too wise for her years, smart, insightful, and full of passion. I am happy to now put the spotlight on her, my collaborator, my friend. Here she is on her love of photography, life, and being 25.
“There are two distinct moments that got me into photography. First, because it was a cool thing to do at the time. It was when Urban Outfitters started carrying film in the stores…I was a sophomore in high school. I was 15 years old, almost 16. I wasn’t allowed to have any sort of Facebook until I was 16. So, at the time, I had been mentally gearing up for my social media presence. I went to choir camp that summer with a digital point and shoot camera. I shot a bunch of pictures of me and my friends. It’s the first time I remember editing photos using Picnik. They were just dumb jumping pictures with my friends, but I thought they were so cool. I played all around with them, over-saturating, de-saturating, editing them how I wanted.
“A couple weeks after that, I was digging around in my closet and reached my hand up and pulled down my first film camera, a Nikon FM 10. It was my dad’s sister’s. She passed away when I was in fourth grade, and it had been sitting there collecting dust at that point for six years. I asked my dad if I could have it. He asked, ‘Do you even know how to use it?’ to which I replied, ‘No. Show me right now.’ Mind you it was like 10 pm at night. I also had a very cool friend who at the time was shooting film. She was way cooler than I was, and all I could think was that I wanted to shoot film like Emma. I took the camera out the next day. We [my family] had an old roll of film, my Dad showed me how to load and change a few settings. I went to Salt Creek beach with my friends and shot the whole roll of film. I had no idea what I was doing. We immediately took it to Costco and got it developed at the one-hour photo. We all sat down to look at it and every single photo was perfect. Every. Single. Photo. Came out. And I thought, ‘Okay maybe I can do this.’ After that, it was just a hobby for years.
“It wasn’t until I went to college that I really thought about it as a career. I had a really difficult time with my college application process. Now, I know it’s because I wasn’t ready to go off to college. But I was so competitive with the people in my class, coupled with, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. A lot of people had older siblings who knew the application process. I also, was like, ‘Listen, I’m smart, I’ll figure this out, no one push this on me.’ I wouldn’t let anyone help me. All I cared about was going to a school that looked good to other people, not a school that I cared about. I applied to five schools. I got into all three state schools but not the UC because my subject tests weren’t taken in time to meet the deadlines. I even went through the appeal process. I did it with UC Irvine, which, I really didn’t even want to go to that school. I just wanted to say I got in. I ended up going to Saddleback [a local junior college], which is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Six months in, as a declared english education major, I thought, ‘This is so wrong,’ and not what I want to do at all. I re-arranged my whole schedule. Switched to just education, then thought about business, and I mean, all while I am steadily working as a photographer.”
She found her niche doing senior high school portraits for graduation, and then shot her first wedding in 2010. “The inner battle I had about going professional or staying as a hobbyist had a lot to do with how I viewed it. I was very involved in the online photography community, like Flickr, and the people I met through that ended up going to art school doing beauty, fashion editorials, cool stuff. There was this general feeling at the time that the wedding industry was kind of a sell-out industry, for photographers who just want money and are not really into the art side of it. There was this hump mentally to get over. Am I going to lose creativity by doing this? Once you get over that, which I have, I am settled very comfortably into the place that I am now. I get to do the creative stuff for this blog or on my own.
“Every so often I will get a senior that will rejuvenate me. I love doing the senior portraits; I love seeing them surprised at how fun, cool I am, and how the process works. I love getting to know the families and taking photos of all their children. I love letting them see the back of the camera, see what they are looking like and their excitement. Especially since I’ve been doing it for so many years. The seniors that I have this year and last will tell me they’ve been following my work since eighth grade, how they’ve been looking forward to having their portraits done by me, which I could cry, I am so thankful.
“Weddings can be more of a chore mentally for me to prepare for. But in almost every wedding I’ve done I will have a moment of, ‘Oh yea, I like doing this.’ It’s just a lot of work. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting. You’re acting for 15 hours; you have to socialize with everyone. I make a point to memorize every person’s name, from the bridal party to the immediate family, so I can call out everyone’s name while shooting. At the end of the night, I feel like my brain is going to explode, because I have so much information. It’s cool to look back at my first wedding, when I had no idea what I was doing, to now that I have settled into a groove. I don’t get nervous anymore, I’m familiar.”
Her first love, portraiture, has continued. “With portraits, the whole thing is a controlled environment. Honestly, what I love about portraits is that I can control the situation and create something that I think is beautiful. That sounds a little shallow, but it’s very cathartic and fulfilling to me, that creative process. I love when it is effortless. The reason I am so attached to portraits is that I love taking a photo thinking that someone will one day show their grandkids. I am so nostalgic and sentimental about everything. It’s about capturing, preserving the essence of someone, and then also the idea that you are making them feel beautiful. I mean that is probably everything really.”
Learning boundaries: There was a time when I felt like I was being invited places just to take pictures. I started to show up without my camera on purpose, just to make a point. I had to learn my time is valuable. Especially now that I am deep in it, and it’s widely regarded that this is my profession and what I do for a living. One of my dad’s friends told me a while ago, after he asked me to take some family photos, what I charged, and I said something like, ‘Oh no don’t worry about it, I’ll just do…’ and he said, ‘No, no, no, tell me what you charge. You have to value yourself and the people who are your friends will know you are valuable and should be more than happy to pay you full price.’ And it stopped me. I realized, you know what, he’s right
On finishing school: I go back and forth. I am just shy of a degree in photojournalism and am currently taking the year off. I hope to go back and finish because I hope to one day teach. I want to retire into teaching. When I am older, maybe when I’m like 38 and have a family and don’t want to be doing weddings every other weekend. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I thought I wanted to be an English teacher but now I realize I would love to be a journalism teacher. I would love to be the yearbook advisor, that would be my absolute dream. I want to be able to do that. So that is another motivator for finishing.
On being 25: I think I am at a very good place at understanding how old I am, in understanding what I can and can’t do in relation to that. I still want to go out, have a good time, but then I’ll think I am too old for this. But then I think, says who? I feel good about turning 25 because I wanted to get my own place, that was the way I would feel adult, and I did it. I set this goal and accomplished it…When I decided I wanted to live in Long Beach, I made that a goal. That by 25 I would be out of my parent’s house and make that happen. My mom always says, 'Once Mary Claire gets an idea in her head, she is going to do it, and she’s going to do it as soon as possible.' That’s kind of my style in life. I decide I want to do something, and I make it happen. That was my biggest push for 25. Now that I have it, that I am sitting on my couch that I fucking paid for in my apartment, that I pay for with my money that I earn as my career as a photographer. I feel accomplished, but I have moments of, ‘Oh my god what am I doing with my life? I need to be working more…logging my hours…I need QuickBooks! I need QuickBooks!' I have to remind myself I am 24 [at the time of this interview]. I am still 24 years old, and I have time. I think I still have a couple years until I feel the weight of my age. My mom once said, 'There comes a point in your aging that your body starts to age but your mental perception of yourself just kind of halts and stops.' She says she will sometimes look in the mirror, and she’s surprised by who she sees.
On choosing herself right now: To get very vulnerable, I go to weddings all the time and I’ll do a mental game of 'okay if I met someone today we could be together for a year, get engaged for a year, and then get married for a year. That would be a perfect three years from now’...I mean I talk to myself in my head twenty-four seven, as I’m sure most people do, and I am always mentally playing out scenarios. Very recently, for the past couple years, I thought I knew what I wanted. At 20, I thought I was going to marry my boyfriend at the time, have a family, and so on. And I can’t believe I thought that was what I wanted. I’ve decided that from here on out that I don’t want to have any mental timeline for how my life should go. I did that once before and obviously it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to go. I am just going to stop trying. Which I know you can’t stop, it’s human nature to want to think about our futures. But for the first time in forever, I genuinely mean it when I say I don’t want to have children or be married in the next five years. That is not my motivation in these next five years for myself. For the first time ever, my motivation is for myself.
Building a community of friends that are family: I want to spend time with my friends, nurture relationships, be attentive to them, and be careful with them. Something I said in my speech at my friend Mia’s wedding was that my greatest accomplishment is the people who I have known, who I have known for so long. I am not even old enough to have known people very long, but these I have, and they are the best people I have ever known. I want more [people] like that. I want that. Not because I am greedy, but because I have the ability to do that. I want to make sure that that happens. For me it’s all about the people you meet and how well you treat them. How you nurture that in your life.
Interview has been condensed & edited
edit by Kristen Fogle
photos Janelle Walker with Mary Claire's Camera
makeup & hair Janelle Walker