Character Studies

Glen McClure was aimless until he bought his first camera on a whim—and found his passion. Now, he’s a successful photographer who specializes in soulful portraits 

Glen McClure has no trouble acknowledging that 35 years ago, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. After graduating from high school in Norfolk, he was a young man with no plans and not a scintilla of ambition.  He had taken a couple of shots at community colleges, only to find that he still was uninspired. “When I was young,” he says, “all I wanted to do was play.”

He eventually took a job at a department store and happily discovered that it offered employees a 10 percent discount on its merchandise. That discount would play a key role in McClure’s life, for he used it to buy his first camera—a Kowa 35 mm. Twenty-four hours later, he had found his passion. “It was amazing to me to see how the image would appear slowly in a tray of chemicals,” he says. “I was blown away that someone could figure out how to make that happen.”

      Nowadays, the 55-year-old, self-taught photographer has a booming career, with touring exhibitions, a collection of commercial clients and individual collectors, and pride in the art he produces. “Glen McClure is not only a photographer’s photographer, nuanced to technique and the specific qualities of color and monochrome,” says Robin Nicholson, associate director for exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, “but [he is] also a photographer with immense popular appeal.”

      McClure’s cavernous studio, located in downtown Norfolk’s 1907-vintage Fairfax Hotel building, is peppered with art and artifacts he’s produced and collected over the years. An antique camera collection takes up most of a china press. An Irish street sign on a wall bears both English (Monasteraden) and Gaelic (Mainistir Aodain) names, and photographs are everywhere—on the walls, on tables, leaning against columns; black and white, color; big and small; unframed and framed. The scene is one of ordered chaos.

According to McClure, it wasn’t until 1998 that his style gelled and he found his niche as a photographer. At the time, he had a loft studio overlooking a gritty section of Colonial Avenue, a bit beyond the thriving Ghent district. There, he observed a daily parade of people, framed by his studio windows—what he calls “a great mixing bowl of humanity.” Inspired, one November day he took his equipment and a crew of friends out on the street and made portraits of passersby, to celebrate the neighborhood.

      The next day, McClure started putting together the show that would launch his career. Named “2100 Colonial Avenue,” for the studio’s address, the exhibition at The Contemporary Art Center of Virginia first showcased McClure’s gift for revealing a voice, a personality, even a past in a single portrait. And he made sure to include the back stories of his subjects in the exhibition catalog (written by Doug Pilley). John Marshall Majette, an addled World War II veteran living in a halfway house, was one of the subjects. In the catalog picture, Majette looks as if he could spit nails. “He is always well dressed and usually has a different hat every time he passes by,” reads the caption. Roman, a callow young man from Blacksburg, was also in the show, looking equal parts shy and solicitous as he accompanies his girlfriend to Norfolk for an audition with the Virginia Stage Company.

     Eventually, “2100” toured the state and wound up in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. “It was a wonderful show,” says Jeffrey Allison, who oversees education and statewide partnerships at the VMFA. “But it is McClure’s soul and his heart that make the images he creates so remarkable. Even without having met Glen, I knew from the work that he had a special way of relating to people and a real sensitivity to the integrity of the individuals he photographed.”

  The success of “2100” convinced McClure, who works only in the digital format now, to repeat the process in other parts of the state, snapping those who would stop and pose.  “Usually they pose themselves,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll turn their head from one side to the other.” The one thing that all his portraits share is what makes the work compelling: the subject’s direct eye contact with the camera—the lens as viewer.

A few years ago, McClure took his cameras abroad, traveling first to Ireland and then to Italy. In those countries, he took some archetypal pictures that seem to define both place and people—the brooding Irish countryside, carefree Italy, the latter manifest in the manic energy of a kid whizzing down a Venice street on a scooter. “Italy is boldness and texture,” he says. “Ireland is the opposite—drama, black and white, ever-changing skies.” He’s gone back to those two countries again and again: twice to Umbria, another time to Tuscany, book-ended by trips to Ireland. “I go to each of those countries for the light,” he adds. “The light is what sets them apart.” Unsurprisingly, he has picked up a distinction or two between the people in those nations. “When you approach someone in Italy,” McClure says, “they ask, ‘Where do you want me to stand?’ In Ireland, people ask, ‘Me? Why me?’”

This year, McClure’s schedule is especially hectic. He’s going back to Ireland, and also plans to visit France for the first time—specifically a fishing village named Port Vendres, sister city of Yorktown, he notes—breaking his one-trip-a-year routine.

      While McClure’s landscape (and townscape) photographs are powerful and evocative, portraits remain his métier, the shots that not only define but, more important, inspire his work. “People seem timeless,” he says. Yes, when they’re photographed in a way, and at a moment, that captures their human spirit.

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