A photographer and a subject are inherently separated by a camera. The image the photographer sees before closing the shutter is often filtered through many layers of glass and space. Sometimes, the photographer never knows who the people are, only the story told in a photograph’s slice of time.
If you’re Dona Ann McAdams, that isn’t the case.
McAdams doesn’t play the role of an observer. She establishes deep and intimate connections with her subjects. She’s a part of the photos she makes, and they are a part of her.
“A lot of my work has revolved around struggle and how I can be a part of that,” she said. “My street photography became less important to me and I started wanting to have more of a relationship with my subject.”
Unlike a journalist or other documentarian, she dove into the moments and movements she was there to shoot. Her work doesn’t record something, but shapes it. “It’s not just about me going over there and going boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s about going there and maybe taking photos that I might not have otherwise.”
She worked at the racetrack where she photographed workers and horses, she took part in the protests she captured, and she made art with the mentally ill before she let them color the portraits she shot.
“I make photographs now, I don’t take them,” she said.
Monochromatic and analog
Black and white film has been McAdams canvas for nearly 50 years. She has no interest in color film.
She carries a Leica everywhere she goes. She has newer cameras now, but still shoots with her M2 she bought in the mid ‘70s.
When her rolls are exposed, she develops her film at home in Sandgate, Vermont. Once the negatives are ready, she prints her photos the old way, with a projector and light sensitive paper. She leaves the negative edges in, it’s part of her style.
“Everything that’s there on the edge is there for a reason,” she said.
She doesn’t crop her photos and she often uses poles or other lines in a scene to break up her composition. Her influence comes from illustration, specifically comics she would read as a child. That translates to obstructions and protrusions through or into the frame, diverting from traditional framing.
“It’s just how you see the frame,” she said. “The difference is having the composition be good and having the composition be your own.”
Many of her photos have heads that line the bottom of the frame, and the edge will cut people in half leaving just arms or legs. It’s intentional and makes the photos more interesting, she said.
In a photo she took on September 11, 2001, a billboard for the movie “Collateral Damage” is in the center of the frame, and the burning and smoking World Trade Center is all the way to the left, almost out of frame.
“I put it there because that’s where I want it to be,” she said. “I don’t want you to see it right away, it takes a couple seconds.”
And this is all done in camera. She does some dodging and burning in the darkroom, but sees her photo as it is before she takes it. She has no need for light meters or auto focus. She spends time with her subject before she shoots anything, and accepts the finished product.
“There are decisions you make, and you live with them. That’s because you choose to,” she said.
“With me, what you see is what you get.”
McAdams retrospective exhibit, curated by the author of the last piece John Killacky, includes photos from a series she shot over her nearly 50 years of photography. They feature political activism, rural life, theater performance, and altered portraits of people with mental illness — and with each subject McAdams has a deep bond that flows through and penetrates the barrier of film and lens.