An Interview with Charles McCleanon

October 18, 2017

Charles McCleanon is a local photographer who is the latest to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. A Chicago native and a retired Dean of Information Technology at City Colleges, McCleanon’s appreciation of 35 mm film inspired him to begin his photography career 25 years ago. He formed the company CGMcPhoto and began shooting political campaigns, street fairs, weddings, and community events. He eventually channeled his skills into digital photography and now combines his talents with a passion for travel that’s resulted in countless breathtaking images. You can catch his show through the end of October on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library and meet him at a closing reception at 7 pm on Wednesday, October 25. We recently spoke with him via email about his artistic origins, creative process, and future photography goals.

Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in photography What inspired you in the beginning? What inspires you now?

Charles McCleanon: My initial interest commenced when my best friend Lenard was drafted into the army and became a battalion photographer. Upon his return he continued to pursue his interests by shooting, printing and developing film. I helped him build a darkroom in his apartment, and my interest was peaked. I began studying and learning the basics including types of film, lighting, speed and composition.

After he moved to California, I purchased a camera and started a portable darkroom of my own in my kitchen. Having to set up and take down my equipment was a daunting task. Eventually, I transitioned to a stable and dedicated darkroom space. I purchased better equipment and devoted every available hour to improving my technique.

As my skills increased, I was offered work and realized this could actually become lucrative. I met a fellow photographer who worked for the City of Chicago whose photography interests were political. We hooked up, started a company and began shooting freelance for city, community and political events. We were pleased and honored to be hired for both of Mayor Washington’s campaigns and inaugurations.

Although I sought to earn a living (and quit my day job), I discovered my true calling and passion when I began to travel. Being able to seize the intangible beauty of nature or an iconic landmark for posterity is truly inspirational.

EPL: Can you give us a window into your creative process? How do you choose your subjects?

CM: The visual concept is everywhere; however, the art of shooting is to translate on to film and print what my imagination formulates. I am moved by symmetry, colors and movement. The simplicity of different lighting effects on a subject is fascinating. Sunrise and sunset are two of my favorite times. My mind’s eye visualizes how the photo will translate on paper, and I am ecstatic when out of 30 or 40 shots I successfully capture one of the precise moment I first saw in the viewfinder.

Local Art @ EPL

EPL: Can you walk us through the conception of a specific photograph?

CM: My thought process for each photo varies and is easily influenced by my moods. A perfect example is the truly surreal black and white series “cloud segment.” They were shot on a bleak, nondescript day when I was taking a walk on a North Shore beach without my camera. As I ran for the car to avoid the obvious impending storm, I spotted unusual cloud formations. Having my camera in the car (never leave home without it!), I was enthralled by the rapid movement of the approaching storm which changed in the blink of an eye. The transitioning shapes created movement like crescendos in a symphony. I was in awe and knew that I could only recreate these unique shots if I continued shooting.

Ironically these pictures were shot in manual mode and post production was minimal. I think they speak for themselves. I was able to capture and print exactly what I saw. The fact that they are black and white makes them one of my most accomplished and prized photo series to date.

EPL: What are your future goals and plans as an artist? Do you have a travel destination you’re eager capture on film?

CM: As I have found my niche in nature, my love of travel presents unlimited opportunities to explore the postcards of the world. My wife is a great lover of all things water related, as evidenced by my many waterfalls and coastal scenes. Our next vacation will be to Costa Rica, but I would love to shoot the Serengeti and the Egyptian Pyramids.

EPL: How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? 

CM: I truly appreciate the creativity of my fellow artist. The Chicago scene is very competitive which further motivates me to find extraordinary subject matter and capture its pure essence through unique visualizations which will fascinate the viewer. If I can inspire and attract one’s interest for more than a fleeting glance, perhaps this will motivate people to see the world as it truly is, a never ending rainbow.

Interview by Russell J.

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