Hannah Cooper McCauley is a narrative photographer currently living in Ruston, Louisiana. Her work is influenced by magical realism as well as her Southern Baptist upbringing. Her most recent series, A Singular Sense of Urgency, is a personal reaction to the potential loss of her vision that is a constant possibilty in her life. Her work has appeared at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and she was named a finalist in Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50 competition.
How do you choose your subjects?
Well, most of my images are self-portraits, and I work in that vein partly because my work is about exploring my own identity, and given the intimacy of that, I feel it makes the most sense for it to be me in the images. But I also find fulfillment in the act of performing for the camera— the act of creating the photograph and all that goes into it, whether it’s a self-portrait or still life, is therapeutic. I also work with my nephew, photographing him as a surrogate for myself.
We collaborate together because we have a lot in common—he is 10 years old, and transitioning from childhood to adolescence. I am 26 and transitioning from one state of adulthood to another, trying to figure out who I am, and it’s in this shared uncertain state that I think I we are able to relate to each most. Also, he sees the world around him in such a distinct and beautiful way, and as I age I want to maintain the same sense of wonder about life that he has.
I also work in still life and utilize objects in my images that I assign specific meaning to. When it comes to these objects, I collect them in various ways. I dig through a lot of storage bins at my parents’ home, or when visiting family I’ll ask if I can use an object for a photograph. I have a growing collection of human teeth. Some of them are mine, and some of them belong to my nephews, as my sister has graciously agreed to collect them for me as they fall out. I also peruse both eBay and thrift stores for clothing and items that I think will make a good image. Usually I’ll have an idea for an image with an object, but it might take several different tries and configurations before I get the image I want to use. So I have a growing collection of relics and curiosities in my studio and home.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
I have to talk about my professors in undergrad, Doug Clark and Sarah Cusimano Miles. While I was a student, they consistently encouraged me while still challenging me to be a better artist, and they were the very first teachers I ever had who made me feel like I had what it took to pursue my craft professionally as a fine artist. Without them, I don’t think I ever would have gone to graduate school for my MFA, and certainly wouldn’t have grown as much as an artist. And they never stopped encouraging me—I still call them all the time for advice and guidance. Now that I have my degree, I want to teach photography, and so much of my own philosophy and ideas about teaching have come from that very first experience I had as an undergraduate student—I want to give to other students the same kind of experience they gave me.
I also have to mention my graduate professors, Frank Hamrick and Adam Forrester. Both Frank and Adam have given me so much guidance on teaching, and have helped me figure out what kind of teacher and artist I want to be. And they are both two of the hardest working artists I know, and their work ethic and commitment to their craft, as well as their generosity with their time and knowledge challenges and encourages me to match that with my own work and students.
Lastly, my husband Zachary is by far my biggest supporter and influence. Any success I’ve experienced wouldn’t have been possible without his support, hands down. Zachary is also a photographer, and we pursued our MFAs in photography together at Louisiana Tech University. We are competitive, and we push each other to work harder in the best ways. I wouldn’t be here without him.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
All over! I love cinema: my favorite directors are Sofia Coppola and Baz Luhrmann, for both their aesthetic choices in filmmaking but also the way they approach their narrative. I also love M. Night Shyamalan's films, particularly Unbreakable. In all of his films, it's his ability to walk the line between reality and fantasy that I enjoy most.
I also enjoy reading Haruki Murakami, looking through old family photographs, looking through monographs of other photographers, the Golden Age of Dutch painting, my family history, music: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell makes me cry every time I listen to the album, and then I go make a photograph.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
Sally Mann talks about embracing nostalgia as an acute sentimental longing for the past, and despite the negative connotations associated with the word I think there is definitely an element of that in my work, but also a component of the cultural attitude of the South. I think that when someone says words like “nostalgia” and “sentimental” they think of it as evidence of vapidity and lack of serious thought or consideration, but I disagree with that view. Southerners are inherently, genetically nostalgic. We can’t seem to let go of the past, nor should we, as death and terrible suffering are written into our DNA, whether our ancestors were doing the murdering or the suffering.
I also think I’m influenced by the Southern Gothic aesthetic, particularly the fixation with the grotesque and the notion of a reality invaded by something too strange to believe, taking place in the southern domestic landscape. My Southern Baptist upbringing encompassed all of this, as death, sin, and the anomaly of immaculate conception were routine topics discussed every Sunday. And I think that most Christian denominations in the South are fairly upfront about the reality of human capacity for evil. We don’t really beat around the bush. We watched the most disturbing scene of The Passion of the Christ every Easter Sunday on a big screen at church, the scene where Jesus is beaten and crucified. And if you’ve ever watched that, it’s really graphic and upsetting. I always closed my eyes while it played. And I found it odd that we’d watch that, ruminate, and then go home and eat ham and green bean casserole. So I feel like the macabre nature of some of my images is influenced by that—it’s like, yeah there’s a big pile of human teeth on this table, or a bloody napkin, but loss is a part of life and it’s beautiful in its own way.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
Only when I am making photographs, and even then I can never get enough. It’s this appetite to communicate and connect with others that drives me to keep working. The only time my life ever seems to slow down and make sense to me is when I am making work.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
I just recently mounted my MFA thesis exhibition, where I showed 15 framed photographs from my series A Singular Sense of Urgency. The show opened on April 5th, and I deinstalled on April 15th. I showed in 4 different sizes, with the smallest being 17” x 22” and the largest at 28” x 42.” It was a great experience, and I am happy now to be graduating with my MFA and starting the next chapter of my life.