Noelle McCleaf

Noelle McCleaf is a photographer exploring themes of memory, relationship, and identity on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Her work has been published in Blink Magazine, Fraction Magazine, Aint-Bad Magazine, Accent Magazine and on Lenscratch, Plates to Pixels, and Feature Shoot. She currently lives and works as a photography professor and exhibiting artist in Venice, Florida.

Website: noellemccleaf.com

Instagram: @noelle.mccleaf


How did your interest in your medium begin?

My first photography course was in high school; it was a traditional wet darkroom class. It was the only thing I felt passionately about that allowed me to slow down and really focus my intention. I went on to get my Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Ringling College of Art and Design in 2006, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2008, both with a concentration in photography. Since then, I’ve worked as a professor of photography and an exhibiting artist.

How did you arrive at your current style?

The common threads found throughout my work include memory, relationship, and identity. I first explored these themes during my undergraduate thesis. 

I studied these concepts further during my graduate studies, and created a series of photographs called Convergence. Convergence was created from writing personal narratives, flash fictions derived from childhood experiences. Bits and pieces of them were taken and transformed into new narratives, and were re-enacted through self-portraiture.

After Convergence it was a natural progression to turn the lens on my mother and focus on our relationship, ancestry, and personal history. This became the series A Bee in Her Bonnet. A Bee in Her Bonnet returned to the Southern landscape, and included portraits of my mother, self-portraits, and artifacts from our family. The series Evie Lou and Laura Jane expanded that narrative outside of the family to focus on a new relationship: my mother and her best friend.

How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?

As an artist, I’m always influenced and inspired by my surroundings.

While living in Minneapolis and shooting the Convergence project in mid-winter, the photographs were cool-toned, de-saturated, and anemic, and this echoed the emotional tone of the series. When I returned to the Southern landscape after living in Minnesota for six years, the color and the light in my work changed drastically. Light in Florida is unlike anywhere else, containing extremely saturated yellows and blues, amid long shadows against a thick backdrop of Spanish moss.

How do you choose your subjects?

The subjects in my work are often those closest to me, such as family members or friends. I find a sense of openness and honesty with my subjects allows me to create intriguing, intimate portraits that reveal much to the viewer.

Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?

Some of the most influential photographers whose work I admire would include Tierney Gearon’s The Mother Project, Emmet Gowin’s intimate portraits of his wife Edith and her family, the work of Justine Kurland, Andrea Modica, Susan Worsham, and Adrian Chesser. I’ve also been looking at several young Southern photographers whose work is very different than mine, but I have found very inspiring, including Tammy Mercure, Michael McCraw, and Stacy Kranitz.  

Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of? 

Currently I am working with SARTQ, a Contemporary Artist Collective in Sarasota, Florida. Florida is a very difficult place to be an artist—it’s a gorgeous place to live, but has very few contemporary galleries and little funding for artists in general. Most of the successful artists I know in town have to travel and exhibit work outside of Florida at least once or twice a year.

Where do you go to draw inspiration?

I draw inspiration from a wide range of sources. In recent years I’ve been grateful to find and meet new photographers through my personal blog as well as Facebook and Instagram, and it’s extremely inspiring to see young contemporaries succeed. I also really enjoy attending portfolio review events every other year or so to meet new artists, view exhibitions and lectures, and meet with professionals in the photo industry.

My mother’s house is another place I go to find inspiration, she is a collector of curiosities: animal bones and parts, objects found at the edge of the sea, and her home is filled with antiques from our family that go back generations. Many of these objects of intrigue, and their backstories, end up in my photographs.

I’m also a fan of fiction; recently I’ve been enjoying contemporary Southern Gothic writers Karen Russell and Julia Elliott.

Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?

As an artist, I always try to give myself permission to take risks, even if it means my work becomes too romantic, cliché, or over the top. If those images don’t work out, I allow myself start over and try again. I find this quote by Sally Mann on southern artists to be relevant to the question above that I very much agree with: “[Southern artists] have a willingness to experiment with doses of romanticism that would be fatal to other, non-Southern artists.”

Do you feel creatively satisfied?

I can’t really imagine a time when I feel completely satisfied with my work as a whole, because it is always evolving and in production. I do find satisfaction when I am creating the work and I know an image is successful, and later when the image is processed and revealed on the negative. I think most artists suffer similar struggles with their creative processes.

Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.

This summer I will be continuing to develop Evie Lou and Laura Jane, chronicling the stories and experiences of my mother and her best friend, and their shared connection to the natural world.  

I also plan to publish a zine called Dog Days in collaboration with photographer Tristan Wheelock, a documentation of the small town of Venice, Florida during the humid summer months of July and August.