Best of 2015 Honoree: Forest McMullin

by | Jul 19, 2016 | Best of 2015

www.mcmullinphoto.comIn his work, Forest McMullin captures the extraordinary diversity in the United States. He also takes interest in the legacy of groups that have been buried by faulty history, such as the Bill Pickett Rodeo, an all-black rodeo established in 1984 that continues to travel around the country today. In his series of black-and-white portraits of Bill Pickett Rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, McMullin attempts to expand our definition of classic Americana.

“The history of black cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of any other black groups — it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media,” McMullin says.

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ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member? What initially prompted you to join?

Forest McMullin: I joined ASMP in 1985 — wow, thirty years ago! I joined because, although I had been shooting professionally since 1980, I knew little about the business end of photography. My education had been primarily centered on fine-art photography with little or no grounding in business.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

FM: For me, the best thing about ASMP has always been the relationships I’ve developed with my peers. When I first started the Western New York Chapter, it was about getting to know the photographers in my own backyard. Later, when I was on the National Board and involved with various committees, I got to know people all over the country. I discovered that when I traveled on shoots, there was someone I knew almost anywhere who could help me find the best assistants, services or anything else I might need.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach to portrait photography that sets you apart from other photographers?

FM: I hope it’s the honesty of the people I shoot that sets my work apart. I spend a lot of time getting to know people and we develop a trust during that time that comes across in the pictures. My most valuable asset is my personality and my ability to relate to anyone and everyone I shoot.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

FM: I’m a big fan of Elinchrom lights. Their Quadra battery system has been an essential part of my location kit since 2010. That’s what I used on the cowboy series.

ASMP: Are there any particular photographers or other artists whose work inspires you?

FM: I’ve learned a lot from people like Arnold Newman, Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, and Duane Michals. For more contemporary photographers, I’m a big fan of Phil Toledano, Dan Winters and Mark Seliger. And for a few younger photographers, I’m very excited about the work of Ervin Johnson and Alicia Collins.

ASMP: Have you won any other awards for your work?

FM: I’ve received some grants and fellowships. The last one I got was in 2013 to travel through the United Kingdom photographing small-town pubs. That was fun! And I’ve had two artist residencies at The Hambidge Center in the north Georgia mountains.

ASMP: Where do you seek funding or sponsorship for your projects?

FM: Everywhere! I’m constantly on the lookout for funding possibilities. Right now with the black cowboys series, I’m contacting African American history museums and university programs looking for support. It’s slow going, but I’m hopeful. A major magazine publication would go a long way toward helping the work find an audience.

ASMP: What first drew you to photograph different social groups?

FM: I’m naturally a very curious person and I think that translates to the projects I choose to pursue. I want to know how people different from me live, what they think, what gets them out of bed in the morning. Photography gives me permission to be nosy and ask them questions that might seem intrusive in another context.

ASMP: For your series on black cowboys and cowgirls, how did you hear about the Bill Picket Rodeo? What sparked your interest in photographing the all-black rodeo?

FM: I teach at the Savannah College of Art and Design at the Atlanta campus and one of my students mention that her husband was riding in a rodeo the following weekend. She was African American and I asked her if her husband was, too. When she told me, yes, I was surprised and she went on to tell me that there was a whole circuit of African American rodeos and cowboys.

As it turns out, the history of African American cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of any other African American groups — it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media. The fact is that African Americans made up roughly 25 percent of the cowboys responsible for the movement west. There are, however, efforts to battle this ignorance. There are a number of groups around the country who celebrate the heritage of the black men and women who herded cattle, farmed and built homesteads across the West. I’m interested in helping preserve this heritage and celebrate this history.

ASMP: In general, what about American culture do you want to comment upon through your work?

FM: I believe that one of the most wonderful things about the US is the extraordinary diversity you find here. I’m not just talking about racial and ethnic diversity, but also the incredible range of lifestyles and cultural approaches as well. I’m fascinated by the way people live. Whether I’m photographing African American cowboys, couples involved with BDSM, Mormons at scared sites or flea market patrons, I find their stories worth telling. They’re all part of who we are as a people.

I think that while learning about others, we end up learning about ourselves. Facilitating that process is what I want to do.