McCarson Jones, on photography as social work, intimacy and freedom

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Ours is a generation obsessed with documenting lives. These days, everything is photographed, captured on video and eventually posted somewhere public (usually accompanied by hashtags). But Durango photographer McCarson Jones records only unusual moments, those that have been given careful thought and consideration. Under the heading Red Scarf Shots, the name of Jones’ personal photography company, she shoots weddings, engagements, professional headshots, families, kids, food and boudoir sessions – although she hates the word “boudoir.” Jones calls her sexy photoshoots “Underpinnings” instead, a romantic take on what a woman wears beneath her clothes (these shoots are tastefully nude or partially-nude). She takes male nudes, too, but you’ll never see those – the guys won’t let her post their images online, apparently more self-conscious than the women. Jones views photography as a medium of trust; forming sincere relationships with her subjects, her sessions allow those people to open up and expose their rawest selves to the camera.

Your locally-famed “Underpinnings” series consists of sexy, classy photos of women that are never gratuitous. How did the series get started?

Originally, it came about after my divorce 10 years ago. I was feeling unseen and underappreciated, like I’d been hiding in my own skin and not embracing my idiosyncrasies. With my photography, I told myself I was never going to underestimate myself again – I was going to trust my intuition and be comfortable in my own skin. Once I’d made that commitment to myself, it snowballed into my business, too. I started to attract women, whether it be a milestone in their life like an anniversary, or whatever, who were trying to feel it’s OK to have curvy hips and a beautiful bum, or to be straight-lined and bony. Everybody is different. I have a woman I’ve photographed four times within 10 years, and she wants to document where she is today, to give that to her grandkids. I’m a Southern girl, so I was always conservative and didn’t show skin. Coming into my own womanhood, I can wear whatever I want to. People will love me for the person I am. That’s what I’m trying to do with “Underpinnings,” and I think women appreciate that. They leave feeling more free. That freeness encompasses sexuality.

How do you deal with a woman who doesn’t like being photographed?

I do a pre-consult, and it’s us having tea, wine, whatever, talking about what they love about themselves. I kid you not, two out of 10 women who come to me hate being photographed. I also hate being photographed. I photograph myself once a year, to remind myself, yeah you’re nervous about this, and it’s never going to go away. We live in a society now where cameras are on every corner – and you’re like, “Please don’t post that photo of me!” People don’t have a lot of respect or boundaries when it comes to taking images of other people. So during my pre-consults, we focus on the things she loves about herself. I feel like I have great pride in the way I guide a woman in a session; it’s not just point and shoot. It’s a relationship. I figure out places and situations to put them in to make them flattered to see themselves. People are nervous getting in those situations, but there’s a huge amount of trust that goes into these shoots. You can never do an “Underpinnings” session in 30 minutes – they’re long. In 30 minutes, you’re just getting to the point where you’re actually controlling your breathing. I find the people that I attract most are incredibly shy, or absolutely hate having their picture taken.

You shoot a lot of engagements and weddings. Does it ever get old?

I love weddings. I love love. “Underpinnings” and weddings have a lot of similarities. With weddings, not only two people are trusting you – it’s an entire family. It’s wonderful to connect with people and deliver what they want. Weddings are the cream on top of the cappuccino. They want to hire you, love your style, and you end up falling in love with them and their families. There’s a gentility to it. I kid you not, I cry at every wedding. I’m an empath, I guess.

Do you travel a lot for work?

I go to Paris each year to photograph Parisian women for “Underpinnings.” I’m not fluent in French, so people who sign up with me know there needs to be a bilingual situation. In order to guide someone in a nude shoot, you need to have a common language! I sign up 20 women and go for a couple weeks. It’s like a second home for me.

Do you find the stereotype about Europeans holds true – that they’re more comfortable with their bodies?

How many nudes do you see downtown? Thank god Erica (Fendley) over at the Steaming Bean is offering nudes in her coffee shop! People are afraid of bodies. In Europe it’s everywhere; small, medium, large women baring all. It’s so accepted as a part of their culture. Here it’s just like, “don’t show your nipples!” But I think Durango is coming along, for sure. After all, it’s not Hustler – it’s art.

What do you learn about somebody from photographing them?

I learn a lot. A person can be incredibly shy and be able to express themselves so sensually in a session. I see people walking down the street who I’ve photographed, and it’s like our little secret. I’ve had women come in, having tried to hide their things for the session in the car, so their husband wouldn’t know about it, and they’re like “I feel like I’m having an affair!” In these sessions, I get to learn the things women think about. If they’re dark, or airy and breezy, or romantic, or downright naughty. When people walk through my door, there’s confidentiality in this space. You have the freedom – you don’t have to worry about kids or your husband walking in – to be who you want to be.

You’ve mentioned on Facebook how men often have bad selfie profile pictures that aren’t very flattering. Women can do hair and makeup, and often know more about style, but maybe men don’t know how to make themselves look good. You want to change how guys express themselves. Why is that?

I think a lot of men follow the status quo; what’s new, what looks good, what are my guy friends doing? But you should be your own human being. Who cares what anybody else thinks? We struggle with that; women feel like they need to look like something the media is telling them they should look like. I’m lucky to have a lot of amazing women in my life who could give a shit about what the media says. I think women have a finger on that much more so than men. Men don’t talk about stuff like that as much. A lot of men don’t think they’re handsome, either! It’s a sad thing. I have a lot of women calling me like, “Will you do a session with my husband?” and I have to say, “You can’t just sign him up! He has to be willing to do this.”

How did you get into photography, and how did you come to practice it in Durango?

A close family friend gave me the best advice, which was not to go to school for photography. Like, “Please don’t go to school to be an artist – go to school and study something that will let you pay your bills, something that you’re also passionate about.” So I went to undergrad for social work; I fell in love with it, because it was working with people. I’m grateful for that bachelor’s, and a master’s in mediation, because they both come into play in every single shoot. It helps me sit and be quiet and listen to people in a way that some professionals don’t know how to do. It’s not about my shoot, it’s about THEIR shoot and what they want to come out of it. I moved to Durango when I was 23 and fell in love with this place. It felt like my hometown in North Carolina. It’s mountainous, the people are kind and the community is loving. I hoped I could talk my husband at the time into moving here, and I did. We moved here, and then our marriage fell apart, and I stayed and he left. It’s my journey – I’m supposed to be here. I was a social worker in this community for a long time, and one day I was like, “It’s time to do my photography full-time.” It’s been my full-time job for eight years.

You host the Four Corners Arts Forum on the KDUR Local Radio Station, where you interview other Durango artists. How would you describe the arts community here?

I was a founder of Studio &, shortly after leaving my position as the executive director of the Durango Arts Center. I’m a huge arts advocate. That’s why we started &; there was so much interesting artwork, not run-of-the-mill, so we didn’t know if we’d fit into the beautiful galleries around town. I’ve been doing the Four Corners Arts Forum for seven years; it’s an opportunity to get up-and-coming artists to come in and talk about themselves. Artists do not do that enough. I left & because I was ready to have my own space; there’s no way I could shoot a nude there! The privacy is and void. So it was time for me to expand on my own as an independent artist. You can be a leader in this community if you come from a place of authenticity.

Tell me about the show you have coming up at The Rochester in April.

It’s called the “Gentile Gardener.” I’m getting married in November at The Rochester, and the garden there is such a special place. I’m always photographing gardens, wherever I go. They’re so intimate, a place where people can relax in little nooks and crannies. So it’s a collection of gardens from around the world, Luxembourg and Versailles, in Rome and Australia, and the people who take care of them.

Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff Writer


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