Maureen Drennan: A Compelling and Intimate Glimpse into Removed Communities

By Jelena Martinovic on July 10, 2018

The work of Maureen Drennan provides thoughtful insight into what it means to live a life removed.

A photographer from New York City, Maureen is drawn to beautiful, remote locations and exploring the lives lived there. She examines how the surrounding landscape informs communities and focuses on themes of change and transition, loss and resilience. She has a remarkable ability to make her subjects feel comfortable with her, which allows her to immerse herself into their worlds in a truly profound and intimate way.

Whether she tackles the melancholic story of a cannabis harvester in California, the life of the fishing communities of Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota sharing a tight-knit relationship with the frozen lake, or the realities of living in the small island community of Broad Channel, Queens as seen through the eyes of the young women and girls who reside there, all of Maureen’s projects reflect a personal narrative of isolation but also serve as avenues of self-reflection.

PRØHBTD chatted with the talented photographer to find out more about her practice. Maureen talks about what draws her to her subjects, the relationships she forges with them, her compelling series about the isolated life of a California cannabis grower, her latest projects, and much more.

Through your projects, you provide an intimate glimpse into small worlds and communities which are usually in out of the way places, revealing the relationships between people and the landscape that surrounds them. What draws you to these subjects?

I’m drawn to places and people on the edges, where the land and community are fragile or in transition. I’m intrigued with exploring small worlds and communities, and I’m curious about the people who live there and their connection to the environment. All sorts of things draw me to my subjects—it is often an intuitive attraction. Usually it is people’s vulnerability as well as resilience and independence that resonate with me.

Even though most of the people you photograph are perfect strangers, you manage to capture their realities in an intimate and sensitive way. How does the relationship with your subjects change and evolve while working on a series? In what way has photography contributed to understanding different people and connecting with them?

I draw inspiration from people I engage with and photograph. If we end up talking for a while before I [take] any pictures, that’s fine—I enjoy the interaction. You never know what is going to happen, [or] what they will share with you. It can be an enriching and humbling experience.

I am fortunate that people open up to me so much, they seem to intuitively understand that I’m not judging them. Our relationship grows in an intimate way pretty quickly. I have been invited to a subject’s wedding, a first communion [and] sadly a few funerals. I correspond with my subjects through cards and texts long after I have photographed them.

I am absolutely an outsider in the beginning of a project, but then it changes. Many of my subjects let me into their life in some intimate way. Of course, the reality is that I will always be an outsider, but photography allows me to enter the community a little, get close to people and explore their worlds. There have been situations where people are not interested in being photographed and say so. That is fine with me, the last thing I’m interested in is forcing a dynamic. There needs to be a mutual willingness to share and be open.

Your series Meet Me in the Green Glen, which provides an intimate look into the life of a cannabis grower in California, was recently exhibited in a group show at the Mrs. Gallery. Tell us more about this body of work. How did you find about this place and decide to explore it?

The Mrs. Gallery show was so exciting—I was in excellent company. The project Meet Me in the Green Glen is an intimate look at a reclusive marijuana grower in Northern California. He was an isolated man whose environment was both ominous and verdant. We met several years ago and through this project became close. I photographed him for about nine years, and the laws and stigma around marijuana cultivation have changed in California. Despite the fact that many people in the area grow pot, and it is a large part of the local economy, many farms, his included, are not legal. They either grow more plants than is allowable or grow much larger plants than is legal. Also, you cannot transport more than a certain amount of weed, which poses a huge problem after harvest season. Every year Ben hired young men to help with the harvest.

I met Ben serendipitously in a clothing store in Northern California. He wasn’t a worker there, he was just hanging out drinking beer at 3 p.m. so I teased him about his early happy hour amongst the racks of clothes. He teased me right back, “Well, where do you live that you can't drink beer in a public place?”

I replied, “Well… NYC,” and he said, “Ohhhhh, city mouse,” and our friendship began. We hit it off right away, and he invited me to his farm to photograph it.

The farm was like a slice of Eden. He had animals, lots of pot plants, but also vegetables, trees and a man-made pond with geese and ducks. During harvest season when the plants were tall and the buds were ripe, the entire farm smelled like weed. On warm days, it was intoxicating to be there.

At first, he didn’t want any pictures taken of him, just the farm, so I respected that. But then I returned a few months later and explained that what interested me more than an illegal pot farm was him, the man running it. I said I would never implicate him, and he trusted me so I photographed him for years. Our friendship grew, and I was honored to be considered a member of the family. He would tell me all kinds of stories about his life and would get so excited telling them, like it was an adventure.It’s interesting because, for me, being with him was an adventure. He sadly just passed away, and I feel lucky to have known him. He was extremely funny, charming and a great bullshit artist. He would tease me mercilessly when I took my time making portraits of him: "Jesus Christ, City Mouse, I don’t have all fucking day!"

What are your learnings and impressions about this life that exists on the fringes of legality?

This project began in 2008, and the political, cultural and legal issues surrounding weed in California have changed dramatically since then. It was like the ending of the Wild West when I began, and now it’s so much more acceptable. Ben made a great living off the land in a resourceful and non-detrimental way. His farm was quiet and idyllic. But due to the nature of rural farming, and the reality of the illegalities of growing and distributing large amounts of marijuana, he was socially isolated.

What intrigued me initially was his outsider status, his lifestyle as a marijuana grower and the business of growing pot. My early images reflected that attitude and focused mostly on the farm and the workers tending to the marijuana plants. However, the project evolved and, as Ben and I spent more time together, the images changed.They include intimate portraits of him in bed and misty, dream-like landscapes that I feel speak to his solitude.

The social life of a drug dealer/grower is not enviable. From what I have witnessed of Ben’s life, people surround him because they want something from him when he is flush. Then, when business dries up or he gets busted, everyone leaves. Generally, we all want something from each other, and some needs are more evident than others. But in Ben’s case with his social circle of employees and marijuana dealers, it appears to be a more surface relationship than most. This superficiality heightened my sense of him being a lonely person. I am certainly not exempt from this situation. When we met, I immediately thought of photographing him and his pot farm. “What a great opportunity!” I thought.

Ben was justifiably proud of his farm and loved showing it off to me. For example, he would excitedly explain how he engineered the water to be evenly distributed to the plants and his organic mixture that created potent soil. Neighboring farmers would utilize his expertise with dirt so much that we jokingly called him a “dirt consultant.” He operated this illegal farm for years successfully while being under the radar of the law. I always imagined that he would be even more successful if he could operate without the constraints of illegality.

Your latest series explores the Rust Belt of New York City. What has been your vision about this area when you started the project, and how has it changed over the course of your work?

My friend Jonno Rattman who runs a magazine called Newest York approached me about photographing “the Rust Belt of New York.” He gave me free rein to interpret and shoot the Rust Belt as I wanted.I had been thinking about how manufacturing and blue-collar workers in the Midwest and Rust Belt have been in the spotlight due to their influence in the outcome of the national election. Many urban Americans are upset with them—"how could they vote against their best interests?"—but the reality is that many of these same people voted for President Obama eight and four years ago. In such a divisive time that we live in, one of the hardest things we can do is to show compassion and understanding to those in opposition to our beliefs. So I was curious to explore the manufacturing areas of New York as a microcosm of the larger Rust Belt of the Midwest: hear people’s stories, photograph them, and see where they work.

The people I met opened up to me but weren’t interested in discussing politics, they wanted to talk about their jobs and families.

During my wanderings around these old industrial and manufacturing areas in Brooklyn, I met and listened to a multitude of New Yorkers. These areas along the water are surprisingly quiet and tranquil. The high grass in abandoned lots is verdant and lush, and flowers and trees poke out through every possible crevice. In the summer the air is heavy with the buzzing of insects and bird calls. The clang and hum of machinery and beeping of trucks in the distance blend with the natural sounds and add to the almost pastoral feel of these out-of-the-way spaces. There was a sensual aspect to the jungle-like landscape—life was poking through every crevice and chain-link fence.

You work exclusively in analog media. What is it that continues to draw you to film? Has this choice informed your practice in any way?

It has totally informed my practice. I love the rich color and grain of film, but mostly it is the medium format that I can’t imagine life without. When I started photographing, I was making images with a large format 4x5 camera, and as great as that process of image making is, to come off the tripod was liberating. Using a medium-format camera and film slows me down and forces me to make considered decisions about composition, as well as creating a relaxed yet deliberate interaction with my subjects.

You teach photography at LaGuardia Community College and the International Center for Photography in New York City. What is the most important piece of advice that you give to your students?

My life has changed in such a positive way due to photography. It allows me to interact with the world in a serendipitous, stimulating manner. I love sharing my excitement for the medium with my students, and they teach me a lot as well. One of the most important ideas I try and teach my students is that they need to work really hard and to learn from their mistakes. Ideally, every photographic project informs the next one. You learn what works, what didn’t work, you shed the aspects that don’t resonate and try different things.

Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?

Absolutely. I’m currently designing a book on the Meet Me in the Green Glen project, and I hope to find a publisher. I’m also working on a project on liminality in New York. I've been photographing liminal spaces as well as people who are in transition or in-between. Some of the people are in an uncomfortable place, they are out of context neither here nor there. Yesterday I met and photographed lots of intriguing people in the Port Authority bus terminal.

Follow Maureen Drennan on Instagram here.

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