Chicks with Guns reveals much more than women with firearms.
There is an untold story of gun ownership: As former federal prosecutor Stephen L. Meagher points out in the preface to fine-art photographer Lindsay McCrum’s new book, Chicks with Guns, an estimated 15 to 20 million women own guns in the United States. She strikingly poses 89 of them on location with their preferred weapon, and each photograph is a study in aplomb and poise. Many of the photographs look like Ralph Lauren ads, in which sophisticated, sporting women in chic Westernwear exemplify the pioneering spirit of American cool.
But these “chicks” are not models and their guns are not props. Each photograph is named after the woman it portrays; underneath, the city and state of the setting and the make of her gun are identified. These are portraits, and yet they are landscapes (peppered by a number of sumptuous domestic interiors, as well as a few humbler ones). They are also forceful still lifes of firearms. The result is a complicated collection that is much more than a coffee-table book, as you would expect from a Yale graduate who received her Master of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute.
More than a study of gun ownership, Chicks with Guns is a deft meditation on possession of the land and the self-possession of the women exercising control of it. McCrum herself has nothing to do with firearms. The photographer, who divides her time between New York City and California, has admitted, “The only thing I shoot are cameras.” It is a subtly complex, if canned, statement that expresses, as much as the calculated title does, the power of art to represent controversial issues. Gender roles, land ownership, empowerment, democracy itself — these are some of the undercurrents haunting these fascinating portraits.
McCrum’s debts of influence are intelligent, too. “Many of the painterly background landscapes in Chicks with Guns are inspired by [English portrait and landscape artist Thomas] Gainsborough,” writes Meagher in the preface. “That may be unsurprising, given that McCrum was a landscape painter before becoming a portrait photographer.” McCrum herself notes, “My background as a painter made me aware of the interplay between a subject and their environment and how they inform one another.”
Gainsborough was depicting the landed, largely male gentry of his 18th-century Britain, and the disdain he felt toward his wealthy subjects is legendary. McCrum, on the other hand, is shooting in contemporary America. Unlike Gainsborough’s aristocrats, who are shown awkwardly perched upon their land, taken together McCrum’s subjects suggest the profound responsibility of land ownership and protection. McCrum renders the land and the female stewards of it in all their substantiality — and often sensuality.
Like Gainsborough, McCrum explores class and privilege. She captures the democratic nature of female gun ownership in the United States and includes photographs across class lines. Here, the rich as well as the less well off appear equally compelled to defend themselves, their families, and their property with their firearms.
Robyn Schiff is the author of the poetry collections Revolver (University of Iowa Press, 2008) and Worth (University of Iowa Press, 2002). For more on photographer Lindsay McCrum and to order the book, visit www.chickswithgunsbook.com.