Capturing the real child with photographer Patrisha McLean

Offers course through Maine Media Workshops + College
By Daniel Dunkle | Apr 13, 2014

Camden — Even after 20 years of shooting her famous photos in film and developing them in her own darkroom, Camden photographer Patrisha McLean understands the seductive siren call of digital photo era.

"I hate computers," she said, during an interview in her home on the outskirts of Camden. "I think they're a drag."

Even so, she has experimented with digital photography and admits, it is so much less work. At some point she discussed it with her husband, songwriter Don McLean.

"He said, 'work is good,'" she said.

She agrees, seeing value not only in the end product, but in the effort it takes to make it. Patrisha McLean shoots her portraits of children using a medium format camera, hand-crafting black-and-white prints in her darkroom. Like many photographers, she prefers natural light to that imposed by flash and she looks for natural settings and moments for her subjects, the children that come to visit her at her home and workshop.

She worries about the future memories of families and children shot with digital cameras. While almost anyone can shoot an infinite number of digital photos, how many of those photos ever make it off the computer or flashcard and into the photo album or the frame on the shelf? Will this be a generation of memories trapped in dusty old machines?

McLean's work is known from her feature stories and photos in The Camden Herald and her books including "Maine Street: Faces" and "Stories from a Small Town." Last year she did a series of photographs of island children for her next book and she has been taking pictures of local homeless for a series in the newspaper this spring.

She began photographing children with the birth of her daughter, Jackie Lee, and that has turned into a business and art form for her.

The photographer is sharing her passion for this form with others through an upcoming class at Maine Media Workshops + College. Her class will run May 17 and 18, teaching students how to get beyond fake smiles.

For McLean, it is about how to capture the real child.

This is the third year she has taught the class. Her students come from a variety of backgrounds and age groups. She said some come with expensive equipment, but in one class, a young mother with a cheap point-and-shoot camera took the best photos.

"It's someone's eye, not the equipment," McLean said.

Finding the real child means following the child around, making them comfortable and avoiding artificial situations: stuffy dress clothes the child does not normally wear, a staged tea party the child is not interested in.

She likes to take pictures of children who are barefoot. Their hands are also important, she said.

She looks for pure emotions and moments: the exuberance or the pensive. She advises against photographing the moments between the moods, when a child is about to smile.

Her class will be intense, she said. The students will work with models from the community, ranging from babies to teenagers.

McLean also offers advice for photographers in managing their careers.

"You have to take control and specialize," she said.

She tells the story of a studio photographer who would take the strong photos he liked of children and then the stilted, staged ones the parents asked him to produce, photos he did not believe in. He would give the parents the choice and they would always choose the photos he did not think worked. She urges photographers to be true to their own vision and believe in it.

She said it is important to meet with parents ahead of time and talk about the process. "If you can't fulfill their expectations, don't bother," she said. "You can't win."

Whether someone taking her class is a studio professional, or a grandmother wanting to preserve memories, McLean's message is the same.

It may take more work, but the work is good.

For more information about Patrisha McLean, visit To sign up for her course, visit

Courier Publications News Director Daniel Dunkle can be reached at or 594-4401 ext. 122.

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