The Impact of Jack Radcliffe: A Mentor’s Story

Alison, AZ. ’91 By Jack Radcliffe

The Impact of Jack Radcliffe: A Mentor’s Story

Written by Brooke Hall
Photos by Philip Laubner

You see a stoic woman with carrot colored hair peering out from behind blue-green eyes, her eyelids embellished with frosted blue shadow. The bright tattoos covering her body are loud, her stare piercing. As you glance up her arm and across her chest, from the tattoo of Super Mario Bros to Optimus Prime, you can’t help but feel a magnetic attraction to her.

You see an intimate black and white household scene. A child – shirt off, belly up, eyes adrift – lies restlessly next to his pregnant mother in a living room filled with complication. You see a dark-haired angel, a small girl who counts her polka dots when she’s tired. Her mother speaks to her without words. You see a pretty young teenage girl caught smoking and you swear you know her from somewhere. You see new life, you see death, you see forgotten moments locked in time and, somewhere in the eyes of these strangers, you see yourself. You’re looking at the photographs of Jack Radcliffe, a Baltimore-based fine artist, father, husband, friend and mentor.

However impressive, most people are not connected to Radcliffe’s photographs because his work has been featured in Esquire, Russia and the Los Angeles Times or because he’s a New York Times Photograph of the Year Nominee. Instead we feel connected to Radcliffe’s art because his photographs seem to bring their characters to life, revealing the soul of a person and the quintessence of a moment. At the heart of it, Radcliffe’s photos resonate with the core tenets of humanity.

Settled in his museum-like living room, surrounded by black and white prints, ornate woodwork, and remarkable artifacts, Radcliffe imparts his story. After the man was thrown out of high school, he did a short stint in the military after which he enrolled in college. It was around this time that he was drafted into the Marines. Upon meeting Radcliffe, one is immediately struck by his gentle nature so the image of him as a young Marine is near unfathomable. An easier image to conjure is that of a young sculptor who’s passion for art would set the tone for his life. While in the Marines he was inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow Up,” and was instantly drawn to the art of photography.

Radcliffe didn’t start seriously shooting until his daughter Alison was born. He admits he was “bullied into photographing,” an experience many new parents might have. But when a certain photograph of Alison struck him, he realized he was onto something. Radcliffe is known for his extended portraits series when he photographs the same subject again and again over many years. The impetus for this approach was his daughter. “The idea of photographing over a long period of time…she gave me that idea.”

But how does one go from a proud parent snapping pictures to a professional photographer? In 1980, Radcliffe took his portfolio to Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. They said they liked his stuff and to bring it back in six months. He did and they exhibited his work in a show titled “Washington Photography: Images of the Eighties” that traveled to 50 venues in four years. This was the launch of what is now a legendary fine art photography career.

Some of Radcliffe’s most celebrated and revered work is his ongoing series of his daughter Alison as well as his other extended portrait series, such as The Isbert Family, Erica Hinson Denny, Dan Van Allen Series and the co-created book Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry, almost all of which was created using a medium format Hasselblad camera.

I inquired about the ways Radcliffe is affected by his recent choice to switch from film to digital. “I feel liberated,” he said. “I like being able to casually take a photograph instead of having to set up a whole system [of studio lights, umbrellas and stands]. Now all I really need is my camera and my flash and I’m gone. It’s liberating.”

Passing the Torch

As a professor, Jack Radcliffe gave wings to many students he taught at Harford Community College’s Photography Department, a program he founded. One such student was the exceptionally talented artist Erica Hinson Denny, a student-turned-friend who Radcliffe mentored for over ten years. Long before her sudden death at age 33, Erica was a respected artist, one of the best photographers in the Baltimore/DC region whose mastered techniques using the fisheye lens, long exposures and multiple exposures. She owned her style; anyone who sees it agrees her work is incomparable.

It all started in photography class, Radcliffe explained, “Erica was very sharp and vocal in class… She was one of my favorite students. We agreed on what was good.” At the time, Erica was shooting black and white 35 mm film and was tossing project ideas at Radcliffe. He invited her to come along to a nude female modeling session. To his surprise, Radcliffe’s friend Peggy Fox brought along a second model, a male. When both naked models started writhing around on the floor, Jack knew “this could get compromising. It was quite the controversial event at the time.” Erica was the only student Radcliffe invited, and “that launched her.” She started shooting nudes and her own style began to emerge. Soon after that, Erica was shooting self-portraits on the regular, a practice encouraged by Radcliffe.

Their friendship grew and Radcliffe began photographing Erica and her family. “I hired her and she worked with me in the darkroom. If you want to get to know someone, spend seven hours a day in a darkroom with them. Eventually, you run out of things to talk about and then you start revealing lots of things about yourself.” Erica and Jack photographed together, he photographer her and her children. She photographed him. They went on like this for years and years.

“If I didn’t hear from her, I would email her,” Radcliffe remembers. “The last email I sent to her said something like ‘I worry about you when I don’t hear from you’ and she said she’d been kind of low lately. I said ‘Well then, let’s get together and photograph.’ Then that was it. I went to Florida and she died.”

“She talked to me many times about dying and I would say ‘No, Erica, you’re going to live a long happy life.’ She turned out to be right. Never in my wildest dreams would I think of a 33-year-old dying from asthma,” said Radcliffe.

If you take a good look at Erica and Radcliffe’s work separately, you’ll observe that the two styles couldn’t be more different. Radcliffe’s work is often traditional black and white, serious and true to life, while Erica’s photographs are colorful, surreal, experimental. According to Radcliffe, her long exposures and multiple exposures were techniques she developed on her own. “She was an incredibly talented woman,” explains Radcliffe. “I think my influence was in approving it, and liking the crazy stuff she did and encouraging her.”

“The one thing I told her over and over was to develop her own signature with her photography. She wanted to be out there in the heat of things, dancing around with the camera and the flash. That’s definitely her. I think that one thing she was doing was gaining trust from the people she photographed, making them feel important,” remarked Radcliffe. “It’s good to pay homage to her, to keep her spirit alive.” Erica lives on through her own art and the art of people like Jack Radcliffe, and in the memories of so many people who loved her.

The bottom line of mentorship is that it’s often a catalyst for tremendous growth in both parties. When two individuals come together, not because they’re in the same family, or of the same generation, but because they are kindred spirits, unexpected results often materialize. When synergy happens in the unlikeliest of spaces, in a darkroom or a conversation or a photograph, we should consider it sacred. Just as Jack Radcliffe’s time and encouragement compelled Erica to keep pushing the limits, to keep dreaming, we must push each other into excellence. If we were wise, we’d all be seeking that unlikely person to keep us on our toes, to guard our deepest secrets, to quietly urge us to carry on, and to be that added momentum driving us forward.

A taste of Jack Radcliffe’s photography

Erica My Home 09-2010, By Jack Radcliffe

Erica, Japeth, Renee, Kai, By Jack Radcliffe

Erica/Yael By Jack Radcliffe

Erica, Sushi, Guapa, Ping, and Ofelia By Jack Radcliffe

Alison, Aberdeen. ’99 By Jack Radcliffe

Alison, AZ. ’91 By Jack Radcliffe

Alison, polaroid. 2001 Alison doing self portraits, Occocoquan, VA By Jack Radcliffe

Jackie/Brad ’95 Harrisburg, PA By Jack Radcliffe

For more see Jack’s website and his Flickr.