Idaho Arts Quarterly » Further

Picturing McCall

Maggie Rosenthal and Sarah Jessup capture their surroundings


Since moving to McCall, Idaho, Maggie Rosenthal and Sarah Jessup have come to know their community through art. Using the medium of photography, they've become acquainted with the small but intimate theater community, other local artists, school children, and Idaho's natural beauty. On viewing their work, it appears to have been a rewarding journey. Both retired doctors, they first came to Idaho in 1999 for a kayaking trip and stayed for its beauty. Although they have shown their work in gallery settings, their interest in art seems to lie more in personal growth than exposure. For Rosenthal and Jessup, the seconds it requires to take a photo are not as important as the process involved in capturing it. To arrive at that moment when the image is captured on film, their methods encourage a way of being in the world; an appreciation for the creativity of their subjects; and, above all, an openness to surprise.

McCall, Idaho on Christmas Eve 12/24/07 - SARAH JESSUP

"People think photography takes place in an instant," Jessup explains, "but the instant is only meaningful because of the process. It is true that you can just be in the right place at the right time, but even that depends on a built-up awareness. It's not the photographer that makes the difference, it is more about what the photographer lets their subject do."

Mystic Falls in Yellowstone - SARAH JESSUP

"You spend a few hours before you get a good picture," explains Rosenthal. "In only a short time, I can do snapshots, but I can't catch their soul. It's an interesting thing when people are comfortable enough to relax that guard."

Young American Gothic - MAGGIE ROSENTHAL

Not every artist is born into their talent, and Jessup and Rosenthal are no exception. Looking at their work, it is difficult to imagine that their first attempts were both disastrous. After witnessing her friend develop a photo with a home kit when she was 10, Jessup transformed her kitchen into a darkroom. "I went into the kitchen and I covered all the windows," she says. "I took this red tissue paper from a shoe box and put it over the kitchen light for my safe light." She was so enthralled by her newfound hobby that she didn't notice when her makeshift light began to burn. "My mother became concerned when she smelled the smoke," Jessup says.

This Land is my Land ... - MAGGIE ROSENTHAL

"I have made every mistake," Rosenthal admits. While developing pictures of her niece and nephew, she botched the chemical developing process and ruined the whole roll. "I made everything bubble," she says, "They have lines all over their faces and they look like monsters." Even so, Rosenthal says that those are her niece and nephew's favorite photos.

By shadowing McCall photographer Earl Brockman, Jessup learned techniques for photographing live theater in The Alpine Playhouse. "I was curious about the technique for taking photos of theater under little light," she says. "And in theater, you are not interacting with the person, but you have a relationship with the performance." Jessup learned to stay on her toes. "Almost always in good acting there is that pregnant moment, the pause, and you learn to wait for that important moment." She photographs many of the shows that The Alpine Playhouse presents, and she and Rosenthal provide most of the visual documentation of the annual Seven Devils Playwright Conference, which takes place in McCall every June.

The Alpine Theatere Meets France and Earl - MAGGIE ROSENTHAL

Jessup's newest passion is birds. She has developed a way to approach them to appear less invasive. "It's not likely that something fascinating will walk by and just pose," she says. "You have to go out and be there. I go to this aspen grove and I wade out to the middle. Nothing's happening. I'll just be there for a few minutes, and gradually I become aware of things happening. And even if I don't get a picture, I usually see something interesting." To catch the sage grouse mating ritual that happens at dawn, she waited in the dark like a spy. "You can hear this popping coming through the dark," she explains, "and the sun gradually comes up..." Triumphantly, she shows a photograph of a close-up of the grouse, fully displayed, its yellow bladder protruding from its chest feathers. "Isn't that the craziest thing you ever saw?" she exclaims.

Like many photographers, Rosenthal is always searching for the honest photo, in which "people come out as who they really are." It's difficult to "act natural," Rosenthal says. "When you see someone you know, you feel good, and your limbic system tells you to smile and you smile. But when it's forced, the muscles do the work. And I would like a picture of your heart smiling." Jessup laughs at the description and rolls her eyes, "I'm pretty sure that hearts don't smile."

Rosenthal's latest project has been photographing families and couples for her "Gothic Series." She has people pose in the manner of the 1930 Grant Wood painting of a work-hardened man and his dour wife standing with a pitchfork between them in front of their farm house. It's been parodied almost as much as the Mona Lisa, and Rosenthal was eager to try her hand at it. "It speaks to me because it says, 'This is what America is all about,' and people like to play with it, because it's not what America is all about." Her photos back her up; in every one, her subjects are mimicking the same pose but they are all surprisingly different.

Rosenthal and Jessup's fascination with the landscape and the people of Idaho is apparent in how they have chosen to photograph them. It is revealing of their own characters that what they have marveled at in their surroundings is literally right before your eyes.