Alexandra and Truett

Sharp Shooter: Girls, Guns and the Semiotics of Gender

When I reached photographer Lindsay MCrum on the phone at her hotel room so we could have a conversation about her book Chicks With Guns she quipped, “I’m what you’d call a moving target these days.” Now, I don’t think she meant this as a specific self-referential gun metaphor necessarily, but it does speak to the wide array of interpretations the book is open to and goes to show how ingrained guns are into our cultural iconography. It also goes a little way to explaining the phenomenal interest in what is essentially a fine arts monograph.

Greta Martin of Rutherford on the cover of 'Chicks With Guns'

Since it came out in late 2010, notices (mostly glowing) for the book have appeared everywhere from Field & Stream to W to The New York Times and NPR to the cutting-edge arts magazine Juxtapoz. “It’s been hilarious,” says MCrum, who is as gratified by the outpouring of attention as she is surprised by it, laughing. The book sold out on Amazon the day it was released and is now in its third printing. (You’ll have a chance to meet MCrum and get a signed copy of the book at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville this Saturday.)

MCrum, a painter who switched to portrait photography in 2003, embarked on the idea of capturing the images of women toting their firearms after reading an article in Economist in 2006 about the gun industry. Not being a gun owner (or even very knowledgable about guns in any way) MCrum says she was astonished by the enormous size and scope of the gun business in the United States.

The idea slowly morphed until it became “Chicks With Guns” — the working title of the series that just stuck.

When she came across that Economist story, MCrum had been working on a series of portraits of children playing dress up when something clicked. “One of the portfolios was of little boys in military costumes with toy guns, and another was of little girls in evening dresses,” she remembers. “It was really an investigation of contemporary notions of beauty and fashion and how popular culture influenced these girls. Very, very young girls were acutely aware of the concept of beauty, of being a model, of how they were supposed to look in front of a camera. Which I found really fascinating,” MCrum explains.

Looking at these images next to the ones of the boys in their militaristic poses, her head still flooded with gun industry statistics from the Economist, she thought, “Let’s see what happens when you give a woman a gun.”

“This was never intended to be a book,” MCrum says. She had planned to get anywhere from 12 to 20 very strong images for an exhibition. “And then when I started photographing the women, it was the women who were so excited about this project.” The subjects themselves began suggesting other women whom MCrum might photograph. “And then this thing just took on a life of its own.”

The plan for those original dozen or so photo shoots turned into 3-and-half-years and 280 separate shoots (80 of which ended up in the book).

“There are so many stereotypes about women and guns that don’t really reflect the reality,” MCrum found. In the book, this reality is reflected across the unexpected diversity and breadth of women who own guns in the United States — whether they are hunters, competitive shooters, law enforcement, or whether the guns are for self protection or the women just collect them. (You will not, however find the typical cartoon images of “chicks with guns” — there is not a camo bikini in sight). The book stands as a document exploring an underrepresented sub-demographic, and, with accompanying text by the women themselves, their reasons for gun ownership.

MCrum’s lens has no judgement in it. The dialog is between the reader of the book and the women. MCrum just makes it possible, inviting the viewer of the photographs in to be a part of the dialog.

“I’m not in the judgement business,” says MCrum, who has never so much as fired a gun. “I realize this is a highly politicized subject, but I was far more interested in the cultural aspect of it.”

At a purely semiotic level the images have a part in a conversation about gender roles and power. But there are those highly charged political elements implicit as well. In dealing with any issue, sometimes it’s best to take a step back, and, in this case, the camera, and beauty of the images allow us some distance.

“If you can remove judgement from something,” says MCrum, “it makes the inquiry and discourse that much more spacious. And gun ownership is a really serious and complex issue. It’s really important that it’s given that sort of serious consideration. Certainly it deserves far more than soundbites that are geared toward people’s fear and hate.”

Lindsay MCrum will be discussing Chicks With Guns and signing copies at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville on Saturday, March 24, from 12:00 -2:00 pm. Greta Martin, a Rutherford native who graces the cover of the book, will also be present. A few images from the book are below (click to enlarge):