Moments. Slices of reality. The daily progression of the world. This is the subject matter for Cecil McDonald, Jr., a photographer based on the far South Side. Dramatic lighting and glowing jewel tones predominate his images, carefully staged reproductions of the everyday. His photographs are largely of intimate domestic scenes, his wife, his daughters, and himself the subjects. McDonald speaks slowly when describing his work, taking thoughtful pauses and emphasizing certain words, as if relishing their weight in his mouth. “I don’t know if I am making pictures that are going to change people’s opinion about anything,” he says, “but I am hoping that I am making pictures that people come to, look at, are excited, feel inspired in some way.” He is quick to qualify: “Not inspired in some way that they’re going to change the world, but even if it’s just for a minute while they’re in front of the picture. I think that those kind of small steps along the way in life, they really move life along. And they’re just as important as big bold sweeping statements.”
McDonald came to photography in his last year as an undergraduate at Columbia College, where he was studying fashion design. He recalls realizing that, all along, he had been drawn to photographs of clothes as much as the clothing itself. This newfound interest prompted him to return to Columbia for a master’s degree in photography. Today, his background in fashion permeates his photographs, and McDonald describes himself as being extremely interested in infusing his work with “style.” “I come from a culture where style is substance, right?” he says. “And it’s not a wrapping or a dressing, you know… Style is the thing. And that’s what I try to infuse in all of my photographs.” Style, then, is what makes McDonald return to a moment and recreate it. What’s more, a photograph transcends its origins when a surprise or shift infuses the image with a new style.
Coming of age in Chicago also influenced the photographer. In the early- and mid-1980s house music exploded on the South Side, and McDonald describes his teenage self as highly involved in that world. He laughingly reports that he almost flunked out of school because of his commitment to music, yet also claims that it was through the house scene that he first became an artist, although he didn’t identify himself as such at the time. Today music, like fashion, plays an important role in McDonald’s artistic process. “I think that those kind of influences have stayed with me,” he says. “It may not be an outward thing that you can represent in a picture, but it’s definitely there when you’re working. It becomes part of your fabric, becomes part of your make-up.”
Now that he has claimed the title of “artist,” the adult McDonald feels that he has license to engage with the world differently. “So now I am expected to be creative, not only in the making of things, but in the way I live. Which is really what it means to me to be an artist. You know. You live creatively.” He also seeks to pass that creative agency onto the next generation as an arts educator at several Chicago public schools. McDonald pushes his students to think of themselves as artists in every arena of their lives. “Creativity is not [exclusively] the domain of the artist. You know?” he muses, “The creative instinct, the creative impulse is something that everyone needs to nurture.”
In terms of his own work, McDonald has no concrete expectations about what the future will bring. He anticipates becoming more well-known, but isn’t looking for an explosion in popularity. “I’m very interested in sloooow ascension,” he says, drawing the word out. “I don’t have to have a rocket to the top…if there is a top. But I’m very much interested in just kind of moving things along.” In that way, the subject of his work has also become the mantra for its development. Moments. Slices of reality. The daily progression of the world.