Noelle McCleaf

Noelle McCleaf

Image: Jenny Acheson

Growing up in Northern Virginia, photographer Noelle McCleaf says her mother Evie Lou instilled in her a deep love of the environment—and the camera. “I fell in love with photography in high school and started looking into art schools for college,” McCleaf says.

She ended up at Ringling College and continued her graduate work at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. But Sarasota’s warm colors and lush, natural settings lured her back.

McCleaf’s photography tells the stories of women, the relationships in her life and her strong bond with her mother (who now lives in Sarasota), and then weaves in her family’s Southern background with the wild Florida landscape. Her photographic series A Bee in Her Bonnet, which was shot from 2010-2014, features McCleaf and her mother recreating experiences McCleaf remembers from her childhood. Orange Crush, another project, is McCleaf’s love letter to Florida, shot in evocative, honey-colored light. A third photo series, Evie Lou and Laura Jane, is an exploration of the friendship between McCleaf’s mother and her mother’s best friend, Laura Jane. The series chronicles the women’s friendship against the backdrop of Laura Jane’s land in Myakka.

McCleaf’s photos are also part of The Yellow Rose Project, a traveling exhibition, celebrating the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Next up: another project about the women in her family, this time about two relatives who lived together in the early 1900s but never married.

“Some people talk down about making personal work,” she says. “But when you make work about universal things—like mother-daughter relationships or friendships—it becomes universal.”

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