Landscapes, Horizons, and Memory: Jonna McKone

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Over the last decade, Baltimore filmmaker and photographer Jonna McKone has developed an extensive body of visual art that has exhibited across the country, spanning portraiture, experimental documentary, music video, and interdisciplinary genres.  

McKone’s vision, coupled with a strong drive for collaboration and a desire to explore the “legacies of empire, the fragility of truth, and the land and body as vessels of memory” has already made her a fixture of Baltimore’s art landscapeand she’s continuing to engage with these questions in her ongoing and new bodies of work

Earlier this year, McKone exhibited first last light, at Baltimore’s Full Circle Gallery. For this exhibition, McKone and artist/historian Alicia Puglionesi worked together to develop ideas around geological time, perception, and how memory is embodied in materials. Puglionesi, who recently published, In Whose Ruins, a book exploring the hidden costs of ruthless economic growth and the myth-making intimately tied to place, produced poetic texts to accompany McKone’s images. In this collaboration, they explored modes of staging photographs to evoke the past of inanimate objects. 

The images of first last light are filled with quiet tension: verdant landscapes laced with otherworldly colors alongside bucolic black and whites of humans merging with land and foliage. When people appear, they seem as elemental to the landscape as the plants and trees and rocks in the frame.

One of McKone’s pieces from first last light is on view through August 12 in Richmond, VA as part of Candela’s Gallery’s annual juried and invitational show UnBound12!


first light last exhibited at Full Circle Fine Art Gallery, documentation by Vivian Marie Doering
Alicia Puglionesi, Zine with poetry and text, documentation by Vivian Marie Doering
Jonna McKone, "untitled," Multnomah County, Oregon, 2022, from first last light
Alicia Puglionesi, "To be seen may be deceived," documentation by Vivian Marie Doering

Alongside her practice as a photographer, McKone produces documentary films with collaborators in Baltimore and beyond. McKone produced Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere  (alongside MEMORY), which received a Special Jury Award at Sundance in 2021. She also produced Meredith Moore’s short Margie Soudek’s Salt & Pepper Shakers, which played at Sundance in 2023 and will screen in Baltimore this month at the New/Next Film Festival.

McKone’s newest production project is a documentary on dwarfism by Julie Wyman, which McKone is co-producing with Lindsey Dryden. This as-yet-untitled film, which explores the ways dwarfism and disability narratives are socially constructed, was recently awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation.

BmoreArt caught up with McKone to talk about her work.

The pandemic has been hard for a lot of artists, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed your process; you seem to be evolving.

The pandemic has given me more space to explore. Since, in my work, I am investigating a deep sense of place, I have been able to slow down, focus on attention and ritual. That ritual is not just the creation of images but the ways in which different practices—color photography, oral history, video documentary, hand-processing film, working with alternative processes and living materials—all coalesce or inform each other. The imprint of one technique is always calling to the next.

I think my art practice is always changing because each project is influenced by the work that came before it, what I read, my closest friends, the art I experience, and my most moving and deeply felt experiences. As I produce more films, I also find that these collaborations further inform the way I frame my work.

For example, this winter I did a residency at CowHouse studios in Wexford, Ireland. The only tools I bought were what I could fit in a backpack. The black and white darkroom was such a beautiful space to be in that I was inspired to hand process my negatives and make small prints. I would read and photograph during the day because the environment and landscape were so beautiful and atmospheric. Then, at night, I’d work in the darkroom printing the very prints exposed that day. When I was done, I would lay my prints out at a long table by the fire.

I produced that work using coffee and vitamin C as a developer and with a sustainable fixer. The ecosystem the residency was a part of, an old dairy farm in the woods, very much influenced me along with how simple the darkroom was.

You teach as well, which I assume is another source of inspiration.

This summer I am teaching in Madison County in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina with the Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education. I have spent a lot of time working in this part of the country over the last ten years, getting to know the mountains and small communities in the different valleys and counties. Being back in this place post-pandemic has spurred a renewed interest for me in portraiture and the ways the density—both the history and the physical topography of the region—inform how people understand themselves and are seen. 


Jonna McKone, "faded then vanished," C-print collage, 2022, documentation by Vivian Marie Doering
Jonna McKone, portrait from teaching work in Southern Appalachia
Jonna McKone, "before a storm," Madison County, NC, 2022, from first last light series
Jonna McKone, "Radiant Forces: Ruby," 2022, from first last light series
Jonna McKone, "Radiant Forces: Sulfurous Blue," 2022, from first last light series

That idea seems like a key mission in your work with first last light. Was it something that evolved as you made that work, or were you clear about that mission when you began the work?

When I began shooting first last light in mid-2021, I wasn’t sure what the project was yet. I knew I wanted to create a project that was more open-ended than my previous work, and a photograph can become a message to a future project.

At the time, I also was finding different threads of projects starting to braid together in unexpected ways. We had just released All Light, Everywhere in movie theaters, which is a film about the connection between cameras, surveillance, and weapons. Some of the themes we explored influenced my photography the last few yearslike the totalizing power of images in our society and the histories of the ways mechanized camera instruments remove the person from the process of observation to achieve greater (and in my mind unachievable) “objectivity” or truth.

I was also finishing a multi-year series of collaborative portraits and feeling the weight of those relationships and stories. I spent a month slowly driving back home through Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, passing through national parks and monuments, observing geysers and antique car shows, museums, ghost towns, manufacturing sites, and dark sky campsites. That summer, all these different versions of myself felt like they were forging together.

The project started to take shape, converging a few threads. I wanted to express geologic time through monochromatic images, rocks and vegetation, and horizon lines. And to explore reciprocity between person and senses—the landscape not as an object but an ongoing set of relationships between human and non-human, past and present. 

In one of my classes in grad school, my professor, Alex Harris, said about working in a documentary tradition, “we’re always trying to find where we belong through our work.” These are just spaces where I feel I belong.

There are many places in this country where the complexity of the place itself has become emptied out, extinguished. The landscapes in first last light are where I personally experience complexity, where my imagination and desire to document means a camera is always with me. I’ve started looking around for archival, family, vernacular photographs that have that same feeling. I’m interested to see how the specificity of place shapes (or doesn’t shape) the direction of this work. 


Jonna McKone, "Gwen in Walnut", NC, portrait from teaching work in Southern Appalachia
Jonna McKone, from first last light series

I like that you include people, bodies, in these landscapes. It seems that once you put a person in the frame, they are suddenly the reason for the photograph and the landscape becomes secondary. In your context, they seem to become part of the landscape instead.

I love making portraits, and in recent years many of my images with people are made with a 4×5 view camera, which is such a slow and intimate way of working with people. I am interested in how people move through space, how bodies are containers of all our experiences up to that moment an image is made, the way we sit, are at rest, carry ourselves. I love excavating these moments in portraits, suspending time to allow for this kind of moment to emerge. 

I began photographing people in these spaces, just observing the interaction of people with land, with “designated wilderness,” with spectacle, with beauty, with home. These early images felt a bit literal as the early voice of the project was developing, but I was working in the same lineage as all my projects. I use the medium of photography to express the immaterial, the things you cannot see in the worldfeelings, histories, memories, ghosts, and myths.


Jonna McKone, "storm petrel nests," Kent Island, 2022, from first last light
Jonna McKone, "under branches," Benton County, Oregon, 2022, from first last light

You’ve talked about how these photographs are about questioning habitual ways of knowing and perception. Is there a particular way of knowing/perceiving that especially challenged you in the making of this collection? 

I have been thinking a lot about the logic of perception and sensationthe ways we create, often aided by language, boundaries that demarcate the senses we readily acknowledge and those we ignore. Similarly, photography has its own typologies of portraiture, landscape image, architecture, documentary photography, etc.

As a photographer you’re always thinking of these frames of reference, whether consciously or not, and simultaneously seeking to escape them. When I was making many of these images, I was engaging in my own, internal practice of separating myself from habitual ways of knowing and seeing, cultivating an awareness of ways of interpreting my surroundings that I more readily ignore or suppress. As I continued to work on this I was challenged to wait, to quiet any sentiments that might tell me otherwise, to sit in the process itself.

This patience with my own intuition and learning creates an interchange between myself and people and landscapes I am working in. Mary Ellen Mark describes the process of making photographs as being “open enough to recognize them the moment they appear and then burn enough to pursue them.” I’ll be interested to see how this experience of making these images the last year and a half carries into more interior spaces and portraiture.


Jonna McKone, "Dios", 2018, from Notes from Home
Jonna McKone, "Anita," 2018, from Notes from Home
Jonna McKone, "Across the Middle Patuxent," Howard County, MD, 2020, from Slow Drift series
Jonna McKone, “The Land Lies in Ancient Ridges,” Takoma Park, MD, 2020, from Slow Drift series

The way you talk about how your photographs can function as messages to future projects resonates so strongly with my own process. Does that circumstance feel revelatory? Burdensome? Somewhere in between?

I think one project is always calling to the next. There are stray ideas and images that escape the constraints or ideas of one project.  I am always engaging with peoples’ stories, the way their individual lives intersect with systems, histories and empires.

Each project takes a different shape because the question that drives it is different. Sometimes those stray ideas can feel disorganized or chaotic but, through time in the studio, a clarity always emerges. And still some images are part of a longer project that hasn’t yet made itself clear.

You’ve got an exciting opportunity coming now that the Ford Foundation is supporting the Julie Wyman documentary you’re producing. What else do you have coming up?

Filmmaker and artist Marnie Ellen Hertzler and I are co-directing an experimental ode to the ocean over the next year. I am very excited to be directing again, especially with one of my dear friends.

I have plans to continue photographing the first last light series. I want to be on the road for a long stretch this spring. And I have a new idea, which I am starting to shoot, about flowers and concepts of gender and power we map onto them.

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