In the Studio

Maureen Drennan

BY Adam Ryder, May 1, 2014

Molly, Broad Channel

Molly, Broad Channel, 2012

What one might notice first about Maureen Drennan is her ready and expansive smile, a trait that is perhaps atypical for a native New Yorker. Raised in Greenwich Village, Drennan now resides in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, hard by where the Hudson dwindles into the Gowanus Canal. When she describes her photography, Drennan mentions that she’s “drawn to places and people on the edges, where the land and community are fragile or in transition.” Her longstanding affinity for liminal spaces is best realized in two of her most recent bodies of work, Broad Channel and Meet Me in the Green Glen.

Drennan began work on the former project two years ago when, en route to the Rockaways, she noticed a cluster of stilted houses from the window of her subway car. The community she spied, Broad Channel, is a small blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, perched precariously on the tidal flats of Jamaica Bay. The inhabitants of this narrow strip of land have enjoyed their watery isolation for generations. Following the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production and sale of alcohol, Broad Channel became known as “Little Cuba” for its clandestine rum-running operations to the Prohibition-stricken mainland. Today, it has the rather more unhappy reputation as one of the most devastated neighborhoods left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Drennan began photographing the area before the storm, and subsequently captured its personal and environmental repercussions on the island. Her work reveals how this community’s defining feature has shaped it both as a quaint suburban enclave and a victim of natural disaster. Despite the risks, the inhabitants of Broad Channel are reluctant to relinquish their ancestral homeland, a defiance that is hinted at in the hard-eyed stare of Drennan’s subjects. Perhaps what draws her to these peripheral spaces is not the sites themselves, but the brand of fierce independence engendered in their inhabitants.

A California marijuana farmer we’ll call “Ben” is one such indomitable spirit and the subject of Drennan’s series, Meet Me in the Green Glen. This body of work, named for a British Romantic poem by John Clare, is a wry reference to the fields of crops “where the sweetbriar smells so sweet.” Several years ago while shopping for clothes in Northern California, Drennan struck up a teasing exchange with a scruffy man drinking a can of beer while browsing the store. Ben, a cannabis grower, invited her to his property to photograph, initiating a lasting friendship. In the last five years, Drennan has returned several times to Ben’s secluded farm, creating a body of work that does not so much document marijuana cultivation as it reveals the isolation of life on the fringes of legality.

Strangers find Drennan, with her infectious congeniality, easy to confide in. As a result, her portraits have a vérité quality that transcend the moment in which they where taken and speak to the relationship that Drennan establishes with her subjects. Although she displays an obvious technical prowess, what Drennan does outside the realm of picture-taking is perhaps her greatest talent. Charm is a valuable asset for a photographer, and it has allowed Drennan to pry open parts of the world that, like many good things, remain hidden to most of us.

Jamaica Bay, Broad Channel

Jamaica Bay, Broad Channel, 2013

Jake, Lake County

Jake, Lake County, 2010