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“Emil Mayer: An Intimate
Master of Photography”
When we look at photography, we mostly consider the image—the things it portrays, the style the photographer has used to capture them. Only rarely do we consider the physical aspects of the medium to be an integral part of a photograph’s artistic impact. And only in the work of an artist like James W. Bailey do we find photographs in which the artistic value of the print actually exceeds that of the image.
Bailey, a native Mississippian, has worked extensively in New Orleans and now lives in Virginia. His past projects have grappled with drive-by shootings in New Orleans and the Southern African-American tradition of the bottle tree. His current 16-work exhibition at the Reston Community Center showcases the technique he calls “rough edge photography,” in which Bailey deliberately sabotages his film at multiple stages to produce one-of-a-kind prints. According to his artist’s statement,
Bailey’s experimental…technique involves exploring the “death of chemically developed negatives and prints” through the use of found 35mm source cameras he purchases in thrift stores.
His process incorporates the violent manipulation of unexposed film, developed negatives and prints. Undeveloped film may be subjected to intense heat or pin pricks through the film canister. Developed negatives are burned, scratched, slashed or cut, as are the prints. In some cases, the original negative is melted onto the final print. The found camera that is used to shoot a particular narrative series of source photographs is frequently smashed upon completion of the series.
This may sound as showy and mindless as Pete Townshend’s smashing his guitar at the end of a show. But Bailey’s process is intellectually grounded—it’s partly a reaction to the sudden dominance of “clean” digital photography—and it creates emotionally weighty and visually compelling artworks. Though Bailey began practicing rough-edge photography only in 2001, he writes that it emerged from a searing experience he had when he was 11:
I watched a farmhouse burn down on property near my grandfather’s farm in Mississippi. I pulled from the wreckage a smoldering wooden box that contained a collection of scorched family photographs. I extinguished the fire from the photographs, spread them out on the ground and arranged them in a square, one next to another. It was the most haunting thing I have ever seen. The charred remains [were an] image history of a whole family. Burned remnants of mythology. Blackened eyes peering behind charcoal. Smokey residue smeared over lost memories. I have never forgotten the image of the collage I created that day. There is no one photograph that could convey the emotional impact of that collage.
The subject matter of Bailey’s images in the Reston show is predominantly cemetery statuary—angels and religious symbols, mainly
—though a couple of street scenes from New Orleans are included as well. The cemetery images have a moody, introspective cast that fits well with the project, and the hellfire evoked by the scarring resonates with the religious imagery.
Still, rarely have the nominal subjects of a photographic project been so inconsequential. Viewers will lose themselves not in the imagery but in the random forces of chemical and physical desecration that partially blot out what is being shown. The works in the exhibition, most of them made in 2004, are so visually complex that they demand that viewers peer directly into the print from just an inch or two away.
Take Cemetery Savior II. It’s a combination of two separate views of a religious statue with arms stretched out, but the surface of the work is riven by blistering, browning, and faulting. White dots from pinpricks add a celestial touch, while a burned portion ends in a delicate wisp of charcoal that gives the work a sense of three-dimensionality.
Or take St. Louis Cathedral. In addition to faulting patterns, this photograph is marred by the partial peeling of its layer of emulsion. Bubbled, almost cellular-looking forms swoop and swerve in all directions; where the layer is detached entirely it leaves behind an enigmatic void. Other photographs feature a wealth of other unexpected effects—ripples, tears that look like tiny knife cuts, moldlike masses, fireball-style burn patterns, constellations of flares, and enamelized mounds of charred material.
Eventually, the statuary backdrops of the defaced images become somewhat monotonous, with the interspersed street scenes providing
welcome visual relief—as well as a suggestion of a direction in which Bailey might fruitfully take his technique further. In an image of a motel, the bricks of the unassuming building actually seem to be buckling and melting as you watch. And in a street scene photographed from inside a car, a pedestrian gazes blankly past the camera as the photograph seemingly devolves into what looks like a mess of spilled milk and bacterial colonies.
The show was designed to incorporate another project, also titled Burnversions, in which members of the public were invited to send Bailey a photograph of a person who had “burned” them, with the story of the incident written on the back. Without offering names or identifying features, these photographs were sliced and diced and put into a collage. When the show is taken down, the collage will be sent to a Hoodoo priest in New Orleans for burning “as part of a ritual of spiritual healing.” Bailey promises to scatter the ashes across the Mississippi River on Nov. 1—All Saints’ Day—so that “these ashes to ash memories…float down the Great River of Life to the Gulf of Mexico; and from there, across the planet, and hopefully, out of the mind and memories of those who have been harmed…”
The artist is an adherent of Hoodoo, so this process obviously has deep meaning to him. But Bailey has a habit of adding elaborate, interactive codas to his photographic work, and this show is no exception. (For the drive-by project, for instance, he didn’t stop at photographing passers-by at murder sites but rather went on to send the results to randomly selected residents of New Orleans and then record their reactions.) The collage-turned-burnt-offering may not appeal to everyone. But even those who don’t buy the “ritual of spiritual healing” line can still appreciate the boldly creative visual vocabulary that Bailey, with his arsenal of defacement, has brought to the photographic arts.
Though Emil Mayer, who lived several generations before Bailey, could hardly be described as rough-edged in any sense, he took an equally intense interest in the physical appearance of his photographs. In his case, it wasn’t defacement he was after but rather an intimacy in the way the images meet the eye—a quest that required an attention to process that bordered on perfectionism. And if Mayer wasn’t the unambiguous proto-modernist that the curators of “Emil Mayer: An Intimate Master of Photography,” now on display at the Embassy of Austria, suggest, he nonetheless produced a body of work that merits more than his present obscurity.
Mayer, born in 1871, was a lawyer by trade and a photographer by avocation in Vienna. Though his street photography from the 1910s was well-known in contemporary Viennese photographers’ circles, it has gone largely unremarked for almost a century. Edward Rosser, the Harvard University librarian who curated the retrospective—the first of Mayer’s work in the United States—attributes this state of affairs to several factors, the most important of which was that Mayer’s collection was seized by the Nazis and presumably destroyed shortly after he and his wife, both Jewish, committed suicide following the Anschluss. (A small number of holdings elsewhere survived, and it is these that are on display at the embassy.)
A more prosaic reason for Mayer’s obscurity is that he was arguably better-known as a technical whiz than as an artist; then, as now, art patrons tended to pay less attention to the techies than the creatives. Specifically, Mayer was an expert, key developer, and champion of the bromoil process, invented in 1904. This laborious technique involved printing, then bleaching, a photograph, then applying multiple layers of oil pigments to bring back a semblance of the original image.
Bromoil prints, which Mayer used for his best work, “look more like etchings or lithographs than like other photographs,” Rosser writes. One reason that Mayer liked the process so much is that it
allowed for almost complete control over the look of the final print. To photographers like Mayer, this was a critical advantage. He could choose from a selection of oil pigments to make prints of any shade or color. By varying the touch of his brush, he could alter the grain of the image; by applying more or less ink, he could make any part of the print darker or lighter.
Mayer used the bromoil process to create his masterwork: Wiener Typen (“Viennese Types”), a collection of roughly 50 street scenes in Vienna. In the embassy’s fastidiously mounted exhibition, punctuated by mini essays by writers and scholars of art and literature, the impact of Mayer’s choice of technique is easy to see. Photographs of cafegoers, postmen, and street vendors are grainy and soft-toned—quiet and calming even when the scene is charged with energy, such as Unfall (“Accident”), in which a group of people are gathered around a fallen horse, or when the mood is more somber, as with the “regular customer” sitting alone in a darkened restaurant window in Stammgast. In Mistbauer (“Garbage Man”), the background is so indistinct it looks positively misty. Often, decades of aging have added a welcome patina of additional toning to the prints.
The wall text calls Mayer “one of the first true street photographers” and suggests that he was a precursor of 1920s and ’30s photographers such as André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There is truth to this: Wandering the streets trying to capture everyday happenings, as Mayer sought to do, had become feasible only at the end of the 19th century, thanks to advances in camera and film technology; it would become increasingly fashionable as the 20th century wore on.
In other important ways, though, Mayer’s work in Wiener Typen looks backward as much as forward. Just as Mayer’s horse-drawn carriages, homburgs, and military helmets were a world away from the visuals of 20 years later, his grainy technique—the bromoil look—has more in common with the pictorialist approach of the late 19th and early 20th century than the bold, often abstract “straight photography” of the ’20s and ’30s. Indeed, the subsequent generation of modernists to whom the show seeks to link Mayer, including Kertész and Cartier-Bresson, famously rebelled against pictorialism, celebrating in their work lines that were hard rather than soft, arrangements that were arresting rather than harmonious. Image-wise, Mayer’s photographs bear more resemblance to the 1890s work of Alfred Stieglitz or the early-20th-century work of Edward Steichen—scenes of urban life portrayed in softer focus—than to either master’s sharper-edged, high-modernist work from subsequent decades.
If anything, it is the other major series included in the embassy exhibit—Mayer’s Wurstelprater, a documentary project about a Vienna amusement park—that showcases his more modern trappings. These images include geometrical patterns (a fence being peeked through by children), visual oddities (a sleeping man’s rounded hat resting on a table at an improbable angle), and rapid action (bug-eyed children watching a puppet show). The modernist feel is heightened by the fact that these images come from a book Mayer printed commercially during his lifetime and from penny postcards—two forms of media that utilize photomechanical reproduction, rather than the lovingly hand-styled process of bromoil.
Perhaps this is what the curators meant when they compared Mayer to his modernist successors. Either way, the exhibition not only resurrects Mayer’s reputation but also reminds viewers that, when looking at photography, it can be well worth the effort to scrutinize the medium as well as the message. CP