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A Thousand Words Are Worth a Picture

Mary Ellen Bartley visits the beach every morning with her dog, and takes pictures when she is not throwing a ball.
Mary Ellen Bartley visits the beach every morning with her dog, and takes pictures when she is not throwing a ball.
Durell Godfrey
She spoke of finding her various inspirations as somewhat magical events
Jennifer Landes

   As an art photographer, Mary Ellen Bartley may have had a long gestational period, but after finding her muse not all that long ago, her career has taken off on a steady upward trajectory.

    Her still-life images of books have been recognized five times in Guild Hall member shows, four years in a row for best photograph, and this year with top honors by Lilly Wei, a critic for Art in America and other publications. In return she will receive a solo show at Guild Hall in 2014.

    Ms. Bartley was also chosen by Ross Bleckner to exhibit her work with him and Renate Aller at the Parrish Art Museum’s “Artists Choose Artists” show last summer. The two have struck up a friendship and they have spoken about him dropping by her house in Wainscott to catch up on her latest work.

    “Things have definitely been happening in the last few years. It’s been a good time,” she acknowledged while seated at her kitchen counter last month. “Being out here has been so great,” she said of the shift she and her family made seven years ago to live full time in Wainscott after living part time in Springs for 14 years.

    She loves the community and the art institutions of the South Fork. “It’s magical that all these connections are happening. I love these places.” A show of her work along with that of Costantino Nivola will open in August at the Drawing Room in East Hampton, a place she has also long admired.

    While she goes to Beach Lane every day to take pictures with her dog, the bodies of work she is known for are quite minimal. They include the stark allusions to still life through the filter of Giorgio Morandi in her “Paperback” series, and the quiet, fleeting, and cryptic homages to some of her favorite artists in her “Open Book” series.

    She doesn’t much like to talk about the food photography she did prior to committing full time to art photography around the time she relocated here permanently. Although it gave her the inspiration and discipline to pursue still life, it was more of a distraction that kept her from her own work.

    During that time, she said, “I started some series as bodies of work, but when I was doing editorial work I found, being here, that it was difficult to shift gears.” Pretty soon after the move her focus changed. “I found my practice. It became a daily thing. Then, things started to happen.”

    She needed the separation and the extra time. “My work is about looking at things slowly and carefully. I can’t do that with breaks. I’m not a multitasker.”

    She spoke of finding her various inspirations as somewhat magical events. “I had to find a muse, something that would keep my interest that I could go back and look at differently. I tried a lot of different still-life things, but the books work best for me because of their geometry. I’m a minimalist at heart.” Yet, there was an element of conceptualism there, too. “Books contain so much narrative and information, but I was looking at them in a way that denied that at the beginning. Then I started opening them up.”

    The “Paperback” series came from seeing a pile at a friend’s house. Although she liked the purity of the geometry of the books themselves as they lined up in stacks, she found the black line drawn on some of the used books particularly arresting. “I liked all the space and formal connections,” she said, and they reminded her of works by Rachel Whiteread and Wayne Thiebaud, artists known for a certain geometric purity even in their more excessive works.

    Prior to that, she was working on a series of “Blue Books,” which she continues to work on today. The title is quite literal. So many older books are bound in blue covers. She composes them into groupings then photographs them in low light on a blue background. The results are lushly textural prints that have a visual finish like blue suede and subtle shifts in tones that seem much more painterly than photographic.

    While these prints are produced digitally, she said she still works occasionally with the older large-format view cameras she used in college, when she made palladium prints. She recently purchased some 4-by-5 negative film, even though she still plans to print those images digitally. With the inkjet printers, “I feel like I can get a similar quality of subtle transition of tones that I wasn’t getting in regular black-and-white prints.” She said, however, “I think like a view-camera person. When I first looked through one and saw the flattening of space and the quality it has of drawing with light, I thought it was so cool. It was my aha! moment. I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ ”

    A subtle but rather radical departure came in the “Open Book” series. In looking for other ways to portray her “Paperback” series, Ms. Bartley began to stand them up to show them vertically, which led to their sometimes splaying open. It was then she noticed the shadows, stripes, and strong verticals that were the byproducts of seeing just a small glimpse of what was contained within.

    “The text didn’t excite me. I liked when I saw images this way. I played around with the depth of field. I would make the page sharp but the rest dissolved. I liked how there was a re-sequencing of the book by seeing the images out of order.”

    Her treatment also changes the basic functions of the books. In a Hiroshi Sugimoto monograph of beachscapes, the page numbers, which float in the center at the right end of the page, take on a different, mysterious significance when only a few are apparent. The similar horizon line in the glimpses of images within gives them a quality like an accordion-folded print of a Rothko composition.

    In this series, she has done a number of photography books but is also looking at books with reproductions of paintings. It is a different effect and not just because of the addition of color that is often absent in the photo books she chooses. There is a tenderness and an ethereal quality to them, almost reverential. Some of this is the depth of field she spoke of, but it is also the soft northern light of her bedroom, where she takes these images, that embraces and softens them.

    She always titles the works after the book title and said her intent is homage and is in no way cynical. “I came of age right behind the ‘Pictures Generation’ and all that media-centered art didn’t appeal to me. I thought art was sacred. I would sit in front of a Rothko for hours, thinking, ‘Give me your wisdom.’ ”

    What excites her about the “Open Books” is the element of chance that comes into play as to just what can be seen in this presentation. The “Paperbacks” are marked by precision and control. “This series connects to things outside of myself and outside of the room.”

    She began her work with books before digitization of them became big business and said it was not a concern of hers when she started this work. Still, as technology has made the book an increasingly outmoded and sacred object, she has taken note. She likened it to a weird inversion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of an original object’s aura compared to a serially-made copy.

    In this context, “the book has its own aura. It’s original in its own way. The form of a book, its format, is so specific and in real time. You have to hold it open and move the pages. It’s not flashing on a screen, not in the ether ready to be experienced by anyone. It’s a much more intimate experience. It’s sort of quaint now.”

    As precious as those objects are to her, she is beginning work on a new unreleased series in which she is rephotographing images she has taken at the beach all these years, in one case folding them and having the light hit one side more than the other. This approach allows her “to think of it more as a still life, like the books. I like it and it’s fun. To be continued,” she said with a smile and closed the portfolio.

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