Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Photography of Joseph Mays

The Photography of Joseph Mays

Ideals, Expectations, Truth

Finding Truth in Colored Lights, Doors, Skulls and Rain...

Joseph Mays is a large bear of a man with a ready smile and a nervous laugh. As founder of Barebrush, I have had the opportunity to meet Mays several times. Last summer, he traveled from his home in Kentucky to show nine photographs at the third Barebrush gallery show (Undressed and Not, Aug 2014, NOHO Gallery, Chelsea).

Gallery Wall
Barebrush Aug 2014
This month, we spoke about his work by phone. In the throes of a bad cold, Mays explained his initial reasons for joining Barebrush. His manner was unprepossessing, even shy. However, as he spoke, his convictions and the importance of his art for him and to him, brought strength to his voice and a sincerity of feeling that seemed to make him forget everything else but getting his thoughts together and his point across.

Mays studied photography in college when black and white photos were routinely produced in darkrooms and color photos were impossibly expensive for students. Years after college, he resumed his photographic exploration. Digital was cheaper and easier. Friends were encouraging.

He wondered: was the work really any good, or was the praise just the benevolence of friends? When he found the Barebrush website, he liked the idea that independent curators would look at his work. These art professionals were people who did not know him. Their opinion would provide an objective validation in the context of a monthly, juried selection of art. His work would be judged among work by other artists. Would they select it?  Would his art find its place in the world?
Jungle #84

The answer to his questions turned out to be a resounding yes. Since his very first success at Barebrush with Curcuitboard Jungle #84 (May 2008), Mays has piled up a strong record of 139 calendar wins. Of these, 35 artworks have been “retired” with Honors.

Mays has several different photographic series represented on the Barebrush website. The first two are very colorful. The others are black and white. I asked about that. He said,
I use color only when it is important to the effect I want to achieve. When color is incidental, I prefer to eliminate it because it becomes a distraction.
 Mays feels strongly that photographs of the nude are more “honest” and as a result, more human. Photography of the nude strips away the extraneous and the expected. However, he felt deeply that photographs of the nude are often not “seen” in a careful and unprejudiced way. In conceiving of a way to use color as intrinsic to his theme he wanted to smash preconceived notions about nudity and entice the viewer to look closely in spite of his (the viewer’s) preconceived notions.

Street Level
Street Level is an outstanding example of his success with what he calls this Abstract Projection series. Mays is especially proud because he feels that the colors and the pattern are a good match to the thoughtful and analytical personality of the model.

Another tale about this series is especially poignant:
One model had had surgery and thought her body was ugly because of surgical scars. When she looked at her body in the mirror, the scars were all she saw. Finally, she got up her courage to pose. When she saw in the finished work that the tiny scars were hardly visible, she realized how unimportant they were. From that time forward, she began to feel much better about her body and she thanked me.

Joe Mays is justifiably proud to have helped her come to that truth through his photography.

Simple Machines

The Barrier

In the second series, his collaborator, Jill Morgan, painted abstract designs on the models using black light paint. Then Mays photographed them. Mays added painted linear elements to the black light paint series (i.e. Simple Machines and The Barrier). These set the model in space.  The fact that the models were nude became less important than the fact that they are humans looking different. The results were startling and unusual.

Ironically, in these color photographs, color is employed specifically as a distraction. Several of the models did not recognize themselves when they first saw the finished results.

Berlin Salon #5
The Berlin Salon #5 is part of a series that grew out of photographs of performers. The woman performs with her snake and the picture struck Mays as belonging to the time of the Wiemar Republic in Berlin, when all the old values were falling away and experimentation ruled. At the time, sexuality and the Bohemian lifestyle were on the rise and people were jettisoning preconceived notions and prejudices. The model looked like she came from the 1920s, so Mays decided to push it that way. He photographed performers and artists, imagining his own personal 1920s Bohemian Berlin, and populating it accordingly.

Door 1
Door 2
In the process of photographing performers, one day Mays got the notion of adding a door to the picture (Door 1). He asked the model and then lots of others about the meaning of a door in a picture and received many answers: safety, isolation, loneliness, trap, anticipation, mystery, meditation and change. Unlike other photographers whose shots include doors, for Mays, the plain door was not the object or the subject, but rather something else entirely. The door, he says, is “a visual subconscious cue.” The model has an attitude toward the door. The sensitive photographer recognizes the model’s psyche and brings it to visible reality. The viewer gets the subliminal message. In other words, the models’ responses to the door represent their attitudes toward the world. This attitude becomes the ultimate message of the artwork. Some subjects lock out the world (Door 8). Others welcome it (Door 2).
Door 8


Then we talked about his circular pieces. “What was this all about?” I asked. Mays told this story:
Liebe Und
Leben #4
Liebe Und
Leben #1
Liebe Und
Leben #10
A model I knew wanted to be photographed nude with a skull. I don’t know why, but she kept asking. Finally, I got some ideas. I had a chain link fence and thought I could hang things on it. Then I emailed friends to ask if they knew where I could get a skull. Replies came back: “I have a skull.” “I have skulls.” “I have lots of skulls.” I went to see a friend who lived on a farm out of town and she had all types of skulls. She said, “You can have the skulls, if I can also be photographed nude with a skull.” Well, the body types were similar, and I thought it would be interesting, so I called the first woman and asked her if she would mind another woman in the picture. “As long as I am nude with a skull, I won’t mind.” So I shot it, and made the pictures round with a darkened edge as if the viewer is looking through a spyglass.
One of his pieces (Cypress Rain) is very different from all the others:
For a long time, I had the idea that I wanted to photograph someone looking up in the rain. I was meeting the model for the first time in a coffee shop. That day, I had just come from the funeral of my father. It started to rain. When the model walked in, I wanted to take that picture. I had never worked with her before, but I asked her if she would pose in the rain. She said sure. I wanted her to call my other model contacts so she would know that I’m okay to work with. She said she didn’t need to do that because she’d already spoken to them, and that’s why she was there.
Cypress Rain
My reputation is very important to me, and a model is very vulnerable. Modeling is an investment in trust. So I’m sensitive about making sure the model knows she is safe.  A friend of mine had to stop modeling because of improper photographers, and when she resumed, I was the only one she would model for. She says that I’m the least creepy photographer in Louisville. Maybe I should put that on my business card.
Joseph Mays credits his decision to become a member of Barebrush as “one of the best decisions” he ever made. In an earlier conversation, he told me that the confidence he gained from Barebrush enabled him to get into many shows and fairs.

Dune 4743
One particular incident is very satisfying to me.  In March 2011, the New York Observer published an article on Barebrush, in both the online and print editions. I was asked by the editor to select art to accompany the article.  Mays’ Dune 4743 appeared in the print edition (the Barebrush pressroom has both versions of the article). When I called Joe back then to tell him I was sending him a copy of the newspaper, he told me that he had gotten a call from a real estate office in New York City, and that a “big New York real estate guy” and art collector had already asked the price and sent the money. 

Coming to the end of this current call, Joe briefly discussed his next project, but I’ll keep silent on that; the sequence on Barebrush must be kept as show, then tell. Stay tuned.

In this blog called Body Language: Art, Biology and Culture, the takeaway from these stories is how one sweet, shy and serious photographer grows, develops and tests his ideas. For Joseph Mays, Barebrush is a safe public laboratory in which to make visible ideas, notions, feelings and prejudices, in the quest to represent the complexities of being human.

 More about Joseph Mays

Liebe Und
Leben #6
Liebe Und
Leben #7

  ©All images copyright Joseph Mays.