By Genie Davis, Diversions LA, January 2, 2018

J. Fredric May: Seeing Things

Vision is a curious thing. What we see may be empirically there, in front of us, or it may be something more shadowy, an outgrowth of how we feel, what we think we see, what some might call an inner vision. Experimental artist and photographer J. Fredric May embraces that inner view. The former photojournalist, commercial photographer, and filmmaker is legally blind, having lost 46% of his vision after surviving a major stroke during open heart surgery in 2012. The stroke also subjected him to vivid visual hallucinations.


One could view this as a tragic set of circumstances, but that is not May’s way. Instead, he was challenged to alter his artistic expression, and find new ways to express visual images. He incorporated the hallucinatory episodes he was experiencing, and is shaping beautifully haunting works that challenge viewers to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.


Using computer imaging software to corrupt and disrupt visual information, the artist essentially began to replicate what was occurring for him. Fragmentary, poetic, and ghostly, they are familiar images turned inside out, puzzle pieces that are mysterious yet recognizable, life through a strange prism.


With his series Apparition: Postcards From Eye See You, recently awarded Critical mass Top 50 for 2017, May invites viewers to see through his artistic “looking glass,” and view the world as he does.


May says “Seeing is not a solitary or isolated act. We create and store a ceaseless visual loop of information hat continuously feeds our perception.” And that perception feeds the way we look at what see, May notes “Sight involves rapid-fire motor activity; electrons are fired, synapses jumped…all within milliseconds.”


And during that immediate process, one not only takes in and records visual information, one also absorbs the meaning of that visual information, or creates one’s own meaning from it.


We are given a fresh take on the human form in May’s images. Take “Author’s Hallucination No. 31,” above, a portrait of a man, yes, likely wearing sunglasses, features rearranged into a recognizable yet alien form.


Or “Author’s Hallucination No. 7,” in which a female portrait is dominated by a centered, larger-than-scale mouth.
In The Griffin Fifteen Series, “Griffin Fifteen No. 10” collapses a man’s face into a nearly-cylindrical shape, featureless, yet innately recognizable as a human image.


May, who grew up in a family that he describes as “collectors, inventors, and engineers” has always been an innovator, encouraged to “regenerate.” As a photojournalist and commercial photographer, he developed a reputation of capturing what a newspaper editor called the “A-one shot,” a standout image, a cover photo. His vivid, natural image style was forever altered with his stroke, but the artist continues to succeed – in a different form – at creating a resonant single image. May has viewed his stroke as a challenge, a condition to be explored with the assistance of his iPad and his inspirational desire to create images that depict what he himself sees. Along with limited sight, May’s hallucinatory episodes are a result of Charles Bonnet syndrome, in which the brain regenerates visual imagery, attempting to refine and fill in the blur of limited vision.


Depicting these episodes, May creates archival pigment prints that combine both analog and digital photographic process, scanning vintage portraits, subjecting the images to data corruption software, creating layered image composites which he prints as cyanotypes. His next step is to bleach and alter the tone of these images with a mix of tea and photo chemicals, which contributes to an ethereal feel to this work. Then, he digitizes the altered cyanotypes to create a print. The result is a distorted yet oddly beautiful composite, ephemeral and fleeting, the glance you always remember, the nearly-dissolving face glimpsed through a rain drenched window you can’t help but forget.


May’s capture of these “visionary” moments has also gone beyond his works themselves, with his art-making process accelerating his own recovery and inspiring researchers to study the use of his techniques as an alternative treatment for stroke patients.
Whether in a recent group exhibit at the Los Angeles Center of Photography or in a solo show, Gray Matters, at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Mass., May proves that what you see may be just a part of what you “get.” In May’s process of comprehension, what we observe in the blink of an eye is rendered into a potent, depth-filled image that both questions and embraces the vision of life itself.

At the Griffin Museum, six photographers look at identity

By Mark Feeney, Boston Globe Staff, October 25, 2017

WINCHESTER — “Gray Matters,” at the Griffin Museum of Photography, consists of six shows that examine the layerings of identity — layerings of time, layerings of surface, layerings of material, layerings of meaning. The title alludes both to aging (that ultimate layering of time) and the wetware encased in a human skull. What’s human identity without human mind?

“Gray Matters” runs through Dec. 3.

The most striking of the six shows is J. Fredric May’s“Apparitions: Postcards from Eye See You.” The punning title has a grim history behind it. May, a professional photographer and filmmaker, lost almost half of his vision after a 2012 stroke. The reduced vision led to a syndrome that produces visual hallucinations — an optical version of phantom-limb sensations.

Drawing on this dual visual dislocation, May takes vintage portraits, scans the images, then alters them with a variety of techniques, both digital and analog. The 15 examples at the Griffin are startling. Each image looks inchoate yet suggests an internal coherence. Each is a set of studies in search of a face — or, in the context of “Gray Matters,” identity.

Liz Steketee also radically reworks vintage portraits. As the series title “Sewn” indicates, sewing and thread figure as a significant part of the altering. The 17 examples at the Griffin offer energy, surprise, and consistent unease. The use of thread requires needles, after all, and these needles get under the skin. Some of the bolder images recall Francis Bacon. Is that tribute or warning?

Marina Font takes sewing and photography a lot further. Her series “Mental Maps” does not lack for ambition: “I aim to approach what lies beyond control and reason, exploring, through the act of drawing with thread, embroidery, fabric and appropriated crochet pieces onto the photographic surface, the intricate mysteries of the psyche.” Font photographs a woman’s head and torso — or, in a few cases, her full body — against a black background, then obscures the face or other parts of the figure with those textile elements. This is serious layering. Alas, those intricate mysteries she speaks of remain unplumbed. The results look pretty goofy without a redeeming sense of wit.

Sandra Klein’s series “Noisy Brain” (great title) follows a formula. The 18 images show her in silhouette, with all sorts of things superimposed on her profile. The repetitive format frees up Klein to be anything but formulaic. Surprises abound, and the results are vigorously unruly in the layers she adds. In one case, the superimposition is her mother’s silhouetted profile. Visually, Klein’s brain is definitely noisy. Viewers are the better for it.

“Comus” is the title of the yearbook at Francie Bishop Good’s high school. It’s the same high school her mother went to. After her mother’s death, Good found her yearbook. Good’s series “Comus” consists of enlarged portraits from the 1942 and 1967 editions: the year of her mother’s graduation and her own. Good appropriates the portraits, making them her own with paint, drawing, collage, and digital layering. The images are garishly ugly. That’s not necessarily bad. Garish ugliness can very effectively make any number of points. Here it doesn’t. These images look like Warhol silk screens of people who never got their 15 minutes. That’s not meant as a dismissal of the people. It’s a function of how appropriation works or, as here, doesn’t. Appropriation without recognition is like a dust jacket without a book. There’s no visible meaning.

Colleen Woolpert’s “Persistence of Vision” is the smallest show: two photographs and a silent video loop. The video shows a sculptor who is blind shaping the eyes of a self-portrait bust, which is almost as striking to watch as it is to think about.

By Geoffrey Koslov, Foto Relevance

Image Roots & Visual Stories

The Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 (CM50) is an opportunity to see work from a very large number of talented photographers. Among the photographers in the final 2017 Top 50, selected from hundreds of entries, are some that educate us on how photography can be used for an expression of who we are and challenges we face, both internal and external. While there are too many to write about, five created a voice in images that have matured through repeated visual experimentation. Looking beyond the submitted portfolios, one found artists who kept working and re-working a concept embraced in a challenging subject. Studying the origins of the current projects for Patty Carroll, Marina Font, Nicolo Sertorio, Dotan Saguy and J. Frederic May, we learn to more deeply appreciate the arresting images that hold our eyes to a message they wanted us all to consider.

“All photographers have a relationship with the world” was expressed by Patty Carroll.1 It is true. What is difficult is showing and sharing that relationship to others in a meaningful way. Carroll’s relationship with the world is focused on the issues of women and “domesticity.” Her visual expression of women and how they are defined by themselves and others, and by the “stuff” they gather to surround themselves are embedded into these images of camouflaged women hidden under cloth. Each image is a statement on an aspect of a domestic situation which Carroll models into both still photographic images and video.

In “Anonymous Women: Demise”, her most current series, we see a staged scene acted out in a studio setting. We do not actually see the person under the fabric. Clearly the body, real or mannequin, is meant to be symbolic of women in challenging situations. One might argue more broadly that any gender of person can be trapped in a life that they or others construct for themselves. So, these vignettes can be applicable to anyone as no facial identity is revealed. Carroll does seem to style situations most commonly applicable to women in a western society. An affluent society. In “Booky”, a woman is buried under piles of books. She is dressed more formally than one might expect. The shoes, stockings and dress, the tea pot, cookies, vintage phone, wall paper and shaded lamp all give the scene a 1950’s sense of the perfect homemaker. The books and book shelves are collapsing around her. There is a disorder in this life, and we notice an unusual, seemingly hand drawn picture of a woman with a less than perfect figure in a partially open book on the floor marked by a pair of glasses hanging on the page. There are actually multiple pairs of glasses, perhaps reading glasses, on the floor, and a phone that is knocked off its cradle so phone calls cannot intrude on this person’s apparent collapse in her chair. There is both a sense of someone waiting, bored, but educated. There is a sadness in the sense of an intelligent well-read person who has been sidelined or idled, not reaching their full potential and “trapped” in a boring situation, living life through the words of others in all these books.

Her own description of the Anonymous series from the Photolucida Critical Mass Top50 site3 gives the viewer a perspective on this work. “The subject is the merging of woman and home. ...In the newest narratives, “Demise,” the woman becomes the victim of her home, to her fatal end. ... The scenes and narratives that I create in the studio are about women who use their objects and décor to shore themselves up against a dark, scary world. Obsessing and perfecting home life with its objects, decoration, and activities fill a void of futility, and invents usefulness beyond caring for family or career.”

Carroll’s frustration with how one can live their life is evident in her other prior bodies of work. “Diner Ladies” “...are fictional portraits of ladies who have loved, lost or been left. They seem to be caught in the time warp of their own thoughts, overtaken by memories or life that might have been, perhaps waiting for life to find them.” Her series “Perfect Lawns” was very purposefully photographed in black and white, as her other work is in color. She says in her description of this series that “[t]he suburbs are constructed places of solace, where everyone has a perfect life, home and yard; places where nature and culture exist in harmony, where children are free from harsh, urban truths, where there is no crime, and people are ‘normal’. The manicured suburban lawn is the living display of this cultural myth.” A woman’s world was also examined in “Objects of Desire.” Patty Carroll is a photographer taking a theme and working it over and over, changing it and challenging it until what she feels is there for a viewer to share and experience.

Marina Font4 is an Argentine woman, now living in Miami, whose portfolio “Mental Maps” embraces a visual expression of the complex emotions and challenges of women in a very different way. She wanted a tactile feel and dimensional visual expression to her images. It is important to her to be engaged in the “construction” of the photograph beyond the image itself by using thread or gold leaf, vintage crocheted doilies or other materials and fabrics to give a three dimensional tactile appearance to her images to emphasize and illustrate her message.

Adding material to an image has been done before. For example, similar techniques can also be seen in the work of Iris Hutegger and Elene Usdin.5 In these photographs, the incorporation of other media enhance the image, but do not replace it. However, Font uses these materials to a different purpose from other artists. Her materials replace part of the image, layering onto a recognizable photographic image.

In her image “Connections”, we see the head and shoulders of a woman, but not her eyes or the top of her head. The body is in a very neutral position. The pose is calm with lips that lack emotion. In choosing a black and white image of the visible body, this person becomes more of a stage for a performance by the materials that Font chooses. The viewer is forced by the photographer to really pay attention more to what is incorporated into the photograph, than the actual photographic image itself. That goes against our normal impression of what we expect a “photograph” to look like. The head is replaced by a very geometric arrangement of multiple colored threads. The arrangement of the patterns extend well beyond what we would expect the normal size of the head to be, implying perhaps that her thoughts are exploding on the inside. That explosion imagery might mean a call for help, or of frustration or a need for self expression. Because the threads are shown in such an organized manner, we do not have a sense of violent expression, but something more systematic. The title “Connections” give us a hint that this person is in thought. Thinking. We do not know what she is thinking about, but the use of multiple colors, expanding well beyond the size of what we would expect her head to be, might imply complexity and deep thought. When compared to others in the series, this image conveys the most calm and control of thought - a woman in control.

Capturing and realizing how one feels is part of Font’s upbringing. Growing up in Argentina, she was exposed to constant conversation about Freud and psychoanalysis. Perhaps that is why the pose of the model is very clinical, shown as a naked body in black and white - covered by materials that are very colorful. The body, almost as if laid out in a morgue for examination, is in the same pose in most all the images. If not a full frontal body pose, it is the repeated use of a head and shoulders image. Much of her work seems to connect a part of the body to another or a focus on a part of the anatomy or organs via the non-photographic materials added. Some of the material, like the gold leaf, according to Font, was used because over time, and exposure to light, the material changes, as we change both mentally and physically with time. She has several works that focus on the head and material exploding from or covering the head. In some, the head is covered in gold leaf like a crown; in others, multicolored thread explodes from an eye or mouth, or a geometric pattern replaces where we would normally see the top of the head, as a metaphor for the brain.

Like Patty Carroll, Font takes hold of this examination of a woman’s emotion and challenges in a number of earlier portfolios. In Mental Maps (2014 - ongoing), Font acknowledges that this series builds on the work in “Dark Continents.” “The construction of these mental maps evokes diverse psychological states and emotions with meanings that are in constant flux, never fixed, just like our identities.” Dark Continents (2012 - ongoing) was another “exploration of womanhood, a mystery in constant flux and evolving mutability.” She notes that the physical work on the images are “engravings” that impart and reveal private thoughts, feelings and persona. At the same time, the viewer is invited to contemplate as to what the images may mean, for themselves. The Weight of Things (2014-2015) examined how one relates to “memory, tradition and a life lived.” In The Weight of Things, she repeatedly used a weight scale to metaphorically challenge what value we put on physical objects. The scale is there to provide a visual “measure” of objects “used, acquired, inherited, preserved” and the emotional meaning attached to those.

Font’s emphasis is on our identity, who we are, why we are and what we have to express to others. While other artists may be more focused on external evidence of our selves, Mental Maps is an exploration of the internal workings in our minds, versus an outward physical expression through objects. Imprinted (2010-2011) was a series also commenting on the state of women in society. “Women have been, for generations, the keepers of our culture, bearing traditions on their shoulders.” She adds the dimension of immigration in these images as she explores “immigrant memories” as to a “particular place or personal history to explore ideas about identity, gender territory, language and memory.” El Contrato (The Contract) was “a series of photographs depicting a woman’s journey of self discovery and identity.” Womanhood became a series of photographs that explore the evolution of womanhood as her body changes from youth to giving birth to children, and domestic responsibilities and changed roles. If we study the photographer and what might have preceded her current portfolio of work, we gain a much deeper and rewarding understanding of what her art is now communicating, expressing and positioning. And, we learn that a photograph is not the end in itself. Artistically, a photographer can extend their ability to express themselves using more than one media as Font has done here.

Unlike Carroll and Font, Nicolo Sertorio6 is photographer concerned with our relationship to our external environment. He wrote about his series, “(Dis)Connected” that “[t]his series is thus based on the idea that the current sense of disenfranchisement derives from the fundamental disconnect we have from the natural world and the social isolation that comes with it. In turn, the perception of the natural environment as something external drives our uses and abuses of resources.”

Sertorio is a visual storyteller. Like Carroll and Font, he has been deeply engaged over a number of years and portfolios in exploring a subject in depth. In this case, our relationship to our external environment. In “Disconnected Landscape (2010)”, Sertorio expressed that “[w]e experience them without acknowledging them. And in so doing, we perpetuate our disconnect: nature as something external, to exploit, and at our service. We work against nature instead of within it.”

“(Dis)Connected” builds on prior work he has created and shown. In “Once We Were Here" his focus was on damage to the environment, consumption and social inequality issues. “Rest Areas of the US Southwest” was another examination of man’s footprint, abandoned, on the landscape and now mostly “meaningless” or less used. Past their time so to speak. Peregrinations (2011) seems to be a beginning of these works illustrating a care and concern and appreciation for the natural environment in a positive image presentation rather than an evidence of its demise and infringement in the series above. All of this seems to relate to the concept of indifference he illustrates in “(Dis)Connected.”

In this series, Sertorio makes use of diptychs. Two images that alone would not tell a story as well as both seen together. (The use of diptychs is discussed in an earlier Commentary by Foto Relevance, “The Metaphorical Image”, September 21, 2016).7 In the image “Make Believe”, we see two “mountains.” The left image is a photograph of a beautiful mountain landscape on a wall as wallpaper in a room - an image within an image. We see two tables and chairs in the foreground in a sort of dining room. Visitors in that room, and us as viewers, appreciate the beauty of that mountain landscape. The other image is a pile of rubble. It begs the question of how many mountain tops have been flattened and reduced to rubble from man’s activities like mining or land development. Together, Sertorio lets the images tell a story. It is a story that questions how, on the one-hand we travel to see and enjoy natural vistas, and on the other-hand, engage in a destruction of our environment in the name of profit and development. Interestingly, people are nowhere seen in Sertorio’s images, but are ever present nonetheless.

Dotan Saguy8 has a very different approach to his images, but no less an artistic journey. Unlike Patty Carroll who constructs and stages her work in a studio, or Marina Font, who adds materials to her images by hand, Saguy is out on the streets photographing. He adds nothing to his images nor does he delete anything. Where Carroll and Font are inwardly reflective, Saguy is a photographer who has a keen interest in people and their environment, the story behind who they are and what is happening at the moment of capture. His “Venice Beach” project was the result of multiple visits to Venice Beach and other locations in the area where he would wait patiently for the right things to happen to capture an image he imagined. He deepens the story in his images “layering” in many different elements or content in the composition of a photograph.

In this beach image “Boy and Snake”, the snakes are a center of attention. The reptiles are out of place for most of us in our normal world, but for a young person’s intense and child like innocence in watching one, while another snake crawls off elsewhere. We see several buff and deeply tanned young men engaged in different activities. A young lady, perhaps the young boy’s mother appears to be either doing sit-ups or lifting her head to get a better view of movement around her. Two men in the center appear to be engaged in conversation. A man, entering the image from the left wearing a cross on a large beaded necklace, seems to have just noted the snake on the sand in front of him, with the beginning of a startle or surprise. Maybe not. Yet, in the far left background a young man with a backpack is looking at this person with a broad smile, as if to say “of course there are snakes here on the beach !.”

Saguy is an Israeli who grew up in Paris and now lives in California, who shoots primarily in black and white. He follows a tradition of social documentary and street photographers. Two photographers who have influenced him, among others, are Henri Cartier-Bresson because of his geometric compositions and his sense of moment, and Alex Webb for layering in the composition of a work. Both are evident in “Boy and Snake” where Saguy successfully captured the moment and layered the image with stories.

He has studied photojournalism techniques to get deeper into a project. A diligent editor of his portfolios, he challenges himself on why he was capturing certain images to best invite the viewer into the image, rather than leave us an outsider to what is happening. This journey then evolved into a study of documentary photography, and then travel photography. What is interesting about Saguy is how many genres of photography he has consciously and purposely learned and experimented with to improve his craft. He trained his “eye” to see enough content in the story for the viewer to react and engage in the image so, in their own mind, one is able to create a story out of the image.9

J. Frederic May10 is a photographer who combines a very different internal physiological examination of self and looking at the external world in his series “Apparition: Postcards from Eye See You.” May commented that these are “digital images created during my recovery from a stroke that left me legally blind in 2012. .... vivid visual hallucinations from a condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome.”
The Charles Bonnet Syndrome (or CBS) is defined as follows: “The visual hallucinations caused by CBS can vary and can range from simple shapes and dots of colours, simple patterns, straight lines or a network of branches, to detailed pictures of people, animals, insects, landscapes and buildings. When you have lost a large amount of your vision it may be difficult to see everyday things, but you may find that your CBS hallucinations are very detailed, and much clearer than your normal vision. The images can appear "out of the blue", lasting for just a few minutes or in some cases, several hours. At times, the hallucinations may fit alongside the background you are looking at, making them feel quite real, like seeing cows in a field when the field is actually empty or seeing a fence across the pavement.”11 Yet, his work has been noticed and interest validated by his inclusion in Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50.12

With May’s images, we have an opportunity to literally see the world as this photographer sees it. Unlike the other photographers discussed, he appropriates some of his images. Interestingly, May commented: “I collect imagery from swap meets, from eBay, anywhere I can find them. I’m a crate digger. The messier it is the better it is to go through and find those little jewels.” During his recovery he took these vintage portraits of head shots and mug shots that he had collected or found and put them through “deconstruct” programs. He then “coerced” certain processing algorithms by creating certain blurs and certain contrasts within the image “by blowing out certain areas with highlights and crushing some shadows.” He would look at hundreds of images. From his website we find that “[h]e then creates layered composites and prints these as cyanotypes. ... Ultimately, he digitizes the altered cyanotype and creates an archival digital print.”

In “Author’s Hallucination No. 3”, we see the black and white abstraction of a face. It is not clear if it is male or female. An eye is directly staring at you, with an eyebrow that gives an intense expression that seems to challenge the viewer, almost to the point of intimidation. There is a mouth that looks feminine rather than masculine as one might expect if one assumes the eye is that of a male. The lips are closed tightly, yet seem layered with lipstick in a sensuous expression of control. The ears are minimized as this image is not about listening. It is about seeing.

However, May very much realizes that no matter how he constructs these images for us to “see” as he does, this is not perfect. May stated that “I would like the viewer to really bring their own story to my images. I think that’s what most viewers do in art. Whatever their life story is and whatever their life experience is, they are going to be moved and drawn into the image or not. They may relate to it based on an entirely different set of circumstances that has nothing to do with me.” It is very insightful of him to realize that our own life experiences jade what we see and how we appreciate an image. CBS may have influenced his creative vision, but in his mind “the images pretty much stand alone on their aesthetic value aside from Charles Bonnet Syndrome. ... the intent is to have an almost startling yet mesmerizing image in front of you because it is really what CBS sufferers have always described - startling, disturbing facial features. Some CBS sufferers describe more teeth, I describe more lips and eyes which are similar shapes and I don’t know why that is.”

In a sense, May had a journey both like and unlike the other photographers in this commentary. His journey was similar with the years of work and discovery for his artistic expression. He said: “during my recovery creating these digital images with glitch programs I had no conscious idea what I was creating. This was all subconscious. It wasn’t until 2015 (three years after I lost my vision in my first stroke) that I revisited that imagery and it became clear to me that those thousands of images formed the base of my apparitions. At that point I needed to get them out of a digital form and make them into an object and that’s where the cyanotype process came in.” Apparently May was always drawn to portraiture. Specifically to the portraiture of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the work of Danny Lyons and Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, but also the aesthetic and composition of Aaron Siskind.

These photographers were selected into the Top 50 of Photolucida’s Critical Mass 50 through exploration and experimentation of how best to help others visualize concepts or ideas they felt important. This group of five photographers have, through their images, invited the viewer to engage in the image and visit their own imaginations. Each defines their view of a relationship with the world and provides a platform for us to challenge our own. Sharing one’s view of our internal or external relationships clearly is an evolutionary process as these photographers demonstrate. It seems that the first images out of the box, so to speak, are not always an end, but a beginning to a long journey. These artists worked again and again on their form of expression and visual communication with us, the viewer. In the end, we all benefit from the opportunity to study and engage with them through their art.

©2019 by J. Fredric May | All Rights Reserved