Jonathan Bailey  
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Talk Given at Art New England Workshops (Bennington College)
Summer 2001



Tonight we will surf through a large group of images – 20 years work in 20 minutes…

The core of what I’m exhibiting these days – and perhaps that which I’m best known for – are photographs which were made with a $2 plastic “Diana” camera. All of what I am exhibiting - and most of the images seen here tonight - are black and white photographs which have been chemically toned – “split-toned” utilizing numerous gold-based toning formulae which date from the late 19th century.

With both the camera and with the subsequent toning, “you get what you get.” I’m no longer interested in being in complete control of this medium. Serendipity is an important part of my process; working more intuitively and side-stepping willfully intended results is what keeps me interested…. My interest is in photography is not in making a document, but in serving an image.

Some personal background:

I was born and raised in VT – moved to ME in 1977 – I am a self-taught photographer –

My formal training in photography amounts to one intro photography course while in college – although I’ve been very lucky with the teachers with whom I have had at least occasional contact.

I‘ve generally paid my monthly bills through means other than photographic - in part, to keep my photography unencumbered from financial pressures. I think this has served both the images and me very well.

I’ve not avoided commercial photography as being polluting or distasteful, it’s simply that other means of income came a lot easier to me for a variety of reasons.

Begin the slides:

My formal negative file begins in 1974.

These images date from about 1976 when I was working with an 8x10 view camera almost exclusively. The 8x10 is a great tool to get your photographic chops down – it is the ultimate in control with every single negative being exposed and processed individually.

These images will give you a sense of what I was doing while waiting to see what my images might look like…. (although I certainly didn’t understand this at the time)

I think it’s possible the first 10 years or so of an artist’s working life are essentially spent finding out what a chosen medium might want from him or her. It establishes a relationship.

Some of these images still hold interest for me today, and I have even worked them through some of the toners I’m currently using.


This work is from an exhibition in 1981.

I confess I’ve rarely been completely satisfied with “straight” black and white (gelatin silver) photography.

Over the past 25 years I’ve employed numerous devices to extend the dialogue with my images: I have gathered them into handmade books, collaged them, grouped them together onto mats, and even made paintings with them or based upon them.

What I have endeavored to do is make each step in the photographic process another beginning point – to establish and maintain a dialogue with an image. My most recent fascination – ongoing since the early ‘90’s – is with toning, most particularly split-toning.

The HUNTINGTON HOTEL (Burlington, VT) - A documentation project:

I told you I’ve been lucky in the people I’ve had as teachers. Sometimes an artist will work in a teacher’s mode of working to more completely understand the connection.

This is a legitimate and important thing to do. It may also be an important thing to stop doing….

The one teacher I had in college worked/ works in what we might call a documentary or journalistic style.

I lived in this former bus-station hotel (it was a whore-house when I was growing up) one winter while staying and working in Burlington (Vermont is still preferable to Maine in the winter!). I decided before leaving for Maine in the spring I would try to photograph as many of the residents in their rooms as possible…. I used a 4x5 Crown Graphic fitted with a super wide-angle lens (a schneider Super-Angulon) and a single bare-bulb flash. I made two - and only two exposures – for each of the 32 portraits I was able to make (there were 50 rooms total).

I exhibited these images, with text consisting of the person’s name, their room number and a short one-line comment – something they said to me - or, a simple observation I made from the very short time I was in the rooms. The building manager kindly kept a room vacant for one week, and we hung an informal exhibition before I departed the hotel.

In 1982 I came upon a unique opportunity of a different sort….

The LOBSTERING photographs:

I have walked away from photography several times over the years - not willfully or out of frustration, but simply because other concerns came into the foreground and demanded my attention. These other concerns I’ve pursued with the same enthusiasm and passion I feel for photography. For example, Jane and I spent five years on the water fishing 600 lobster traps out of Tenants Harbor. I also have an abiding interest in wine – and I have traveled and studied extensively for many years in order to scratch that itch. I even make 600 bottles of wine a year myself….

I’ve come to a place where I feel quite strongly that the medium we most need to attend to is the time that we have.

And whatever we find ourselves doing, it’s critically important to give it our full and heartfelt consent. The photographer Frederick Sommer had alot to say about the power of consent.

It was Fred who first made me aware that it is the consent we give to the activities in our day that matters - the particulars are secondary. Making art is not such a privileged condition! No one activity in our day has more legitimacy than another.

Consent is closely related to acceptance. I’ve discovered that living life in acceptance requires much more courage than living from a place of anger and negation….


When I stopped fishing I decided to take stock photographically and do a review of my negative file.

While I was fishing, I was also waiting tables – and one of my co-workers was a collector and dealer of 19th century photography. Over the years he provided me the history of photography course I never had in college. This years-long on-going conversation was done with the actual images.

And therein lies something critical: I came to appreciate just how important the photographic object was – and also how critically important it is for process and image to “marry.” The antique images intimately intertwine image and process. There is a sense of inevitability when an image is coupled successfully with the “right” process.

I’d been thinking I’d try to print the Diana images in some historic process - like albumen, gum or platinum. I knew I wanted to bring to my photographs some of the soulfulness I felt from the antique images.

I was in search of something for which my images seemed to be asking - something I thought I understood - but I was delivered to something that took some time to fully appreciate.

At this point I would like to simply let these images scroll across the screen while I share some thoughts with you…. At the end of this group of Diana images is another a body of work in which I have matched the toned images into unusual found frames – putting the image and frame into direct dialogue. You may recall I try to use each new result as a further point of departure….

Vision is always ahead of understanding…. Clarity, if it comes at all, is a luxury of hindsight….

If we are truly engaged in something new, there is no possibility of understanding or appreciating the act at the time. Making art is an act of faith. One must learn to trust the materials and the processes.

The idea that art is self-expression is propaganda. Images come not from us, but through us…. That’s what I mean when I say we must learn what the medium wants from us – we’re learning to personally get out of the way to better cooperate with the process. But this is not a new idea – authors speak of their characters writing themselves, various sculptors’ talk of allowing the materials to reveal the form “inside.” Even winemakers speak in similar terms about winemaking.

After more than 25 years of photography I am delighted to simply bear witness to the images. I have come to consider myself a midwife in the image making process.

Towards that end, I’ve come to prefer the use of tools and processes over which I can exert only limited control. This allows the medium itself a greater voice in the process.

To embellish on something Fred Sommer once said about photography and memory: Photography is inextricably linked to memory: Both are selective. Both are an alchemy over time. And both are factual – but not necessarily truthful.

Sommer says that photography sets up a privileged condition outside the flow of time and events. He points out that photography is reality – but it’s a photographic one.

So, there is only an indirect and casual relationship between a thing seen and a photograph of a thing seen. Photography is about transformation…. It is an alchemy where something ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary or precious….

Vision is organic – vision is a relationship with the world around us.

Our world is not an inert backdrop against which we play out the little dramas of our lives; it is not a “me inside here, and a world outside there.”

The imagination sees not with the eyes, but with the heart. James Hillman says, “Imagination - the ability to see things as images - is a function of the heart… – is a function of an awakened heart….”

Photography it is at something of a crossroads right now - especially with the advent of digital imaging, which is forcing a reevaluation of the medium. This reevaluation is remarkably similar to the one which painting faced when photography first came along 160 years ago – when painting was freed from its role as the primary arbiter of reality. Photography left the medium of painting free to explore itself in its own right.

There is a large and growing number of contemporary photographers who are practicing their craft with much the same open curiosity and with the same experimental and inventive spirit which prevailed in photography’s first 50 years of existence. Artists who understand that photography’s future lies in the heart of photography’s earliest past….

The Writings