Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Maury Gortemiller in One One Thousand

Atlanta-based photographer Maury Gortemiller is the latest Southern photographer to be featured on One One Thousand, the webzine of Southern photography.  Maury has on offer a portfolio of color prints under the rubric All Time Lotion, some of which are on the One One Thousand website and more of which are to be found here, on his website.

Maury has his MFA from the University of Georgia, another sign that Georgia's MFA photography program is one of the major ones in the South.

I must admit I had to think about this work for a while before I got the hang of it. Some of Maury's images seem at first glance to be under-imagined or under-thought, or just odd or even off-putting, at least to me.

I'm not sure that I see immediately, for example, why I'm interested in a list of colors that one might paint a muscle car. Or, for that matter, a picture of a list of colors that someone presumably once considered painting a muscle car. Especially when (though one can't tell from the presentation of this material on One One Thousand) its likely, if the presentation of this image follows the current practice, that this image would be printed at at least 2x3 feet, or larger.

So I read his Artist's Statement, which told me that he hopes in these images "to investigate fully Robert Storr's notion of the estrangement of the photograph, the medium's capability to depict persons and objects in such a way that transforms context and intention." Then I considered that maybe I wasn't getting it because I haven't been to MFA School and learned to look or shoot or think this way. 

See, OK, we've got insider knowledge here (who's Robert Storr and why is he having notions?), we've got "the medium" (OK, presumably photography) doing estrangement or other stuff to people and objects (are the people referred to here the photographer, the people in the image, or the people looking at the image?) "in such a way that transforms context and intention."

Is that the context in the frame, or the context of the photographer making the image, or the photographer choosing this image among many, or the photographer talking about the image in this discourse? Or any of the many many contexts in which the image might be seen, or seen by all the possible viewers? And, whose intention? the shooter, the posers in the image who have some say in how they present themselves, or the intention of the people who bring this work to us, whether its a gallery or the folks at One One Thousand, who make it possible for us to view, and to experience, and to construe, and to construct meaning from this work?

But then I saw this image and I knew where I was.

The brocade upholstered furniture and the pink-and-green print skirt and the talking hands -- that made sense. My aunt used to wear a dress just like that, and she had a chair upholstered in a very similar fabric, though it was green instead of gold, and she and her friends liked to talk with their hands when they wore dresses like this one and gathered in rooms like this with brocade chair upholstery. 

So, in other words, I found an image for which I had a context and I was able to make a connection and appreciate the experience of this way of seeing into such a context. But I've never had a muscle car, nor have I ever wanted to paint one. Well, I did own a '67 Camaro once, but I ordered it in navy blue and I was always happy with that color.

So, with the beginning of a (very personal) context in place, I go back to this work, and the more I looked at each image, the more engaged I got, but for different reasons, each time. For example, this image really engages me because I wonder how the light beam got split into so many different beams, going off at different angles.

Or this one, which is a damn fine photograph, regardless of anything else, because I find it intriguing and engaging and I'm arrested in my looking to look deeper and notice new stuff and to wonder new things about what it might (or might not) be about.

So the more I looked, the more engaged I became and (who knows) maybe my context and intention were estranged or transformed in the process. It may even be that when I've looked some more I'll appreciate the photo of the list of colors. There is, at least, a sub-group of these images that is about cars, and perhaps they will all work together for me, with time.

But the photograph of the hind quarters of the dog who looks like he's having an exceptionally bad day is still Too Much Information for me.

Check this work out and let me know what you think.

PS. I think if I am going to comment on Artist's Statements, I ought to open mine for comment as well. If you go here, you will find that I won First Prize in a juried show at ArtSceneToday.com, and you can see some of my work and an Artist's Statement about the work, and you can write me to say what you make of it.

PPS. Turns out that Robert Storr is the Dean of the Yale School of Art (silly me for not knowing!), and I found a really interesting interview with him on line in which he says, among other things, that "the process of making art is fundamentally different from the process of writing theory." And here's something else he said in the interview that I think is really helpful:

"It’s always nice to be a coming attraction, but it’s murder to be a has-been. If it hasn’t happened for you yet, you can at least console yourself with the idea that it might. It’s a fashionable world and even good artists go out of fashion. If you’ve never really thought about what you’re going to do when you go out of fashion because you’ve never been out of fashion, it’s much harder to take than if you’ve gradually come into your own, gotten through difficult times and know that you can survive."

PPPS. This work raises another question, which is, is the experience of a portfolio an experience of a group of images in a certain arrangement or order, or is a photograph first an image on its own, and only then a part of a larger group? In other words, should every image in a portfolio be able to stand alone, on its own terms, or is it OK when assembling a portfolio to include images that are weak on their own, but which set up interesting conversations when surrounded by the other images in the portfolio?


  1. John,

    Thanks, as always, for this excellent and thorough piece on Maury Gortemiller's "All-Time Lotion," and for your support for One, One Thousand. Like you wrote, these photographs might require a bit of time to gestate before they bloom.

    Admittedly, I've never loved artist statements that necessitate a university degree to fully understand. As a complete package, though, I believe Maury's photographs and statement work very well. He's certainly creating art through an academic perspective, and this project is heavy on theory. Hopefully, this doesn't turn too many viewers away because the rewards earned from struggling with this work can be great.

    The creation of art paired with eventual exhibition usually implies a conversation between artist, work, and viewer. Take or leave all of the theoretical jargon, Maury acts both proactively and successfully in starting this conversation. In many ways, the photographs in "All-Time Lotion" are about how and why we look at photographs. After public exhibition, they also inevitably become about the discussions surrounding those difficult topics.

    Speaking only personally now (as both a photographer and editor), I look at photographs every day. I look and look and look, and sometimes I forget why I look at all. I find myself speeding through groups of photographs, and I know that I'm no longer viewing them properly. I'm no longer offering them the slow and careful consideration many of them may deserve. As a society, we take great measures to train ourselves to talk or taste more effectively-- I believe looking should be no different. Maury's photographs serve as a reminder that viewers should (must?) actively engage with the work/world in front of them.

    Some of these photographs may not be standouts. Strangely, I don't know if I would look quite as long or as hard at them if that weren't the case. I do know that these photographs force me to look longer and better than I sometimes do-- and that's always a good thing.

  2. Daniel, thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful comments. We both occupy the complex position of being practitioners and evaluators of photography at the same time.

    This is a precarious position to inhabit and it calls for perspective on one's own process of viewing as well as one's aspirations to making work that is viewed, and viewed with favor.

    So I'm grateful for your thoughts about the process of reviewing and choosing images. I fully agree with you that art "implies a conversation between artist, work, and viewer." I also agree that Maury's work promotes such a conversation. But I think that what you say of his work, that it is "about how and why we look at photographs," is true of all good photographs, as is the way images in some sense become "about the discussions" they provoke.

    That's another way of saying that we are maaning-making creatures and that meaning is both individually and socially constructed as the result of ongoing and complex interactions among artist, work, individual viewer, and the social world of experience, in which there are many groups and values and needs.

    I've heard that in major competitions reviewers go through literally hundreds, even thousands of images very quickly, which privileges images that arrest the eye, either through novelty or shock or graphic force.

    This means that work can get overlooked that is more reflective, that reveals its complexity and depth through repeated viewing rather than through superficial scanning.

    I'm certainly no stranger to aesthetic theory, since my day job is to be a Professor of English Literature. I do think that experience is first, and that the value of reflection on ways of experiencing lies in its ability to inform, deepen, and enrich
    that experience.

    That means that as a viewer I am a humanist rather than a classicist, that I respond to work that engages me both aesthetically and emotionally rather than work that fulfills preconceived notions of what constitutes Art.

    I do get concerned, as a result, when I think that the language of reflection on experience (call it Theory) gets in the way of that experience, or creates a coterie of viewers for whom work is important because it seems to confirm this or that theory of what art is.

    I think Maury fell into that with both his choice of some of his images in this portfolio and his way of talking about them. I think its a common risk for folks who go through professional formation as artists in an academic setting. That's why I found it reassuring that the person whose name he presents as a kind of talisman in his Artist's Statement (Robert Storr, a quintessential academic arts person) recognizes, in the broader world of the visual arts, that practice and theory actually have a pretty tenuous connection.

    The good news is that Maury's artistic practice is substantially more complex and mature than his grasp of the language of aesthetic theory, and fully justifies your inclusion of his work in your blog. I have learned a lot for looking at it.

    We've so far skipped consideration of what makes Maury's work Southern, a conversation to start, perhaps, with the choice of subject matter in flower-printed linen dresses and brocade upholstery and muscle cars and dogs. But that may be a subject for another day.