Kathryn Mayo’s work was one of the 2019 Rfotofolio Selections. We are pleased to share her work and words.
“Powerful portraiture related to an important city in American history. The artist mastered truly daunting technical challenges with courage and tenacity and an innovative approach. This will stand as historical documents in years to come.”Brian Taylor
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a photography professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, California where I teach a range of classes from beginning black and white film to large format photography, studio lighting and alternative photographic processes. In my personal work, I specialize in historic and alternative photographic processes and am excited to pass on my enthusiasm to my students each semester.
I am originally from central Alabama where I was raised on a soybean, cattle and cotton farm which is now operated as a paper pulp tree farm. I moved from New Orleans to California in 2001.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I didn’t have much exposure to traditional art or photographs before attending college. Coming from a small rural community, there weren’t very many chances to see art or fully formulate ideas about what fine art photography could be. Art classes weren’t usually offered at the schools I attended.
When I went to college, I had an opportunity to make up for lost time. I attended the University of Alabama and studied art photography under Gay Burke, who was known as the “mother of Alabama Art Photography.” Gay had an extremely impactful influence on both how I saw myself as a person and my development as an artist. She encouraged me continually push myself artistically and to constantly explore what was uncomfortable to me at the time. I don’t think I would be the artist or teacher I am today without having her in my life.
After earning a BFA at the University of Alabama, I went on to get my Master of Fine Arts degree from Tulane University in New Orleans where I was exposed to the work of New Orleans artists like Josephine Sacabo and Richard Sexton.
Why do you create?
I think, for me, creating is something that is rather compulsive…it is a part of my existence and is as natural as breathing or thinking. I try to create something every day, even if it’s a small craft and doesn’t relate to photography. If I’m not able to physically make something, I am thinking about what I can create and daydreaming about what I can make. I love being able to think of an idea and bring that idea to fruition, either through photographic capture or other means.
Growing up, I saw many of my family members engage in creative endeavors and I think this was something that sparked my creativity from a young age. My father expressed himself creatively through taxidermy and my mother liked to play guitar, draw and make things. My grandmother was extremely creative and taught me how to make homemade clay and always had paints and paper on hand. I don’t think I’ve ever been bored a moment in my life and that certainly came from her influence.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
My college photography professor Gay Burke opened the door to my creative process, teaching me to allow the “art of the accidental” to enter into my work. She encouraged me to touch and alter my darkroom prints and to work with images after they made it safely out of the darkroom. I learned to love the “happy accident” and not to treat my photographs like they were made of something so precious that they couldn’t be printed again if needed. It was in her program that I learned the value of experimentation.
Gay had a vast photography book collection and it was culling through her books that I was drawn into world of Pictorialist photographers like F. Holland Day, Robert Demachy and the art photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. I loved the tactile, layered and painterly quality of Demachy’s work and the fleeting beauty of Cameron’s portraits. Julia Margaret Cameron’s scattered focus and soft touch with her images resonated powerfully with me and I was drawn into her world of staged and constructed tableaux. The Pictorialists were like gateway artists that opened my eyes to the many photographic possibilities that existed. To have a teacher encourage me to stop and to just…look…that was such a gift.
Since 2004, I have been married to Doug Winter, a freelance editorial and fine art photographer. We have a truly creatively collaborative relationship and have worked on many projects together. We complement each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s weaknesses. Being able to bounce ideas off of each other is something that I look forward to almost every day. We feed off of each other creatively and are each other’s greatest champion. He has supported me every step of my creative journey since we’ve known each other.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
The first art I truly remember experiencing was a book of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. My mother gave me his book, The Helga Pictures for Christmas when I was twelve. It’s a pretty mature book for a twelve year old to receive, but the imagery fascinated me and the focus on the female form captivated me. The idea that he could produce such an incredibly nuanced body of work which was almost entirely done in secrecy just blew my mind.
I was especially captivated with a painting from that series, Barracoon. The composition and the quality of light in the painting are both extremely photographic. The way Wyeth addresses the delicacy of Helga’s skin in the image is truly breathtaking. I love the line of ephemeral and tangled wire that travels above the model’s body as it contrasts against the stormily moody ombre wall, creating a nod to topographical maps and the individual journey a unique life might take.
The painting captivated me as a twelve year old and it still captivates me today. Barracoon lives on as two images really, because Wyeth painted a later version of it where he repainted his model Helga Testorf as an African American woman. The power that identity holds in imagery and the duality of identity that the two paintings touch on mirror the complex identities that we as humans all strive to balance each day. This play with identity and emphasis on place is something that has resonated with me over the years and continues to pop up in my work.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
In 2017, I had the incredible opportunity to photograph Rev. Frederick Douglas (F.D) Reese. Dr. Reese, who was both an educator and minister, was also a member of my hometown of Selma, Alabama and participated in my large scale project, We Are Selma: The Selma Portrait Project.
Dr. Reese played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama in the mid 1960’s. At that time he was president of the Dallas County Voters League when they invited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma to help bring awareness to the local voting rights campaign. Probably too simply stated, this culminated in the Selma to Montgomery marches which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. If you look at pictures of Dr. King marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you will see the very tall Dr. Reese marching alongside Dr. King’s left side.
Meeting Dr. Reese was an incredible experience and one I shall never forget. He was kind and gentle, relatable and so very personable.
In our session, I was fortunate to be able to capture two 11 X 14″ ambrotypes.
After I photographed him, I interviewed him about his experiences in Selma. I desperately wanted to ask him about his involvement with the Selma to Montgomery marches, but each time I prodded him about his involvement in the planning and implementation of the marches, he gently brought the conversation back to teaching and what it meant to him to be a teacher, something he was immensely proud of and saw as having a profound impact on many. I realized how important this role of teacher was to his life and how it must have helped to inform his actions as leader of the Dallas County Voter’s League. Dr. Reese was truly was a humble man with an incredible presence. I never thought I would have the opportunity to photograph him, much less be able to connect with him as a fellow teacher.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
Any day that I can allow my imagination to wander is a good, creative day. Any day that I can take the time to experiment is a good, creative day. Any day that I can have the freedom to make mistakes is a wonderfully, good day. Any day that I have the wiggle room to reflect helps to make the perfect day.
A creative day can be so many things to me–a trip in the car where I can allow my mind to wander is something I look forward to. A conversation with my husband about what we’ve observed, experienced or daydreamed about makes for an amazing day.
I think just being able to have the freedom, the space and the time to create is so very important and when I have those things, I almost always have a good day, creatively speaking.
Please tell us about the work you submitted for the Rfotofolio Call.
The project began as a means to investigate my own beginnings as a creative person, but became much bigger as it developed. We Are Selma: The Selma Portrait Project looks at the connection between home and identity through imagery and storytelling. Residents of my hometown of Selma, Alabama were photographed using the wet plate collodion ambrotype process (each 11 X 14″) while audio recordings of their experiences were also captured.
The project highlights Selma’s extremely complicated past as a pivotal placeholder in the rich history of the civil rights movement and Selma’s current day quest to move forward amongst such complex burdens. The slowness of the collodion process and the collaborative nature of the work honors the cultural currency of areas and cultures where communication is both key to unification and fodder for misunderstanding.
The highly reflective quality of the glass plates allow the viewer to see themselves in each portrait, bringing to mind questions of personal responsibility, obligation and accountability, allowing both the sitter and viewer to see themselves as “ancestor” contemplating their own legacy.
If anyone is interested in hearing audio from participants, they are welcome to visit, We are Selma.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
I would love to spend a day with E. J. Bellocq, an early 20th century photographer from New Orleans. Bellocq was a photographer who photographed professionally mostly mundane subjects like machinery and ships. In secrecy, he photographed prostitutes and madams who lived in the Storyville or Red Light district of New Orleans. After his death in 1949, glass plates of his Storyville images were found, then later purchased by Lee Friedlander. Bellocq’s images are not only fascinating, but absolutely enchanting and even mysterious in some ways as some of his subject’s faces are completely scratched out. You get a sense of environment when looking at his plates and each subject is wholly connected to the environment in which they are portrayed. I love how the edges and seams of his backdrops can be seen and how the sometimes makeshift “studio” environment is revealed.
Many of these photographs were probably never seen in print form during Bellocq’s life, having only come to the public consciousness after Friedlander printed them in the 1970’s. The second life the images have developed over time has continued to fascinated me. Bellocq was notoriously private, a bit of a hermit and was known to be cantankerous. I’m not sure if I’d want to have a conversation with him, but I’d love to follow him around for a day and observe him as a fly on the wall might watch unpredictable drama unfold in a room. I want to know how he was able to shed his shell and perhaps connect with his subjects. Did they see him for the artist he was or was he just tolerated as a young child might be around a room full of adults?
Perhaps my fascination with Andrew Wyeth’s secret Helga body of work bleeds into my fascination with a photographer like Bellocq who created an entire body of work mostly in secrecy. I love that parts of his imagery, often the identity of the sitter whose face is sometimes obstructed and removed, will always be a mystery.
How important is the photographic community to you?
Photography and the photographic community has given me so many things in life…confidence, identity and a purpose. Over the years, I have come to find that photography is as important to me as breathing. It helps me connect with people I might never have had the opportunity to connect with and can help build bridges and break down divides between people.
I have seen firsthand how photography helps to dispel stereotypes and foster a deeper understanding of diverse cultures. Part of my connection with the photographic community is through teaching–teaching photography allows me to spread my passion for imagery and connect with a broader audience, building the next generation of image makers and image viewers. Plus, I just love people!
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
I work with a wide range of equipment from my camera phone and DSLR to a handmade pinhole cameras, my husband’s 2 1/4 Bronica (which was also his father’s) to a variety of view cameras.
My most beloved camera and the one that has been most useful to me over the last few years is my Chamonix 14 X 17″ ultra large format view camera with a film back and a plate back specifically designed for wet plate use. I use it primarily to create large wet plate collodion ambrotypes. It is fairly lightweight and is surprisingly easy to use. I stabilize it with a vintage Century studio stand that allows me to move the camera quickly up or down as well as tilt if needed. I have some lovely brass Petzval lenses that I use with the camera, my favorite being a “no-name” Petzval from the 1860’s.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I’ve been so fortunate to be able to try so many things in photography! As a teacher, I am constantly experimenting with new things to see if I think it would be feasible with a class. Sometimes they work and I am able to investigate a process or technique a little more deeply than I normally would be able to. I’ve discovered processes like lumens, chemigrams and chemilumens this way.
I’ve always wanted to learn the Mordancage process and would be over the moon if I were able to attend a workshop one day with Elizabeth Opalenik. Her imagery is absolutely beautiful and the process fascinates me! It feeds right into my need to touch and manipulate a photograph!
Whats on the horizon?
I am traveling back to Alabama to do some testing for a new project I am hoping to begin working on this summer. I’m thinking about using some very low brow technology like pinhole cameras and even cameraless techniques to capture more of the Dallas County area where I grew up. I have always traveled home to Alabama to work on larger bodies of work and this project is something I am excited about and interested to see how it develops.
I never really know just how a body of work will develop until I am knee deep in it. I think I tend to jump head first into the imagery and have to dig my way out to finally be able to take a look at the project in its entirety. I am always excited to begin a new project and am thankful to have the opportunity in the summers and holidays to really spend some time experimenting and developing ideas.
To learn more about the work of Kathryn Mayo please click on her name.
“Fascinating background to these illustrative portraits. Beautiful work” Yvette Metzler
“Truly beautiful portraits!” Stan Klimek