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Mary Ellen Bartley


Standing Open is a beguiling series of images. In a time marked by an exponential rise in the number of new photo books being published worldwide and a critical reappraisal of classic titles, Bartley’s singular gaze alights on the form of the photo book itself. Bathed in natural light, each book is shown nonchalantly fallen open to reveal glimpses of the photographic content inside. These seductive images remind us that encountering photographs in a physical book involves a particularly enjoyable combination of hand/eye movement, tactile experience, and private contemplation.

The aesthetic treatment Bartley deploys with each image matches the photography book in question. In Hiroshi Sugimoto, the artist’s seascapes fade to shadows inside the book as the floating page numbers take on a mysterious significance, together suggesting that each turn of the page will uncover new variations of water and sky. In The Long Now, the gentle curve of the open page mimics the folds of the curtain in Uta Barth’s image of bright sunlight through a window, with the shadow in the book’s gutter likewise mirroring the vertical shadow on the wall. In An Autobiography: Richard Avedon, the warping of the pages echoes the awkward bodily gestures and stiff postures of the subjects inside.

There is a discipline in how Bartley approaches the project. Each book is photographed in the same way, standing on its end with its pages separated, and the pictures are taken at close range so the resulting images appear to hover between abstraction and representation. Some images allude to the striped paintings from the Color Field movement of the 1960s, as typified by artists such as Bridget Riley and Gene Davis. Others, such as Sleeping by the Mississippi, play with our experience of two- and three-dimensional space, as if by opening the book, we enter the room itself where our eyes are immediately drawn to the portrait of the woman in the corner.

Standing Open makes a direct appeal to our senses. There is much visual delight to be found in the detail, color, and form of each image. The work also prompts us to consider how technological developments may have irrevocably changed the status and meaning of the photographic image, which is now most commonly experienced via a flickering screen rather than as a physical object in a gallery. Yet, as Bartley posits, in its analog form the book has its own highly specific presence in time and space. We hold the book open and turn the pages in order to reveal its visual content, an action that in some mysterious way enables us to recover something of the original “aura” and temporal multilayeredness of the photographic images inside.

David Drake, Director, Fotogallery, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom


Mary Ellen Bartley is an American artist known for her photographs that explore the tactile and formal qualities of the printed book and its potential for abstraction. Her work has been widely exhibited, including in solo shows at Yancey Richardson Gallery and The Drawing Room in New York and at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York, among others. Exhibitions exploring themes of the book and objects caught in transition from the analog to the digital realm, such as Well Read: Visual Explorations of the Book at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle and Out of Print at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in California, along with The Thing Itself at Yancey Richardson Gallery, have featured several of Bartley’s series.

The painter Ross Bleckner chose Bartley to exhibit her work alongside his at the Parrish Art Museum’s Artists Choose Artists exhibition in 2011, in Water Mill, New York.

Recognition includes being included on Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50 Photographers listing in 2011, 2012, and 2013; Bartley also received a first place International Photography Award in 2012 for her series Artists and Models. She was a Watermill Center 2015 Artist in Residence and spent a month creating the installation Reading Robert Wilson, followed by a “book of books” titled Reading Robert Wilson, which was shortlisted at Fotobookfestival Dummy Awards Kassel in 2015. Barley will be expanding her Standing Open series during her time as a visiting artist in the libraries of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, this spring.

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