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Hamptons Life

Aug 11, 2017 6:09 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Photographer Puts Books In Focus

Aug 13, 2017 11:25 AM

Books have become a muse for photographer Mary Ellen Bartley. She’s been photographing them since 2009.

Like any great artist, her work is constantly evolving, and each series is rendered differently. “One thing leads to another,” she said. “Go in any direction. It’s never going to dry up.”

Her latest project, “Reading Grey Gardens,” opens at the Drawing Room in East Hampton on September 9. The idea came after reading “A Rare Look Inside the Library at Grey Gardens” by Lesley M.M. Blume in the March 16, 2017, edition of the Paris Review. “I was actually shaking, I was so excited,” Ms. Bartley said, adding that she had one thought: “How am I ever going to get in there?”

Sally Quinn famously bought Grey Gardens, the former home of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale. The two eccentrics were the subjects of the classic 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” by the Maysles brothers, which inspired another movie and a play, at a minimum.

Ms. Quinn allowed Ms. Bartley access to the library, via her real estate agent, to photograph the book collection that originally belonged to Big Edie and Little Edie, who would have been 100 years old this November.

The books were not terribly literary: Many of them are remnants of their high social standing, and self-help books. Theirs was a riches-to-rags story, and it’s amazing that the books have survived at all, given the dilapidated state of the home while they lived there.

“It’s pretty profound, how their lives changed,” said Ms. Bartley, who acknowledges that the subject holds a broader interest than previous projects.

“Reading Grey Gardens” is Ms. Bartley’s fourth library series. The first library she worked in was at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. When she first enters the libraries, it’s always the same tentative feeling, finding her way around. “Then, something happens, and you feel a connection to the collection.”

She gets to know the light and bounces around the space until there is a familiarity. In about two weeks’ time, she’ll know where the different books are and physically feel comfortable with her subjects.

At Watermill Center, the bookmarks and Post-it stamps stood out to her: “That was the unique thing I found there.”

The second library was the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester. There, she found touching the books a profound experience.

“Feeling weight and texture becomes important to me,” she said. “I started rubbing the books with graphite.” The inverted, positive-negative aspect appealed to her, as did the photo-related books themselves. She photographed the rubbings, “meant to suggest the uncertain future of the physical book and the photographic print,” she wrote in “The Tactile Eye,” the chapbook she made to culminate that project.

The Reanimation Library, the collection of artist and librarian Andrew Beccone, currently housed in the Studio Wing of the Queens Museum, was her third library project. “I always research unique libraries,” she said. From January to April of this year, she went in and began where she left off in her last series—with a rubbing.

At first, it was frustrating, because the books were on the campy side, and she is more minimalist. On top of that, there were no windows in the studio, and the artificial light was casting shadows.

Her “aha” moment came when she spotted a copy machine. “They’re almost as obsolete as libraries,” she said.

She played around, sticking books on the machine. By focusing on the decorative end papers and dust jackets, the images generated by the copy machine had a unique quality. Then she took photos of the images to make them bigger, which also added layers of light.

“I love the way it looks like a drawing,” she said, pulling a photo out of a box and placing it on her dining room table.

Ms. Bartley began photographing books in her own library, using her bedroom’s north light. She stacked paperbacks in the same spot over the years, creating her first book series of creamy white images with soft shadows. She scored two solo shows and sold a lot of photographs, which she consciously crafted to look more like paintings and drawings—photographs don’t always have to look like a piece of cinema.

After stacking paperbacks, she stood books upright, specifically art books, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Seascapes,” with pages open at varying degrees, to get a peek inside. Shadow, light, color and geometry are all very important components of her work.

Working with winter light, the palette of her “blue book series” swung in the opposite direction, a reaction to her otherworldly whites. The work is still minimal, but she explored the intrinsic quality of digital print on rag paper. “Just the right thing for this image,” she said, pointing to a print deeply saturated in dark blues. Several images look more like seascapes than books.

Instead of trying to simulate old-school technology of fiber-based silver paper using ink jet printers, she embraced the differences. The result was more of a silk screen image than an analog print. The photographer owns three printers and prints everything herself. “The way it’s printed is all very straight,” she said. “It’s not manipulated or changed.”

It was a cold and rainy spring at Grey Gardens. As usual, it took a while to get comfortable. First, she made stacks with their faded spines facing out. The photographs were “unusual and pretty” but not what she was looking for.

Little Edie’s drawings captured her attention, too, but it wasn’t until she placed a book on a gray museum box in the overcast light of the sunroom that she found her groove.

The pigment of cloth reinforced the pigment of the cover underneath, giving the images a velvety, suede-like feel, and the right treatment of the subject. The flat light makes each book appear to be hovering. It’s hard to tell if they are coming forward or retreating. “A sunny table would have made a completely different picture,” she said.

“These books have so much going on,” she told herself. “I just need to step back and keep things the same and do it as a topography.”

The result is not only a record of the library, but a portrait of a family.

The characters of Big and Little Edie have struck a nerve with the world and will continue to capture the imagination of popular culture for decades to come—but their books won’t last much longer.

“The story is about documenting the presence of those things and what roles they played,” Ms. Bartley said. “You can’t draw any truth or conclusions.”

Just stories spinning out of stories.

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