While essentially cameraless, Aspen Mays’s work is an uncommonly philosophical meditation on the spirit of photography. Through investigations of the materiality of photo paper and its interactions with light, Mays brings a deeply tactile quality to a medium that’s better known for emphasizing surface and image.
For example, the bandanna, an object that’s commonly handled and worn, was the surprising focus of a body of work exhibited at Higher Pictures in 2016. Actually, it was two bandannas that drove the project – Mays’s great grandmother’s, with a starburst pattern, and an indigo-dyed design owned by Georgia O’Keeffe. The textile inspiration provided an opportunity to engage in an extensive formal exploration of memory, photography, and a host of ancillary themes.
Many of the works involved Mays’s attempt to re-create the bandanna patterns from memory, poking holes in photo paper in the darkroom, then folding, in all manner that the actual object can be folded, and exposing the paper to make highly textured photograms. The resulting works are deceptively abstract patterns of dots, creases, and lines. The craft-based process took hours in the darkroom, testing the limits of the safelight on the paper, as well as the recollection of a family object that the artist felt she knew so well. “It was a really strange experience – being totally in the dark, and making a photograph that is entirely about touch and not about sight,” Mays says.
The series involves numerous attempts, using different variables, to make an accurate representation of an object. The hands-on processes invoke a host of conceptual implications. “There’s something that is so interesting about having to go into the dark to make pictures,” Mays says. “Memory and tactility are concepts that are so foreign to the idea of seeing, not to mention photographic seeing.” Similarly, repetition offers parallels to photographic practice. “I remade [the bandanna] so many times. The more duplicates I made, the closer to the original I felt I got. In photography, there’s often the thought that duplicates take us further away from the original.”
Mays, who is an assistant professor at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts, reveres the deep dive into a subject. “The research part is one of the most joyful aspects for me,” she says, noting that the project led her to consult historians at Levi’s, who offered Mays the opportunity to dye photograms at their San Francisco research lab, a process that emulated the look of cyanotype. “I love that parallel to the idea of how if you expose something in the darkroom over and over,” she says, “the darker and richer it will become.”