Mary Ellen Bartley

Mary Ellen Bartley

Zibby is joined by photographer Mary Ellen Bartley to talk about her work, most notably her “Reading” series. The two share the story of when they connected, how Mary Ellen constructs her images, and where fans can purchase her work. For book lovers who want to see her amazing images in person, she has a show from May 20th to June 20th at The Drawing Room in East Hampton, NY. More info here.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary Ellen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” This is a very exciting episode for me, a little bit different. Thank you for rolling with it and coming on my show.

Mary Ellen Bartley: It’s so fun. I think your energy is awesome. Since I’ve met you, I’ve just been exploring your whole world and where we intersect. It’s really, really cool.

Zibby: Amazing. For listeners, let me just tell you this story. I can’t even remember how I found your photographs originally. I’m trying to remember. I feel like they were maybe in The Drawing Room in East Hampton.

Mary Ellen: No. Maybe Yancey Richardson in Chelsea.

Zibby: Well, anyway, I saw them in some gallery. All of your work that I have fallen in love with is about books, stacks of books, stacks of white books, which is what I ended up buying, stacks of colored books now. You treat books as an artistic artifact, everything from the spines to the pages, inside, outside. You make it into this gorgeous visual thing. I, of course, fell in love with these as I am such a huge book lover. I fell in love with your photos. Then we started reaching out, talking to each other in Instagram, as we do in this day and age. Then I was so lucky to get a chance to meet you in person just a few weeks ago. It’s such a full-circle, awesome moment to see the person. When you look at a photo, it’s sort of like a book, you don’t know, necessarily much about the person.

Mary Ellen: It’s so fun. I think you had posted something and said, “I love these photographs. I’m not sure who made them. They’re in my house. I look at them every day.” Then someone else wrote, “That’s Mary Ellen Bartley.” I got some kind of hashtag alert. That’s how we connected. Then to do it in real life was really cool. We met in Sag Harbor. I had a ton of work up. I had a residency at The Church in Sag Harbor. You saw a lot all at once.

Zibby: I was overwhelmed. I was in heaven. I feel like I could live in a room just surrounded by your work. It’s truly amazing. I don’t in any way want to put you on the spot. I love books so much. Do you also love books?

Mary Ellen: You’re a writer. You come from such a different angle than I do. I originally started photographing books because I was searching for an object that I could return to again and again and arrange and make a very almost abstract still life. I love this painter, Giorgio Morandi. I’d actually learned of his work through books when I was in art school many, many moons ago. Then he had a big show at the Met in 2008, and I had really seen a lot of his work all at once. I said, I need to go and find my object that I’m going to maybe take a year to look at. That was my plan. I tried bottles and cans and things. They were just too domestic. They weren’t general enough for me. Then I saw this stack of books at a friend’s house. It had those remainder lines. No writers like to see those. The Strand used to always have bins of books with these remainder lines. Seeing a stack of books with two black lines, it just looked so intentional and sculptural. I started photographing these paperbacks. There was an entire world in there. I still return. What was that? Eleven years ago.

I’m still looking at this beautiful, quiet abstraction that I find by just stacking books and arranging them slowly and looking at them with natural light on them. That was the beginning. Then it’s sort of the gift that keeps giving. I’m always looking at books now. I just find new aspects to focus on. I collect the pulp fiction. The very bright books you saw, that was from The Strand. I had a foot surgery. I was living on 13th Street. When I could finally walk with my crutches, I would go to The Strand every night and find one or two really colorful paperbacks in the forty-eight-cent bin. I kept them for months and months. Then I finally started playing with them. I have a huge collection now of pulp fiction books. I’m always suppressing the content. That’s really one of the things I do. There’s something very campy, very interesting. Another artist would go in totally a different direction with the same material. I’m very interested in intentionally suppressing the content, the narrative, the noise, maybe. You know it’s there. You know what a book contains. I’m playing with that in making it a very calm, quiet composition or something that’s almost impenetrable yet has so much visual interest and engagement. It’s a different way to engage with a book, a book as an object.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. When you read for fun — the books that you love, do you ever feel tempted, from a content standpoint, to do something with those? Do you have a book you come back to? Not to ask you for a specific book. Books that you love, would you ever make a stack of those, or that goes against your whole theory?

Mary Ellen: It kind of goes against it unless there’s a poetic way to do it. I think of my work as almost tonal poems. They’re compositional and musical and more like poetry. There is text that sometimes comes in, but it’s very open-ended. It’s not like, I love that book. Don’t you love this paragraph? It’s not about that so much. It’s about playing with how to keep that open-ended, how to maybe have that idea but not spell it out. I did this whole series at Grey Gardens in East Hampton. I had access to the really faded, damaged books that were kept since The Beatles lived there. The house was going to be sold. I got in there. There, the titles, they kind of underscored or hinted at the entire fable of The Beatles, so I included the titles. I kept them very simple. I didn’t go into the campy aspect. That would’ve been too easy. It’s really not where I’m coming from. This was much more subtle and poignant. There were titles like This Bright Summer on a book that was ruined and faded and almost feral. There was another title was humorous but kind of sad, Release from Nervous Tension. It was a portrait of their library. Just to explain a little bit, I do two very different approaches when I do these books. One is, I collect books because of some trait that I find really interesting about them, like the white colors or the top stain of a hardcover book that happens to be in all sorts of interesting colors. Maybe it’s the — what’s it —

Zibby: — The end papers?

Mary Ellen: End papers, thank you. I did a whole series on that. I find all these different traits. The other thing I do is I go to libraries, specific libraries, and find my way. I say, how do I represent this library? What’s my way in? I have to be there and be in the place and come up with a strategy to photograph it and to show it and to make a project out of it. I’ve done a number of artist’s libraries, which I find super interesting because there’s more of a — often, visual artists. How do visual artists — what do they have? What are Jackson Pollock’s books? How might he have used them? I don’t want to spell it out like a historian might or make very definite conclusions. I want to keep it very much open and very much suggestive and very much about, wow, here’s this book that these artists held and referred to. It was part of their life. There’s all those things that, when I’m in a specific library, come into play. It’s a very different approach. It’s almost like doing an editorial assignment as opposed to just an abstract, in-my-studio composition. Those two things feed each other nicely.

Zibby: What would you do here? Can you see the books behind me?

Mary Ellen: You have a lot of color-coded bookshelves in there.

Zibby: They go all the way around.

Mary Ellen: I think I would make some big stacks of color with you.

Zibby: We may have to do that at some point. I feel like that would be so fun. What have you learned about the people who collect your work or who buy your photos? Do you know anything about them? Have you met them? Tell me about that.

Mary Ellen: That’s so interesting. As an artist, you make all this work. It goes out into the world. I don’t know much about it unless it’s an institution or a foundation where they then show the work and I have some connection to them. It’s just out there in someone’s living room, bathroom. Who knows? Just recently, actually — I try to make books of my book projects. I love this idea of a book of books. Ultimately, I would love to do that with every project. As you know, making a book takes just as much time as making the pictures, so I would need another year inside of every series. I seem to jump from one to the next. Someone says, you did Jackson Pollock. Now you should go and do Picasso. There’s all these connections that I’m always following. I would like to take the time to maybe collaborate with some bookmakers. I’ve done it. I think I have three now. One just was acquired by MoMA. I’m so excited.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing.

Mary Ellen: Guess where they found it?

Zibby: Where?

Mary Ellen: Instagram. How is that possible? It’s a crazy world that we make these really interesting connections, right?

Zibby: Yes.

Mary Ellen: You know all about the power of it. I’m much more of a dabbler. I don’t do it every day. It’s really interesting that my work can find its way into interesting places. I’m really grateful for it. It’s really a wonderful thing.

Zibby: Amazing. You should do one book with all your series, like a retrospective type, not everything, but a little bit from each one.

Mary Ellen: That could be interesting, seeing how they connect and how one thing leads to another. That sounds like a good book.

Zibby: I would buy that.

Mary Ellen: But would you publish it? That’s the hardest thing for artists.

Zibby: I know. Actually, I’ve been approached by a number of photographers. We just don’t do that type. We only do a couple books at Zibby Books. I could certainly help you. I could try to help you find somebody.

Mary Ellen: Let’s do it in all your free time, Zibby.

Zibby: I know. I know. I need a sideline photography business. I love photography, though, so it would be a joy. I did just meet this book packager the other day who says he does all the design and makes it. I just don’t know who then — then I guess you just sell it to one of the big — Taschen or one of those ones.

Mary Ellen: Honestly, most photographers pay for their own books. Then they’re distributed by D.A.P. and places. Hopefully, they make the money back. That’s kind of the state of art publishing now unless you’re an established — there’s a crossover or there’s some larger market. That’s another reason I sort of — little bit prohibitive.

Zibby: The thing about your work, though, is that even though it is great on Instagram — I think it’s particularly great versus other photographers, perhaps, because it’s so visually arresting. Each image, even on a small scale, translates very well. That wasn’t the right word. When I was there and could see all the photos in person, there is nothing like that. There’s something with the texture and seeing them up close that makes you stop in your tracks, which is hard to convey on a small scale.

Mary Ellen: My photographs don’t really look like photographs. Often, people are like, oh, I like your paintings. I work until I get some kind of transformation. Somehow, the print sings. It looks like the right kind of print for the project I’m doing. It does look sort of nonphotographic in a way because I’m trying to push it in different directions.

Zibby: If people want to research and buy your prints, the actual ones that you make yourself and all of that, they can go to your website,

Mary Ellen: I don’t sell directly at all. I sell through my galleries. There is gallery information there. I have a show coming up very soon. May 21st is opening at The Drawing Room in East Hampton.

Zibby: Oh, that’s why I was talking about The Drawing Room in East Hampton. I knew there was something that had to do with that.

Mary Ellen: That’ll be their first summer show.

Zibby: What about people who just love what you’re doing but maybe they can’t afford a whole print? Do you make posters or anything?

Mary Ellen: No, I don’t. I haven’t. Maybe a book would be good. I’m just doing the prints now. They’re a lot more affordable than paintings.

Zibby: That’s true. I really just wanted you to come on so that people would go check you out, follow you on Instagram, @MaryEllenBartley. Right? Is that right?

Mary Ellen: Yeah. What is it? @MaryEllen_Bartley.

Zibby: @MaryEllen_Bartley. If anyone is going to be out in the Hamptons — when does it close? May 21st until when?

Mary Ellen: May 21st to June 20th.

Zibby: June 20th. If you’re out in the Hamptons or you feel like making a road trip and checking out her work in person, you should go to The Drawing Room in East Hampton during that time. You’ll see what I mean about how beautiful they are. If nothing else, you’ll get a chance to admire books in a whole new way and follow another artist who is equally obsessed by books in a different way. Anything I’m forgetting that you’d like people to know about you?

Mary Ellen: I do have work up at Yancey — Yancey with a Y — Yancey Richardson gallery in Chelsea. There’s some work up on the wall there now. They usually have some work of mine in the gallery to see. That’s another way to see it in person.

Zibby: Yancey Richardson is a great gallery anyway. There’s always lots of cool stuff there. Less of a trek if you live in the city than going to the Hamptons.

Mary Ellen: .

Zibby: That’s true. Thank you. Thank you for just chatting with me more about your work. I hope that listeners find your work as amazing as I do. DM me if you’re listening, @ZibbyOwens on Instagram. Tell me if you also adore these photos because I really do. Thank you, Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen: Thanks, Zibby. See you on Instagram soon.

Zibby: See you on Instagram soon. Thank you.

Mary Ellen: Bye.

Mary Ellen Bartley

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