J. Fredric May

J. Fredric May

I was prepared to sit down and write all about J. Fredric May, tell you his story here and now, and reflect on his ability to make you understand how it is that he sees the world. After some thought, I realize that I really shouldn’t do this at all - it would never do him justice. This is especially true once you know or hear the story behind his process. There is so much behind Jeff’s work that one would have no way of knowing it if you weren’t asking him directly or reading about it in a venue such as this. He currently concentrates on one body of work, presented here in part. The images are disjointed and fractured - they are portraits from a mind’s eye that see a world different from you or I. That’s all I need to tell you, really. Trust me, you’ll soon understand what I’m talking about.

So yea, I’m just going to sit here and read his words again, contemplate his photographs a little more, and absorb what he is showing. This is time well spent, and I can honestly say that this is exactly what it is when photographers say they are presenting you their vision. Jeff has quickly become one of my photographic heroes, and I have no qualms saying that I admire him, his struggle, his perseverance, his openness, and his ability to be a kickass individual. Read on.

Author’s Hallucination No. 3 “Les”

Bio -

A graduate of Brooks Institute, J. Fredric May received his B.S. in Commercial/Color Technology and was accepted into the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop in 1989.

He made his living as a photojournalist and commercial photographer traveling all over the world, telling visual stories with a signature style of bold color and confrontational composition. He won numerous state and regional honors. 
As a filmmaker, May directed more than 50 corporate and industrial films and helped raise more than 7 million dollars for non-profit organizations. He won Telly and Cine Awards for his creative film work and national awards for his corporate and nonprofit clients.

During open heart surgery to repair an aneurysm in 2012, May suffered a major stroke leaving him legally blind and subject to vivid visual hallucinations. This life event changed his artistic vision, opening up an entirely new visual style. From that style came May’s current project, Apparition: Postcards From Eye See You.

In 2017, May was awarded a “Top 50” and “Solo Show Award Winner” at Photolucida’s Critical Mass, LensCulture’s “Emerging Talent Top 50” and “Juror Award” and the 2018 Grand Prize Winner at FOCUS photo la. Because of that honor, May was chosen as a Special Presenter at “Open Show LA #45”. His work was a part of a two-person show at the USC Keck School of Medicine called, Compromised Perception, where he delivered an artist talk with the Chair of Neurology. His busy schedule also included solo shows at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon and The Center for Digital Arts in Santa Ana, CA. In July, the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida hosted him for a solo show and guest speaker on their medical panel.


Michael Kirchoff: Hello Jeff, and thank you for taking this time for an interview. Before we dive in deeper, I wanted to get some background on how and why you became a photographer. Why photography?

J. Fredric May: Hello Michael, and congratulations on Catalyst: Interviews. The question is why photography? Well, I am fairly certain my first exposure to photography was a Polaroid flashbulb in the summer of 1959.{pun} My grandfather was an early adopter of Polaroid cameras and film. It was also the beginning of the 1960s, where family events literally were Kodak Moments recorded on Kodak film, viewed as Kodak prints or Kodachrome slides and movies in the dark on a screen you had to set up. My father used an Argus C-3 with Kodachrome 64 and a hand held GE light meter well into the 1970s! I still have them. I purchased my first camera with money from picking tobacco during the summer of 1975, a Minolta SRT-101. I worked as a photographer on the yearbook staff with my now life long friend Robert Hodges. We were complete photo geeks and had a great time. I also started stringing sports assignments for our daily newspaper, The Kinston Daily Free Press. There I met photojournalist Charles Buchanan, who probably mentored me more than any single person in my career. Charles instilled in me the importance of standards and consistency in shooting film - and oh - to never use a stop bath with film. He was the first shooter I ever heard use the phrase “F8 and be there.” Wow, was I hooked! Sadly Charles passed away several years ago, but I always smile when I think about those days.

Author’s Hallucination No. 5 “Conner”


MK: You started your professional career as a photojournalist. What was that like, and did you find it creatively satisfying?

JFM: After graduating from Brooks Institute my first job was actually as a color printer. I had a minor in Color Technology. Later on, I began working part time at the Telegram Tribune in San Luis Obispo and then to full time at the Santa Maria Times. It was creatively satisfying to a point and was a great proving ground of self reliance for me. I estimated I had shot more than ten thousand assignments and drove 250,000 miles for daily newspapers in those years. From shooting ribbon cuttings and pet of the week to covering the Los Angeles riots in ’92 and an aid mission to a Russian hospital with American doctors in 1994, my assignments covered the spectrum of human events from the absurd to the profane. It was all film too. I can remember learning how to load 20 rolls of E-6 on 10 stainless steel reels for deadline while listening to three police scanners. My only regret was not keeping more of the original paper wire photos that were always ankle deep in the AP/UPI wire rooms. They are very collectible now. I see them for sale at AIPAD. I saved seven fairly famous wire photos from anniversary/memorial event re-transmissions, but I really I wish I had kept more.

Author’s Hallucination No. 7 “Mel”


MK: I understand that you also spent some time as a filmmaker, is this correct? Can you tell us a little about that transition from stills to motion?

JFM: I left the Santa Barbara News Press in 2001 to begin creating a small industrial film company called Penny Jar Pictures with my now partner of 25 years, Lisa Hammert. Lisa had started working with me in print and then went on to be a field producer for local television news. She later starting working as a producer at a special effect house, CafeFX. That’s where I learned filmmaking thanks to the generosity of Jeff Barnes and David Ebner. They tolerated my endless questions and constant loitering. This is also when the Canon XL1 had just come out and it was the perfect transitional camera for me. It had great ergonomics and the image had a real filmy look. It had terrible sound though, because it had a noisy timecode track. So of course I then had to learn how to record broadcast sound. As it turns out doing boom sound is one of my favorite film production skills I have. It’s just a lot of fun. Who knew? Right? And so it goes I guess.

Author’s Hallucination No. 13 “Verna”


MK: Your life and career dramatically changed in 2012, when you suffered a stroke and were left legally blind. Clearly, a major blow to anyone, let alone someone in the visual arts. May I ask you to describe those events?

JFM: Sure. I fell off a wall trying to rescue my cat Samy from a rooftop. A CAT scan in the ER showed I had three broken ribs, one broken toe and a 5.5cm ascending aortic aneurysm right where all the blood leaves the heart. It had probably been growing there my whole life. My new cardiologist told me, “This has no symptoms. You’ll feel great right up to the moment you drop dead.” In 2012 I underwent open heart surgery at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. During that five-hour surgery, known as The David Procedure, I suffered a stroke and awoke to about 46% of my vision being gone in both eyes.


MK: Did you feel that your career was done, or did you immediately know that you had to find a way to continue?

JFM: Actually, I was really just surprised I had survived such a major procedure. Then to find out I also survived a stroke during the surgery, I felt grateful just to be alive at all really. The recovery took much longer than I anticipated. Then in 2014 I had a transient ischemic attack (TIA). It was not until my stroke in 2015 where I picked up new deficits, particularly with short term and working memory functions, it became clear I would not be able to work in the capacity I once had.

Author’s Hallucination No. 19 “Lou”


MK: Please tell us how the images for Apparition: Postcards from Eye See You came about. Were there many changes from your initial concept to final execution?

JFM: First there is an important definition to know.

Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

I spent my entire career with my camera lens point outward and never inward. With this project there was never an initial concept or intention, more of a discovery. While in ICU I started seeing very animated, but incomplete facial hallucinations in the blind areas of my vision. I soon found out the condition is called Charles Bonnet Syndrome. This instantly fascinated me but I couldn’t figure out who these people were or where they came from. I was always trying to find context in these hallucinations, but never did. Neurology and neuroscience professionals have since explained to me how the project literally started in my subconscious when the brain started forging new pathways - also know as neuroplasticity. The faces came and went for about the first 18 months of my recovery. During this time I used an old iPad One to alter lots of different types of imagery with many different apps. Just something I always did. It wasn’t until after my 2015 stroke that I started to look back at the images in Lightroom and saw a resemblance to the facial hallucinations I originally saw. When I scrolled fast through the files, the images animated just like I had experienced them. I began to see the apparitions as a possible body of work.

Author’s Hallucination No. 29 “Aubry”


MK: How did you come up with the idea of creating work from a hybrid process of analog and digital means? Are special procedures taken to accommodate your impaired vision?

JFM: I first showed the work as basic duotone digital prints at Filter Photo in 2016. I had eleven very constructive and encouraging portfolio reviews. One of those reviews was with J. Sybylla Smith. Another was with Paula Tognarelli at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Paula was the first juror to ever include my work in a group show at Davis Orton Gallery that summer. I worked with Sybylla for the next year in which she helped me curate the literally hundreds of images I had created down to 15 that were a part of the Griffin Museum of Photography’s October 2017 show, Gray Matters. But during that year, I felt the need to take the digital images off the computer and into the darkroom. Cyanotype was the perfect process for me. I bleached and stained the prints with tea which mimicked the original digital images but took on a life and quality of its own. I’m in love with the idea of marrying a process from 1842 with a digitally corrupted .png image file on an iPad in 2017. There’s a certain splendor in that I think.

Author’s Hallucination No. 37 “Jaime”

 
MK: Once you began publicly showing Apparition, how long did it take before people began to take notice, and what steps did you take to promote it?

JFM: The momentum for me began at the Gray Matters show at the Griffin Museum. Shortly after that I was in the Final 50 of Photolucida’s Critical Mass resulting in a solo show at Blue Sky Gallery in 2018. And about that same time I made it into the Final 50 for LensCulture’s Emerging Talent Awards and juror Debra Klomp Ching awarded me the juror prize. That was all really unexpected. All in all I was in nine shows in which four were solo shows in the first seven months of this year. It was also a lot more work than I ever anticipated, but I also knew I would probably never have this opportunity again in my lifetime. The best thing we did was contract Kristine Schoemaker of Shoebox PR. Kristine and her team really helped relieve a lot of pressure for us in promoting the different shows on social media.  

Author’s Hallucination No. 47 “Syd”


MK: One of the things that I think sets you apart from many photographic artists is that you appear to present your work in a new and different way with each exhibition. What made you decide to do this and was it always the plan?

JFM: Creating different solo exhibitions was a self imposed exercise I came up with to push my problem solving capabilities. This is important to forge neuroplasticity in the brain. I was following where the process took the work and where the work took me. I was growing with the work as it changed in real time. Plus if someone comes to more than one show, they get to experience the work differently.


MK: Do you think that this body of work will run its course in the future, or rather, can you imagine that you will get to a point where you feel that you have completed what you started?

JFM: I’m sure it will run its course eventually, but with that comes many derivative possibilities too. Right now though, I’m deep in the thick of printing, which means many new things can still happen and that is the cool intangible part of printing in a darkroom for me.

Author’s Hallucination No. 79 “Blaine”


MK: Have you thought about what may be next for you?

JFM: My work is now centered around the subconscious memory and how we see with the brain. This intersection of neuroscience and art, how we mentally image everything from memory, has become endlessly fascinating for me. I see a lot more to explore there.


MK: Do you study what others are doing, and do you find their influence in your own image making?

JFM: I am influenced by everything I see or hear, whether I know it or not. My image making has always been influenced by a number of photographers and artists in different mediums, but recently I have realized that just three images are always in my head and have been as long as I remember. I don’t know why. I can’t even remember where I first viewed them or how old I was. I never chose these images, my subconscious chose them.

Diane Arbus’ “Teenage Couple on Hudson Street” 1963

Danny Lyon’s “Sparky and Cowboy” 1965

Richard Avedon’s “Italy #9 (Boy and Tree)” 1947

Author’s Hallucination No. 83 “Val”


MK: Where does your inspiration to create come from? Do you think that this is something that can be taught and learned?

JFM: I think my inspiration comes from my curiosity and not having firm boundaries on what I should or shouldn’t do. The gift of my strokes is the license to have no expectations. And that can be a very freeing thing. It allowed me to problem solve without any expectation of outcome, other than trying to increase my neuroplasticity.


MK: Are there any other creative pursuits that you engage in?

JFM: Yes, I call myself an improvisational woodworker, which is another way to encourage neuroplasticity. Only recently have I incorporated woodworking into my work. As in the Month of Photography Los Angeles show, the show had a “Construction” theme. I mounted my watercolor prints on large wood panels I built. In that improvisational spirit, I assembled an edge veneer of scarred cedar in a train-of-thought manner which rendered six matching panels, but each one unique.

Author’s Hallucination No. 739 “Wynne”

MK: Knowing you, and learning and seeing how you continue to create work, I know that I can always point to you as someone who has overcome the odds and continued to do what they love. Perseverance is the one thing that I’ve always told people that they need in order to succeed in their endeavors. I see you as a symbol of that, and wonder what it is that makes you persevere in such a creative and meaningful way?
 
JFM: What makes me persevere? Maybe it is my OCD. I have an insatiable curiosity to understand what I don’t understand. And making images has always been the vehicle to give me a context of understanding.
   

MK: Thank you Jeff, for your time, and your work. This has been an absolute pleasure for me. I look forward to the time I get to view new work from you, and have more discussions about why and what we do. Cheers to you!


You can find more of Jeff's work at his website here.

 

Camille Seaman

Camille Seaman

Carol Golemboski

Carol Golemboski