Legally blind after suffering a stroke, photojournalist J. Fredric May turned his abilities to digitally manipulating vintage portraits to communicate his new visual reality. J. Fredric’s work will be in a two-person show at Keck School of Medicine of USC, opening March 5 through April 19, with an artist talk on March 28. As a Winter 2017 Finalist, J. Fredric’s work will be in the 2018 FOCUS Photo LA competition, March 15 to 18. In the meantime, he is preparing for a solo exhibition of “Apparition: Postcards from Eye See You” at Blue Sky Gallery in the Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts, April 5–29, in Portland, OR.
In this selection of enigmatic portraits, photographer J. Fredric May invites the viewer to see as he does. These unique prints, the culmination of experimentation and innovation, bear testament to May’s core strengths.
To see is a transitive verb meaning it denotes an action in relation to an object. Seeing is not a solitary or isolated act. We create and store a ceaseless visual loop of information, which continuously feeds our perception. Sight involves rapid-fire motor activity; electrons are fired, synapses jumped, organs alerted and hormones secreted, all within milliseconds. May’s vision was irreversibly altered when a stroke from an aortic aneurysm took 46% of his vision in 2012 rendering him legally blind.
May was raised by collectors, inventors and engineers who instilled in him his active participation in regeneration. He learned creativity is always a process of combining existing elements. As a teenager, he taught himself to develop film following instructions from the World Book Encyclopedia. He then hacked his father’s slide projector to create a darkroom enlarger. Hooked on photography he studied science and illustration at Brooks Institute. May honed his vision and made his living as a photojournalist and commercial photographer. He earned the reputation of capturing the singular photo capable of wordlessly transmuting the impact of an event. His editor called it the “A-one shot” and often ran it as the cover image of a news story. He worked as both a news agency and freelance photojournalist for a dozen years before founding Penny Jar Pictures, an industrial filmmaking production company, in 1999.
Following his stroke, May embraced his limited sight as a challenge. He faced the additional experience of vivid visual hallucinations, a result of Charles Bonnet syndrome, with curiosity. In theory, this syndrome is thought to be the brain actively regenerating visual imagery in an attempt to fill what is now an opaque blur. During his rehabilitation, May picked up his iPad and started to do what he does instinctively which is to explore.
These archival pigment prints are a hybrid of analog and digital processes. May begins with vintage portraits, which he scans and puts through data corruption software. He then creates layered composites and prints theses as cyanotypes. He bleaches and tones his cyanotypes with a mixture of photo chemicals and tea. Ultimately, he digitizes the altered cyanotypes and creates an archival pigment print.
In an ironic parallel, the digital technology May uses mimics the interrupted brain activity he experienced firsthand. Secondly, his art making accelerated his recovery and may have improved his functioning beyond traditional rehabilitation methods, thus inspiring researchers to study alternate treatment for stroke patients. In a final twist, May has replicated in fine art his talent for capturing an in-depth story in a single image.