Mika Fowler vignette
In seeking out another collision of digital and analog worlds, I wandered into the shop of Mika Fowler in the Railroad Square Art Park. There he stamps out printed material on an antique Dodson letterpress and churns out his “photo polymer prints” using a combination of digital and offset printing techniques.
I was drawn to Mika's work because of his daily feed of Facebook posts revealing his portraits of nude and semi-nude women—pushing the limits of Facebook's twitchy censorship finger. The images appear distressed and roiling at the edges; with sharp focus trained on the models' eyes.
The photos remind me of the early daguerreotypes borne from rough, hand-hewn materials. Mika's prints bear random etching and rumpled edges that reveal the manual labor required to prepare a plate for exposure to light and shadow. The upper middle third of the image—the sweet spot—is generally reserved for the best and clearest viewing of the subject's features. Everything else toward the edges gives way to the spoils of the mechanics of the process.
Mika pulled matted prints out one by one to show me the expanding portfolio he was preparing for an upcoming gallery show.
He set one on the images on a display shelf nailed to the wall. The photo shows a nude woman lying face down on an amorphous fabric in an otherwise empty space. His trademark etches and scrapes mar the area around her. But the face is deliberately scratched so her visage cannot be easily be identified.
“It's the New Orleans guy,” I blurted before my brain could focus on the photographer's name whose style the image reminded me of.
Mika turned slowly to look at me. “Fucking good for you,” he said with a measure of surprise and muted satisfaction.
“Bellocq,” he clarified.
“Yeah, Bellocq!” I repeated after him.
E.J. Bellocq worked the Storyville red-light district in New Orleans shortly after the turn of the 19th century. He captured photos of prostitutes at play or made posed nude or semi nude portraits of the women over a few years' time. Many of the images, when they were discovered in the 1960s, had been scratched and defaced. As researchers dug into the work they ultimately concluded that Bellocq had most likely vandalized his own photos either out of shame, dementia, or perhaps to protect the models' identities.
Many of Bellocq's oeuvre show a single woman reclining on a settee either nude or in lingerie in the faux elegance of the bordellos. The scratches of time and his deliberate hand visible on most of them.
Mika said I was one of the very few who had “gotten it.”
His work reflects a frustration and anger quietly festering within him. He says his images are a reaction to “cultural thoughts of ideal beauty, violence, and proclivities where the reality of the subject is impeded as in a dream or hallucination.”
Mika works as a photographer but it's his history as a pressman that drives his art and a life interrupted by a short jail stint that haunt the photos.
All of his images are pressed out painstakingly through the photo polymer print process after he's digitally captured the initial image bathed in the light from the windows of his small studio. There, the models are crammed into a space between shelves of printing materials, the metal steel frame and gears of the ancient Dodson, and other detritus of a man at work. Mika drapes a simple fabric behind them to conceal the studio environment—sterilizing the background; making the models float in an indeterminate environment.
The New Orleans photographer Bellocq lurked among the beauties, as he saw them, in Storyville and made images only he could explain. Mika, too, lurks among his subjects finding a beauty that belies conventionality. “All reference to reality has been impeded as in a hallucination,” he told me. “The figures stand by themselves and only indirectly refer to a living person.”
His studio lies quietly at the rear of a small arts colony in Tallahassee. He enjoys the solitude. He's putting the parts of his life back together, and manufacturing art--churning out photos, pressed-out cards, and teaching others his craft.
Those “indirect references to living persons” decorate the crowded space. Some images are framed beautifully and hang galleryesque. Others cling to the wall with a tack--un-matted and unframed. All seethe with a drive not to pursue beauty as glamour but as an expression, he said, of "autodidacticism, introspection, incarceration, solitary confinement, house arrest, social ostracism, and antidepressant withdrawal."
Photos appear courtesy of Mika Fowler .
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