Answer the Call: Turning the Lens on Jeanette May

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

The National: Best Contemporary Photography is a hybrid invitational and juried exhibition, anchored by photography standouts Melanie Walker, Raymond Thompson Jr., Morgan Barrie, Jack Sharkey, Karen Klinedinst, Ian van Coller, and Jeanette May. The call for entry, now live, is turning the lens toward the photographers, looking for talented artists from across the country who are pushing the boundaries of the medium with adventurous techniques and original subject matter. In terms of aesthetic quality, technical innovation, and cultural relevance, contemporary photography has increasingly proven its dominance as a 21st century art form.

With submissions for juried entries now open, we wanted to introduce our invited artists! Leading up to the submission deadline, June 19th, 2022, we’ll turn the lens on these photographers. Next up: Jeanette May!

A photograph of an old typewriters with a lit lamp and clock balanced on top. Next to them is an old pencil sharpener and broken apart rotary phone. The objects sit on a long table covered in blue silk. The background is a blue wallpaper with a floral and bird theme.
Jeanette May, American, b. 1963. Rotary Dial Phone, from the Curious Devices series.Archival pigment print, 2020. Image courtesy of Jeanette May.

When I first discovered Jeanette May’s photographs I was drawn in by the vivid color and patterning. Similar to Karen Klinedinst’s works, May’s photographs are reminiscent of historic Dutch still lifes but with a contemporary twist. Instead of the typical still life with fruits and flowers, maybe even a fly or skull, they include outdated electronics and “curious devices.” The original masters of the vanitas painting, from the Latin word “vanity”, like Harmen Steenwijck, David Bailly, and Pieter Claesz contained collections of objects symbolic of death and the fleeting pleasures of life. The objects May uses cover both of those topics: the world of quickly updated, expensive technology that is just as quickly discarded for the next great gadget while also being the best form of technology from their era.

Placed on a long table covered with green silk are objects no longer in use like an old radio, cellphone, switchboard, and phonograph.
Jeanette May, American, b. 1963. Electric Fireflies, from the Tech Vanitas series. Archival pigment print, 2018. Image courtesy of Jeanette May.

May says of her work, “My still lifes juxtapose the seductive designs with the inner workings of Curious Devices to reveal our complicated relationship with obsolete technology. These photographs display a reverence for finely crafted merchandise, industrial design, and scientific wonders. The technological tableaus span antique stereoscopes and art deco clocks to Bluetooth headphones. Each object’s style, color, and material construction epitomize a period of both aesthetic and technological advancement. I open some devices to expose the archaic gears of movie projectors and the enigmatic architecture of circuit boards. What becomes of the beloved tech that stops working or can’t be updated?

Curious Devices continues the exploration of beautifully designed vintage technology begun in my Tech Vanitas series. Surrounded by rich silks and damask wall covering, arrangements of domestic wares once again suggest 17thcentury Dutch vanitas still life paintings with their air of craft guilds, international trade, and personal wealth. Adding screw drivers and other tools to the assembled relics illuminates our desire to revive the damaged or deceased, as well as a culture of designed obsolescence. In an era overflowing with products, the temptation of worldly goods takes on new meaning. Curious Devices examines the present and the past of technology without easy answers but rather, like the Dutch vanitas, with a sense of wonder and trepidation.”

We are now accepting entries! Open through June 19th, 2022, submit your photo(s) now for the chance to have them displayed at the Museum alongside Jeanette May’s work! The National will be on display September 17th, 2022-January 8th, 2023.

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