Photography Untamed: The Method to Marvin Bartley’s Technique

By Chevonese Fender Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 Categories: Features, Interview, Updates

Burnt sponges line the walls and floor, presenting the perfect backdrop. Models lie prone against them, assuming their roles, waiting patiently for the camera’s familiar click. An ambitious young man who stands 6ft 5in tall holds the camera. He is Jamaican fine art photographer, Marvin Bartley, in studio developing his latest project—a reinterpretation of Alessandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

He began using sponge roughly five years ago, experimenting with materials as a final year student at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. After burning through linoleum, wood chips, and grass, the young aspirant finally pounced on foam. He added fire and the results were remarkable. There’s an inexplicable versatility in the way burnt sponge transforms when hit by light that adds dimension and depth to Bartley’s pieces. Take The Great Weight (2007) and Simony (2010), for example. Bartley’s expert utilization and treatment of the element impeccably fuses into obscurity and at first and second glance, the subjects appear to have been shot against earth or within a dreary cave.

While Bartley’s earlier works closely examines religion and its rippling effect, this newer project explores Greek mythology with the deliberate use of solely black figures to conjure a deeper meaning to an existing masterpiece. Greater preparations have been made to bring his version of The Birth of Venus to life. After forming and developing the idea with in depth research and sketches, he consults with a designer, who outlines various designs that imitate the wardrobe used in Botticelli’s paintings. Moving away from complete nudity as observed in his prior works, clothing has become a vital tool in imparting his message. Various materials for fabricating the outfits and accessorizing the set as props are sourced, models are selected, and a space is scouted. The shoot—usually spanning over a few days—finally begins, and the concept is slowly birthed.

Sketch 1 of 'The Birth of Venus'


It has been argued that the greatest artists have been trained in a completely different skill before discovering their inert talent. For Botticelli, he spent his earlier years as a goldsmith before he became a painter. Similarly, Bartley spent three years of his life studying to become a painter, but found that his love for photography far exceeded it. Like the practices of the old masters, the 29 year old believes in pushing the envelope and challenging bureaucracy. He was the first artist in his college to exhibit photographs from the Painting Department, boldly defying the beliefs and expectations of his lecturers. However, the end result was astounding and those who initially opposed him now laud him for his daunting creativity. Not that he intentionally wanted to rebel. An irrevocable love for photography felled him and since then he has seen himself doing nothing else.

Today this drive for “nothing else” has secured him a place in numerous exhibitions in the National Gallery of Jamaica, Alice Yard in Trinidad, a sponsorship by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Small Axe, recognition by internationally acclaimed photographer, Renée Cox and now, an on-going exhibition in Amersfoot, The Netherlands, “Who More Sci-Fi Than Us?

Although his work and technique garners respect, the young photographer is concerned that he has not been receiving the recognition and publicity needed as an artist, which is why he continues to work and develop his craft. His goal is to be a globally recognized fine artist, his works to be in the hands, homes and auction houses of the most influential art collectors, showing in the most prestigious galleries. For now his commercial work mostly pays the bills, and on occasion he dabbles in fashion,  both of which he has pleasantly mastered.

The shift to appreciating his work, as that given to his peers, some of which are painters, is a slow one. Some traditional art collectors in Jamaica, while they are fascinated by his execution, become discouraged after discovering that they haven’t been ogling at paintings. In 2008, Bartley experienced this chagrin when he exhibited in a group exhibit showing as the sole photographer. A buyer, after five minutes of admiring his pieces, soon lost interest when the artist explained that he was admiring a photograph, not a painting.

Master and Slave 2011 (99_x42_) Commissioned by Small Axe Journal in association with the Andy Warhol Foundation

It is true that Bartley’s pieces can be misconstrued as paintings, but more so in his earlier works than now. His later projects such as The Madonna and The Master and Slave can be readily discerned as photographical images. Bartley acclaims the grungy texture in his earlier pieces to the camera he used at the time, which coincidentally he had found limiting.

Bartley, being a fan of sit-down question-and-answer interviews, readily answered the following questions:

Chevonese Fender: Who or what has been your influence over the years?

MB: I take references from fine art photographer, Joel Peter Witkin and painters such as Sandro Botticelli, Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo Caravaggio, and Hieronymus Bosch.

CF: What in their execution appeals to you?

With Witkin, I’m drawn by his subjects. He chooses to represent the bizarre, the unacceptable, and composes everything with such thought and detail that it brings me back to the paintings of the old masters. Everything is deliberate and has meaning, which is the practice I relay in my work. These influences keep me excited about what I do. I learn more and more about placement of objects and subjects to enhance an idea. You won’t readily find someone who does what I do. The uniqueness of the ideas and the execution using new media are one of the main reasons I continue. It is also encouraging to see people you know around you making headways, like contemporary Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson.

River Styx (The Arrival of Christopher Columbus) 2011 (99_x42_) Commissioned by Small Axe Journal in association with the Andy Warhol Foundation

CF: Explain your work process?

MB: I’m technically more knowledgeable than I was in college. I outgrow a camera much faster than I used to and now my files are getting bigger. My understanding has increased, the process is much more technical, I now work with much better equipment, and this adds to the length of time it takes me to produce one image. When I first started it took me three weeks but these days with detailed planning of the photo shoots, it takes me up to three months to complete just one work.

Depending on the scale of the project or magnitude of the idea I shoot on different days, with one day designated for shooting models. During postproduction I continue to shoot as needed, such as grass, trees, fabric, sky, or sea. I work on the project every day until it morphs into what I want.

 CF: Explain the prominence of nudity in your subjects?

MB: There are several reasons. In the beginning when I developed ideas from Dante’s Inferno I understood nudity as the epitome of a man’s natural state. I can’t represent a soul since it is intangible, so I use the person’s most basic form—their naked body. That’s how it began. This is predominant in River Styx, The Arrival of Columbus, The Master and Slave, and The Madonna.

Clothing adds meaning and gives light to who the subjects are and causes you to assign a time period, function, or importance of a role. In these works the nude bodies, some partially draped, gives the impression of a seamless bundle of mass. It is an expression I can’t neglect. Not that I’ve never strayed from that, as you can see in Portrait of a Reaper and The Flaming Tomb.

The Flaming Tomb 2007

CF: What are your perceptions of contemporary photography and where it has reached today?

MB: I’m happy with where the development has gone. Twenty years ago you spent roughly $20,000 USD for a megapixel camera, but today 36 megapixel cameras are being sold for just $3,000 and they resolve much better and faster.  However, when I look at the broader picture I have to admit that I am concerned. In the past, photography was a technical process, such as using the darkroom. If you didn’t get it then you couldn’t do it. Now cameras have auto-features and the accessibility and ubiquity of photography gives everyone the impression that they can do it. Not that it’s a bad thing, but their understanding is lacking and not comprehensive. And even if the image is good, which is still left to interpretation, people’s judgements aren’t what they used to be, especially since the understanding and respect for photography is diminishing.

CF: How does your fine art differ from your commercial and fashion photography?

MB: All of them influence each other. Fashion definitely influences the fine art with the use and treatment of wardrobe and lighting. My images used to be very dark, because I never used flash. I was afraid that the images would be too clean, but fashion has allowed me to think otherwise.  With the grungy and dark pieces not everything is resolved, because certain flaws could not be seen. However, when using lighting in fashion everything has to be resolved; everything has to be perfect because you are selling a false sense of reality. In fine art I worry less about making the image superficial, but more meticulously manipulating the detail, such as warping fabric, extending certain elements like a water droplet or a flower, which helps to develop the concept of the work. It’s not about making the image superficially pretty. I only adapt the method of planning and organizing from commercial photography in fine art and nothing else.

Simony 2010


The Great Weight 2007

CF: Let’s talk about your technical and conceptual limitations. How does your process deal with both?

Conceptually, I’m not limited. I have ideas and just as much technical freedom because of my vast experience in the digital darkroom (Photoshop). I can obtain anything I possibly want by photographing. I’m only limited with accessing the resources to produce the works. In terms of where I stand financially, the magnitude of the works I produce can be costly and so I find myself producing three works a year, as oppose to ten. My location is also a limitation in terms of the elements and persons that I use. For example if I want armour, that would be difficult to get. With the selection of models, at times I would like to work with persons of different nationalities.

CF: If not photography, what else would you being doing?

MB: If photography hadn’t presented itself I would have still tried to represent my ideas through painting. The technicalities involved in that process would have taken me much longer to produce work and would have been far less impactful. The level of realism and detail in an image that I can capture in photography far outweighs what I’ve done in every painting. Photography is as real as you possibly can get to copying life, hence my choice to continue in this medium. Also it’s a fascinating thing to revisit ideas that are centuries old with such a modern technique.  It creates such a paradox.

To know more about Marvin Bartley’s practice visit:

Chevonese Fender
Chevonese Fender

When Chevonese Fender isn’t modeling, she’s channeling her creativity in the literary realm. She loves the eye-opening experience and world that beautifully constructed words can create and is particularly looking forward to sharing that with her readers when the first of her novels launches soon. See more at Fender's blog: