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Bailely: Playing It 'Rough' with Photography

Reston artist James W. Bailey calls his method of photography “rough edge.” He buys damaged cameras in thrift shops and mutilates his film and prints. Lenses are scratched, holes may be punched in the film canister with a needle, prints may be burned. The equipment is “pushed to the extreme.”

“I don’t like editing my images,” Bailey says. “I like the imperfections, the accidental quality.”

Two of Bailey's pieces are on display through the end of the month at the United States Geological Survey building, part of the League of Reston Artists’ Annual Judged Photography Exhibition. These works are collages of black and white images of highway taken from behind a dashboard, distorted by scratches.

Because of Bailey’s methods, his compositions end up being one of a kind, not able to be duplicated like a standard photograph with a negative. Bailey said he does what he wants and doesn’t worry about the classification. After 10 years in photography, Bailey had become frustrated by the traditional, and interested in risky, experimental processes. Rough edge was born.

BAILEY IS A NATIVE of Mississippi and lived in Louisiana for nearly 20 years before he came to Reston a year ago. This background is reflected in his speech and, as he explains, it exerts a powerful influence over his art. The collages of photos can be traced to his grandmother’s walls back in Mississippi, which were covered in a mix of snapshots and old, historic photographs.

Bailey’s interest in photography started in New Orleans. “New Orleans is very cinematic for me,” he says. “I spent enormous amounts of time driving around the city, photographing the ‘underbelly,’ things that the tourists don’t see. In Louisiana, a 60-mile commute between Baton Rouge and New Orleans provided inspiration for his work. “Even in something as mundane as commuting, there is art to be found,” he said. Commutes can be enjoyable, he points out, a time to one's self, of freedom and relaxation in a busy day.

The nine photos in Bailey’s piece “I-10” are a narrative of the journey. “The Road to Baton Rouge” repeats one of these shots with textural variations.

In Bailey’s new home in Northern Virginia, he has found a fresh subject in the Capital Beltway. “It’s a fascinating metaphor,” he says, “a road that circles the seat of power of the universe.” Bailey was at first intimidated by the Beltway, but now has driven the full loop of the road five or six times. He hopes to shoot the journey with one photograph for each of 360 degrees, with the results displayed in a circular environment to narrate the "full circle" journey.

Roads are not the only subject of Bailey’s rough edge photography. He photographed a tornado in Louisiana and is currently negotiating on a venue for a one-man show of his tornadoes, possibly in October.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND COLLAGE are not Bailey’s only art forms. In his year in Reston, where he works as director of development for the Greater Reston Art Center (GRACE), he has developed a painting technique he calls “wind painting.”

Bailey keeps an eye on the weather, and when a storm is coming, he puts a canvas on a lazy Susan and suspends prepared paintbrushes above the canvas for the winds to whip up some art.

Bailey found the inspiration for this method in his Mississippi childhood as well. His grandfather's farmer neighbor had a bottle tree. In response to superstition, the neighbor hung hundreds of multicolored bottles on the branches of a crape myrtle to catch evil spirits so that they wouldn’t invade his house.

The bottle tree fascinated Bailey. After storms, bottles colliding in the winds left patterns of broken glass on the ground. Years later, Bailey wondered what would happen if he hung paintbrushes on a tree, just like those bottles.

Several of Bailey’s wind paintings are on display at the “Spirit of Reston” exhibit at Reston Town Center.

Mary Bronson, treasurer of the League of Reston Artists (LRA), said Bailey’s wind paintings are “a delight to look at,” reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s work, though achieved through a different method. Bronson invited Bailey to join the LRA after seeing some of his photographs from New Orleans. “His art career has really taken off,” she said.

“He’s just a very creative person, kind of inspiring, makes me want to go home and paint,” says Jan Schweig, education manager at GRACE. “It’s exciting when someone is developing that quickly … I’m waiting to see what’s going to come out next.”