Oscar Bailey

Oscar Bailey earned a B. A. in art from Wilmington College in Ohio in 1951 and shortly thereafter went to work for a commercial printer in Delaware, Ohio. When the shop obtained a copy camera, Bailey asked to work with it. His interest in photography grew, and soon he bought his own camera – the best he could get for a full week’s pay. Bailey taught himself how to use it, and after three or four years, he decided to make photography his career. He enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Ohio University, graduating in 1958 in a degree in photography.

Bailey was professor of photography at State University College in Buffalo, New York, from 1958 until 1969. He left to start the photography program at the University of South Florida, where he was a professor until he retired in 1985. Bailey came to U.S.F. when the first phase of Graphicstudio was just beginning, and he became an active participant in the program, contributing his photographic expertise to a number of projects, including those of James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg.

In 1962 Bailey became a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education. In addition to his tenure at U.S.F., his teaching activities have included visiting artist appointments at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina (1971, 1973, 1979) and a period as artist-in-residence at Artpark in Lewiston, New York (1977). In 1972 Bailey supervised the publication of the book, Silver Bullets, a collection of photographs by U.S.F. students.

One-man exhibitions of his work have been organized by Indiana University (1960), Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Michigan (1963), Ohio Wesleyan University (1964), International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York (1964), University of Oregon, Eugene (1969), University of South Florida, Tampa (1972, 1974), University of Colorado, Boulder (1976), University of North Florida, Jacksonville (1978), and the Lynch Gallery, St. Petersburg, Florida (1981).

The undulating lines of the expressway in Tampa X 2 and the rolling hills in Woods, North Carolina, with its interwoven pattern of trees and shadows, are the product both of Oscar Bailey’s vision and of the unique effects of the antique Cirkut camera: “The Cirkut camera (developed just before the turn of the century) was designed to photograph vast panoramas and large groups of people. It is mounted upon a circular-topped tripod, and a spring-driven motor causes it to rotate from left to right, exposing a long roll of film as it moves. The film for my camera is eight inches wide and sixty inches long. As the camera rotates the film is pulled from its roll – past a shutter – unto a take-up drum. A series of gears sync the rotation of the camera and the speed the film [as it] moves past the shutter. When everything works right we can have a photograph that covers a little more than 360 degrees.”

Bailey’s Cirkut photographs are actually contact prints. The eight-inch film used in the camera is no longer made, so it must be specially ordered from Kodak. Development requires specialized equipment, so the film is sent to a commercial lab for processing. Once the negative had been produced for the Graphicstudio prints, the edition was carried out by George Holzer using U.S.F. art department equipment. Bailey has produced both black-and-white and color images using the Cirkut camera. His four Graphicstudio editions are color.

In Tampa X 2 the buildings on the far left of the image reappear on the far right. The rhythmic interplay of the bowing freeway overpass in the background with the sinuous shadows under the bridge in the fore-ground [the bridge appears at either side of the image] combines with the syncopations of the vertical support columns of the highway architecture to create the visual poetry of the composition. The print features the Crosstown Expressway in Tampa, which was under construction at the time the photograph was taken.

Bailey notes that “if you would set the photograph on edge and pull the two ends around until the building on each end [the same buildings] line up, you would see how the world actually looked. But when you lay it out flat, then you get the distortion.” Presenting a circular view as a flat image, the Cirkut photograph confuses our notion of end and beginning, front and back, left and right. (By contrast, the camera can also be used to create “flat,” linear images with very little distortion if the subjects being photographed are arranged in an arc around the camera so that they are always the same distance fro the camera lens.)

Woods, North Carolina, a late fall/early winter landscape photo-graphed on the artist’s property in North Carolina, reveals Bailey’s wit. It is punctuated at both ends by a small but brightly dressed figure, apparently hanging in the air among the trees. The suspended figure is Bailey’s son, also a photographer and filmmaker – “he and I help each other out occasionally” – who marks the passage of time by changing his pose. Bailey has noted: “As a photographer I have thought of the ‘time’ needed to record an image in terms of fractions of a second. The ‘time’ to record an image with the Cirkut camera can be as short as 10 and as long as 40 seconds.”

The camera used to photograph these images was made in 1915 and is the second one Bailey has owned. He acquired his first Cirkut camera in the late 1960s: “[My uncle] was an amateur photographer. And when he died, his widow had an auction. I was there helping, and she just gave me a lot of his photographic equipment. That would have been about 1968. That was my first one. He had stored it in a room that was damp, and it was moldy and everything. But I did clean-up and got it to working. Then about 1973 or ’74 I bought one from a fellow out in Wyoming. It had been stored in a dry climate out there and it was in real good shape. That’s the one I’m currently using.”