Portrait of a Portrait Photographer


For 23-year-old portrait photographer Aubrey Mayer, much of the story revolves around summer in Orient Point, way out east on the north fork of Long Island.


Following his junior year of college, Mayer’s grandmother presented him with a Hasselblad camera–the same one he uses today. That summer, Mayer headed out to Orient, where there exists a bit of an artist enclave. There, he photographed Elizabeth Peyton and the architect Richard Gluckman; he met Craig Kalpakjian and Jules de Balincourt, both of whom will appear in the portraits hanging in Mayer’s first show on Saturday, a private one-night-only affair hosted by Martos Gallery, and curated by Bob Nickas—yet another acquaintance from Orient Point.


Right place, right time–though that summer was hardly the first time Mayer picked up a camera. He grew up in a house filled with the photo books, gifts of his father’s cousin, the late Grace M. Mayer, who was curator of photography at MoMA from 1964–1968, and curator of its Edward Steichen Archive until 1996. Mayer went on to study photography at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; his continuing education evolved into a job with Ari Marcopoulos.


Of the portraits taken that first summer, Mayer says, “I shot many of them on a white backdrop against my garage-after Avedon.” Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Steiglitz, Steichen–these were his earliest and most constant influences. In high school, he had his Herb Ritts phase; and, in the angles at which his subjects are posed, Peter Hujar also comes to mind.


While the native New Yorker has made subjects of a number of art-world heavies–Lawrence Weiner, Tomma Abts, Rob Pruitt, Elizabeth Peyton, Agathe Snow–Mayer describes a process entirely unpremeditated. “I start talking to someone,” he says. “Before I know it, I’ve already asked to do a portrait.” He doesn’t keep a running list of potential subjects. “The process of finding someone to photograph is never ‘wish list-y,'” he says. “So to create one would be dishonest.”


Mayer is nothing if not honest about his ambitions. His goal, a solo show at the Whitney, recall Ryan McGinley, whose own summery portraits made him the youngest photographer to have a Whitney show at the age of 25. “I won’t stop until I do,” Mayer says. But if his ambition isn’t indication enough of his seriousness, Mayer’s conviction is: “I believe in portraiture,” he says. “Oftentimes I won’t have any idea who I might photograph next… Then someone always comes along.”

Martos Gallery is located at 540 West 29th Street, New York.