On Madelyn Bradley

Madelyn Bradley was a Philadelphia-born artist who worked in photography, painting and collage. She exhibited her work rarely during her lifetime and this website presents many of her images for the first time. The site documents and collects several bodies of artwork from a much larger archive she created during her life. It bears witness to her inventive flair, her restless spirit of enquiry and the intense focus she brought to all the mediums she worked in.

The works included span a twenty-year period. They begin with photographs shot on the streets of Philadelphia, often in black-and-white. These images draw from Madelyn‘s experiences as a social worker or at other times her subjects are younger relatives or women she encountered on the street or at public events.

The second body of work featured on this site was made during Bradley’s study at New York University in the MA Photography program in the early 2000’s. The move to New York prompts an evolution in her work, shifting away from more traditional socially engaged pictures of people to more complex staged visual narrative strategies concerning the self. Madelyn starts to photograph dolls, creating macabre tableaus where doll baby heads are made up with running mascara and bleeding lipstick mouths.

These distressing-looking sometimes nude figures are set in unsettling scenarios. These photographs are reminiscent of stills from horror films set in the American suburbs. In this series there seems an element of autobiography. She uses the doll to reflect back through the camera, perhaps revisiting a period of darkness in her own history.

Madelyn Bradley, Untitled. Click here to see the image galleries.

In another body of work, Bradley works with less freighted subject matter. She makes tiny bird head masks and uses old cuddly synthetic toy lions and crocodiles in a garden setting. These small totemic figures are photographed standing posed like actors in a child’s theater play. They are tricked out in capes, masks and accessories. They sit or stand forlorn and alone. The domestic toy appears vulnerable in an outdoor terrain. Madelyn’s images become subtle in content, less confrontational, less psychologically dark. A toy lion sits proudly but incongruously atop an old metal wheel balanced against an outdoor wall. In these shots there is poignancy to the image of a childhood toy left seemingly deserted against the elements. The meaning is more elusive, and less troubling. This childhood image becomes atmospheric, calmer, and more dreamlike. Madelyn seems to want to beguile her audience, no longer disturb them. After the earlier photographs of innocence violated or sacrificed come eerier images that draw from surrealism, the mythological, the pagan and alchemical world.

In another series of works, Madelyn plays with portraiture and the possibilities offered by new technologies. She builds up her own mutant languages, combining digital effects, collage and painting to produce hybridized portrait heads. Exploring new methods of working seems to fascinate Madelyn. There is the sense that she is restlessly forging new ways of image making and a further phase in her work is beginning to emerge. These images are earthy, gritty, working with a more painterly eye, sometimes combining old distressed gold picture frames with unusual primitive abstracted painted portraits on canvas.

In 2016, two years after her death, a posthumous exhibition “Proofs of Life“ was organized at NYU‘s 80 Washington Square East Gallery. This website presentation continues the discussion about her art. It would be easy to suggest that Bradley‘s archive has a connection to the posthumous reconsideration of work by other women photographers like Francesca Woodman or Vivienne Maier who died too young but made influential work ahead of their time. But this website of Madelyn Bradley‘s art has a further and different resonance. It is a wonderful proof of her life and documents her restless, prolific struggle to refine her vision and to make innovative and important images.

by Rupert Goldsworthy

Image Galleries

Rupert Goldsworthy is a writer, curator and artist based in NYC.  His books include “CONSUMING//TERROR: Images of the Baader-Meinhof” (DMV, 2009) and “Corrupt and Obscene” (forthcoming). He has written about contemporary art and photography for the magazines Art in America, Artcritical, Artnet, Brooklyn Rail, Camera Austria, Contemporary Practices, Fantom Editions, Sculpture, and /seconds.  He holds a Masters in Studio Art and a PhD in Art Education/Visual Culture from NYU. He has taught at New York University, Pratt Institute, School of Visual Arts, Parsons School of Design The New School and the International Center for Photography, NYC.