Ralph Mercer: Finding the Feminine

Updated: Oct 30, 2018

Author Jenn Mishra

This week, I talked with fine art photographer Ralph Mercer about his digital art projects, Myths and Dialectics, which explore the feminine form in unique ways. Ralph is a man trying to understand women and his relationship to them through his photography.

When I asked Ralph to describe his work, he laughed.

“I was once asked to create an elevator speech about my photography and I couldn’t do it. My cousin calls my pictures pornography. I don’t take it personally because I know where she is coming from. There’s certainly a sensual component in the work that goes back to the archetype of the woman as the progenitor – the part of the equation that is productive and creating new people, that is not easy to label. There are so many things about the female aspect of humanity: concepts and words like mystery, desire, memory, and reverence.”

His photography of women is meant to honor womanhood's qualities of sensual beauty, procreation and motherhood. His artist statement may say it best:

“This work is a metaphysical meditation that ponders the powerful, creative, and archetypal character of womanhood.”

Photograph by Ralph Mercer

Ralph started his professional photography life as a photo illustrator and commercial photographer for publications such as the Atlantic Monthly Magazine and the Harvard Business Review. He would use his creativity to make photo collages of images he created in the studio. For corporate illustrations and brochures, for instance, he would photograph all sorts of things in the studio, globes, maps, clocks, photographs of photographs and he would combine them using multiple exposure, layering the images on one piece of film.

He experimented with manipulating images in the darkroom and in camera. He would airbrush onto photographs. Once he started working with digital images, his imagination took off.

“Once I started working digitally I didn’t look back because I was able to make so many of my ideas come out in the work.”

The projects Myths and Dialectics have their roots in his own family.

“I hardly photographed people at all until I was photographing my daughter’s pregnancy 13 years ago. I was admiring her beauty and her potential as mother and progenitor of our descendants. I started to think a lot about the women in my life. I’m an only child and my mother was a big part of my life. She was a major influence, so I have a pretty good feminine side already. I just built from that. I thought about the whole range of things that the women in my life represented.”

Ralph began studying feminine archetypes and looking at the importance of women and their position within various societies and groups. He began exploring the female form and how the feminine connects with nature.

He describes the series Myths as:

“a spiritual connection through merging of a human figure with a natural organic subject. This visual blending of man and nature suggests an erotic transcendentalism, and promotes meditations on spiritual integration and the oneness of an individual with the comprehensive environment.”

One of his early photos was Myths 3 (Masks).

“I made this photo very early on just as I was beginning to explore photographing people. When I made this picture, it was something I really loved and other people responded in the same way. I enlarged a negative of a leaf in the darkroom and cut it out for the model to hold. That was the start of the photo. It’s a microscopic way to look into the self.”

In the Dialectics series, Ralph was able to take advantage of his guilty pleasure – abstract photography.

“Even when I’m photographing flowers, I’m using abstraction as a way to see into the subject and to capture its essence visually.”

Dialectics 15 Photograph by Ralph Mercer

This series is about contrasting the soft organic form of the female body with hard-edged geometric abstractions. The abstract shapes, sometimes created by photographing paper sculptures in the studio, sometimes taken from objects found in a museum, or photographing in nature, are composited with the female form.

“By creating that dialectic, one can see both sides of the equation - to compare geometry and body and to observe their nature and what they represent. It’s a way of seeing the beauty, the softness, the essence of the young woman. Not herself, per se, but an aspect of who she is, to see that more clearly."

Dialectics #15 is an example of this juxtaposition of hard and soft. Ralph created and photographed a Plexiglas pyramid and superimposed it onto a photograph he made of a model for a commercial shoot. The photo is all about the hand and the gesture.

Ralph encourages other photographers to experiment and see the world differently.

“When I photograph a model, I usually try a lot of different things. I pursue my original idea for the shoot, but I’ll also try some unusual things as well, experimenting with camera techniques and ideas suggested by the model. With digital photography everything is a learning experience.

Just grab the camera and go out and shoot, discovering what interests you as you explore. Some people make a point of photographing everyday. Take as many or as few photos as you want – it doesn't cost a thing. What makes you happy? Go places or do wild things or just study a puddle of water. There’s so much to do and see.”

Ralph Mercer inspires me to look at the world differently and consider combining photos for a magical effect. His work explores shape and form through the use of soft focus and compositing. Artists throughout history, from Da Vinci to de Kooning, have explored the feminine archetype and Ralph’s photography follows in this tradition.

See more of Ralph Mercer's photos on his website and follow Ralph on Facebook

More Interviews from Influential Female Photographers >>>

** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.

Article Written by Jennifer Mishra

Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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