Elaine Mayes

'In the Present: Five Decades'

The SCAD Museum of Art presents "In the Present: Five Decades" by veteran photographer Elaine Mayes, exploring works that span 50 years of her career. The exhibition includes iconic works from the 1960s and ‘70s as well as mines lesser-known aspects of her practice to consider in relation to recent work. The curatorial framework centers on Mayes’ broader philosophy surrounding image making, which stems from her immersion in the moment and in producing imagery with a visual vocabulary that stands the test of time.

Elaine Mayes, “Russell” from “Haight Ashbury Portraits” series, 1968, courtesy of the artist
Elaine Mayes, “Russell” from “Haight Ashbury Portraits” series, 1968, courtesy of the artist

A main focus and emphasis for Mayes' work has been investigations of "seeing" and documentary forms in photography. This interest led to a number of projects that sought out close-at-hand situations that became subject material for her photographs.

This exhibition consists of more than 90 works and includes examples from the black-and-white series "Autolandscapes," which challenged traditional representation of the American landscape. For this series, Mayes photographed through the window of a moving car. These images manifest her experience of a proliferating mobile society and its increasing separation from the natural world. An earlier group of works, broadly known as "Haight Ashbury Portraits," includes iconic portraits of both friends and strangers during the height of the hippie, counterculture movement of the 1960s. Here, Mayes is embedded in the scene that she records, unlike the more removed approach to the later "Autolandscapes" series.

Travel, movement, and everyday observations remained a steadfast fount of inspiration for Mayes. One of her earliest projects, "El Camino Real," was funded by The Federal Bureau of Public Roads and is connected to her deep-rooted interest in the road as she began the practice of documenting places in her world: in this case, photographing the culture and land alongside the roadway. While appreciating how photography can show us the past, her work is tied together by the need to work in ways connected to the present and a curiosity for finding out what she did not already know. In turn, her photography became an exploration and a record of her often-nomadic life.

The exhibition also explores her lesser-known color work, such as examples from her National Endowment for the Arts "Long Island Survey Project" of the late 1970s. These images capture couples, families and groups on Jones Beach, New York. During her career, Mayes inscribed a particular subjectivity into a male-dominated, more objective approach to the medium. The first woman to teach film and photography in an American university, she was a true pioneer and continued to teach for over 35 years.

About the artist

Elaine Mayes has been an active visual artist since 1960. Between 1961 and 1968 she was an independent photojournalist working in San Francisco primarily for magazines and graphic designers. During 1967 and 1968, she was a rock-and-roll photographer who photographed the "Summer of Love" and the scene in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco. One of her assignments was to photograph the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. This work was published in her book called, "It Happened In Monterey."

Mayes taught photography for 35 years at colleges and universities such as the University of Minnesota, Hampshire College, Bard College and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She was chair of the Tisch Photography Department from 1997 until her retirement from teaching. She is currently a professor emerita, lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York and actively continues her work.

Mayes’ photography has been exhibited extensively, with recent exhibitions connected with the 50th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" and The Monterey Pop Festival, and include the de Young Museum, San Francisco; California Historical Society, San Francisco; The SFO Museums United Airlines Terminal; the Monterey Art Museum, California; The Grammy Museum, Los Angeles, California; Spazio Gerra in Reggio Emilia, Italy and the Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California.

Her work is represented in numerous collections and includes the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Programs and events


The exhibition is curated by Storm Janse van Rensburg, head curator of SCAD exhibitions and Susan Laney (B.F.A, photography, 1998), guest curator.

Museum Admission

The exhibition is free for all museum members, and SCAD students, faculty and staff with a valid SCAD Card. Open to the public with the cost of museum admission.

Partners and sponsors

“In the Present: Five Decades” is supported by a grant from Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.

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