The greatest inventor that most people never heard of was Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant who came to America in the latter 19th century and proceeded to invent AC (or alternating current), radar and the radio. He also tried to invent "thought photography." Because brain waves are electrical, he believed ideas could be transmitted from the brain through a mechanical optic nerve and recorded as photographs. Although a wonderful conventional photo exists of his friend, Mark Twain, holding a glowing orb of light in his laboratory, Tesla never managed to make a thought camera by the time he died at age 87.
Now, in a new epoch, Jamie Baldridge may have succeeded in creating thought photographs, but the process is far from instantaneous and the images themselves are as firmly rooted in the 19th century as Tesla's earliest inventions. A New Iberia native and resident of Baton Rouge, Baldridge is the latest in a line of Louisiana photo-surrealists and optical illusionists that includes gothic fiction illustrator J.K. Potter and the late historical surrealist, Clarence John Laughlin. And it's a shame that Laughlin is no longer around because he, of all people, would really appreciate what Baldridge is doing. Though still youngish at 31, he appears to have mastered traditional and advanced digital photography techniques, and if his vision may still be catching up with his abilities, his worldview appears consistent if evolving. It's a world of magic that implies a question: What would everyday life look like if technology had remained in the hands of alchemists instead of conventional scientists?
For one thing, the results would have been more mystical, the product of dreams and arcane rituals. In his largish photo, Annals of Steam, a woman in a Victorian outfit sits at a table where she cuts a pink cord that has crawled in from the bleak, wintry landscape beyond her window. On her head is a machine emitting puffs of vapor, as if Tesla's thought camera had been powered by steam. Up close, the cord has thorns like a rose vine, and it's all very mysterious yet elaborately rendered. In Waiting for Tuesday, a pensive nude sits on a wooden stool, staring at a mouse hole. She wears a conical sorcerer's hat and strap-on wings in an empty room with parquet floors and velvet Victorian wallpaper, and we can only wonder how she ended up there.
A High Wind From Damascus is a large, vertical image of a woman in a long gown, nude from the waste up. She stands in an empty room with a dark cloth over her head, obscuring her face, with some large butterflies clinging to its folds. It's one of those classically surrealist situations in which a bizarre result is presented to the viewer as a mental puzzle. In A Penny Dreadful Opera, another voluptuous, bare-breasted woman appears on a palatial staircase. She wears a kind of pointy bell-jar on her head with a tiara of electrodes, and beyond the magically mysterious elegance of the setting, the viewer may begin to discern a recurring theme of bare breasts and pointy headgear. Baldridge makes no bones about his fascination with the female body, and such exotic headgear sometimes appears in the annals of alchemy. He also acknowledges the influence of Remedios Varo, the great Spanish Surrealist painter and alchemist who expatriated to Mexico during the reign of dictator Francisco Franco.
Other influences appear in works such as Rendering Glue From Bone, a view of a reclining nude on a divan inspired by a similarly titled Max Ernst collage. An alchemical odalisque, she appears with serpentine tubes wrapped around her head and limbs, yet her expression suggests comfort and repose. While such works are impressive, displaying a formidable mastery of materials -- including the arcane Maya digital imaging program used in movies such as The Matrix -- some may still wonder about those conical hats and bare breasts. But visit www.jamiebaldridge.com/Phreno.swf (click on the buttons at the base of the antique mystery machine), and see a much more fully realized vision of high Victorian mysticism, alchemy and eccentrics, a genteel world of magic made ordinary. Even as his vision continues to evolve, Baldridge is clearly emerging as a master photo-illusionist, one of a rare few working in America today.