Ellen Carey : Photography and Lens-Based Art: Introduction
Abstraction in photography and lens-based art presents a contradiction in terms, minimalism a further oxymoron. Well developed in the 20th century in other areas - Abstract Expressionism, Minimal and Conceptual Art - abstraction in photography is emergent still a decade into the 21st century. It is here in the early stages of modern and contemporary art with roots in photography, that my work has a context. It is important to note these practices are largely based in America, and being fully aware of this legacy, their tenets are incorporated into my art practice. The American invention of Polaroid 20 X 24 camera / film complements these breakthroughs in visual thinking with my discovery of the "Pull" in 1996, that produced an abstract / minimal image simultaneously photographic / process, and fitting under my umbrella concept "Photography Degree Zero". A second legacy, that of the photogram, a technique from the dawn of photography (1834) discovered by British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), develops and continues as it parallels my artistic practice and concept, calling it "Struck by Light".
My art works contain aspects that are conceptually linked and informed through visual characteristics, such as the shadow and silhouette image seen in the object as a negative and referencing this rich history. Formal issues of size and scale, in tandem with palette, create visual impact. The content-laden aspects of my work are weighed in as their echo is embedded and realized in my choices of method and material, acknowledging that these contain symbols and signs, creating and adding to my art's meaning. Themes such as mourning, love, and loss are seen in muted, monochrome tones, often expressed as site-specific minimal, monumental gridded tableaux. Black, white and grey have aesthetic as well as conceptual value, underscored in the content behind my pictures, giving them a context. This reductive palette can highlight line and shape; the ubiquitous codes of the circle (the camera's lens) and square (the camera's body) are also used. Stark and subtle, these three colors, serve as a reference to drawing with light, a historical phrase that points to the medium's 19th century origins.
Parallel work emphasizes that color has purpose and exists for a reason. Joyful feelings of creativity reflect a discipline where I am digging deeper into color's mother lode, revisiting terms, such as color processing, in new and experimental ways. Color is subject and object, material with meaning, and process within the art. Again, this gives my work context in the relatively young field of color photography, itself just over a century old.
Art and photography, like music, are universal languages, as is color. The end results are innovative and challenging artworks known for their rich synoptic clarity with well-thought out conceptual underpinnings that expand the content in the realm of art and photography by introducing new forms, such as the parabola seen as a conical loop in my "Pulls" or the variation of color shadows in my photograms, like "Push Pins". Feeling and form are juxtaposed and seen in unprecedented, unpredictable ways; expressed through mastery of methods and techniques which further develop within an array of unusual and striking combinations that generate new nomenclature.
My tools of choice for creative expression are three. The first is the 20th century large format Polaroid 20 X 24 camera - only one of five in the world used by myself for close to three decades - to become synonymous with contemporary art. The second is an antiquated cameraless process from the 19th century dawn of photography, known as the photogram, made with Polaroid film / camera or cameraless / enlarger in tandem with my experiments, inventions, and applications within a variety of processes, methods, and techniques. Like paint tubes, I use light, in all its forms, as a common denominator throughout my work. This interdisciplinary approach reflects my creative endeavors and artistic interests in a well-known medium highly regarded for its technical advances spanning over two centuries. Further, this approach enriches the visual arts and broadens the parameters of our picture culture.
A third tool, digital imaging technologies, is beginning to be used for a new interest of mine, that is, the biology of seeing. This brings my work into the 21st century with an especial appreciation of the medium's ability to introduce scale, a much-needed formal issue in my work. Its ability to expand an existing palette's range, through contrast and saturation, is leading to new possibilities; its capacity to reverse and / or manipulate an image presents even richer ones.
As metaphor for the field and for myself as the art maker, I begin in the 19th century with black and white by using the photogram, enter the 20th century through color and Polaroid, and reach into the 21st century by way of digitalization. Experiments include one or more of these approaches needed to create a single, huge, ink-jet print. The biology of seeing focus is a perfect match for monumental, digital images. Size and scale are introduced as photograms revisualized as six gigantic, unique images, "Dings & Shadows"; the unifying concept doubles as the formula for photographic color theory. This idea has tremendous flexibility and could transfer into other forms and disciplines, such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, glass, film or a site-specific, time-based installation. The development of projects that move freely among other contemporary art practices reflects my artistic education and background, while exploring and embracing my cultural and creative interests.
Ellen Carey Artist Statement: Photography Degree Zero
Questions frequently asked about my work include, How is this picture made? What is this a picture of? The first question addresses photography as process. The photographic object often involves an intersection of process and invention, as does the practice of photography itself. In traditional photography, both the process and the invention are 'transparent' mere means to an end. In my work the process becomes the subject. The second question addresses the conundrum of a photographic image without a picture or a 'sign' to read. Both questions challenge our cultural and historically prescribed expectations for this medium to narrate and document, all the while revealing no trace of its own origins.
Both my photographic practice and umbrella concept for it fit under "Photography Degree Zero", a phrase I originated in 1996 from my first "Pull". I am its senior user and it doubles for all my one-person exhibitions since that year. It references Roland Barthes's book, "Writing Degree Zero" (1953), a critical discourse on the swerve away from descriptive narrative in French avant-garde literature. In related fashion, my work represents a departure from the picture / sign idea in photography found in images such as landscapes, portraits or still lifes. Instead, my work consists of a photographic image made without a subject, or any reference to a place, a person or an object. These are artworks I make in a studio, with a camera and without a darkroom. It involves the large format Polaroid 20 X 24 camera which I began using in 1983. Being familiar with the inner intricacies of this camera, I discovered new photographic possibilities in 1996. I named the new artworks "Pulls", and later "Rollbacks" wherein a "Pull" is rolled up and re-fed back through the camera for one or more exposures to reflect the physical picture-making activity. In addition to my technique, a visual form called the parabola is introduced as a conical loop, or a hyperbola new to the medium - seen as shapes in nature - as in the frontal curve of a comet or the dip in a pine cone.
A single "Pull", with its signature black shape, is a different form of photographic document, that of the exhausted and unexposed Polaroid dyes pulled out from the camera's rollers. This camera produces a unique, large contact positive print, along with its negative, in a one-step peel-away method taking a mere 60-seconds to develop. In a series of changes, actions or functions I am able to make work that is simultaneously both photographic / process and abstract / minimal. The negatives are often exhibited along with the positives, giving equal status to both.
Color has broad, universal appeal, as does the language of photography. A concentrated interest in color as subject and object, material with meaning, and process in photographic art has led me through uncharted territories along a path of discoveries and surprises. With new possibilities and arrangements, I found that my need to rely on traditional photographic colors faded away. They were displaced by imagined, chemically created colors, which I conjured up by using gel-colored light or no light at all - the "zero" in my concept - instead of exposing my lens to a view in front of my eyes. In my Polaroid "Pulls", I mixed and mismatched conventional practices with experimental abandon. What evolved was a menu of inventive techniques and methods that brought to life colors and combinations of colors that have never before been seen.
With each new change in Polaroid, I have responded. New forms and shapes are made in tandem with a dazzling array of colors, some subtle and muted, some chemically created and co-existing with their former "real" selves, opening up horizons in the relatively short history of color photography. New experiments have further yielded a significant mix of feather-blended colors, swirls and elongated shapes extending the parabola into a solid, albeit, organic shape. A single "Pull", with its signature conical black loop, usually has a horizontal line denoting an end, between light /exposure, no light and the "zero" of no exposure - the picture plane divides and now it is gone. This new development in 2009 finds "Pull with Mixed and Off-Set Pods" made with no light, the "zero" of my practice "Photography Degree Zero"; rich, glossy blacks are feather-blended with amber, striated textures. Precursors in 2008 produced a group of artworks, such as "Pull with Flare", in a different palette - cool, minimal austere. The newest ideas are realized in "Pulls with Mixed and Off Set Pods" (2010) - a suite of four panels in Y/R/G/B that mix and match bold experiments to create vibrant, new colors and dramatic, inventive forms.
The Polaroid 20 X 24 camera / studio is now privately held as 20 X 24 Holdings LLC (www.20X24studio.com). Most projects have been self-funded, with the exception of "Mourning Wall" which was sponsored by Real Art Ways (2000); "Self Portrait at 48" (2000), from a fellowship grant awarded by The Connecticut Commission on the Arts; and a site-specific installation of monumental "Pulls XL" for The Wadsworth Atheneum and my MATRIX#153 solo exhibition (2004-05) that used the even larger Polaroid 40 X 80 camera. Shortly after completion of this work the camera was dismantled. All other projects and artworks are funded from the proceeds of the art market, portrait or corporate commissions.
Ellen Carey Artist Statement: Struck by Light
The second category of my artwork, that of the photogram, is less widely known. It was recently the focus of a one-person retrospective (1992-2009) exhibition titled "Struck by Light". Over fifty unique artworks, never before seen in public, were showcased at Saint Joseph College Art Gallery, curated by Ann H. Sievers, its Director, with a book / essay (2011) by critic / curator / historian Andy Grundberg, and plans to tour. "Struck by Light", the name of my second umbrella concept and artistic practice, consists of art works that are not studio-based, but made in a darkroom, without a camera and in color, and without light, except upon exposure, as practiced in the 19th century by early experimenters William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and his contemporary, the Victorian Anna Atkins (1799-1871) - the first woman photographer and the first to use color with the cyanotype process that yields a Prussian blue. The photogram was made by placing objects (leaf / lace) directly on to the surface of a photo-sensitive paper and exposing it to sunlight, which created a ghostly, silhouetted negative image of the object's outline, its shadow. Varying in darkness, according to the transparency of the object used, this print was later contacted to make its positive (1840), thus Talbot's negative / positive axis is the foundation for all photography.
This duality for me has symbolic and existential overtones as well as physical and material ones, and is rich for exploring themes that are visually stimulating while providing conceptual / contextual fertile ground in both categories. The negative / shadow / black / death and positive / light / white / life are in fact picture 'signs'. These reflections on love and loss, minimally rendered, are empty frames of grief in my Polaroids. Expressed differently in my photograms, these concepts find joyful connections with explosions of color seen as playful, overlapping exposures, or shadows, that create a misty, soft rainbow against / with a harder-edged kaleidoscope of primaries.
I began camera-less artwork with a stark, reductive palette of black and white (1992), to which I added warm tones and muted color (1994-99) evolving into a dedicated, primary focus on color (2000-10) and creating photograms in bright hues luminous with color saturation that parallel the aforementioned biology of seeing, realized in my large scale installations, such as "Blinks R/G/B/Y/M/C". In contrast with earlier practitioners, I use unconventional (non-art) objects such as metal push pins, glass marbles, a photographic grey card to interrupt the light or penlights that strike the paper and reflect in the titles. I use light, the indexical in photography, often in tandem with the principles of photographic color theory (R/G/B = C/M/Y) to inform my palette choices and concepts. My projects start with questions and these artistic practices foreground this question: What does a 21st century abstract / minimal photogram look like? "Blinks" answer this, having context and precedence in the "afterimage" phenomena and in Piet Mondrian's "Boogie Woogie" painting. My "Blinks" reflect investigations into this biology of seeing: lines criss-cross the image over saturated fields of bright hues, intersectionally creating tiny squares of black and / or white that "blink" back (at the viewer) in a visceral, post-optical experience, an afterimage. This illusion is created as the cones and rods of the human eye try to take in the different wavelengths of colors: R/G/B.
The "Blinks" evidence the biology of seeing and simultaneously embrace abstraction and photography in the twenty-first century. The use of the photogram with digital imaging technologies can result in large final prints. They also act as a metaphor for transformations in our post 9/11 world, where change happens quickly, in the 'blink of an eye'; other titles "Push Pins", "Neo-Ops", "Ray Bands", "Penlights" and "Light Struck" reflect the objects and methods used. Projects in development are a return to black / white photogram printing, with an emphasis on size / scale to create huge, abstract / minimal images. Parallel with this activity are the monumental digital prints that expand my color repertoire in tandem with on-going color photogram work; especially invigorating is the newest "Dings & Shadows". Large-scale photograms and digital prints 'blow up' forms /objects, color / no color, light / shadow 'bigger, bolder, brighter' adding feeling and form to pictures under my concept "Struck by Light".
Both "Photography Degree Zero" and "Struck by Light" double as titles for my many one-person exhibitions and artworks since 1996 and 2010 respectively, with a third new concept, that of "Disegno e Colore" in development. "Disegno e Colore", uses two vintage techniques: the cliche, or drawing on glass and the cyanotype, a non-silver process, photography's first look at color, at blue. This phrase references an important dispute in the 16th century, an argument among artists such as Titian and Michelangelo, between a "disegno e colore" - drawing and color - the spontaneity of one versus the careful planning of the other. The project's title revisits and continues this discourse in photography using two vintage, cameraless methods from the 19th century. One known as cliche, or drawing on glass, pre-dates the invention of photography, the other introduces color through the cyanotype process, yielding shades of Prussian blue, the medium's first look at color realized through the botanical studies of the Victorian practitioner, Anna Atkins (1799-1871), also the first woman photographer. These complement the conceptual underpinnings. They give a contextual foundation to the project's centerpiece with its emphasis on "drawing and color " while done at a later time in the 21st century, linking several centuries and mediums, and reinvigorating and presenting afresh this lively discourse.
Ellen Carey : Writing: About the Artist
Several essays on Ellen Carey's work follow: noted photography critic / educator Ben Lifson's "Ellen Carey: From Matrix to Monumental" (all Polaroid Pulls / Polaroid installations, no photograms) from her Wadsworth Atheneum MATRIX#153 exhibition; Old Master scholar / art historian, Trinity College Professor Alden Gordon's "Drawing with Light, Painting with Emulsion: Ellen Carey's Pulls and Penlights" (both Polaroid / photogram work, no installations); poet Donna Fleischer's, "The Black Swans of Ellen Carey: Of Necessary Poetic Realities" on photograms / Polaroid Pulls and all installations (This is the catalogue essay to the 2014 Eastern Connecticut State University exhibition, "Let There Be Light: The Black Swans of Ellen Carey".); Lyle Rexer, an independent curator / critic, in his Aperture Foundation book The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography", also an exhibition / tour (2009-2012); "Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: New Wave in Old Processes", Rexer's Abrams book (2002), also an exhibition (Sarah Morthland Gallery), includes Carey's work in the chapter "Photography Degree Zero", Carey's name for her practice since 1996.
An essay by the noted critic / scholar, Andy Grundberg, will highlight Carey's work from her "Struck by Light" retrospective (1992-2012), originally an exhibition (2009) with over fifty unique photograms expressed in black / white, color, and digital imaging technology from a color photogram. The centerpiece, a suite of six, huge color photograms-as-installation "Blinks R/G/B/Y/M/C" represents her interest in the biology of seeing, investigations that include Carey's areas of expertise in color and experimentation, minimalism and abstraction. Her well-known Polaroid work finds a connection in "Color Theory" (1995) and "Polaroid Penlights" (2007); the former lays the foundation for her concepts and palette, the latter creates the first Polaroid photogram, drawing directly on its negative. Ann H. Sievers, Director of Saint Joseph College Art Gallery, curated the exhibition, the first dedicated to Carey's photograms, a lesser-known area of her artistic practice; most had not been seen before in public.
(Copyright 2014 Ellen Carey on all statements / introduction)
"Pulls with Mixed and Off-Set Pods"