Galerie Miranda, APPROCHE experimental photography art fair, Paris, May 2021
On the occasion of the Paris art fair Approche, dedicated to experimental photography, the Miranda gallery shows works by the American artist Ellen Carey, who is little or insufficiently known in Europe despite being acknowledged as a major contributor to the art of photography in her own country. These works include pieces from the landmark series of abstract photograms, Dings & Shadows, as well as a more recent triptych Polaroid 20×24 Crush & Pull, shown for the first time. All works are unique.
In an interview given in 2018 to Eye prefer Paris, Carey remembers: “As a child, I drew. Raised Catholic, stained glass windows brought light and color together. Ellen, my birth name in Irish, Gaelic, Celtic means bringer of light; destiny and fate brought me to photography”. This fascination with light is key to understanding Carey’s work.
Ellen Carey was born in 1952 in New York City. In the mid-1970s, as she attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, Carey was close to a group of young, ambitious avant-garde artists which included Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, who would become such towering figures of the American art scene. From her early work, one may quote her remarkable Light Portrait (1976), which is not entirely without connections with Man Ray’s Space Writing of 1935, about which Carey will write a short essay in 2011. She also showed a series of Painted Black & White Self-Portraits (1978) which combine in the same photographic image the classic self-portrait with elements of abstract painting which modify the perception of the subject.
Self-portaits transform the photographer into an object thus reverting the traditional object/viewer relationship of optical perspective: the fusion of the subject matter and the self who is considering it is also a fusion between the physical self, observed from a distance, and the interior self of the photographer who takes the photograph as if at once behind and in front of the camera. Ultimately, the object ends up contemplating the self, its creator-made-object. Photographic pictures inevitably reveal something more than the physical traits of the person, they are a glimpse into the self. The outside reveals something of the inside, just as the positive gives life through light to the obscurity of the negative: photographic self-portraits are also a metaphor of the person, not only its image. As Carey would say, quoted by Willis Hartshorn in a catalogue for a 1987 exhibition at the International Center of Photography, “the photographic self was created to allow the unconscious self to materialize with the marks”. She will then apply lines, body decorations, dashes of paint and other marks to her self-portraits, so as to express internal states or relationships to the environment. Having started her work with self-portraits is perhaps already a hint of why Carey will concentrate on those techniques which abolish the distance between the image captured and the one seen. She will only need to retire herself altogether from the image to leave light manifest itself as if through the mirror of its unfathomable being.
Carey’s career took a significant turn when she was invited to the Polaroid Corporation’s program, as the firm cleverly sponsored artists to explore the potential of the instant development photography technique invented by Edwin Land.
In the early 1980s, Carey may be considered as close to, or part of, “Neo-Geo” – the neo-geometric conceptualist art movement – which is somewhere at the crossroads of minimalism, Op-art and Pop-art for its concentration on geometric abstraction and its interest in colour, but also for its anti-consumerist spirit and its wariness of any form of simulacra, under the probable intellectual influence of Jean Baudrillard. The sociologist tended to interpret many social phenomena of the modern world as constructs of which geometry was a kind of metaphor, and was a pioneer in the approach of simulation which was to become such a central component of civilization a few decades later. This Neo-Geo moment was a form of transition on Carey’s road to the progressive elimination of the figure itself. As she puts it, “The realization that I was now painting with light triggered a more minimal aesthetic, symbolizing integration. Previous references to body decoration or the cosmos, for example, now allude to the machine, science and mathematics, especially geometry”. In these Neo-Geo portraits, it would appear that the self is all at once in a pursuit of, and a confrontation with, rationality, this Janus both liberator and warder. After 1986, Carey will drop altogether the human figure and all constraints of shape, and she will concentrate her research, as if in a purely experimental undertaking, on the mysteries of light and visibility.
In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard writes: “Representation stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and of the real (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Simulation, on the contrary, stems from the Utopia of the principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as the reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum”. Is Carey’s total rejection of the figure a “death sentence” cast on every reference, are her images their own pure simulacrum, never to be exchanged for the real? Most certainly not. Her work will become a fight with light itself, a phanomachia, to echo the episode of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, which aims at “forcing” light to reveal more and more of its aspects, of its hitherto unknown dimensions. It is an initiatory journey travelled by means of the techniques which she has mastered, and that journey is a metaphor of all human quests, of humanity as the specie which, precisely, embarks on quests.
Carey’s experimental Polaroid practice dates from 1983, when the Polaroid Artists Support Program invited her to work at the Polaroid 20×24 Studio. In the late 1980s, she asked herself the question of what an abstract photograph looks like, or should look like. As most scientist do, she often starts with questions. Abstract expressionism was of course a major American art movement of the 1940s and 1950s, and so was minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s, although traceable in some respects to the De Stijl and other avant-garde European pre-war movement. But there was little in the way of “pure abstraction” in the realm of photography. Of course, a number of pictures by Man Ray, Rodchenko or Kertész paved the way to abstraction by isolating shapes in the world which could not be directly interpreted by the eye as objects, or were presented in such a way as to dismiss the reference to the object. The Czech avant-garde is closer to the mark, with the clean abstract photograms and collages which Jaroslav Rössler (1902 – 1990) made in the 1920s (see photogram pictured). Carey went a step further, reinterpreting and combining the legacy of American abstraction and minimalism with the “traditional” technique of the photogram and the new opportunities provided by the Polaroid instant camera.
She made a picture without any “traces of its own “making” – without subject matter, without representation, no punctum or stadium (a clear reference to the seminal work of the semiologist Roland Barthes, La chambre claire). No reference to anything “out there”. However, it was all about photography — light — it could only be made photographically – process – it was an experiment, a reticulated negative that made an abstract image”, and operated a breakthrough with the invention of the Pull in 1996 and the Rollback the following year. Carey is one of the very few artists – perhaps the only one – who have dedicated most of their practice to the systematic exploration of the formal avenues opened by the Polaroid technology.
Let us listen to the artist: “Both my photographic practice and umbrella concept fits under Photography Degree Zero, my phrase that originated in 1996 from my first Pull […] It references Roland Barthes’s book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), which offers a critical discourse on the departure from a 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 life. 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, but without a darkroom. It involves the large format Polaroid 20 X 24 camera that I began using in 1983 […] I discovered new photographic possibilities in 1996. I named the new artworks Pulls, and later Rollbacks — here a Pull is rolled up, 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 — shapes seen in nature in the frontal curve of a comet or the dip in a pinecone.”
In parallel, under the umbrella concept of Struck by Light, she works on photograms produced in a darkroom without any camera of course, but also without any subject matter. Contrary to so many classic photograms which tend to be monochrome, hers are in colour, and she manages to reveal a universe of tones which brings quasi-hypnotic effects. She was inspired among other sources by the work of Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871), an English botanist turned photographer, whose father was a friend of William Henry Fox Talbot, the photography pioneer and inventor of calotypes. Talbot trained Atkins in these techniques, and she became the first woman photographer ever. A friend of John Herschel, who invented the cyanotype process in 1842, Atkins soon applied it to algae, making photograms by placing the algae directly on the cyanotype paper.
Around the same time as the invention of the Pulls, an artist such as Alain Fleischer in France was producing black and white photograms without any subject matter other than the folds of the sensitive paper itself, in a series named Plis et Replis (1998). But here, the shape still dominates thanks to the carefully organized folds of the photosensitive paper, while Carey dispenses with intentional shape altogether, contrary to most abstract proposals.
With both the Polaroid Pulls and the Struck by Light photograms, photography is liberated from any subject matter and sets out towards its own principle, light, as if it were a metaphor of the quest for some precious and elevated goal, difficult if not impossible to reach. Photography without an object inevitably takes on a metaphysical tone because light was always in most cultures the symbol of the absolute, the origin, the truth. The absence of any perceptible substance is perceived as either a loss or an expectation. Light as that where the world emanates from, light that exceeds all material shapes, and leaves, by implication only, the viewer as the only invisible presence in the photogram: the viewer’s self as the only worshipper of the awe-inspiring presence of light. Here is photography which does not re-present anything, but rather confronts the viewer with the idea of a source, of what “being” might actually mean. With the fact of seeing a trace, an index of light that is nothing substantial in itself, but that would make something into a reality if it were only interposed between that light and the paper; it cannot be surprising that light was always a metaphor of creative power, a power which we cannot “meet” but which manifests itself through colours, as if they were its emissaries. Here is an image that is not a mere technical achievement but, in a manner parallel to that of alchemy, is produced by the inspired intervention of a human on matter, with the aim of discovering something yet unknow or invisible. The nature of light is explored, from the viewpoint of art rather than physics of course, by discarding everything that is accessory, non-essential, and in particular the objects, including the camera in the case of photograms. The ultimate point is reached perhaps in the experiment of the Zerograms : no camera, no natural light, no object, no film… What is left is colour, as if it were the very blood of light, colour bleeding on the large vertical Pulls. (see Pull with Red Rollback (2006) on the left)
The Blinks series is an attempt to answer the question : “What does a 21st century abstract/minimal photogram look like?”. They reflect the artist’s investigation into the biology of seeing, and act as a metaphor of a world where all may change in the blink of eye. Ding & Shadows, a series of large-size colour photograms named after a printing error (the “ding”) which is usually to be banned in “traditional” photography, brings an element of discovery through desecration. The photosensitive paper is crumpled, rather than folded, so that it becomes a sensitive topography obtained at least in part by chance rather than design, and that topography modifies the way light is captured, and therefore the way colours themselves become organized in space. The viewer gets a different picture depending on the angle from which he looks at the photogram, the hour of the day, or the lighting arrangement. With her Push Pins (2002), she pokes tiny holes in the paper so that light might diffuse in random ways from these holes and create short light stripes on the image. This process violates the classic two-dimensional imperative which photography has always taken for granted, and the related purity of the image as a perfect rendition of the artist’s intention. With her neverending experimental process, Carey tends indeed to accept, and to deliberately welcome, play between intention and outcome, without such play being left to mere chance. It is not an error, a poorly adjusted mechanics, a clumsy execution, but a window opened to the discovery of new shades of colour, impressions or seductions which can never be completely under control, as if they were some industrial wallpaper print.
The photogram is both fashioned and “painted” by the artist’s hand, and that groping process becomes the subject matter of the work,rather than the imprint of some physical object. This is perhaps a way of playing with a technique in order to rebel against the inevitably dictatorial power of technique when systematically applied. In that space of invention, this artistic moment of invenzione as the Renaissance would have it, lays the ultimate reality of life that is experiencing. Carey stated indeed that the photographic object, and not only the practice of photography, involves an intersection of process and invention. She adds: “While in traditional photography, both the process and the invention are “transparent”, mere means to an end, in my work the process becomes the subject”. This however requires to be qualified. The subject matter can rightfully be considered as the process of exploring the nature of light by the means of photography, rather than the process of producing a particular image. The possibilities offered by the techniques of the photogram – or as the case may be, the Polaroid – in order to produce this image is a material offered to invention, an invention which can hardly be separated from the process which both enables it and constrains it.
Crush & Pull, the artist’s latest body of Polaroid work (2019), brings about new developments for photography in this 21st century, while combining the 19th century technique of photograms and the 20th century instant technology of Polaroid. This step represents the merging of photograms which have been crushed or crumpled, with the pull process applied to instant photography. A synthesis of Carey’s work over nearly three decades. As she tells herself: “The new “Crush & Pull” series (2018) being exhibited at Paris Photo for the first time combines Polaroid and Photogram, color with experiment, in effect, making a Polaroid Photogram, a new photographic object for the 21st century […] Crush & Pull links my photographic experiments in color with process, minimalism and abstraction, light and its variations, often with zero exposure, uniting my twin practices Struck by Light and Photography DegreeZero for the first time. Crush & Pull bridges ideas from my own photograms, its history and practitioners to ideas in Polaroid, instant technology’s history and those practitioners.”
This is probably made possible because the negative-to-positive duality is similar in photograms and Polaroid, as they touch each other until the final image is obtained: in the photogram, the subject is also the negative, with a transfer operated by the shadow, while in the Polaroid the negative is “peeled off” only after the image has been able to form on the positive.
For Crush & Pull the Polaroid negative, after exposure in the color darkroom, is developed with Polaroid’s “pods”. Carey’s performance in the black box of the darkroom “lets light create on its own terms”; in a second step, this photogram becomes the negative of the Polaroid, thus bringing together the natural “inventiveness” of light, the physical intervention of the artist in the darkroom, and her expert use of the chemistry of the Polaroid. The process applied to the photogram has become amaterial which is subjected to yet another layer of process and invention, the one made possible by the Polaroid, thus superimposing an additional uncertainty over the initial one: a metaphor perhaps of the essence of the technical era which is currently transforming humans and societies into something which can be imagined, fantasized, but not predicted.
Any attempt at describing the processes by means of which Carey constructed her visual world would probably be vain, or misleading. She uses the Polaroid 20×24 as a laboratory where she manages to discover, thanks to manipulations which remain mysterious to the layperson, new hues and combinations of colour: “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, which have never been seen […] Cross processing is another term that allows me to paint with light using the Polaroid pods-as-paint tubes, my enriched palette digs deeper into color’s mother lode”. One could add that shape itself is discarded as another of the “zeroes”: shape, which is ultimately drawing, and therefore separation from the whole, would represent a distraction, and perhaps even a contradiction; it might prevent the finding of the “mother lode”, a term which is certainly not used by Carey by chance. This is indeed a quest for the precious metal, that which is yet unseen. Photography understood in that manner may be defined as an instrument to explore the limits of visual perception, and by analogy of perception in general, rather than a visual exploration or transfiguration of shapes. But as in alchemy, the “gold” in the mother lode is never actually reached or obtained, the gold lays in the power of attraction that it keeps exerting.
The Polaroid 20×24 camera deserves perhaps a few words. It is a large instant camera with plates which measure 20 x 24 inches (51 x 61 cm). Developing chemicals are stored in foil pods at the rear of the camera and applied to the exposed film by titanium rollers. In its normal functioning, after the negative is exposed, one foil pod is ruptured by these rollers and the developing chemicals are spread between the negative and the positive rolls which are separated after a short while to provide the photograph. The first such camera was built in 1976; only five original cameras were made, in addition to the prototype. A “hybrid” one was assembled in 1997 by Tracy Storer, using spare parts of a prototype. This is a camera which requires a substantial degree of technical knowledge and “taming” in order to get it ready for capture.
When John Reuter, a former Polaroid executive, understood that the firm was winding down, he purchased an original Polaroid 20 x 24 camera, around 500 cases of the film in its raw format, kept in a cold storage facility, and a supply of the 17 chemicals required to create the film. This allowed him to open in 2009 the 20×24 Studio and keep the format alive so that artists could continue creating with this outstanding instrument. It remains a highly vulnerable venture; when discovering an issue with the chemistry in 2016, the Studio was on the brink of closure until a solution was found. It is only maintained by a small community of passionate people. It would appear that only two such cameras remain in use in the world today, or capable of functioning, one in Berlin and the other one in New York. The winding down of the stock of raw film, and potentially the difficulty to source the required chemicals, mean that the possibility to continue creating with this format is unlikely to last for long.
Ellen Carey could well be the last great interpreter playing on this instrument, which was used by a number of outstanding artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, and the portraitist Elsa Dorfman, to name but a few. Most used the format for portraits. Carey persistently and thoroughly explored all of its artistic possibilities.