Alden R. Gordon

Drawing with Light, Painting with Emulsion:
Ellen Carey's Pulls and Penlights

Trinity College, Hartford, CT

Ellen Carey, Light Portrait, 1976 ––

Ellen Carey, Light Portrait, 1976


In the great realm of photography – all the processes that used light sensitive materials to fix images – there are two broad categories. There are all of the photographic images which are made by the agency of cameras with lenses and then there are the images which are made without the use of lenses by direct manipulation of the photosensitive materials themselves. The vast majority of photography is of the first type, in which the photographer uses the optics of lenses, from pin-hole simple to ultra-sophisticated remote controlled devices capable of recording minute detail from satellites in space. The lens photographer selects his/her images from all the possibilities of visible phenomenon that can be placed before the lens.

The lensless photographer works and thinks quite differently. The images that they fix with light sensitive materials are optical inventions, most often non-objective form. The lensless image maker does not seek to record objective things or even to make abstractions of things in nature, though they can. These lensless photographers use the darkroom as the locus of creation – literally the darkroom becomes their studio.

Curiously, lensless photography is the oldest form of photography and had as its earliest expression direct contact prints of natural forms – primitive photograms called “photogenic drawings” – made by exposing light sensitive materials to daylight. The oldest surviving examples may just have been identified and may date from the last decade of the eighteenth century.[i]

As an art historian with a specialty in old master painting and drawing, I am intrigued by the lensless art of Ellen Carey because the work approximates in photographic media the unique qualities of hand drawing and painting and, most importantly, the immediacy of the artist’s thinking visually through the medium.  Carey abandoned the lens in 1989 and struggled with abstraction through the agency of the photogram. In this article, I am considering one strand of Carey’s range of experiments with lensless photography.[ii]

For me, Carey’s most intriguing lensless abstractions are the “penlight” drawings she has been making in the darkroom since 1999. [Figure 1: Ellen Carey, Photogenic Drawing, 1999. B&W silver gelatin print on luminous paper with hand toned color, H. 20” x W. 16”, Collection of the artist.]. These had their origins in work from the 1970s in which she “drew” with light on figures she photographed using a traditional camera and lens. In these early works she made long-exposure photographic images of human figures in motion illuminated only by a moving flashlight that the artist used to “draw” on the surface of her human subjects. [Figure 2: Ellen Carey, Light Portrait, 1976, B&W gelatin silver print/toned, H. 24” x W. 20”, Collection of the artist.] The nature of Carey’s penlight drawings – or of any artist’s lensless manipulations of the final photosensitive material (that is the paper print) -- is that the resulting image will be unique. Were the artist to draw with light on a negative and then process it, the result would be replicable as a positive print from the negative. But Carey’s penlights are drawn in the darkroom, in the dark, with light sources directly on and over the printing paper. The penlight on paper drawing is immediately processed, fixing the unique image. Carey controls the color of her penlight drawings by carefully calculated limited exposures of light washes over the paper using a color enlarger with a filtration system as a dispenser of more or less intense uniform or mixed gradations of hue. Carey has created distinctive drawings with light in colors that could only have been achieved with photographic emulsions. [Figure 3: Ellen Carey, Penlights, Magenta, 2007, color photogram (C-print), 24” x 20”, Collection of the artist and [Figure 4: Ellen Carey, Penlights, Yellow, 2007, color photogram (C-print), 24” x 20”, Collection of the artist). When multiple exposures of mixed colored light are used, Carey creates combinations of diaphanous lights that resemble the aurora borealis. [Figure 5: Ellen Carey, Penlights, Red/Cyan, 2007, color photogram (C-print), 20” x 16”, Collection of the Artist). The light source for the drawing – small flashlights – is also controlled by the movements of the artist’s hand drawing in syncopated rhythm and making motions closer to or further away from the paper surface – all of course in total darkness save for the drawing instrument itself.

The resulting penlight drawings have hauntingly atmospheric qualities. Some capture the light as smoke-like vapor resembling the condensation trails of jets high in the winter sky or cigar smoke in a dimly lit but still room.  Others have the look of Surrealist automatic drawings with echoes of Joan Miro or Matta Echuarren. As a student of drawings, I could easily recognize Carey’s distinctive drawing motions, just as I could spot a Guercino, a Rembrandt or a Manet. If one looks at Figures 3 and 4, for example, Carey has a characteristic, looping right-handed movement which is countered by more tendril-like lines made as the pen light is raised away from the surface.

Carey’s “Penlight” work has other sympathies with Surrealist and earlier Dada philosophical undercurrents. The entire concept is subversive to the extent that the penlight drawings are each unique and incapable of replication even though they are made from the very materials that make mechanical reproduction possible. In this light, Carey’s penlights are ideal for scholar collectors who can muse on the ways they defy their photographic technology and provide an ironic counterpoint to what Walter Benjamin would see as the fulfillment of the full horror of the age of mechanical reproduction in the immediate and pervasive simultaneous replication of identical images worldwide by means of digital technology and the internet.

The penlight photographs are also delicate and beautiful but in no way deny their nature as photographic in origin. The quality of color and of surface is distinctively owing to the choice of lustrous papers and rich distinctively chemical color ranges. The magenta in Figure 3 is a color one finds only in the chemical tinctures of modern industrial processes.

As an analogy to the penlight drawings, Carey also creates another quite different form of lensless images which are not made in the darkroom at all. These are her “Pulls” – large scale vertical panels created by the direct manipulation of the sealed emulsion pods invented by the Polaroid Company for use with their instant self-developing camera technology. Carey has used two different forms of Polaroid color pods -- the largest scale called 40 X 80 capable of making images 44 inches wide and up to 132 inches long (Figure 6. Ellen Carey, Pull XL, 2004, Polaroid 40 X 80 color positive print, H. 132” X W 44”, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.), and the smaller 20 X 24 capable of making images 22 inches wide. (Figure 7. Ellen Carey, Pull with Flare & Line, 2003, Polaroid 20 x 24 color positive print, H. 108” X W. 22”. Collection of the artist.)

The Polaroid color transfer system is a one-step peel-away instant film process that sandwiches emulsion between a negative and a positive sheet. Each image is unique and produces a negative and a positive sheet of paper as a result. Carey’s polyptych Monochrome Partial Pulls, Yellow/ Red/Green/Blue, 2005 (positive) and its concomitant negative are physically the same size and equally commanding as visual expressions. Yet they are dramatically different in that in the positive one senses the color first and the form second, whereas in the negative the form dominates and the randomness of the sheet length of the paper comes more into play in the aesthetic character of the work. (Figure 8, Ellen Carey, Monochrome Partial Pulls, Yellow/ Red/Green/Blue, 2005, set of four Polaroid 20 X 24, Color Positive Prints, Installation dimensions H. 40” X W. 88, Courtesy IBU Gallery, Paris, France and Figure 9, Ellen Carey, Monochrome Partial Pulls, Yellow/ Red/Green/Blue, 2005, set of four Polaroid 20 X 24, Color Negative Prints, Installation dimensions H. 40” X W. 88, Courtesy IBU Gallery, Paris, France) It is worth pointing out that the Polaroid process is an emulsion-based system which is now mortally threatened by the advent of digital imaging. Digital imaging is neither a light-based nor an emulsion-based process. Hence the quality of surface and of color in any digital image will be uniform derived from its mechanically delivered ink translation of the digital data. An emulsion based process is gooey and physical and produces a surface that is rich, textured and varied in reflectivity. Indeed Polaroid is phasing out its distinctive system and with it an era in photography will come to a close. While this is the kind of event that will make the connoisseurship of photography thrive in the future, it will be a loss for the range of options available to artists who appreciate the surface characteristics of emulsion-based photographs. 

Carey’s used and subverted the obsolete technology of instant emulsion lens-based photography to create human scale color abstract panels of pure emulsion that are both inventive and unique. Carey doesn’t dip the “pen” into ink but manipulates the color bearing pods and the pressure of the rollers as the paper negative and positive sandwich moves through the oversize cameras. The making of the “Pulls” is a very physical act and requires a choreographed series of actions. The physicality of the process is clearly visible in the final images and is one of the strongest links between Carey’s “Pulls” and traditional painting with all of its clearly visible physical paint strokes. The delicacy and surface of Carey’s Pull with Red Rollback evokes the qualities of a Rothko or an Ad Reinhart. (Figure 10. Ellen Carey, Pull with Red Rollback, 2008, Polaroid 20X24 Color Print, H. 70” X W. 22”, Courtesy Nina Freudenheim Gallery, Buffalo, New York).

The resulting images are haunting in their physical presence in a room because of their sheer size and because of the way the machine generated long vertical forms echo primitive and symbolically charged forms used in primitive cultures and in early Christian art.  A Pull, such as Pulls with Filigrees, presented singly, is strongly reminiscent of the masculine phallic forms of Mycenaean shield design or of Zulu hide shields. As a triptych is puts the phallic form in competition with textural qualities that remind one of Albrecht Dürer’s Wing of the Blue Drake, one of the consummate artistic renditions of the natural texture of bird feathers. (Figure 11, Ellen Carey, Pulls with Filigrees, 1997. B&W Color Positive Prints, Triptych. Installation dimensions H. 110” X W. 66”, Collection of the Artist) Other Pulls, such as Pull with Flare and Line (Figure 7) or Pull with Flare & Rollback (Figure 12, Ellen Carey, Pull with Flare & Rollback, 2008, Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Print, H. 60” x W. 22”, Courtesy of Tina Potter and Andy Freireich, New York) can take on a more distinctly female chalice like shape linking it to the mandorla form used in Early Christian and Byzantine art for depictions of the Virgin Mary.

When hung in combinations, as in Pulls with Filigrees or Monochrome Partial Pulls, Yellow/ Red/Green/Blue (Figures 11 and 7), the Pulls create composite murals and lose the sense of their mechanical origin. In these polyptych hangings, the Pulls take on the quality of paintings executed in emulsion without the direct intervention of any manipulating instrument such as a brush.[iii]  In these broad wall-filling hangings, the Pulls remind me of the great color works of New York School Zen-inspired artists like Pollock or Kline but in color subtlety have the hedonistic beauty of Rothko or Morris Louis.  I would not be at all surprised if some viewers attributed to them the awe-inspiring character of art usually associated with religious painting.

Taken together the “Penlights” and the “Pulls” are magnificent objects for sustained contemplation and offer rich associations with a vast range of great art from tribal ritual forms, to old master hand drawing, from Northern Renaissance polyptych altarpieces to the biomorphic Surrealists and New York School. Carey’s lensless drawings in light and paintings in emulsion are an exceptional body of abstract photographs.

Alden R. Gordon
Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Art History
Trinity College, Hartford

August 4, 2008

[i] Randy Kennedy, “An Image is a Mystery for Photo Detectives,” New York Times, April 17, 2008.

[ii] Studying Fox Talbot, Carey has made other photograms derived from found objects that channel light. As these do not record the movement of the artist’s hand in the process, they are outside the type of objects I am considering here.

[iii] This example is taken from work exhibited in Paris at the IBU Gallery, October – December, 2007.