“Objectivity is the very essence of photography,” the photographer Paul Strand once said, “its contribution and at the same time its limitation.” Strand, who as much as anyone (that is to say, as much as Alfred Stieglitz) helped define photography’s modernist aesthetic, felt that his medium’s essentials – camera, lens, black-and-white film, the positive/negative process – allowed photographs to mimic the world as closely as an ink fingerprint mimics the pattern of ridges and valleys of a real finger. The meaning of a photograph, according to this belief, is metonymic, because it partakes of the larger thing it describes.
But what if our sense of the medium’s essentials were to change? Wouldn’t the very nature of photography change as well? And wouldn’t this open the possibility that photographic experience is subjective, as is true of other kinds of pictures, and thus less metonymic than metaphoric? In a metonymic relationship, the terms are necessarily connected: fingerprint and finger, photograph and its referent. In a metaphoric relationship, one thing substitutes for another: sky for spirit, say, which is what Stieglitz attempted in his series of cloud pictures that he called “Equivalents. ”
Like Stieglitz’s images of clouds, Ellen Carey’s pictures in this exhibition ask us to reconsider the nature of how photographs tell us things. For one, they redefine what a photograph is. Made with a process that Strand could only have dreamed of– large-format Polaroid film, mated to a 20 by 24-in. camera – they defy the terms of craftsmanship that Strand deemed essential to photographic art. More important, however, Carey’s pictures dispense with any trace of identifiable subject matter – that is, unless we consider light itself an adequate subject for the lens. Looked at individually, and superficially, Carey’s pictures are virtual blanks, the kind of things one might find at the ends of a roll of snapshot film, only monumentally so. Carey tells us that she has exposed the Polaroid film to no light, or to a blaze of pure light, to produce purely retinal images that can have, on closer inspection, an entrancing wealth of pictorial incident. She also has chosen to give the negatives of these exposures the same status as the positives.
If these are blanks, they are blanks empowered in ways that ordinary photographs are not. To quote Strand again, “The camera machine cannot evade the objects which are in front of it. No more can the photographer.” Today Carey and a young breed of photographers are testing the limits of this claim by paring away the often sentimental, human-interest aspect of camera pictures, giving us instead a primary lesson in seeing. Some dispense with the lens, using a shadow-play process known as the photogram; others deform the lens to produce spectral optical effects, or substitute a simple pinhole for complex glass elements. Carey chooses to leave the lens alone; instead, she reduces the “objects” in front of it to zero. The result: a “degree zero” of photography.
Casting these pictures in terms of photography is only half of their story, however. Their meaning is also inextricably linked with that “other” history of picture making which involves painting and drawing. If their precedents as photographs hark back to Stieglitz, their precedents purely as pictures lie with the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists. Like the Surrealists, Carey allows chance procedures to influence her images and accepts that their appearance changes over time. (The Polaroid negatives are inherently unstable, for instance, so they will look different at the end of the exhibition to those who saw them on day one.) Like the Abstract Expressionists, Carey is asking abstraction to carry messages about the perseverance and grace of the human spirit. The large “Mourning Wall,” in particular, has an ambition that has not been seen in contemporary art since Mark Rothko’s “chapel” paintings (located next door to the Menil Collection in Houston) and Robert Motherwell’s series “Elegy for the Spanish Republic.”
For more than 20 years Ellen Carey has built her career based on the tension between conventional representation and abstraction. Until recently her work employed the conventions of portraiture – often in the guise of the self-portrait, although the artist’s self was never dramatized – combined with a scrim or screen of geometric patterns that elliptically echo Constructivism, Op Art, and the Jetsons. In these pictures the division is clear: the face represents representation as the lens knows it, a product of Renaissance perspective and modern materialism; the patterns represent an alternative, based in mathematics, mysticism and conjecture. The collapse of these seemingly irreconcilable systems of knowing onto a single surface both irritates and engages; looking at one of these photographs, we confront the fact that we constantly rely on both systems in everyday life, but rarely at the same time. They also rub against recent art practice; poised between the poles of abstraction and what contemporary painters refer to as figuration, they are historical anomalies that fit no handy modernist slots.
It was an act of some bravery, if not faith, for Carey then to leave behind the comfort of a figurative base and deal only with abstraction itself. Beginning with her series of “Pulls” in the late Nineties, Carey allowed the mechanisms of the camera itself to produce an image. The typical “Pull” reads as a monochromatic lozenge or – more ominously – a coffin, usually black against white (the positive version) or a silvery gray on gray (the negative). “Pulls” and their variants, called “rollbacks,” also exist in color, as in the 1977 triptych “Birthday Portrait,” which honors the artist’s deceased father, mother, and brother. “Birthday Portrait” and three multi-panel 20-by-24 Polaroid works all titled “Family Portrait” (1996-1999), are the precursors of her most fully realized work to date, the “Mourning Wall.”
Some may argue that the ideas behind these works – the “Mourning Wall” features 100 individual pictures, one for every year of the past century, intended as a commemoration of deaths from wars, diseases, disasters, and crime– are nowhere inscribed in the works themselves. This is true, I think. But rather than see this as a criticism, I would hope the artist receives it as a compliment. By freeing photographs from the impingements of conventional representation, while placing them in the context of the rhetoric of modernist abstraction, she has opened a space for subjective vision – a space in which each of us sees what we want to see, as well as what we are capable of seeing.
Since this essay was written, events have radically changed the meaning of Ellen Carey’s work. The attacks and destruction of September 11, 2001, have made every one of us familiar with the clouded, inchoate emotions of loss, to the extent that the Mourning Wall now seems less an inscription of the artist’s feelings about personal and historical events than a palimpsest on which is written our nation’s collective sense of grief. September 11 also gives the work closure: it has separated us psychologically from the twentieth century more surely than any millennial observance or Y2K computer glitch. There is now in this country a prevailing sense of lost innocence – much as there was in the early years of the AIDS pandemic – that tempers our optimism about the future. The Mourning Wall, by casting off the assurances we seek in conventional camera images, embodies that loss even as it proffers beauty as a salve against despair.