Birthday Portrait 

1997
Polaroid Pulls and Rollbacks
P3 Color Polaroid 20 X 24 ER Positive Prints
80” H x 22” W (each)
80” H x 66” W (overall)
Collection of Ellen Carey


Ellen Carey, Birthday Portrait ––


Ellen Carey, Birthday Portrait
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Despite the collapse of many traditional gender codes, one has had some staying power: the assignment of gender-based color to babies at birth — pink for girls and blue for boys. Another tradition that has held fast is the marking of a particular birthday month with a birthstone — information easily found in a jewelry store or on a Hallmark calendar. These two traditions intersect in the large Polaroid triptych titled Birthday Portrait: my father is represented by blue and bloodstone for his birthday month of March; my mother is pink/diamond for April; and my brother is blue/ruby for July. My father and mother each died the day before their respective birthdays, and my brother died about a month after his birthday.

This three-panel piece is a more expressionistic and less somber artwork than its counterparts, the three minimalist Family Portraits. Like candles on a cake, Birthday Portrait is meant to celebrate with joy my loved ones’ birthdays and to mark with sorrow the anniversaries of their deaths.

This triptych differs from Mourning Wall and Family Portrait in its use of the Polaroid 20 X 24 film, which comes rolled on a spool and so is continuous. Taking advantage of this fact, the film is pulled through the camera during processing, thus making the print longer. I have coined the words “pulls” and “rollbacks” to describe these photographs because they reflect the physical activity of my technique.

The randomness and unpredictability of death are echoed in the serendipitous nature of the Polaroid process. Color-coded genders and monthly birthstones represent the complexities of family life, in turn extended to the photographic object itself: the various patinas of the surfaces and its layered dyes; the irregularity of its shapes, which are the cause and effect of interfering with the developing process; and the elongated “pulls” and “rollbacks” of the overlapping exposures pulled through and later rolled back into the camera, the latter reminiscent of the body parts that give us life.