To Paris With Love

Project by Ellen Carey


Ellen Carey, To Paris With Love,


To Paris with Love is a site-specific installation of 130 Polaroid negatives representing the total number of deaths in the recent Paris attacks, as well as the 12 killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, plus the 4 Jewish hostages who were murdered during a siege at a Hyper Cacher supermarket in a suburb of Paris. The large, grey negative is evocative of a headstone, while Polaroid’s matte patina echoes the lichen of the stone’s physical surface. The empty rectangle stands for the absence of the individual. In photography, a traditional portrait includes the person’s head and shoulder, a visual presence. Here, it is absent.

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (ca. 77-79 CE), relates the myth of art’s origin in a fable about the daughter of Butades, a Greek potter from Corinth. She drew the outlined profile of her lover’s shadow as it was projected on the wall by a lamp, just before he left for battle, and which her father made into a relief sculpture. Thus, before the real shadow departs with its owner it offers the young woman an image from which to construct a representation of her beloved, which she fixes on the wall for all time. According to art historian Victor I. Stoichita in his remarkable book, A Short History of the Shadow (1997), the hidden meaning of this myth involves the transcendence of death. What this story tells us is that love and loss are universal themes, in life and in art, visually located in the shadow.

Paper photography began with the negative image discovered by the British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). Briefly stated, he placed an object, such as a leaf or piece of lace, on light-sensitive paper, and exposed it to the sun. What was left behind were light’s tracings of the object, its first face, or prima facie, a ghostly outline and silhouetted form on a dark ground, its “shadow.” The photographic object was first called a photogenic drawing, then a photogram, the term still used today. The negative paper image was later contact printed to make its opposite, the positive. Thus, the negative-to-positive duality from its origins at the dawn of photography is a powerful metaphor and unique object, picture-sign and visual symbol. The vintage phrase drawing with light — from the Greek and French roots, respectively: phos for light and graphe for drawing — adds further meaning.

The negative/positive axis inherent in photography reveals content within context: material and process result in a visual picture. Light is photography’s index. Evidence of this striking and dramatic co-existence is seen in the work of the other great 19th-century inventor of photography, the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), with his mirror-like daguerreotypes, largely used for portraiture and rendered in crisp, hyper-real detail. Both of these inventions would be prescient of Polaroid’s instant technology that was introduced by the American, Edwin H. Land (1909-1991). 

The Polaroid 20 x 24 camera (built in the 1980s) produces a large, unique contact print — a negative with its positive—transferring the image from the light-sensitive matte negative to the glossy positive which is not light-sensitive, in a one-step, peel-away process. The Polaroid print begins to develop instantly, bridging technology and science to art and photography.

To Paris with Love offers a site for mourning in its 130 + 12 + 4 negatives that will continue to change over time, as a physical reminder and powerful metaphor for the trauma of the sudden death of a loved one. It pays homage, as a memento mori, to a city well-known for centuries and throughout the world as a capital of art and culture — in film (the derivation of Carey’s proposal title), painting, photography, fashion, design, poetry, literature, architecture, philosophy, the culinary arts, music, and that pinnacle of human experience, love, which unites our humanity. This is photography’s indexical sign — light — its gift to Paris, City of Light.

To Paris with Love is an installation and project of four versions. The first is a group of 146 rectangular, Polaroid grey negatives, standing in for those 130 individuals killed during the Paris attacks and the 12 who were murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, plus those 4 who were murdered in January, 2015. These versions are grey negatives that oxidize over time; the surfaces cascade in drips, falling like tears (see: Carey’s Mourning Wall for a similar installation). The second version would be an elongated variation of grey negatives, the length of a human figure, referencing the “shadow” of the human form (see: Carey’s Pulls). The third version sees matte color negatives, in surfaces of a tar-like patina, reminiscent of open burial pits and gravesites, of coffins or sarcophagi (see: Family Portrait, 1996). The fourth and final version is color positives with their negatives of the two cultural codes assigned to each gender, blue for boys/men and pink for girls/women. The unique Polaroid positives, would be given to each of the family members of those who died, as a memento mori and gift, symbolic of those lives lost, from Ellen Carey, acting in the tradition of the first woman photographer, and first in color, Anna Atkins (1799-1871), who also offered her work as gifts to others.

The negatives would be an installation as three separate groups: 4 for the first group, then 12 for the second group, then 130 for the last group, exhibited in a row, as a series in a minimal tableau, for the three events, thus underscoring the monumental scale of the losses. Ideally they would be hung in the order of each death as conveyed in the police/coroners’ reports, by name, age, birthplace/country, and place/location of death.

All versions visually echo the box-like receptacle for a person’s body after death. Within the tradition of sarcophagi designed to remain above ground, To Paris With Love will be open to the public as a permanent installation.

To Paris With Love in its final Polaroid installation would be a gift from Ellen Carey and all those who worked on the project, exhibited in a dedicated space as a permanent artwork open to the public.

Ellen Carey
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