Polaroid 20 x 24 Self-Portrait Series ––


Polaroid 20 x 24 Self-Portrait Series
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Ellen Carey: 

Photography and Lens-Based Art: 
An Introduction


Abstraction in photography and lens-based art presents a contradiction in terms, and minimalism presents a further oxymoron. Well developed in the 20th century in other areas — Abstract Expressionism, Minimal, Conceptual Art — abstraction and minimalism in lens-based art are emerging even as the first decade in the 21st century closed. It is here, in the early stages of modern and contemporary art with its roots in photography, that my work has a context. These practices are largely based in America and the tenets of their legacy are incorporated into my art practice. The American invention of Polaroid 20 X 24 (circa 1980) complements these breakthroughs in visual thinking with my discovery of the Pull in 1996, producing an abstract and minimal image that is simultaneously photograph and process; it fits under my umbrella concept Photography Degree Zero. The photogram, historically “drawing with light,” was discovered by the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877); it continues under my darkroom practice Struck by Light, often partnered with color. The Victorian, Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was the first woman practitioner (cameraless) and the first woman to practice color (cyanotype); their legacies move forward in my work.

Questions frequently asked about my work include: ”How is this picture made?” followed by “What is this a picture of?” The first question addresses photography as process. The photographic object often involves an intersection of process and invention, as does the practice of photography itself. In traditional photography, both the process and the invention are “transparent”, mere means to an end. In my work the process becomes the subject. The second question addresses the conundrum of a photographic image without a picture or a “sign” to read. These two questions challenge our cultural and historically prescribed expectations for this medium to narrate and document, all the while revealing no trace of its own origins; the “zero” in my practice has multiple meanings. The discovery of my Pull in 1996 introduced Photography Degree Zero; I am the originator of this phrase and its senior user. It refers to Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes, which offers a critical discourse on the departure from a descriptive narrative in French avant-garde literature. In related fashion, my work represents the absence of a picture “sign” found in landscapes, portraits and still life. Instead, my work consists of an image made without a subject, any reference to a place, person or object.

My art works contain aspects that are conceptually linked and informed through visual characteristics, such as the shadow and silhouette image seen in the object as a negative, referencing this rich history. Formal issues of size and scale, in tandem with palette, create visual impact. The content-laden aspects of my work are weighed in — their echo is embedded and realized in my choices of method and material — an acknowledgment that these contain symbols and signs, which create and extend my art’s meaning. Themes, such as mourning and love and loss, are seen in the silvery muted, negatives of Polaroid — Mourning Wall — a site-specific minimal, monumental installation. Black, white and grey have aesthetic and conceptual value, giving content and context, referencing the Zone system or grey card. This reductive palette highlights line and shape. Stark and subtle, these three are colors that inform tonal gradations. Visual structures and the ubiquitous codes of the circle (camera lens) and square (camera body) underscore my choice to practice photography; my images act as mirrors and metaphors, their echo is timeless, found in my compositions.

Parallel work emphasizes color — that it has purpose and exists for a reason. Joyful feelings of creativity reflect a discipline where I dig deeper into color’s mother lode, revisiting traditional terms, like color processing, in new ways. Color is subject and object, material with meaning, process within the art. This gives my work context in the short history of color photography. Art and photography, like music, are universal languages as is color. The end results are innovative and challenging artworks known for their rich synoptic clarity. Their well-developed conceptual underpinnings expand the content in the realm of art and photography by introducing new forms, such as the parabola, seen as a conical loop in my Pulls, or the variation of color shadows in my Push Pins photograms. Feeling and form are juxtaposed, seen in unprecedented, unpredictable ways, expressed through methods and techniques, mastered and further developed, within an array of unusual and striking combinations, using new nomenclature, exploring — “What if?” with “Why not?”— mix and matching colors to create a vibrant palette with unique, abstract and minimal forms.

For creative expression, my artistic choices include the 20th century large-format Polaroid 20 X 24 camera, one of five in the world; it is now synonymous with contemporary art (20X24studio.com). The camera-less photogram is my other tool. I use light, its presence or absence, to underscore concepts and serve as a visual link. This approach reflects my creative endeavors and aesthetic interests in a medium well known and highly regarded for its technical advances, enriching the photographic arts while broadening the parameters of our picture culture. A new interest of mine, the biology of seeing, brings my work into the 21st century using a third tool, digital imaging technologies.

As metaphor for the field, image and meaning maker, I begin with the photogram; the paper is literally and figuratively Struck by Light, this names my darkroom practice. Black and white moves to color, both evolve. Polaroid contributes significantly — See What Develops — a well-known phrase, introduces Photography Degree Zero. Digital transforms small photograms in my Blinks into jumbo ink-jet prints. Monumental color photograms as Dings & Shadows ”blow up” forms and colors seeing bold compositions. My palette of RGB=YMC is photographic color theory; it underscores my concept, giving context to the rich-content laden “shadow” that partners with the “ding,” a photographic taboo. Drawing with light, a historical phrase, echoes my own “drawing with light”, in Polaroid and Photogram, which led to my Man Ray discovery. My two visual practices co-exist with scholarship, research, and writing under my third practice as Pictus & Writ with essays published on Sol LeWitt and Man Ray. An essay on Anna Atkins is in development.