Photography Degree Zero
Ellen Carey/Matrix 153
Acting Curator of Contemporary Art
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
There is no doubt that photography holds a significant place in the contemporary canon of fine art. However, the journey to this highly-sought position would not have been possible without the development of new techniques and materials which have influenced both the practice and perception of photography. The invention of the Polaroid process by Dr. Edwin H. Land in 1947 stands as a milestone in the history of photographic technology and the elevated status of photography as a fine art. Despite its primary purpose as a commercial and utilitarian tool for taking instant snapshots, Dr. Land recognized the aesthetic potential of his Polaroid camera. By enlisting photographers like Ansel Adams to test new products and films in the late 1940s, Land began a Polaroid tradition of engaging with and promoting camera artists.
The artistic possibilities of the Polaroid process were further expanded in 1977 with the extraordinary development of two large-scale cameras capable of taking pictures of unparalleled clarity and scale. Initially developed in cooperation with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to accurately reproduce paintings and tapestries, both cameras have become legendary in the field of contemporary art for their ability to produce original prints measuring 20-by-24 inches. Large-format Polaroid photography is now synonymous with innovation and creativity, and has been used by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucas Samaras, Chuck Close, Dawoud Bey, and William Wegman. Among these notable practitioners, however, few have made such dynamic and pioneering advances as Ellen Carey.
Over the past decade Carey has pushed Polaroid technology beyond the limits of usage that Dr. Land could have ever dreamed, developing a technique of camera-based abstraction that has come to define her career. Carey refers to her practice as “photography degree zero,” a strategy so reductive that neither the process nor the ensuing images bear any resemblance to conventional photography. The phrase “photography degree zero” is derived from the title of Roland Barthes’ book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), which offers a theoretical analysis of French literature of the early 1950s. Carey’s adaptation of this title suggests a formal affinity between the minimalist style of writing Barthes describes, and her own photographic experiments created with the large-format Polaroid camera.
Carey’s “degree zero” photography begins with the radical elimination of all subject matter from in front of the lens. She literally reduces the photograph’s content to zero, leaving nothing but light for the lens to capture. Carey’s most recent and celebrated experiments with large-format Polaroid technology and her degree zero approach are the “pulls,” begun in 1996. Created with the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera (and more recently with the Polaroid 40 X 80 camera), “pulls” are produced by allowing the mechanisms of the instant camera itself to produce an image. The term, invented by Carey to describe her work, echoes the physical activity of pulling film through the camera’s internal rollers.
The typical “pull” reads as a monochromatic lozenge, stretching the length of the glossy white receiving paper (positive) and the matte green photosensitive paper (negative). Rather than revealing a subject outside and beyond the lens, these attenuated ovals serve as a physical record of pure light, or absence of light, and the chemical development that occurs within the camera body. That process, called diffusion dye transfer, yields a one of a kind image that cannot be duplicated.
The five photographs on view in the first gallery of this exhibition illustrate several of the carefully choreographed variations Carey has developed using the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera. Each image is the result of exposing color-sensitive Polaroid film to a flash of pure light, or no light at all. The three elliptical veils of deeply saturated black dye evident in Black Pull with Two Filigrees (2003) are created by the absence of exposure. No object was photographed and no light reached the film. For many photographers this would be considered a careless mistake, equivalent to taking a snapshot with the lens cap on, and the resulting print would likely be discarded. However, for Ellen Carey this is no accident, but pure alchemy at work. The glassy pools of unexposed Polaroid pigment mark the trace of that which is absent, light. Interrupting the flow of dyes as they are deposited on the white receiving paper creates the swooping conical shape, a signature feature of all the “pulls.”
Carey also blocked light from entering the camera lens to create Purple Negative Pull (2002). In this piece Carey mixed Polaroid color film with a developing fluid intended for black-and-white photography. As a result of this chemical crossover, the negative turns a deep shade of purple. This quintessential example of Carey’s innovative experiments with the Polaroid camera illustrates one of the most original aspects of the “pulls” — the elevated status of the negative. Unlike a conventional photographic negative, the opaque 20 X 24 negative cannot be used for reprinting purposes and is typically destroyed after the positive has completely developed. In Carey’s hands the negative achieves new significance, displayed and appreciated as a unique and precious art object in is own right.
Black Pull with Two Filigrees and Purple Negative Pull are precursors to Carey’s most ambitious and monumental body of work to date, the Pulls XL (2004). Shot in a single session in New York City using the Polaroid 40 X 80 camera (the largest instant camera in the world), the Pulls XL signal a new phase in the evolution of Carey’s work. Measuring more than twelve feet high and forty-four inches wide, the suite of seven extra-large positive “pulls” and their corresponding negatives rise like totems inside the gallery. Despite their scale and vulnerability, the pieces are tacked directly to the wall, emphasizing their physical presence.
By giving the negatives of these exposures the same status as the positives, Carey further asserts the material significance of the “pulls.” Though lacking the sheen and chromatic variation of the positives, the negatives possess a more subtle elegance, an almost organic quality that belies their mechanical production. In fact, like all the “pulls,” Carey’s new Polaroid 40 X 80 prints are indeed living surfaces that respond to temperature and moisture as they cure — a process that will continue throughout the duration of the exhibition. This is particularly true of the negatives, whose velvety black and brown surfaces have already begun to shift since their creation in mid-July, gaining both tonal and textural variation as the excess dyes and silver salts oxidize. The effect is nothing short of painterly, endowing Carey’s images with a surface sensuality uncommon to photography.
From the beginning of her career, Ellen Carey’s photographs have been inextricably linked to painting and drawing. Although she long since abandoned the practice ofoverlaying her images with pigment , the works on view in MATRIX 153 share equal (if not more) affinity with abstract painting of the 1950s and 1960s than with any photographic legacy. Indeed, looking at these works it is easy to imagine Carey as a neo-modernist painter, the likes of Morris Louis or Ellsworth Kelly, creating color field and geometric abstractions. Therein lies the complexity and inherent contradiction of Carey’s work. While bound to the early photographic experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot , the “pulls” are equally indebted to the tenets of Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism in their reliance upon accident and chance. And like Minimalist painting, Carey’s process is central to the meaning of her works — they harbor no underlying message, no truth apart from their material existence in the world.
While the consideration of Carey’s reductive photography in the context of modern painting may seem paradoxical, the historical association between photography and painting provides a fascinating counterpoint by which to appreciate the “pulls,” and their incongruous identity as photographs that resemble paintings. In fact, the movement known as Photo-Secession, which strove to affirm photography as a fine art at the turn of the 20th century, was predicated on the manipulation of images to achieve painterly effects.  Since then, photography has sustained a combative relationship with painting, jockeying for artistic autonomy in the eyes of critics and the public.
Now, nearly a century since Paul Strand championed the use of “straight” or unmanipulated photographic methods in order to achieve the true aesthetic nature of the medium, Ellen Carey has staged her own reprisal of “straight photography,” stripping the medium down to its essentials — emulsion, paper, and light. In doing so, however, Carey has unwittingly discovered a process that once again blurs the boundaries between photography and painting. The result is what photography scholar Lyle Rexer calls “a new class of photographic objects,”  which herald the potential of minimal photography as a site of perceptual and experiential directness. Liberated from the cultural and historical expectation that a photograph will narrate, or document the world around us, the “pulls” occupy a neutral environment where they are free to be viewed, not read; free to be experienced, not interpreted; and free to transform how we think about photography.
Acting Curator of Contemporary Art