Michael Walsh

Back to the Future:
The Photography of E
llen Carey

National Academy of Sciences
Washington, D.C.

Download Essay

Ellen Carey,   Polaroid 20 x 24 Self-Portrait Series   ––

Ellen Carey, Polaroid 20 x 24 Self-Portrait Series


Critical commentary on the remarkable levée of women photographers of the 1980s has tended to focus on artists like Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Louise Lawler, which is to say on work that can easily be seen as critical commentary in itself. It is hardly surprising that critics should enlarge most enthusiastically on the work that most immediately shares their own guild-values, and in a period that combined political reaction with a new feeding frenzy in the art market, this response was quite understandable, even desirable. Yet among the things forgotten in the rush to recode art photography as criticism of media ideologies was the original utopian promise of modernism. This is the promise that made whole schools of women artists in the first place possible; rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated by analysts of postmodernism.

In her self-portraits of the 1980s and her abstractions of the 1990s, Ellen Carey has retrieved and refined this promise. In doing this, a lesser artist might fall into a vacuous, merely celebratory optimism, but Carey does not lack for subtlety, irony, or art-historical tactics. In fact, since she began using the big Polaroid 20 X 24 camera in 1984, her work has gradually evolved from a neopsychedelia to a neomodernism, which is to say that she has deliberately evoked historical periods of social and aesthetic progress. By looking backward to moments that looked forward, and by offering a practical interpretation of each moment in question (her psychedelia has more to do with Bridget Riley than with rock concert posters; her neomodernism approaches minimalism), Carey reminds us that the passage through modernism to postmodernism was not linear, sequential, and totalizing, but recursive.

This is a lesson we may feel we have already learned from commentaries on painting by critics like Benjamin Buchloh. But if “recursive, uneven, and differential” also means broken into sectors, where do we stand with the camera arts? In film, for example, we have no decisive consensus on what in the first place constitutes modernism (D. W. Griffith? Eisenstein? Orson Welles? Maya Deren? Jean-Luc Godard?). So when Hal Foster tells us, quite persuasively that contemporary art is conditioned by the remoteness of modernism and the intrusiveness of the media, he is defining a circumstance which is experienced quite differently by camera artists, for whom the terms “modernism” and “media” are not in the first place necessarily distinct. Moreover, if the official grand narrative of modernist photography establishes its century-long continuity by relying heavily on documentary work, we also need a history of that discontinuity by which the camera avant-gardes, which emerged from the art schools in the 1960s and the 1970s, responded across a distinct interval to the moment of high modernism. In that perspective, the accomplishments of Constructivist, Bauhaus, and Surrealist photography, had remained quite marginal to official modernism, and were thus available to the new artistic and critical strategies of the years formative for artists, like Carey, who are now in their thirties and forties.

Carey was a founding member of the Hallwalls group, which came together in Buffalo in the mid-1970s and included Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Nancy Dwyer, Michael Zwack, Charles Clough, Anne Turyn, and many others. Before moving to New York in 1979, Carey had her first public show on a Buffalo city bus with Cindy Sherman, and the comparison is instructive. During the 1980s, both women made images of themselves, yet both refused the conventional expectation of the artist’s self-portrait, choosing not to endow the self with substance and depth but to question it at the surface. If Sherman suggested confessional traditions, which she then subverted by the serial assumption of fictional identities, Carey kept her distance from directly personal revelation with a problematic of masking, concealment, and camouflage. Rather than relying on traditional (and traditionally feminine) codes of clothing and veiling, Carey decorated and dissimulated herself with fractals, golden sections, and other proportional harmonies found in nature, science, and mathematics. Both women also made critical use of the feminine mystique, Sherman by staging and exacerbating the mutability and elusiveness long associated with woman, Carey by redeploying the calculated detachment of the photographic model, that most widely disseminated of modern images of feminity. (Between 1970 and 1974, Carey funded her undergraduate education at the Kansas City Art Institute by working as a model for Hallmark greeting cards.) While Sherman evoked a past, placing herself among signifiers ranging from B-movies to women of history, Carey evoked a future, placing herself among such signifiers of postmodern science as Julia sets, Mandelbrot sets, and fractal clusters. With this wry sense of the place of the woman (particularly the woman artist) in the encounter between science and art, Carey is perhaps less reminiscent of Sherman and closer to a figure like Laurie Anderson.

Carey’s late 1980s transition to abstraction, though gradual, was startling, since she had first come to New York at a New Wave moment which coincided with the exhaustion (and the defunding) of the conceptual/minimal ambit to give rise to graffiti art, to neo-expressionism, to appropriation, to anything but abstraction. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that Carey was not fully accomplished as an artist before her mid-80s neo-geometric work, which is to say that we can see the abstract elements used as overlays in those photographs as forerunners of the more recent and more direct engagement with abstraction.

The mid-80s Polaroid portraits and self-portraits pose a basic question about the photographic medium: “How did she make this picture?” The reason is that everything we think we know about the Polaroid process would seem to militate against the possibility of the double exposure which Carey uses to such striking effect. With its elementary geographic vocabulary, this work also evokes the camera as an apparatus consisting of a circle and a square (a lens and a box, or a lens and a frame of film). In the difficulty of providing an answer, the question about the medium is postmodern; in its formalism and “materialism,” the evocation of the apparatus is neomodern; and, as we have seen, the design of the work combines a close-up or medium close-up of a model with an element of Op-inflected psychedelia. Yet the result is anything but regressive, partly because the moments evoked signify as progressive, and partly because they have been consciously superimposed; compare, for example, the neoclassicism of a Robert Mapplethorpe, whose devotion to a pristine photographic surface was clear from his shock when told that earlier in her career Carey had painted on photographs. Carey still speaks today of “painting with light,” although the resulting surfaces are much more seamless than those of the earlier painted work.

In “Geometry and Abjection,” Victor Burgin argues that Euclidean geometry gave rise to a model of vision as a cone extending outwards from the individual eye or mind, and that this model was intersected in the Renaissance by the picture plane (thus Brunelleschi and “Renaissance perspective”). He concludes that in the century of Einstein and Freud, the cone of vision model is no longer capable of explaining either the eye/mind of the subject or the space that he/she surveys; however, we can now find the origin of geometry in what Julia Kristeva calls abjection, a movement of revulsion by which the subject is constituted as such. In other words, the subject/object universe of inside vs outside and self vs other is predicated on the abjection of something disagreeable or horrific, something cast out or rejected; I begin to exist by repudiating something which is not me. “Geometry and Abjection” could readily be transferred as a title to a number of Carey’s early Polaroid self-portraits, with their affectless and/or melancholy faces barred and banded by simple geometric designs. (Description here is already interpretation, but these are consensus views.) Carey arrives at a conclusion much like Burgin’s, since she proceeds in short order from Euclidean to fractal geometry, from the idea of space centered on the individual subject to a science of chaos in which that subject is dissolved. Thus the diptychs, crosses, diamonds, grids and branches that follow the self-portraits behave like exploded diagrams of the previous work. Gone is the head-on rendering of the self, though the missing link between the self-portraits and the stacking, exponential branch pieces is provided by an arm piece. Gone too is literal superimposition, superceded by a conceptual collage of relationships among much more numerous panels. Individually minimal gestalts (circles, color fields, flowers, framelines) add up to large works of great physical beauty, preoccupied with symmetry and asymmetry, a mapping of self-replicating forms, and transformation across scale.

The best of the recent black and white work is more authentically minimal, and poses an even more basic question about photographic representation, “What is this a picture of?” The answer is no more and no less satisfying than what meets the eye; this is work that focuses attention on the specific textures of light, reticulation, framing, and patterning, reminding us both that a photograph is always premised on the real and that it is prejudicial to equate the real with a recognizable representation. This work reminds us too, that although photography has developed in tandem with other media, it also has its own distinct history; unlike neominimalism in painting and sculpture, the return to minimalism in photography is a return to something that hardly existed in the first place, with the exception of some early 1970s’ serial work. Once again, however, Carey is not content with mere reminders; the best of her recent work embodies a rare combination of simplicity and innovation, which bodes well for her artistic future.

Michael Walsh
Spring 1992


Michael Walsh teaches film studies at the University of Hartford. He has published essays on Peter Greenaway, William Burroughs, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Baudrillard.



Buchloh, Benjamin. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression”, in Modernism and Modernity, edited by Buchloh et al. Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1981. 81-115. 

Burgin, Victor. “Geometry and Abjection”, in The Cultural Politics of ‘Postmodernism, edited by John Tagg. SUNY Binghamton Department of Art and Art History, 1989.


Foster, Hal. “Between Modernism and the Media”, in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Port Washington: Bay Press, 1985. 33-57.