Lecture | “Back to The Future: The Avant-Garde is An Address” with Ellen Carey

Ellen Carey at Polaroid 20 X 24 Studio, NYC - Portrait by Doug Levere
Ellen Carey at Polaroid 20 X 24 Studio, NYC - Portrait by Doug Levere


Lecture | “Back to The Future: The Avant-Garde is An Address” with Ellen Carey

"Back to The Future: The Avant-Garde is An Address” opens as a visual vade mecum at NBMAA for spring 2023. Ellen Carey’s handbook guides us through photography’s nearly two centuries’ arc of light, photogram, color, and Polaroid as seen in her practices, "Photography Degree Zero" and "Struck by Light."

For the 21st century, for us, Ellen Carey brings her arc into the future with "Crush & Pull with Rollbacks," a completely new 21st-century photo-object from Polaroid’s monumental negative, which allows Carey, its ‘camera operator,’ to reposition “light drawing” anew. It highlights Polaroid and its huge 20 X 24 camera as one of the medium’s 20th-century game changers.

Carey visually consults Talbot, Daguerre, and Anna Atkins, the tripod of 19th-century game changers: Talbot’s negative-to-positive duality of the photogram-as-image is doubled while Daguerre is mirrored in the glossy polish of Polaroid’s pristine surface and crisp picture; Talbot’s soft-focus, non-color compositions in blurry outlines sees light’s ‘shadow’ while Prussian blue sees color-as-light transformed by Anna Atkins’ cyanotype images.

Each one used light and light-sensitive processes to create their images —all unique pictures, all-in-one totalities — originating visual impact for which the gestalt is c’est! (‘it is!’ cf. Barthes in Writing degree zero). The ‘Black Swan’ theory sees unexpected events become game changers in this, the global world, as it is, now.

Carey’s performance in the ‘black box’ of the darkroom — folding, crushing, creasing, nothing seen until it is finished —abounds with affinities to the Dada and Surrealist drawing game of the “exquisite corpse” locating that address in one of art’s avant-garde, while addressing multiple pioneering art movements; photography being one that changed our world.

When light becomes visible the object speaks. Ellen Carey’s object says craquelure, parabola, hue, abstract, process, minimal, Polaroid, photogram, black swans, light, beauty, color, wonder, invention, photographic color theory, innovation. It says, "Crush & Pull with Rollbacks & Penlights” or “Crush & Pull with Hands & Penlights”.

Artist biography:

Ellen Carey's experimental Polaroid practice dates from 1983, when the Polaroid Artists Support Program invited her to work at the Polaroid 20X24 Studio. There, she created her Neo-Geo Self-Portraits (1984-87) followed by her stacked installations Abstractions (1988-95). Her pioneering Pull (1996) and Rollback (1997) initiated her practice Photography Degree Zero (1996-2022), that is continued today with her latest body of Polaroid work, Crush & Pull.

Ellen Carey, a Pictures Generation contemporary and member of Buffalo’s avant-garde — Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo — upends the medium's collective histories in art and technology with abstract, minimal “picture” signs. Photography Degree Zero and Struck by Light names her twin practices, while Pictus & Writ supports her creative tripod with writing. The Royal Photographic Society (RPS) named Carey one of the top 100 women photographers worldwide - Hundred Heroines - one of 14 Americans.

She emphasizes drawing with light, photography’s indexical; light with color, underscored in process and approach, is her performative record: a visual all - or - nothing (zero). Her photographs no longer represents object-subject relations but rather the twin interplay of light and shadow, stark in black and white minimalism while freeing color itself into a kaleidoscope of abstraction. Well developed in the 20th century in Abstract Expressionism, Minimal, Conceptual Art, Carey’s photographic pictures of nothing upend the medium's collective histories asking us now: “What is photography?” Or “Is it a photograph”?

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