Back to the Future: The Avant-Garde Is an Address

Image: © Portrait of Ellen Carey by Douglas Levere.

In this Lecture for the Royal Photographic Society, Ellen Carey contextualises photography as visual art and game-changer at the forefront of the avant-garde.


Ellen Carey (b.1952 USA) is an educator, independent scholar, guest curator, photographer and lens-based artist, whose unique experimental work (1974-2018) spans several decades. Her early work Painted Self-Portraits (1978) were first exhibited at Hallwalls, one of the first artist-run alternative space, home to the Buffalo avant-garde — Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman — and led to a group exhibit The Altered Photograph at PS 1, another avant-garde institution. The visionary curator, Linda Cathcart, Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) selected Carey’s work for this exhibition as well as The Heroic Figure, which presented thirteen American artists for the São Paulo Biennale including Cindy Sherman, Nancy Dwyer, Julian Schnabel and David Salle, portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe; South/North American tour (1984-1986).
In 1983, The Polaroid Artists Support Program invited Carey to work at the Polaroid 20 X 24 Studio. Her Neo-Geo, post-psychedelic Self-Portraits (1984-88) were created, followed by her stacked photo-installations Abstractions (1988-95). Her pioneering breakthrough in Polaroid sees her Pull (1996) followed by her Rollback (1997) naming her Polaroid practice Photography Degree Zero (1996-2018). She investigates minimal and abstract images with Polaroid’s instant technology partnered with her innovative concepts, often using only light, photography’s indexical, or none, emphasizing zero. Her photogram work is darkroom-based and camera-less; it parallels her Polaroid less-is-more aesthetic under her umbrella concept Struck by Light (1992-2018). When Carey works in the color darkroom, no light is allowed except upon exposure. Carey has worked in a variety of cameras and formats: Polaroid SX-70 and Polaroid PN film; black/white to colour; 35mm, medium, and large format. Her experimental images see a range of genres and themes; they are one-of-a-kind. Underscored by concepts around light, photography’s indexical and properties specific to the medium – silhouette; shadow; negative – in colour, Carey often uses RGBYMC, photographic colour theory, as a point-of-departure in palette, adding context and content, citing the history of colour photography, especially the work of Anna Atkins, the first women photographer, the first in colour.
Site-specific monumental installations in Polaroid include Mourning Wall of 100 grey negatives at Real Art Ways (2000), also exhibited in Part-Picture (2015) at The Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MoCCA); Self-Portrait @ 48 at Connecticut Commission for the Arts (2001); the gigantic Pulls XL that used the Polaroid 40 X 80 camera (shortly dismantled, never re-assembled) for her MATRIX #153 exhibit (2004-05) at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art ( in their prestigious MATRIX program. Dings & Shadows are often huge colour photogram installations, one seen at The Benton Museum of Art, another at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). Caesura (2016) is a photogram that introduces visual breaks in colour; caesura is Greek or Latin for pause: in word (poetry) or sound (music). Her images use colour theory — RGBYMC — as palette and conceptual point-of-departure, using light, photography’s indexical, as it — blends, bends, breaks — across the paper. What remains are vertical bands, dividing the rectangle in half, white is the break or pause, in the composition; its “ caesura” or cut, dramatic black signals too much light, colours overlap as well. Zerogram re-names the traditional photo-gram; many published in her first artist’s book “Mirrors of Chance: The Photograms of Ellen Carey”.
Photography Degree Zero (1996-2018) names her large-format Polaroid 20 X 24 lens-based art, which she began using in 1983 under the Polaroid Artist Support Program. Struck by Light (1992-2018) finds her parallel practice in the darkroom with the camera-less photogram, a process from the dawn of the medium, discovered in the 19th century by William Henry Fox Talbot, both photogram and the phrase drawing with light continue today. Her experimental investigations into abstraction and minimalism, partnered with her innovative concepts and iconoclastic art-making, often use bold colours to create new forms. Colour and light is the link between her two practices; light, photography’s indexical, is used a lot or a little or none at all; its absence or zero.
Pictus & Writ (2008-2018) finds the artist’s tradition of writing on other artists. Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective at MASS MoCA, with Yale University Press, published the book Sol LeWitt:100 Views with 100 new essays; Color Me Real is Ellen Carey’s contribution. Her Man Ray essay on her discovery of his “hidden” signature in his black and white photograph (1935) titled Space Writings (Self-Portrait) sees an edited version At Play with Man Ray published in Aperture. On her own work In Hamlet’s Shadow, published in The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation exhibit/book/tour (2012-13); Mary-Kay Lombino, Curator, Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.
Ellen Carey’s work has been the subject of 55 one-person exhibitions in museums, alternative spaces, uni-versity, college and commercial galleries (1978-2018) – highlights: Dings, Shadows and Pulls, Amon Carter Museum of American Art (ACMAA); Photography Degree Zero Matrix#153 Wadsworth Athene-um Museum of Art; Mourning Wall Real Art Ways; femme brut(e) Lyman Allyn Art Museum; Struck by Light Saint Joseph University; Ellen Carey: Survey ICP/NY; upcoming retrospective titled Struck by Light: The Experimental Photography of Ellen Carey, Burchfield – Penney Art Center (BPAC), received funding (30K) from Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (NY, NY) for 2020.
Her work seen in hundreds of group exhibitions (1974-2020) in museums, alternative spaces, university and college galleries, non-profits and commercial venues; highlighted in permanent collections of over 60 photography and art museums: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG), The Amon Carter Museum of American Art (ACMAA), George Eastman Museum (GEM), Museum at the Chicago Art Institute, Fogg Museum at Harvard University, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA), Norton Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Whitney Museum of American Art, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery while corporate collections include: Banana Republic and JP Morgan Chase Collection; noted private include: The LeWitt Foundation and Sir Elton John Collection.