Where are you from?I lived in New York City (1979-1995), where I was born (1952), one of five children in a large Catholic family, moving back to the city after receiving my MFA and a CAPS grant, first exhibiting at PS 1 in "The Altered Photograph." My childhood years were in NYC, then to Long Island, on to the South in Atlanta, followed by the Midwestern city of Chicago, then back East, close to New York in New Jersey. I have traveled in America (South, Southwest, Midwest, West); Middle East (Kuwait); Europe (Paris, Edinburgh, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Dublin, London, Nice, Venice, Berlin); Canada (Toronto, Montreal) with an interest in art world destinations (Dia: Beacon, The Chinati and Judd Foundations, Marfa, TX) and to cities for their culture/art, especially Paris!
When did you realise you could make a living from photography?After my first pay check, in 1972, I was a model for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, making $75.00 an hour, at a three hour minimum, after each session, lunch or dinner, was included; I negotiated the terms. Pretty good. Then, I started my own bank, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made “loans” to my fellow students, while selling them sandwiches. My father was businessman, he taught me about money, taxes, how it works, when I was 15, as well as may other things. I was much loved and not gender-coded as a child, my parents told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, whatever that was, through education and work. My mother told me I was always funny, beautiful, smart and creative.
From behind the lens, I learned a lot, Hallmark photographers were generous, and it paid well, put myself through undergraduate school at KCAI (Kansas City Art Institute) modeling - hands covered in litho-inks - not really getting clean. I also waitressed, who didn’t? I always worked, so it is no big deal, always had three jobs, still do - builds strength, which one needs as an artist and a photographer, plus work ethic, time management, learning from failures, what works, what doesn’t, searching for your materials, and all those “life” survival skills. It was my life and my choice, photography is freedom.
In Buffalo, I worked at a camera store, during/after my MFA at SUNY@Buffalo and later as a curatorial assistant to the great visionary curator, Linda Cathcart. I sold my first picture for $75.00 to The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in 1975, one from the exhibition “In the Western NY” so a - “living” - is a relative term, I did all kinds of jobs - waitress, bagged groceries, a receptionist answering phones in a hair salon, where I met the fabulous and talented Oribe, super-star! In New York, I waitressed, started teaching, doing commercial/corporate work, working on my own art when I could, lived in Little Italy, studio in SoHo, NYC in the 1970s and 1980s was a twilight zone, rough and tough, but for some reason I and many others thrived there. My only rule is that the work has to pay for itself so - I budget: studio + money + time = ART and over time, you learn what you are good at.
I am still working three jobs - tripod of success - some pay better than others, but I always say “yes” if … I think I can do it. Always learning, building my skills and with time, all this experience, it is fair to say now: I am a working professional photographer, in the fine arts. My work costs money, I have to pay for everything - I figured it out, on my own - it feels great! As the projects get bigger, so does my budget and my earning power - it is my life, in photography, on my terms… all the struggles are worth it, as tough as it can be, probably spend 9/10 of my time “getting ready” for whatever it is, but when it has the WOW factor - when a great image is made - the feeling is incredible, no one said it would be easy - why should it be?
What influences your practice?All things visual - light - color - shapes - patterns and characteristic of our medium, those “light links” that go into making art in photography - shadow, silhouette, outline - with a focus on research - negative-to-positve - within art history and photography, historical and current practitioners. My dreams, ideas that I sketch, sunsets, geometries, sounds, I do not know really, but I know when it comes - inspiration - I know it, now I am in the “flow” as people who study creativity call it. I would say my work is about discovery, curious to know something, take a risk, see it, do it again, ask questions: “What is an abstract photograph?” My projects usually begin with a series of questions.
Five features that sum up your practice?Well .. I go by four actually: The 4 C’s: Concept, Content, Context, Citation..! For concept, it always begins with Light, and those characteristics of the medium; content is: What is in the picture? Here, I look at: size and scale, off frame space, edge tensions and those formal issues, materials and meanings…Where is the context? Is it self-portraiture and if so, women in self-portraiture, if so I research, look read. What is the citation..? Philosophy? Love and Loss? Size and Scale? A photographic term? I try to evaluate my work, in these broad strokes, and they can over-lap, and change, but they have to have all four of them.
For example, I spent three years printing large 30 x 40 color abstract images - struggling- and in my struggles, I knew I was missing something, I was very lost. In getting some feed-back, I realized what I did have: palette, size, but …? It wasn’t until I went into the color darkroom, all dark, and I just “let go” of all that previous work, 100s and 100s of color paper, 100s and 100s of hours printing…so..I did a very light penlight around the edges of the paper. There it was - a little ”ding” making a crescent of a “shadow” - then that was it! I had my 4 C’s. I missed my own guidelines, then I had so many ideas; fortunately, those three years of color printing came in real handy, and I printed like I was floating on air!
What is/was an important image for you (not one of yours!)?Man Ray’s “Space Writings” - his b&w self-portrait with his name as a “light drawing” seen in reverse, “hidden” which I discovered, so when you hold the image up to a mirror it says: “man ray”: Jackson Pollock’s enormous “Mural” painting; Anna Atkins cyanotype of the parrot feathers; Talbot’s “Cascading Spruce Needles”; John Coplans “Self-Portrait” - Back w/fists -; a lively, bright and colorful large wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, The “Whirls and Twirls” at The Wadsworth Atheneum that I wrote about; Cindy Sherman’s early B&W of her on the road, with suitcase; any pictures of dragonflys and rainbows.
The company that you keep: When you google ‘Ellen Carey’, the web tells us that “people also search for Barbara Kasten, Barbara B Crane, Shelby Lee Adams, Mark Klett, Susan Derges, Susan Meiselas, Chuck Close and Ralph Gibson” How do you feel to be in their company?Stellar, particularly since I have met most of them and greatly admire their work.
Perfect dinner party guests (dead or alive)?Whose cooking..? This is a big dinner party right? I would love to have my parents there, and my late brother, to meet: Talbot and Atkins, Man Ray and Pollock, Sol LeWitt and John Coplans, Eva Hesse and Nancy Graves, Linda Cathcart, DaVinci and Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Helen Frankenthaler, I mean, this is going to get big…Dr. Edwin Land, Marie Cosindas…you know it could go on for whole weekend, Atget and Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Lee Miller, would love to meet David Hockney, Sir Elton John - all the great women artists, since the beginning of Time..! poets, philosophers, musicians…writers, this is a huge dinner party!
Book on your bedside table?Just finished reading:”The Ninth Street Women” now reading the biography of “Coco Chanel”.
What advice would you give your 16 year old self?Dear 16 Year-old Ellen,
You did the best you could today, tomorrow is another day. Try again and you will see, things get clearer, when you follow the light. To that end-of-the day blue, colors in a day - fade - as the violet hour turns into dream’s delight, heavenly stars shine bright, let go - sleep, sweet Ellen - wonder, under the shadow of night.