Photography has always been thought of as a “truth” medium, so much that even Baudelaire distrusted its advance and competition with what he saw as true Art (paintings, poetry—mediums that he thought catered more to the imagination). Of course, after Pictorialism and Modernism, we know that photography can inhabit and manipulate truth as well as painting, and cast our world into fantasy, surrealism, or hyperrealism. This is especially possible with digital editing software, but in the hands of British photographer Ellen Rogers, the surreal and visionary is all manifested by hand and becomes a dreamy voyage through the analogue.
From camera to the darkroom, her process is all analogue. With each print hand-printed and hand painted, her methods make her otherworldly feminine explorations of mythology, folklore, and literature as tangible as they are mysterious. In her commercial life, she has brought her unique lens to such fashion clients such as Vogue, Vice, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and Alice Temperly. She has also shot for such prestigious institutions as the Ashmolean Museum and the Arts Council England. She has written extensively about her techniques and process for Lomography magazine, and currently enjoys lecturing on photography throughout England.
Lately, she has pared down her fashion shoot to focus on her own projects, including her latest and most ambitious work to date, “Gnosis,” a wide-scale, mytho-biblical series inspired by Rodin’s “Gates of Hell.” I was pleased to e-correspond with Ellen and learn more about the inner workings of her rich vision alongside her steadfast dedication to invoking the modern and timeless within traditional methods. Those insights are below.
There is a wonderful Gothic and Decadence presence throughout your work that give subtle nods to Robert Chambers, Lovecraft, Poe, and Baudelaire. What I find most fascinating about this is your ability to subvert the trope of the helpless heroine. How have the influence of male writers fueled the flame for your exploration of a feminine space?
I think this is a good question, and an observational one. You’ve hit on something that I personally know I struggle with and very few people seem to notice. I am drawn and prone to be heavily inspired by male writers (against my better judgment and will). Particularly M.R James.
I don’t think it’s because they are male but socially, a sort of reverence lives around men. With M.R. James, for example, my instinct is to feminize his work. To make it mine, I feel a strange love/hate towards him. I feel his hands all over my home turf, and I feel his misogyny has claimed my beaches and local mysteries. At times when I read his stories, (that I am attached to), I feel a sort of violence for the way he paints women as henpecking and unintelligent – East Anglian women, and in the land they are set, where I grew up. I want to remake his works. I did this once while at university but would like to remake them again.
How do you set the mood for work in the Darkroom? Do you listen to music, audio books, (if so, who do you listen to) or is silence more golden?
I almost always listen to lectures; I find personally it’s the best way for me to shut off from thinking about what I’m doing. Somehow, the work/practice does live in an automatic or libidinal space I don’t always have access to. I can never predict what I’ll make for certain, and I think in time I’ll start to improve upon that as I did with my first Gnosis set. Because, when applied, I think my work channels a sort of grace missing in the raw psyche of earlier works.
Many of your images portray bondage, whether it is explicitly with rope and chains, or implicitly within the confines of their environments. They don’t seem interested in breaking free from the shackles of the Gaze, but meet it head on, unafraid. What is the unseen, off-screen force keeping your figures captive?
That is true, and it’s specific to a certain time in my life when I lived a very secluded life for around 5 years. After my mother’s death, my then partner and I moved into a dilapidated manor house on the Derbyshire boarder. It was a time of immeasurable creative growth, of realization, and deep frustration.
It was extremely cheap to live there, and these two chaotic working class British kids who met in London could actually afford to live there living off the back of the hard work we had done as artists. After a while, I felt as if I was in a gilded cage. It was my ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ moment, although not at his hands, at my own. I lived in those walls, trapped, wandering and lost, terrified of leaving, I continued to wander those grounds for a couple of years after I left.
My most frequent model Maxi, with her then partner in that house, creating with me my feelings at the time – this was called ‘Safe, safe, safe’. Although it isn’t apparent bars even fall over them in this embrace. This was based on Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘A Haunted House:’
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
You restrict your methods to analogue camera and films as well as hand-tinting and hand-painting of the photographs. Could you go a little bit more into the process of how you paint the images?
Everything is by hand, that’s correct; no digital manipulation at any stage. The process is an amalgam, of hand-touching gum prints. Over the years, it’s become somewhat finessed and I think it’s more or less my own now and vastly different to how it started out.
Photography has always been thought of as a “truth” medium, so much that even Baudelaire distrusted its advance and competition with what he saw as true Art (paintings, poetry—mediums that he thought catered more to the imagination). Of course, after Pictorialism and Modernism, we know that photography can inhabit and manipulate truth as well as painting, and cast our world into fantasy, surrealism, or hyperrealism. This is especially possible with digital editing software, but on your website you claim that “the digital realm” is a place “where the work never truly exists and cannot be interacted with so intimately.” What makes digital photography so inauthentic and intangible compared to analogue photography?
Oh, I don’t interpret those words as ‘inauthentic’ at all, and I genuinely have no prejudice against the digital world or indeed work. In fact my own prejudice is most likely toward my own desire to live as what I believe a trades person’s life is, a person using their hands, to make something tangible- physical. And even that is a claim on un-solid ground, if anything that statement is clumsy because solipsistically we have no idea of what really exists. I was careful to use the word “realm” because that’s exactly what it is, as is the so-called physical realm. I should probably reword that, I wrote it around 8 years ago.
How do you keep the fires burning for your next shoot…especially while tackling your commercial work?
I think it would be ludicrous to claim any kind of vocation, but I don’t seem to have anything that presses me into doing what I do, I just sort of organically plod along doing it without thinking. I barely even contemplate it, I don’t think anyway.
I have notions that bug me rather than actual ideas and it comes out in some kind of vague planning. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve developed a sort of muscle memory from a time of burning fires, so as to keep ideas alive.
How does your commercial work inform your personal work, and vice versa?
I think because they look so similar that’s difficult to answer, but working with a certain set of professionals does inform your practice somewhat. In my personal work, I just don’t have the natural flair for wardrobe that a stylist has, because styling is a genuine art form in and of itself. I work most of the time with a woman named Emilia Pelech, we’ve been working closely for years and she brings so much to the world we create. I genuinely think that’s why I opt for nudes more often in my personal work, if that’s what the model wants. I can watch and learn from a stylist, not that it wouldn’t really impact on me too much as I just don’t seem to be gifted in that way. But it does give me a certain ‘professional’ level that I might carry to my personal work. I think similarly it’s easy to be confident with models on personal shoots if you’re used to being in a highly pressured setting shooting film for a client. It definitely means I shoot quicker than my digital peers, or so I’ve been told from collaborators on shoots.
It’s easy to see analogue photography as a very technical and controlled medium—but some things are left up to chance. What, among your methods, have been discovered due to chance?
I think when it comes to chance; one of the most infuriating things I have discovered is that my own solution that I mix for development loves a certain paper that is no longer made. Occasionally I see it at photography/analogue fairs or on eBay. People kindly give me lots of old stuff, and sometimes I find something that works really well, and I know that I can’t buy again! But I guess that’s part of the fun.
What was the first photograph you ever took that made you realize this was your calling, and why? (And if you can remember the equipment, please share that with us, as well!)
I’ve always been on this path really. I used to develop my father’s films when I was young; we always had a darkroom, and I used to always carry a camera with me as a kid as my father had fetishized them as objects so they always seemed (and still do seem), quite sacred. So I can’t really remember, but I did often carry a Nikon around as a child that I still have.
In your work, I can see the influence of the visionary scale and fancy of the Pictoralists, as well as the haunting and haute surreal explorations of, say, Lee Miller. But I would love to know which photographers actually have influenced you, and in what way?
I would be lying if I would say in some way Deborah Turberville hadn’t influenced certain printing styles. But genuinely I don’t find myself turning much to other photographers. The word haunting is crucial to my work so I welcome your use of it. The idea of haunting itself is something I feel surmises what I am doing. I think Marx’s use of the word is very poignant for me – ‘there is a specter haunting Europe’, or the way in which Derrida used it as a way of explaining a missing politics, or even more specifically how Mark Fisher talks about haunting. Haunting to me is key; key to understanding the missing things my work seeks to fill. Perhaps even a lost future, a mourning that I socially never had a chance to feel in my daily grind.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? Does Gnosis, pt. 2 progress?
I hope for more hauntings but perhaps more conviction too! I think my new journey is to connect my politics to my visual output. Gnosis, pt 1 started to sort and feel this out, and my ongoing experiments now are trying to stand behind something with conviction, with others in mind, with a collective approach and less excessive self-contemplation. I am working on Gnosis, pt 2; its current dedication is to the very nature of religious representation in photography. I’ll be re-visiting Blake and other iconoclasts to try and unpick the way in which religious icons are portrayed and how that marries to politics, for example, how and why are recurring images of Mary or Jesus almost always as a white person in the West.