DARKROOM DANCE ELLEN CAREY’S PHOTOGRAPHIC ART DAZZLES

The Buffalo News
Date: Friday, November 29, 2002
Section: GUSTO
Edition: FINAL
Page: G25

By: BY BRUCE ADAMS – News Contributing Reviewer

Illustration: Detail of one of Ellen Carey’s photograms.

REVIEW
WHAT: Ellen Carey’s “Pushpin Photograms 2002”
WHEN: Through Dec. 20
WHERE: Nina Freudenheim Gallery, 140 North St.

ADMISSION: Free

INFO: 882-5777

Ellen Carey is a photographer who doesn’t take pictures. Or maybe she’s an abstract painter who creates colorful compositions without paint or brushes. It may just be that Carey’s enigmatic, untitled photo-based works — on view in the exhibition “Pushpin Photograms 2002” in the Nina Freudenheim Gallery — require an art classification all their own.

Carey’s unique process begins where most photography ends — in the darkroom. In total darkness, the artist presses any number of pushpins into a sheet of 24- by 20-inch photographic paper then paints the surface with red, blue and green light, the additive primary colors that are used in, among other things, television.

Following this procedure, Carey subjects the paper to multiple exposures, sending pushpin shadows and reflections skating along the surface in interlacing paths. By varying the angle and amount of each subsequent exposure, all manner of overlapping colors and tonalities occur. Explosions of brilliant magenta and yellow merge with equally dazzling patches of red, green, cyan and blue.

Significantly and in contrast to conventional painting, the artist works blind here; the resulting abstract images are only finally revealed in the developing bath when the process is complete. For Carey, this process drives the art. Cutting out the camera as middleman and going right to the photographic print establishes the parameters of expression.

This shorthand approach to picture-making is nothing if not ingenious, but even so, the methods that are used are deeply rooted in historical traditions of photography and painting. In the 1920s, the Dadaist Man Ray, influenced by the pioneering spirit of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, created a groundbreaking art form he dubbed rayographs. Rayographs were variations of an even earlier type of image known as pictograms, in which objects are placed directly on photosensitive paper and exposed to light to produce a shadowy contract print.

Man Ray’s innovation was to impart motion to an essentially static process by manipulating both the light source and objects during exposure. This allowed him to create highly dynamic variations of shape and value. Carey’s photograms advance this process once again by adopting a minimalist’s attitude and applying an inclusive understanding of color theory.

Chance also plays an essential role in the work, a practice that harks back to the surrealists of the 1930s and the abstract expressionists of the ’40s and ’50s. In the blackness of the darkroom Carey performs without a net, substituting instinctual movement for conventional control.

This blend of skilled manipulation and fortuitous accident combines to produce spectacular and often surprising compositions. Some of the pieces incorporate vertical streaks of pulsating color, while others form radiant crosses that twinkle with pushpin sparks.

For me, part of the fun was attempting to visualize the precise darkroom dance required to produce a effect — and wondering how many attempts ended up in the trash before one of the dazzling designs seen here emerged.

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