Five Points Annex: August 4 – August 26, 2023

Opening Reception: Friday, August 4, 4:00 – 6:00 pm

Virtual Artist Talk: Thursday, August 24, 6:30 PM

Champagne Closing reception: August 26, 1-5 PM

Ellen Carey

“How is this picture made?” followed by “What is this picture of?” are questions asked about my work.  The first addresses process and it is the very process which becomes the subject.  The second finds an image without a subject, neither portrait, still life, or landscape.  My photography purposely challenges our culturally and historically prescribed expectations around the photograph and its picture signs.  The ‘what’ is in front of the lens as its “camera vision” is reversed.  I use only light, wherever and whatever it strikes.  My work intentionally upends traditional methods of “rendering” a photographic image with unusual approaches and combinations.  This forces a break from the past, freeing a picture from a hierarchy of things to be captured to a picture that is made. 

In this context, abstraction in photography and lens-based art presents a contradiction in terms, and minimalism presents a further oxymoron.  Well developed in the 20th century in other areas – Abstract Expressionism, Minimal and Conceptual Art – these tenets are incorporated into my art practice.  The American invention of Polaroid 20 x 24 (circa 1980) complements these breakthroughs in visual thinking with my discovery of the Pull in 1996, producing a black conical loop, a parabola, seen in nature as the tip of a comet. 

A different kind of document, it is abstract and minimal, Polaroid instant technology and Polaroid color, both a new kind of photograph and 20th-century process; it fits under my umbrella concept Photography Degree Zero (1996-2023).  Polaroid is used by many artists and photographers, such as Ansel Adams, Marie Cosindas, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, William Wegman, and Mary Ellen Mark, and widely recognized for expanding our picture culture.  I am also a “Polaroid artist” keeping the instant, peel-apart, one-of-a-kind negatives, often exhibiting them with their positives.  Struck by Light (1988-2023) parallels my Polaroid work by investigating experiments that create abstract and minimal photograms, a 19th-century cameraless method, also unique.

Briefly stated, my work under these twin artistic practices often overlaps in a variety of ways with light and color, highlighting experimental combinations.  The Polaroid Pulls are dramatic, high-impact pictures of my inventive techniques and innovative methods.  Struck by Light uses the photogram, made without a camera, it is created in the darkroom; in color, no light (zero again) is allowed to except upon exposure.  An emphatic and evolving commitment to experiments in color unifies both practices, serving as a conceptual point of departure and leitmotif.  In my Dings & Shadows and the Caesura series, the referent/object, seen in traditional photograms, is removed.  My newer work, named Zerogram, links to my Polaroid practice, highlighting that nothing, zero, is between the paper and light.  Light is the indexical in all photography, light is color, seen in nature’s rainbow.  Color is an artist’s universe, color theory --- RGBYMC --- photography’s planet, a contextual reference in palette, underscoring my concepts.

The end results include abstract and minimal work as Photography Degree Zero and Struck by Light, freely interchanging concepts with the other, from Polaroid and/or photogram, with a wide variety in palette and form.  My work involves the discourse around contemporary photo-based artwork, it stands as a testimony to minimalism and abstraction; process within photography; color as subject; forms, and feelings.


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 artists-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) fol-lowed 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 con-cept 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 color; 35mm, medium, and large format. Her experimental images see a range of gen-res 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 color, Carey often uses RGBYMC, photographic color theory, as a point-of-departure in palette, adding context and content, citing the history of color photography, especially the work of Anna Atkins, the first women photographer, the first in color.

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 (www.wadsworthatheneum.org) in their prestig-ious MATRIX program. Dings & Shadows are often huge color 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 color; caesura is Greek or Latin for pause: in word (poetry) or sound (music). Her images use color 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, colors 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 colors to create new forms. Color 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 Uni-versity Art Gallery while corporate collections include: Banana Republic and JP Morgan Chase Collection; noted private include: The LeWitt Foundation and Sir Elton John Collection. Exhibitions, solo and group, include: books, catalogues, brochures, artist talks, reviews, lectures etc: http://www.ellencareyphotography.com.