Looking Back

Ellen Carey

September 2, 2023

For the exhibition Ellen Carey: Light Struck, on view at the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, England, through March 31, 2024, Carey responded to William Henry Fox Talbot’s A Cascade of Spruce Needles, 1839, one of his earliest photographic experiments, in which he scattered spruce needles across the surface of a light-sensitive sheet of paper and exposed it to the sun. (Ellen Carey: Struck by Light is on view through January 28, 2024, at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT.) Carey’s Crush & Pull with Hands, Penlights & Spruce Needles, 2023, created for the museum, is a six-panel installation that highlights photographic color theory as well as the importance of the negative: she used the monumental Polaroid 20×24 camera, which produces, in seconds, a negative-to-positive contact print from a one-step, peel-apart process. 

Carey wrote about Talbot’s photogram for photograph.

William Henry Fox Talbot’s A Cascade of Spruce Needles is extraordinary for a variety of reasons. The object speaks back – silhouetted hieroglyphs dance, sing, and move, showing order in a single spruce needle and chaos in scattered shapes on a dark ground. The image opens a window onto another reality.  

Ellen Carey, Crush & Pull with Hands, Penlights & Spruce Needles, 2023. Courtesy the artist

Talbot could not draw or paint, nor can I. His early photographic experiments opened a door to a portal of future possibilities for photo-artists like me. I examined A Cascade of Spruce Needles every which way: in reverse, upside down, flipped, appropriated, blown-up, color versus non-color. Talbot’s negative pre-dates and points the way toward many 20th-century art movements of the avant-garde: Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, minimalism, color field painting, monochrome, even feminism and art. In addition to Talbot’s photograms, I looked to Anna Atkins for color, and I looked to Daguerre for the pristine surface of a Polaroid positive – unique works of art, too. These artists underscore my own dual practice – in Polaroid with  Photography Degree Zero, 1996-2023, and in the photogram Struck by Light, 1988-2023, not to mention research, in my collection of essays, Pictus & Writ. In revisiting Talbot’s image – a contact print of the negative made for its positive – I formed a call and response through centuries, from the 19th-century photogram to the gigantic Polaroid 20 x 24 photogram in the 21st century.