Alumni News

Photographer Ellen Carey ('75 printmaking) makes historical discovery

Ellen Carey is an internationally and nationally recognized lens-based, camera and photographic artist. She recently made a discovery related to the artist Man Ray (1890-1976), an American best known in the art world for his avant-garde photography and named by ARTnews magazine as one of the 25 most influential artists of the 20th century.

In a nutshell, please tell us what you've discovered, when you discovered it and under what circumstances you discovered it.

In early January of 2009, I discovered Man Ray’s “hidden” signature in a very small (3 inches high by 2 inches wide) black and white photograph, a self-portrait titled "Space Writing" (1935). A brief description sees the artist as a blur and seated, facing the camera, drawing “in the air” with a penlight. The result is a photograph that contains white lines, looping shapes and abstract curlicues. However, when held up to a mirror, this photograph reveals his name as “man” (top) then “ray” (underneath) floating in the very composition that camouflages it, as a reversal and inversion, seen as “nam” and “yar” in the final print.

A few days leading up to this incredible scholarly “find,” I was visiting and had been in dialogue with Merry Foresta, (former) Director of the Photography Initiative at the Smithsonian, in Washington D.C. Our conversation was about my penlight or “drawing with light,” a phrase from the dawn of photography, as a tool for abstract expression. This line-as-open-form is seen in my photogram and Polaroid work. Merry had a recent studio visit and knew that the penlight had been used in my experimental work since the 1970s.

In this context, she reminded me of this very well known Man Ray self-portrait, pointing to the reproduction from her exhibition catalogue/book: Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray; Foresta is also a Man Ray scholar. Strong flashes of intuition, in combination with intense feelings of curiosity, presented themselves when I saw the picture — his signature was there — hidden! I said to Merry: “I bet if I hold this image to a mirror we would see his name.” Later I did — Voila! — found at last, after over seven decades of hiding.

As a photographer, I could “see” the photograph. The gestalt was powerful; its high visual impact felt by me was tremendous. The mirror image as axis, duality and leitmotif in photography and in art, holds interest for me, it informs my work. I also knew how Man Ray had made his photograph, where others didn’t know or had missed his clues altogether. His signature was tucked away, like a gift, since 1935, that is a long time for Man Ray to wait! The journey has been very exciting, full of wonder and surprises, a mix of Sherlock Homes meets Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.” I have a heightened appreciation for this genius artist, who has repeatedly shown over and over again, the engaging and transformative experience of his art; the clever, multi-faceted, sophisticated yet playful ways of his extraordinarily creative mind; all are a delight and a force unto itself. It is not every day that new discoveries in art are made, rare in photography, rarer still in the much loved and well researched artist and photographer, Man Ray.

What sort of influence has Man Ray had on your work?

Affinities with Man Ray, especially his photograms, find delight in the unexpected and the drama of form. He used his unconscious and dream life, both entryways for making art, which I have done for many years, but it reaches a turning point in my story called, “The Dragonfly and The Rainbow,” which is about the twin losses of my mother and brother. My dream life mirrored the “real” world at that time, which also influenced my work. I made huge breakthroughs in my work and my thinking about life, about art, about love and loss, after I buried them, which emerged with my discovery of the Polaroid Pull in 1996.

There are several essays that references this story: The Black Swans of Ellen Carey: Of Necessary Poetic Realities (2010) by the poet Donna Fleischer and one by photography critic Ben Lifson titled: Ellen Carey: From Matrix to Monumental (2009); another by Old Master scholar, Alden Gordon of Trinity College includes my penlight work: Drawing with Light, Painting with Emulsion: Ellen Carey’s Pulls and Penlights (2008).

Man Ray also loved the strategies of gamesmanship and the Surrealist’s games, found in “automatic drawing” or exquisite corps. In a sense, I finished his own game of Hide-and-Seek with this discovery. His internal life, with its own imagination and codes, were reflected and found as a parallel in his exterior world, in his art. His own acute sensitivities and evolved hyper-visual intelligence proved he was a keen observer of both; he had the extraordinary gifts to lift them out of the dark into the light of day, onto an image.

In a way, Man Ray was my spiritual mentor, looking down at me from art heaven. His work gave me permission to explore these synchronicities and trust my prescient, visual awakenings, to use my intuitive powers in combination with my own innovations, inventing new nomenclature along the way, such as my Polaroid Pulls in my practice Photography Degree Zero or exploring color and shadow in my experimental photograms under my umbrella concept Struck by Light. This discovery has fate and destiny written all over it, paying homage to and completing what Man Ray started. In looking back on all my trips to Paris, Man Ray was always included, either by a museum exhibition or a walk by his studio. He is fully present in my library, where I do my writing, with all my books and catalogues on his work. He continues to inspire me, his exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New York last fall titled, Alias Man Ray: The Art of Re-Invention, where I saw Space Writing for the first time.

It was an unprecedented art experience — to physically see how tiny the photograph was, a contact print — and the white looping lines were hard to decipher, so camouflaged by the values of tones in the darkness of the photograph. The exact opposite experience was seen viewing Jackson Pollock’s MOMA retrospective years earlier; both are powerful, yet radically different artists. Both used size and scale to inform their visual expressions, one to collapse, compress and miniaturize it, thus creating an inversion, which is echoed in the “hidden” signature, the other to expand, express and monumentalize it, but there is a common link, both used off-frame space with line-as-open-form. I am deeply grateful to the Man Ray exhibition curator, Mason Klein, who generously cited the discovery, which I had just sent him right before the exhibition was to open, in his catalogue. He halted the press to fit it in, so it began being announced to the broader, public art community in a great context.

Who are other influences?

After Man Ray, I would say the paintings of Jackson Pollock and the conceptual art and wall drawings of the late Sol LeWitt, whom I was fortunate enough to know. I wrote an essay for his MASS MoCA retrospective “100 Views” titled “Color Me Real”; this begins my writing in the tradition of artists-on-artists, seen in Donald Judd. Next was my Man Ray discovery and following essay What’s in a Frame? The “Space Writing” of Man Ray.

In order of art movements, with broad strokes, I would say Surrealism and Dada, Abstract Expressionism and Minimal and Conceptual Art; the latter two took some maturity on my part to fully grasp, challenged and intrigued early on as they were happening, which was my time in KCAI in the early 1970s. My graduate work at SUNY@Buffalo, I included museum studies, later working as a curatorial assistant to Linda Cathcart, the contemporary art curator there. I became very involved with their collection, even making a discovery in a Paul Klee drawing; one was on the back, unknown to them. There collection is outstanding in 20th century art. I was also part of Hallwalls, a group that included Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. Visual Studies Workshop was close by and there were plenty of photographers like John Pfahl, Bonnie Gordon, Les Krims, Nathan and Joan Lyons, so lectures and exhibits were happening.

Later on, as I began to concentrate more and more on photography, I went back to its earliest beginnings and here the early work of William Henry Fox Talbot, the British inventor of paper photography is significant. His photograms, which introduce the negative/positive axis with light and shadow, are rich themes. His contemporary, the Victorian Anna Atkins, the first women photographer and the first to use color with the cyanotype process, which yields a Prussian blue; I am researching under my project Women of Color.

Both were pioneers and iconoclasts, whose work signals and points the way to so many great things in photography — process within the artwork — light and nature as art’s agent — and the big themes such as love and loss, seen as metaphor/object positive/negative in my own work, such as Mourning Wall or found in our picture culture every day. The existential question: “Who am I?” which I have also explored, is found in self-portraiture since its invention, especially important for women practioners as photography was an “empty field”. In Talbot and Atkin’s photograms, I see the beginnings of abstraction and minimalism, scholarship that needs more emphasis in photography (generally) and non-existent in their work, I hope to correct this.

There are many other artists whom I admire too—the list is long — but I am especially interested in women who have traveled outside the “norm” of expectations, making new inroads in art and visual thinking, what I call “femme brut (e).” I use it to describe work from the sculptures of Nancy Graves, Judy Pfaff, Eva Hesse, Louise Nevelson, Nancy Holt, and Lydia Benglis to the photography of Diane Arbus, Lee Miller, Claude Calhoun, and Anna Atkins to the architecture of Zaha Hadid and the wonderful performance artist, Laurie Anderson. One of my projects is an exhibition/book and start a foundation called femme brut(e) for future generations to study, with an archive, board members and a granting program for individuals and exhibitions.

 And what caused you to decide to attend KCAI?

 When I got there, I immediately loved the whole place. I explored materials and disciplines in freshman foundation, where I discovered I could not throw a pot, paint a picture, draw or sculpt. These soul-crushing realizations were offset with my love of printmaking, especially lithography, which I became somewhat accomplished at, but it was slow going! Photography was more my speed. I responded immediately to the “frame” and fell in love. KCAI had new darkrooms, so printing 10 hours a day was fun and normal. The printmaking department was on the first floor and photography upstairs, so I could move freely from one to the other. Freshman foundation also introduced me to color and Josef Albert’s color theory, which later informed my own work via photographic color theory. I found the projects challenging, especially my first one, which was to bring into class a square piece of dirt, which we drew for six weeks! The faculty definitely broke down any expectations of my preconceived notions of what art was in these Zen-like ways, making me think harder about the possibilities in art.

There was a lot of healthy competition and camaraderie in the classes, and we were always trying to one-up each other; in the end, I think a group of us were called “The Royal Kings and Queens of Printmaking.” I studied lithography with one of Benton’s pupils, William McKim, and etching with Marvin Jones. Both were great! To come full circle and in the context of my Man Ray discovery, I was put in touch with the art historian and scholar, Dr. Henry Adams, who has discovered a “hidden” signature in a Pollock painting titled Mural, which also happens to be in Iowa. Adams is an expert on Benton/Pollock and has written a book about their relationship. So again, it seems fate was involved in my choice of KCAI.

Also as a young artist, I wanted a different experience from the East Coast and New York, where I had studied lithography at the Art Student’s League between high school and college. I always live near great museums — one is found in the Nelson-Atkins — more spectacular than ever with its expansion. I live close to The Wadsworth Atheneum and when I lived in New York, which I still visit, terrific museums are everywhere.

In retrospect, my coming to KCAI was a wise choice and a great lesson. When it comes time to choose, reflect on the possibilities and choose wisely — to work hard, work smart and work hard at it — is something ever artist needs to do. I had a terrific undergraduate experience, with access to great facilities and supportive teachers within a disciplined academic and visual arts program. My fellow students, in all departments, were generous and lively, and some remain friends to this day — a real sense of community and e’spirit de corps. I was not gender-coded as a child; both my parents were educated and believed that women should be able to do what they wanted with their lives, same as men. With this in mind and being young and restless, I wanted my freedom and independence. The big wide-open spaces of the Midwest beckoned, anything was possible, so off I went!

What advice would you give to recent KCAI graduates?

Take full advantage of all there is — explore different mediums, explore materials and their meanings, take risks and don’t be afraid of failure — and remember, it is a discipline and takes practice, it is very much part of the “artist’s struggle,” which comes in a variety of ways. Immerse yourself in the culture of KCAI, take all the time you need to work in their studios, take courses and internships, visit as many museums as you can and take as many courses as you can with great teachers. Keep your mind open and a journal for yourself — and have good old-fashioned fun — dance, what dances we had at KCAI! — but read and write, cook with friends and laugh, travel and go out in the world, protect and nurture your gifts, protect your time, body, spirit and your mind. Find mentors. Eventually it will all fall together, like pieces in a puzzle. Find a way to take time out just for you, with a walk or a run or looking at nature, one of the best teachers around. And remember, the process of a life in art is as interesting and full of surprises as the final picture. I will say you’ll need your strength for this, both inner and outer resources. I would highly recommend developing a sense of humor with multiple coping mechanisms for rejection (I would buy flowers) coupled with good business sense and a tough hide. Mine is made of COR-TEN steel!

Are there any updates to your original discovery?

Good question! I have found numerous other “portraits” in this photograph that are drawn with light. These penlight “selves,” I count three, have yet to be highlighted and announced, but they cue off his first “face” with dots for eyes and a circle, all outlined. They also form a triangle, a triage of self-expression, so this image packs a lot in a little. Quite astounding actually. It may be the first photograph to use text with a conscious, artistic intent, making it a precursor to conceptual art. As a self-portrait, it is multi-layered with meaning — sophisticated, outstanding and unique — an example of photography that is both illuminating and complex as it is stunningly elegant and simple. I have looked at thousands of photographs, and I have to say, this Man Ray is an exceptional and stellar work of art.

I have also put forth (in my essay) that this image is an unacknowledged precursor to Jackson Pollock through line-as-open form, a link between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, when between the wars, the art capital shifted from Paris to New York. This Surrealist’s influence on Pollock has been noted before and is established. However the Pollock scholar, Francis V. O’Connor, agrees with me and has confirmed my hypothesis. He states that this photograph is an (in) direct influence through Pollock’s best friend, the artist/photographer, Herbert Matter, who made “light drawings” as photograms, similar to Man Ray, only a decade later in the 1940s. This has also been supported as a very real possibility by Dr. Ellen G. Landau, whose book Pollock/Matters with Claude Cernuschi, reproduces Matters photographic work; Matter was European coming to New York due to WWII.

There is also the writing-in-reverse, its history located in daVinci with examples found in Talbot and Atkins, with spiritual overtones in the Jewish religion — Man Ray was Jewish — and the origins of Creation in the kabbalistic reference, all interesting, all in my essay.

Another version of my essay is forthcoming in Aperture magazine this fall. Now, in a Connecticut-based magazine on art and culture called VENU, there is an interview on my discovery by Krystian von Speidel, with many reproductions of my “penlight” work and Man Ray’s Space Writing that has my highlights, in red, of his signature, seen in the photograph.

Please tell us about any upcoming shows:

Group exhibitions include:

May-June 2011: Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris (FRANCE) on Abstraction and Photography

April May 2011: Panopticon Gallery, Boston (MASS) titled: "Instant Connections" on Polaroid and Portraiture

Tour/travel:

2012: The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, Aperture Foundation, New York

2009: (tour/book) by Lyle Rexer; Galerie Pangée, Montreal; Center for Creative Photography (CCP), Tuscon, Ariz.; Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Winter Park, Fla.; Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, Charleston, W.V.

2012: Devonport Regional Art Gallery, Tasmania, Group Exhibit on Abstract and Photography

2013: Vassar College, Group Exhibit on Polaroid and Experimental Work/Artists

Projects on which you are working.

As an independent scholar:

1. Man Ray project and my essay What’s in a Frame: The ‘Space Writings” of Man Ray to be extended to a book-length final with interest from Ashgate Publishers (UK and VT) and an exhibition around this discovery with this image alone or with other related artworks. Bowdoin College Museum of Art has the photograph in its collection and I have been seeking partnerships for exhibitions, with them, or possibly with our mutual areas of interest as “hidden signatures” with Henry Adam’s discovery of Pollock’s camouflaged signature in his Mural painting; he is working with Yale University Art Gallery on a Benton/Pollock exhibition.

2. Women photographers and their pioneering contributions in color, project title as Women of Color; includes Anna Atkins up to today; highlights are Marie Costindas, who worked with Dr. Edwin Land of Polaroid to develop their color, she was also the first women photographer to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s.

As a Polaroid and photogram artist:

1. Polaroid artworks for future exhibitions, specially Tasmania, with additional fundraising efforts to bring large format Polaroid 20 X 24 camera to Devonport Regional Art Gallery for site-specific installation, make a documentary film and have the other photographers in the exhibition, six total, I am one of two women and the only American, use the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera. This camera travels the world, but has never been to Tasmania.

2. Continue large-scale color (40 x 30) photogram work, with a focus and exploration of the shadow image with my penlight drawings, seen in my new "Dings & Shadows" series.

3. To finish a retrospective (1992-2011) book project titled Struck by Light dedicated to my photogram work, with essays by well-known scholar, Andy Grundberg and interviews by the curator of this exhibition at Saint Joseph College Art Gallery, Ann Seivers, additional essays and interviews TBA.

4. All my projects to date have all been self-funded, but in order to move forward, additional funding is necessary. So I am writings lots of grants to seek funding for all projects; research and site-visits for Man Ray, residencies for writing, Polaroid 20 X 24 Studio and Color Photogram work, and Women of Color Project, which is in development.

5. A longer view, is to learn all the processes in photography, from vintage methods to current digital technologies, beginning with Atkins cyanotype process, which I have begun in tandem with my research.

In closing, for me, it has been a deeply rewarding pursuit and enriching life — making art and writing about other artists — I am deeply grateful to all the people at KCAI, who provided me with support and an education, that helped me with a strong beginning, that led to an even stronger foundation, for that very young artist, so long ago. Thank you all!

Digital gallery

View work by fellow alumni, current students and faculty in our digital gallery.