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Struck by Light

Ellen Carey uses a penlight to draw on Polaroid negatives.

Ellen Carey’s photographic works at Nina Freudenheim Gallery

Photo artist Ellen Carey’s new works on display at the Nina Freudenheim gallery consist of exotically colorful photograms—works made directly on photographic paper, without the customary use of a camera—and wildly abstract and equally colorful Polaroid direct photos, using a huge special-edition Polaroid camera, but without the customary focus on any visible object. Additionally, some of the Polaroid photos are inscribed with swirls and streaks of white light, inscribing directly onto the Polaroid negative, using a pen light pinpoint light source.

Pioneer modernist and photo effects experimentalist Man Ray comes to mind, on several counts. He made copious photograms, usually placing common objects on unexposed photographic paper, then exposing the setup, fixing the image of the objects on the paper in negative.

He is also explicitly invoked in the exhibit by a framed short article Carey wrote for Aperture, a photographic art journal, about a time-lapse self-portrait photo by Man Ray as he scribbled over his image with a light pen. The gist of the article is Carey’s discovery—if you buy it—that by reversing the photo you can make out the signature “Man Ray” amid the scribbles. It’s possible. But more likely the putative signature is there by chance, which is the controlling mechanism of the Dada-inspired “automatic writing” Man Ray was more or less explicitly engaged in with his light pen, as well as more or less explicit practice of Carey herself in inscribing on her Polaroids.

Carey’s photograms are intensely coloristic. (Whereas, Man Ray’s photograms, from an era before the invention or wide general use of color film, are black and white. Intensely noir.) In a “light tight” darkroom, unexposed photographic paper was first creased and crinkled—creating an irregular topography, so as to result in tonal and shading effects in the finished photogram—then exposed, still in the darkroom, to colored light of a single primary color. That is, one primary color per photogram. (Another major difference between Carey’s photograms and Man Ray’s are that his feature recognizable images, hers none at all. Except maybe the kind of dubious and arguable images someone might see—but someone else, or maybe everyone else, fail to see—among the tonal and shading effects. Aleamorphs is the technical term. For that matter, much like the signature Carey sees in Man Ray’s light pen scribbles reversed.)

Her Polaroids are intensely coloristic in a different way. Like a bath in pure color, or again, colors. Not single primary colors this time, but liquid blends of the spectrum of colors. With an emphasis on “liquid.” But like the photograms, abstract. The “imagery” consisting of just the Polaroid process color emulsion, captured on paper in a liquid state, and somehow in the finished product looking still liquid.

Her “automatic writing” with pen light on most of the Polaroids, which had to be done in the dark—literally “in camera” in the special-edition Polaroid apparatus—offers diligent observers a chance to hunt for the kind of hidden content Carey seems to have found in the Man Ray work. In obverse or reverse, with a bit of mental gymnastics. (Diligent hunters of aleamorphs ought to be up to the extra step.)

The Ellen Carey exhibit continues through April 11.

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