Light-Struck by Ellen Carey

Light-Struck at Lacock: Photo artist Ellen Carey brings new work to Britain’s birthplace of photography

• Renowned photographer opens new exhibition at Lacock’s Fox Talbot Museum
• Artwork created in response to Lacock’s photographic history displayed for first time
• Artist Ellen Carey named in Royal Photographic Society’s ‘Hundred Heroines’ list in 2019

Light-Struck by Ellen Carey opens as a visual vade mecum at the Fox Talbot Museum in May 2023. Her handbook guides us through photography’s nearly two centuries’ arc of: light, photogram, colour, Polaroid seen in her dual practices, Photography Degree Zero (1996-2023) Struck by Light (1988 – 2023).

Renowned for her work with Polaroid and its instant technology highlighted in her artistic vision of its monumental camera, the well-known, large format, instant peel-apart contact print, from negative-to positive in seconds, found in its 20 X 24 unique image ( Carey’s Light-Struck takes the viewer through two centuries of photographic play and discovery. Showcasing key pieces from her career, Light-Struck also features a completely new artwork (2023) created in response to one of Talbot’s 19th-century photograms titled: “Crush & Pull with Hands, Penlights & Spruce Needles”

This is a new six panel artwork as RGBYMC – photographic colour theory – expressed as a series of “spruce needles” in sequence as positives with their opposite, in the huge negatives. Carey created this installation in response to William Henry Fox Talbot’s ‘Cascade of Spruce Needles’ photogram, an early experiment that highlights the singular characteristics in photography – light drawing – seen here in Talbot’s original one-of-a kind ‘negative’ image from the dawn of medium. The new artwork produced this February in Ellen Carey’s studio in Connecticut, USA, using the supersized Polaroid 20 X 24 camera in collaboration/permission from/with The Fox Talbot Museum and the Light-Struck curator, Andrew Cochrane and John Reuter, Director of 20 X 24 Studio ( It visually consults not only Henry Fox Talbot but his counterpart Daguerre and later, Anna Atkins, famed for her delicate botanic prints in bold blue and white. ‘Photographers use light in all different ways – silhouette, shadow, outline, reflection’ Ellen Carey says, ‘however, I often cannot see light while I work [in the darkroom], leading me to wonder what the light does on its own, what are light’s first traces?’

In the care of the National Trust since 1944, when Talbot’s granddaughter Matilda donated both village
and Abbey, Lacock was home to William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877), British inventor of paper
photography. For the 21st century, for Fox Talbot Museum, and for us, Ellen Carey brings her arc into
the future with her newest, Crush & Pull with Hands, Penlights, & Spruce Needles an epic 21st century photo-object from Polaroid’s huge, monumental 20 X 24 camera, which allows Carey, its ‘camera operator’, to re-position light drawing anew.

She purposely references an early experiment by Talbot “A Cascade of Spruce Needles” a camera-less photogram that Carey uses as a conceptual point-of-departure to visually underscore the duality of its negative-to-positive process at the dawn of the medium that follows a century later in Polaroid’s 20 X 24 instant technology, a “linked ring” connects these two groundbreaking ideas/innovations in our culture. The American Edwin Land’s (1909-1991) inventions of Polaroid instant technology and its gigantic 20 X 24 camera of only five in existence world wide, are one of photography’s 20th century game changers. Briefly stated, Polaroid 20 X 24 produces a contact print, negative-to-positive, in a one step, peel-apart process that develops in 60 seconds — a unity of technology and art. Colour is a cornerstone of art, as it expresses many things and has a long, cultural history. Polaroid consulted with artists, such as the American photographers, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Marie Cosindas (1923-2017). Carey, likewise visually consults with Britain’s Talbot and Atkins, and France’s Daguerre — the tripod of 19th century game changers — whose objects speak in different visual light languages: Talbot’s negative-to-positive duality of the photogram-as-image is doubled, while Daguerre mirrors the glossy polish of Polaroid’s pristine surface of its hyper-real picture; Talbot’s warm range of browns sees the object on the paper negative as silhouette in outline, and light’s ‘shadow’, its reversal, in the contact paper positive, while Prussian blue sees colour-as-light-transformed by Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes.

Colour gains ground in hundreds-and-thousands of ways: colour is universal, it’s an artist’s universe;
photography has its own light planet seen in photographic colour theory – RGBYMC. Advances in art
and technology, optics and chemistry show as light plays in Carey’s Dings & Shadows from then to now. Light travelers follow its path, as noted in Carey’s research on women and colour photography in her third practice, Pictus & Writ (2008-2022), wherein is found a missing link, a visual discussion between Anna Atkins and the newly discovered tetrachromacy gene. This gene – tetra for four, chroma for color when present in women who test for it, signifies their ability to see more color combinations by comparison to men, who test in the 20% to 30% range for color blindness. One finds gender bias in the visual arts links to color and women is underscored by Ellen Carey’s research/scholarship/essay with two of her curated exhibits as : Women in Colour: Anna Atkins, Color Photography and Those Struck by Light.

Ellen means light or bringer of light. Her Catholic birth name in Celtic, Gaelic, and Irish is a prescient
gift from her parents as it entwines her destiny and fate with light and photography, the Greek origins of which are phōs for light and graphis for drawing. “How is this picture made?” and “What is this a picture of?” are questions asked about her work. These address photography as process and the conundrum of an image without a picture ‘sign’ to read, i.e. portrait, landscape, still life, etc. Carey’s artwork upends these traditions in situ — chemicals, process, camera-less, darkroom, Polaroid Pulls and Struck by Light Photograms are of light, what light does, can do. Light’s immateriality challenges its makers today; analog versus digital doubles these challenges. “What is a 21st century photograph?” finds Carey’s answer in partnering 19th century photogram with 20th century Polaroid instant technology. “What do these two have in common?” and “Where do they overlap?” Her answer sees the negative.

Crush & Pull combines Polaroid and Photogram, her modus operandi the huge Polaroid negative that
is light-struck, to create new abstract forms and blended hues with experimental approaches and innovative process-driven methods located in both chemistry-laden Polaroid pods and the light-tight darkroom. Here, Polaroid’s 20th century instant technology meets the wonder of 19th century photograms as Carey makes a new 21st photo-object for us to see: the negative-to-positive “blow-up” is all physical material, all photographic, all light: colour/positive and non-colour/negative, she re-visits the magic of it all. Carey’s performance in the black box of the “light-tight” darkroom — folding, crushing, creasing — abounds with affinities to the Surrealist parlour game of the “exquisite corpse” in which words and images were individually made in sequence to become a collectively assembled and displayed art form, a tool to surprise the unknown with the known of seeing what is there. Carey’s black swans use light and only light — one-of-a-kind experiments that are light-struck, all-in-one totalities, originating visual impact for synoptic clarity for which the gestalt is ‘it is!’ (cf. c’est!, in Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero). These black swans materialise Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theory as set forth in “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” (2007), according to which black swans are major, exceptional and unpredictable events, including artistic achievements, conceived as extreme outliers, which we later rationalize as foreseeable. The theory sees unexpected events become game changers in this, the global world, as it is, now.

When light becomes visible the object speaks. Ellen Carey’s object says craquelure, parabola, hue, abstract, process, minimal, Polaroid, Photogram, black swans, light, beauty, color, wonder, invention, innovation, Talbot’s curve. Crush & Pull with Hands, Penlights, & Spruce Needles – Polaroid positives – RGBYMC –photographic colour theory – seen with their opposites, the monumental 20 X 24 negatives, the lead image for Light Struck as well as paying tribute to Talbot’s “A Cascade of Spruce Needles”.

The exhibition’s highlights include Ellen Carey’s colour photograms as Dings & Shadows plus her newest, Finitograms. Carey, well-known for her Polaroid 20 X 24 Self-Portrait series (1983-1988) finds
several here plus artworks in Light-Struck from the artist’s collection, exhibited for the first time.