Life: Project Information
"There is a distinct eeriness looking at an image from David Ellingsen’s series, Life: As We’ve Known It - the dark glow suspending each subject is as compelling as it is unnatural. How will these photographs be viewed by our descendants and what will remain of these species, or indeed, their human viewers?
As our planet enters another major extinction period, the ninth in its 4.5 billion year history, these photographs respond to this anthropogenic event of unprecedented scale. In the media barely a day now passes without a reminder. The World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London recently reported that by 2020 the numbers of wild animals living on Earth are projected to fall by two-thirds from the levels of 1970 - two thirds in fifty years. The International Program on the State of the Oceans declaration that ‘marine species risk entering a phase of extinction unprecedented in human history' is but another in a long and growing list.
Ellingsen created this exhibition as a response to the ravages of human activity on the natural world. His solarized Polaroid negatives were produced in partnership with the Beaty Biodiversity Museum and their curators and this series of 132 images emerged through seven years of research and practice. Even a casual walk through the museum’s collection reveals deep mixed feelings of preservation and loss; we are allowed such close intimacy with life forms we would rarely see in person, and yet, they are removed so profoundly from living nature. There is a play of darkness and light through the museum’s displays, and Ellingsen responds with his own aesthetic of strange beauty. The use of his last supply of Polaroid’s extirpated Type 55PN film itself reflects on the fragility of preservation; production of this distinct film ceased in 2009. We may not see many of these living entities for much longer and we certainly will not see such photographs.
Ellingsen honours the attentive manual care of earlier record-keeping technologies, drawing on the historical darkroom processes of Man Ray and the botanical studies of Karl Blossfeldt. The connection to Blossfeldt is particularly poignant; by isolating the subject from its background or natural surroundings both artists draw us deeply into the single life form itself. In Ellingsen’s case there is a new resonance: as life forms are being dislocated from their surroundings with or without an artist’s hand.
His portraits of flora and fauna are not intended as a concise, scientific record but rather a feeling, a fascination, a darkness - a lament for the living planet as we have known it. As the planet enters its ninth mass extinction period this rendering seems an accurate metaphor for our times."
+ 138 final images representing flora and fauna from land, sea and sky.
+ Exposed on expired Polaroid Type 55PN negatives and solarized in the darkroom during development.
+ Prints made with pigment ink on cotton rag.
+ Dimensions: 17x13 inches. Editions of 5.
Polaroid Type 55
Polaroid Type 55 is a black-and-white peel-apart 4x5 inch photographic medium that yields both a positive print and a film negative. Most Polaroid imaging products contain only a positive print and it is the addition of the fine-grained film negative, used to create quality enlargements, which made Type 55 a favourite of photographers and artists. Each pouch, typical of Polaroid, houses not only this imaging material but also the operations of a photo darkroom – developer, stop and fixer.
Working with film is an experience of alchemy far more subject to chance than the equally wonderful, mechanical perfection of modern digital photography. Particularly in the black and white darkroom, film’s seemingly magical transformation of light into silver and response to temperature, time, and many other variables give it an organic, living presence – and thus an appropriate medium for a series questioning humanity’s reverence for the living planet.
Production of Polaroid Type 55 ceased in 2008 and all stocks expired in 2010. The photographs in Life: As We’ve Known It were produced from 2010 to 2017.
Using expired film
I used Type 55 right from the start of my photographic career in 2000 and began this project with a small existing supply. Once this ran out, I purchased more through eBay as needed – by this time of course all expired and much of it stored at room temperature (cold storage is critical to maintaining the quality of film). This resulted in issues such as brittleness, sensitivity reduction in the silver halides, thickening of the developer, the print and negative sticking together, developer exhaustion, etc. These issues can prove to be disastrous or wondrous, depending on the artist’s taste, patience, and most importantly, desired outcome.
I learned to work with these issues by opening each box and testing the first sheet or two – and when you’re paying $300 for a box of 20 exposures one tends to learn rather quickly. Happily all 20 would typically respond in a manner consistent to those tests.
Developer viscosity was one common hurdle (left long enough the developer within the Polaroid pouch would completely harden and become unusable). You can see the effects of this thickening in some of the final prints where the image unexpectedly stops and there is a liquid-like appearance at the image edge as the developer, with reduced viscosity, vainly attempts to cover the entire surface of the film. This leaves parts of the film undeveloped.
There were also many occasions where the positive print and film negative stuck together inside the pouch. After some trial and error I overcame this by manipulating the film by hand before exposure - running it over the edge of a table, bending it, folding it, and basically roughing it up until I heard it give with a quiet crackle. This rather harsh treatment would typically leave evidence such as streaking, crease marks, and clouding.
Solarization (also called the Sabattier effect) is a phenomenon in photography where the image is impacted by a reversal in tone - dark areas become light and light areas become dark. It is a technique most famously known in the work of Man Ray. The effect is produced in the darkroom by a short, intense exposure to bright light during the development stage. In the early days of photography a match would be ignited in the darkroom, flaring brightly for a moment and then extinguished. I used a small portable electronic flash about 17 seconds into the 25-30 second development stage.
The most noticeable result of solarization in Life: As We’ve Known It is the reversal of shadow, producing a light tone where a dark shadow would normally be. While a shadow typically contextualizes and anchors a subject in its environment this reversal of tone serves to visually "lift" or float the subject from the background.
Another is the Mackie line. This thin, dark line forms along a boundary between light and dark areas, typically areas of high contrast. The Mackie line only appears on the Polaroid film negative, not the positive Polaroid print. You can see this line in many of the final artist prints and again, it serves to emphasize the subject.