1922 University Avenue. Madison WI. 53726


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Interview with photographer Ellen Pizer, DRIVEN TO ABSTRACTION

Our new exhibit features fascinating, playful, colorful and surprising abstract photographs by Milwaukee photographer Ellen Pizer, who, as it turns out, is as surprised as the rest of us, but will let you in on the secret if you ask nicely...

1.  The work in this exhibit just runs away with peoples' imaginations, and there's great and constant conversation about of what the image is, of what it reminds someone, and how it makes the viewer feel. Conversely, I saw a lot of different people throw their hands up at you and say "what IS it?"  With such emotional images, that are so personal to each person who views them, how do you feel when people ask you for the answer - do you like to let them in on the secret of the abstraction, or do you worry it may change how they interact with the piece?

The first time I exhibited my abstract photographs I was actually surprised that people were so curious about them.  If I’m asked, I have no problem telling people what they’re looking at, although there have been a few times where I’ve had to go back to try to figure it out for myself.   I’ve learned to take at least one wide angle shot of the area before I leave to give myself some point of reference.

I guess there are different ways of viewing my photos.  First is the immediate impact; the design, colors or whatever causes a viewer to stop and take a look.  But I think there is something within us that needs to know what we are looking at.  When it’s a painting, we feel free to see what we want whether or not it’s what the artist was trying to convey.  But when we know it’s a photograph, I think we want to understand what it is or where it was taken. We need to place the image in some context of its surroundings.
I actually enjoy listening to people try to figure out what they're looking at, and I think they have fun with this process as well.  Years ago I actually had a contest offering an 11"x14" print to anyone who could correctly figure out what "Looks Like Something Growing" was a picture of.  No answer even came close.

I usually do not worry about people changing the way they interact with my work.  I just want them to enjoy it.  It doesn't matter if they like it upside down or sideways.  The fact that they're curious enough about it to ask is quite a complement in itself.  I hope my work reflects the fun I’m having.  Sharing my photos with others feels kind of like a little kid excitedly saying, “Look what I found!” 

The only time I have ever hesitated about revealing a photo’s origin was when the shape on a maroon dumpster consisted of bird poop.  I'm not sure that information would have had a positive impact - although the shape was actually very sensual and the piece was titled "Come on Over and See Me Sometime."

  2. You have work in this exhibit that is printed and framed in a straightforward manner, as well as some pieces printed on canvas and stretched, and others printed on satin and hung.  Would you talk about the different substrates you're working on, and about how you pair imagery with surface?

I started printing on canvas several years ago at the request of a gallery owner who is also a painter.  She felt that some of my photos inspired some of her paintings and wanted to see what my work would look like printed on canvas for a show at her gallery.  I have over time learned that there are some images that lend themselves more to canvas than others – usually it is the more abstract and heavily textured images that I think can be enhanced by the texture of the canvas.  I am not a painter, however, and try not to pretend that I am.

Trying out satin began when an artist wanted to know if we could print on material that he could use to refurbish an old decorative screen he had found.  He still hasn’t finished creating his image for that screen, but since the satin was lying around I thought I’d try it out.  Because one side of the satin is coated so that the inks will adhere to the material, the shiny side is actually the back. At first I was disappointed because it wasn’t what I had anticipated. 

I printed one image on matte paper, semi-matte paper and satin.  I laid them next to each other on a table.  At first glance the satin print appeared more muted than the other two.  I left the images there for several weeks and for some reason the satin image kept drawing me back.  I finally realized that the image printed on satin was more “fluid”.  That’s the only word I can use to describe it – it has movement and when light shines through it from behind, it actually glows.  I therefore look for an image that is simple and can be enhanced by movement or something where colors blend into each other without hard edges or textures.  

3. I heard, through the chattering crowd, something great at the opening.  You were talking to a guest and you said that when you're out exploring to make these images, you approach that "hunt" with more intensity than you do anything else in your life.  Would you elaborate on your process for shooting this work, and maybe even talk about how that's different from the rest of your life?

I tend to be pretty intense about everything in my life.  When I first started back into photography my mother was in her nineties and both of my sons were teenagers.  I had a lot on my mind to say the least.  But when I was out with my camera, even for just a short time, I noticed that my mind was so completely absorbed in the “treasure hunt” that I didn’t think about anything else.  I did not worry, I didn’t think about what time I had to be somewhere, or whether my kids had finished their homework.  I did not think about anything else except what existed within the viewfinder of my camera.  It brought me such peace, a reprieve from the stresses of everyday life. 

Sometimes it takes me awhile to get into that zone, to find something that excites me.  Usually I will force myself to keep looking, to keep walking, to turn around until something catches my eye.  When I find a colorful rusted dumpster or a graffiti covered railroad car, I feel like a kid at an amusement park.  There is an excitement that is hard to describe.  What is funny is that I may have passed that site many times without ever paying attention, but at that moment I am seeing it as if for the first time. 

4.  Stylistically, you've got some amazing different abstractions going on.  A piece like "Towering Facade" has a very crisp and geometric feel of color blocks, line and shape and calls to mind the work of
Mondrian, while a piece like "Hearts and Flowers" has an extremely Pollock-y expressive feel to it.  These styles can be considered to be fairly diametric, so what is it about each of these styles that calls to you so strongly?

I think it’s the magic of the viewfinder.  A building is a building is a building; some beautiful, others not; some unique, others commonplace. But the viewfinder forces me to look at the parts of the whole.  Shapes appear, shadows define, angles are enhanced and I just begin shooting, getting closer, backing up, moving around.  Each piece becomes a whole.  Some juxtaposition of shadows and light, color or textures, just begins to jump out at me.  I really don’t think about composition.  It just feels right or it doesn’t, although it often takes time and a number of shots until I get there. Although I kind of went kicking and screaming into the digital age, I’m thankful that I can shoot as much as I want without thinking about the cost of film or processing.

When it comes to the more painterly abstractions, it once again begins with the power of the viewfinder.  When I find a colorful dumpster with lots of spills and splatters and scrapes it feels as though I am entering a fine art gallery but without any definitive framed pieces.  It’s all just a haphazard jumble of color and texture.  But when I put the camera up to my eye, the viewfinder begins to frame the chaos.  And as I move around and close in or move back, any number of possible images begin to appear. 

In a way both the graphic and the painterly images are discovered through a similar process…closing out the visual chaos and zeroing in on what I find are the essential elements.

5. Are you ever surprised at how the image comes together or when you shoot it do you know how one image will stretch on canvas and look like a painting, while another will flutter in the breeze on satin and look like a tapestry?   Are you ever surprised by your own work?

I am sometimes disappointed to find that what I found so exciting while I was out shooting, just doesn’t translate into a photograph, but I would not trade the experience of finding that image for anything.  Even when an outing yields nothing worth printing, the experience itself is rewarding.  I’ll often see little pieces in what I’ve photographed that look interesting and go back to the site to get a different view.  Then there are the times when I didn’t think I got anything good and there amongst the boring will be an unexpected gem or two.

I don't really think of how an image may be printed when I'm out shooting.  Actually I don't "think" at all when I'm shooting.  I don't really previsualize very well so printing is often just experimentation. Sometimes I’ll proof on canvas, satin and several papers and then look at them over a period of time before deciding which I like best.

What has been most surprising even to me, is how small an area I’ve actually photographed.   Because I get so lost in the viewfinder I often have no idea how close I am or what a small piece of the whole I am looking at.  The image “Beauty Comes with Age” is a perfect example of that.  The first print I made for a show was 40"x60". It was sitting in my studio waiting for the gallery to pick it up.  A friend asked what it was and I took him out to the metal dumpster behind the studio and pointed to an area on this huge dumpster which was maybe 6" in diameter.  I was as shocked as anyone.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Madison Magazine associate editor Katie Vaughn wrote a review of our current exhibition, Ellen Pizer: Driven to Abstraction on their blog.  Read it over there, or right down here!!

Treasure Hunting
In the opening lines of her artist’s statement, Milwaukee photographer Ellen Pizer describes the first time she looked through the viewfinder of a 35mm camera.

“Everything else seemed to fade into the background except what existed within that rectangle frame,” she writes. “I began to see lines and shapes I had never noticed before.”

Pizer focuses on architecture, structures, materials and objects that many people would consider blight. But through her framing, these elements become abstracted and beautiful.

Roughly thirty of Pizer’s works are on display at the Steenbock Gallery in Driven to Abstraction, an exhibition that opened May 10 and runs through June 18.

The show, presented by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters and the Center for Photography at Madison, illustrates Pizer’s breadth: large and small works, series and individual pieces, and images presented in frames, on canvas and on pieces of cloth share wall space in the University Avenue gallery.

What ties the works together are their bold colors, incredible textures and the patterns formed through distilling scenes and objects down to abstractions.

The viewer can’t always tell exactly what he or she is looking at in an image. Sometimes it’s sleek architecture photographed in black and white or close-ups of bright red building structures. Other times, it’s an expanse of rusted and weathered metal revealed in vibrant blues, reds, whites and golds. Often the most stunning works are the nearly impossible to identify, given the degree to which they’re abstracted.

A fun touch to the exhibition is a collection of five framed magnetic boards. In these “Graffiti Creations” stations, visitors can choose colorful magnet squares to mix and match (or purchase for $5) on the boards to create their own compositions. All of the squares are photos of graffiti-embellished railroad cars that sit abandoned on tracks near Pizer’s studio.

At a later point in her artist’s statement, Pizer explains the “joy of discovery” in finding an image to capture with her camera. “I call this process a visual treasure hunt,” she states.

Fortunately, through seeing and having hands-on experiences with Pizer’s work at this exhibition, it’s a hunt visitors can happily join her on.

Driven to Abstraction runs through June 18 at the Steenbock Gallery, 1922 University Ave. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, visit wisconsinacademy.org.

Photos courtesy of the Steenbock Gallery.

Katie Vaughn
An associate editor at Madison Magazine, I'm also an unabashed arts enthusiast. Paintings, plays, music, movies—I'm intrigued by all forms of creative expression. I enjoy talking with artists and sharing their insights, challenges and inspirations.

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