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Ellie Smith - Clearing
When I was a child we spent long days making huts in the pine trees up behind our place. In winter we collected the cones for the fire and every December we decorated a carefully selected branch that would make our house look and smell like Christmas.
As I grew up I learned, in a flip sort of way, to hate the pines with their neat rows spreading over newly bulldozed land. Destruction and invasion. Another wave of colonisation replacing the diverse landscapes with monocultural forestry blocks.
Lately I haven't felt so easy with this dismissal.
As I drive through the forests north of Taupo I am compelled to stop and photograph scenes of barren destruction that I have seen before in early NZ photos of land clearing. Are we destined to dumbly repeat ourselves; am I ignoring some sort of warning; or is it just the balance being righted as iwi are awarded new forests to replace stolen ancient ones?
On walks with my family I recognise scenes from my own childhood and the anxious old-world stories of lost and enchanted children - stories that now so easily fit the shape of my own parental fears.
And what does it mean to climb an old pa site and a find a trig station, overcome by huge pines and on the edge of a clearing?
I get the feeling that there is something here for us to understand, if we stop the movement and look - like archeologists who read the decline of civilizations in common cooking pot shards found in the rubbish dumps of old sites.
"a clearing… a world we haven't yet learned to read, where meaning still seems to be gathering itself..."
'a Clearing' R Meeks Nazareli Press, Tuscon, 2008
- Ellen (Ellie) Smith
Burnt pines, near Rototuna - photo: Ellie Smith
Unfinished stories - a response to artist Ellie Smith's photographs.
Ellie Smith is an artist who works primarily in photographic media. While she grew up in Wellington, she has been in Northland for more than half her life.
In her house at Whangarei Heads, which she and her partner designed and built for themselves, Ellie can almost literally disappear into her black and white darkroom.
Tucked somewhere very close to the centre of the building, the darkroom is cleverly hidden by a series of corners, corridors and doors that are concealed behind
curtains or pieces of furniture. Making photographs is, for Ellie in particular I think, a very private process. By deciding to make photographs,
she has chosen for herself the role of spectator. She's normally the one who gets to do the looking.
Ellie is already well-known in Whangarei and Northland for her many roles, projects and skills including teacher, mentor, professional photographer, and the
initiator of the Heads Proposal series of art projects with communities. However, she is known nationally through her photographs. It is this art practice,
which is absolutely central to Ellie's thinking and working, around which all other activities are organised.
Ellie is one of the most patient artists that I know. I have watched her work for over decade now and I have come to admire her process as much as I admire the results.
I'm pretty sure that you can tell, when looking at Ellie Smith's photographs, that she is a reader. Last night my partner and I were talking about whether you had
to read in order to be able to write. Of course naïve productions of any form are possible and can even be remarkable. However, knowing works do rely on an
undepinning depth of knowingness. It makes sense that the more you read (or look, or listen) the more you understand a language and can thereby use it.
If you love novels, as Ellie does, continuously engaging in the act of reading makes their themes, their storylines and their details shake apart with increasing
ease. In the process, patterns are revealed and symbols become familiar.
Once a mass of stories are in your head, a kind of percolation takes place. Mostly, it is the names of characters that slip away, sometimes even plots. But the parts
that remain are the essential or remarkable parts. These then knock up against all the other haunting or beautiful or disturbing and memorable parts. The result
is an awareness of the big stories. The crux points. The unavoidablilty of consequence. Of change. Of inevitable stages. Of the everpresence of death, for example.
These big stories are narrative in a cumulative sense. Through a combination of observation, imagination and reflection these metanarratives can be looked for and
recognised in the cycle of life around us. This is an essential part of Ellie's process.
Ellie's photographs (not just her current series but all her works) feel like they have stories. This "story-awareness" manifests itself in a number of ways.
Sometimes a story is identified by the title. Her 2005 series "Catching Icarus" makes direct reference to the Greek myth but at the same time does not set out to
illustrate it. A much earlier body of work, "Pages from a mother's diary" (from 1995), suggests the existence of a personal narrative. Literary references inform
the conception and the naming of many other bodies of work but may not be so easily recognisable to a viewer because Ellie has rolled them around a bit until they
have become her own.
Occasionally, what feels like a telling scene from a story is played out in a photographic sequence. A group of photographed moments are juxtaposed: presented as
a beginning, a middle and an end. It's interesting to me that it is in these sequences, in which the passing of time is the organising principle, how tidy and
tied up the events are. In sequences, such as "Clearing 4", in which a group of four young to middle-aged women walk and disappear down a path in a forest, the
story circles from the event shown to a larger metaphor and back again.
The stillness of a single photograph can be haunting. Time has a more disquieting presence in the single image works. When confronted with a single photograph we,
the viewers, are made very aware that there was a before and that there will be an after, but there is no way of knowing what it was that happened or what
is yet to come. We will never find out from which metanarrative, or which sequence, the particular image we are contemplating has been isolated. The "taking"
of a single moment out of the continuum of time is one of the basic operations of a camera. However, not all photographs make you worry about all the other unseen
moments in the unresolvable way that Ellie's do.
Ellie does not limit herself to working in black and white, using colour when the idea demands it. Nevertheless, there is a degree of gravity associated with
black and white photography that works for Ellie, and she keeps coming back to the medium. Its accepted seriousness allows her to more completely separate the
image from what is often a potentially ordinary, everyday scene or scenario. Recently, while working on her newest series "Clearing", Ellie has come to realise
that her own experiences as a child and a young adult are not necessarily representative of those of every New Zealand child. The barefoot, humid childhood that
she has witnessed her own children move through has not been a replay of her own childhood. Her holidays weren't always divided between rural sand and sea but
included still or running water, pine trees, urban wind and train stations. Feeding swans, building shelters out of the dropped branches of pine trees, playing
"creep up" outside an old building: these are not all classic childhood snapshots. Instead, they are recognised moments of Ellie's own memory stories which have
become intertwined with, or overlaid by, larger more timeless narratives. While these photographs are beautiful, almost familiar, they possess a lingering strangeness.
- Cathy Tuato'o Ross, 2009
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