Earth Rising To Heaven, and Heaven Descending
It’s 2014 and photographer Ellen Rogers still shoots entirely with film, developing her photographs with the chemicals that she makes in her own darkroom. Based amidst the rounded hills and grit-stone escarpments of England’s Peak District, the fashion photographer’s connection to her homeland is undeniable - her soft and romantic images each imbued with their own sense of history and sadness. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ellen about her approach to image making, her connection to the world of symbolism and iconography, and the practical demands of a career in fashion photography.
You are known for your all-analogue approach to image making. Can you tell us what attracts you to film photography and dark-room printing?
I suppose the short answer is that the darkroom is what I know best. I like getting my hands dirty and it’s a lot of fun. I think more instinctively and creatively when I can use my hands that way. I am certainly no Luddite but I do enjoy this particular process for its messiness and risk.
There’s an enormous sense of heritage in your work. When I look at it, I think of the Bronte sisters and perhaps some of the more unsettling aspects of life in the Victorian era (the pea-souper fogs, gothic fiction, the practice of early psychology). Can you tell us what role history and setting plays in your photography?
I like that you see those things, and of course someone else might see something different. The Bronte sisters were from Yorkshire which is located a little further north from me, I’m in the ‘Peak-District’ but ultimately it’s a similar landscape, certainly Emily's ‘Wuthering Heights’ would have been a very similar backdrop to where I live. Those fogs are very real I see them almost every day. I would say some books I like seep into my unconscious, but they are just there, latent, affecting me in invisible ways. I couldn’t pinpoint anything inparticular.
There’s a Portuguese word which you may havecome across at some point - ‘Saudade’. There’s no direct English translation for it, but generally it describes a deep and pervasive sense of longing. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a body of work that, for me, embodies this concept as completely as your own. Would you agree that loss is prominent theme in your photography?
Firstly, that is a beautiful word. I suppose the closest word might be ‘melancholic’ in English but its ambiguity is something to question. I prefer the succinct nature of ‘Saudade’, now I know it. Yes, loss is a theme in my work, perhaps the main theme and even before I felt it in a way that would impact me directly I sensed that it was always waiting for me and it ran though my veins, that is to say, I’ve always been a pessimist. I am something of an existential nihilist. I may make a shoot and name it this for you.
Your work often hints at the mystic, theistic and the occult – all of which conjure a parade of subconscious associations. How intentional is your use of symbolism in your work?
For me religion and its iconography is a beautiful story, and if it helps anyone who needs it, that is for me incredibly heart-warming. However in my life it is non-existent, an opulent vision of the past, a seductive security I can draw from and cherry pick and decorate my world view. It’s intentional in as much as the history of fashion is portrayed in my work i.e. without prejudice or propaganda.
A few of our readers have some questions for you, many of them to do with the more practical aspects of forging a career in fashion photography. Can I ask how you got your initial break inthe world of commercial photography?
A stylist called ‘Katie Burnett’ approached me after my MA degree show around 2007-8, I honestly can’t remember how we came into contact originally but we became fast friends. From there I began working with other stylists and magazines and such. It grew from there. I think it was a series of accidents that I never fought too hard to ward off.
Do you find that you sometimes encounter dissonance between your own ideas as an artist, and those of your clients as commercial organisations? If so, how do you remedy this kind of tension without compromising your vision?
I don’t honestly think you can make something for someone else and not feel compromised. It did for a time wear me down. These days I don’t tend to work for other people for this reason. It’s not for everyone being a commercial photographer and after years of trying to be that way I realise it just wasn’t a comfortable fit for me. Occasionally a very liberal client will come along and say words to the effect of ‘do what you want’. I just hope for those people now.
You received your Masters in Photography from Goldsmiths’ College in London. A lot of photographers we have spoken to have said that their most valuable skills are those which have come intuitively. How important do you feel your institutional study has been to your development as a photographer?
It didn’t help me in a practical/aesthetic way necessarily but it certainly set me up as a person who could relate theory and reason to my practice. I think Goldsmiths in particular is good for arming you with those weapons. Needless to say you get out of an education what you put into it.
I’ve heard you speak in previous interviews about being somewhat anti-social or reclusive. How do you balance your need for seclusion with the networking demands of a career in fashion photography?
Social media is the aggregate for all of my output as it is for most people. I used to have an agent but I didn’t feel I needed him after my social sites became relatively far reaching. I never went to parties or events even when I lived in London and I chose to move up north away from the industry I worked in. I think that lifestyle suits some people well but I always felt London was more alluring from a distance; instead I travel down when I need to.
You write often in journals and have also dabbled in film. Do you feel you are telling the same story across all mediums?
I think it might be difficult to avoid my overall tone and outlook.Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses and I work to that. For example I’m working on an analogue photography video game, I’m writing it with Prizme (my creative partner) and it’s very much a story made with the strengths of video games in mind. Like exploration, you can leave subtle clues around in a video game that aren’t as apparent as they might be in a photograph or film. So in short I think the medium itself for me dictates the direction of the narrative.
What are you most afraid of, and what do you hope for?
Any freedom removed by force. I hope always to be proven wrong.
Can you tell us what you’re up to lately and what we can look forward to from Ellen Rogers Photography?
I am working on a project called ‘Dokument’ with stylist/art director Emilia Pelech based on our time in Slovakia early this year. We explored fashion and culture in Slovakia and are currently making it into a tangible magazine/ travel guide, funded and supported by the ‘Arts Counsel England’. I will be showing it in October this year.