The Anthropocene exhibition appears in the Dec 2016/Jan 2017 edition of Boulevard magazine.
PHOTOGRAPHER DAVID ELLINGSEN:
BY ANGELA COWAN
PHOTOS BY DON DENTON
With sand dollar headdresses and disembodied lupine jaws, the newest photograph collection by David Ellingsen at the Winchester Gallery is shrouded in the slick smear of primordial algae and the whispers of wild heartbeats.
The images are studio-shot on a stark black background, offering nothing to distract from the eerie creatures Ellingsen has created in his collection, Anthropocene. Two bird skulls nestle in the eye sockets of a human skull; a turtle carapace takes the place of a brain; in yet another, the human skull is held in the predatory clasp of a sea lion’s pitted jaws. The images make your hackles rise. You may be standing in a white-washed art gallery, you tell yourself, but your wilder nature tenses its hamstrings, prepared to run.
Ellingsen, who freelanced for years as an editorial and advertising photographer for New York Times Magazine, CBC Radio Canada, Men’s Journal and MTV/Nickelodeon, has been focusing exclusively on his art since 2013. Rife with environmental commentary, his collections have been exhibited worldwide, including being a permanent part of the Chinese Museum of Photography and Vancouver’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Nine photos from The Last Stand, a series of stump portraits, will be permanent fixtures at The Datz Museum in Seoul.
The seeds for Anthropocene took root when he first read the term in a news article.
“Based on global evidence that Earth’s natural systems have been irrevocably altered by human activity, this term redefines the current geological time period as being human-influenced,” he says in his artist’s statement.
For a species as young as we are — with civilization as we know it about 6,000 years old, and industrialization only ramping up in the 1800s — that is a monumental and vastly unsettling claim.
“It just shook me to my core,” says Ellingsen. “A lot of the time it’s a sort of visceral feeling that starts me off. This collection ties into my feelings that it’s crisis time with climate change.”
Though the term has been around since 2000, it was only on August 29, 2016 that the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy recommended formalizing anthropocene as the current geological epoch. It was just one of many recent pointsof-no-return that the human race has passed in the last decades, leaving our future as a species more than uncertain.
To take that revelation and turn it into art was a natural next step for Ellingsen. Being tuned in to the health of the environment has always come second nature for the artist, having grown up on a farm on the remote Cortes Island.
“Growing up in a place like Cortes, the environment and the landscape is equally, if not more important than your family is,” he says. “You really see the balance of life and death.
When you’re slaughtering animals for food, you see what’s necessary to actually sustain another life. That isn’t bad or good, it just is.”
Seeing that balance irreversibly shattered by human influence, both on a local and global scale, spurred Ellingsen to action.
“I was looking at reintegrating nature back into humanity,” he says of Anthropocene. “We keep extricating ourselves from nature and putting ourselves above, and exerting dominion over it. We live on top of nature, not in it. But we’re still ruled by instinct and not reason.”
In life, the photos are expansive, bold statements on the gallery’s white walls. With no glass to separate them from the viewer, Ellingsen’s creatures seem almost to emerge from their black backgrounds and into the room. It’s a feeling of movement that’s emphasized by a startling level of detail, achieved by “focus stacking.”
“I don’t normally talk a lot about the technical aspects of my work,” says Ellingsen, hesitating at first to get into the jargon of photography.
“Normally, if you’re looking at me, you’re focusing on my eye or my nose, and the rest of my face is out of focus, and what’s behind me is out of focus,” he says.
With focus stacking, Ellingsen sets the focus on the closest point of his subject, and then takes a multitude of shots, changing the focus slightly each time, moving farther back with each shutter snap. The challenge is to then build an image using the sharpest parts of each.
The technique offers a new level of clarity that allows the viewer to see the work in a way the human eye simply can’t.
“I really do hope to poke and prod people into action,” he says, freely admitting this collection is not designed to make anyone comfortable. “There was an intention behind that abruptness. There are a few things I hope for. One is that people become aware of the term anthropocene because for me it’s so monumental.”
We will evolve and adapt, he adds, but at what cost? How can we as a species integrate our advancements in medicine, engineering and agriculture into a global lifestyle that also protects the planet?
But even through the undeniable threats of climate change, Ellingsen has a strong sense of hope for the planet, and for us, especially when he’s immersed in the natural world. Several of his other ongoing collections get him out into nature and at the ocean’s edge.
“It gives me a touchstone every day just to look at the ocean and the sky,” he says. “When I’m back here, I feel like the natural environment here feeds me in a way I can’t describe.”
“Sometimes this kind of work really stresses you out,” he says with a bit of a laugh. But with the completion of the Anthropocene collection, “I feel a sense of peace. I really do feel at peace with the idea of life and death, good and bad, the yin and yang of life.”
“We had seen David’s work from previous series,” says Elizabeth Levinson of Winchester Gallery, Ellingsen’s home gallery now that he’s moved back to Victoria from Cortes.
“His technical ability is superb, but we were attracted to what he had to say through his lens about the state of the planet, and about hope for its future. It’s been an honour to hold the international launch of the Anthropocene series.”
After spending much of his career in the breakneck pace of commercial photography, being able to step back and stretch his artistic muscles has been a welcome change for Ellingsen.
“It’s about slowing down and putting thought into it. Being an artist really dovetails into the way I was raised,” he says.
He’s able to spend the time needed to capture the essence of an idea — explore inspiration, and research stories and images from other cultures and peoples.
“Being a photographic artist now,” he says, “I feel completely at home.”