I Myself Am a Haunting: In Conversation with Ellen Rogers
by: Sabina Stent , May 23, 2019
by: Sabina Stent , May 23, 2019
MAI: The first time I saw your work it brought to mind both Dora Maar’s 29 Rue Astorg and Francesca Woodman’s Rhode Island series. How do these comparisons make you feel?
Ellen Rogers: I remembered you saying this! I was touched by that thought as we strolled down the straight towards Euston station–somehow the thought of that is infused with that road now–imagining them sitting in the Welcome Collection as a result.
I think there is a chance some people are born vaguely similar and act out something beyond them, something unconscious related to their ‘psychic disposition’ that is to say related to their psyche. I always felt something of an affinity to both women but was never particularly inspired by their work. However, I am inspired by their very being–but like I say direct images wouldn’t be reference points for me. I always felt I was pulled more towards something moving that’s stilled–mentally, film stills mostly–if anything. I do wonder about Woodman though as this is a high-frequency comparison for me when one searches my name, hers comes up next on google for example. So, something is going on, and I wonder if it’s as simple as the square format and the developing style. Or perhaps the idea of women reconnecting to something outside of themselves. Bodies blending into other things, bodies as other, bodies as containers, re-wilding. But hers are self-portraits and I can’t say with any honesty I feel the pull to photograph myself, I’m a little too attached to creating a vision I have seen–psychically–to be able to use myself for that, I’m something of an observer, an outsider. I’m nowhere near as grounded and bodily as a self-portrait artist is, or anyone who uses their own body for that fact, but I admire those that do, my long-term model Ephyra is a dancer for example. I am certainly more ethereal than corporeal, as a personality and as a maker.
MAI: Your work is haunting, mythical, religious even. For those unaware of your Gnosis series, how would you explain this project?
ER: Gnosis is a conscious attempt to undo the doctrine I’ve seen in the religions I have loved, so it’s an attempt to extract the Sufi like wisdom from them, to boil the things I love down until they fall apart. How complete this project will be I don’t know, I should say for the record, the closest thing to any religious practice I hold is atheism, but for now, I’m struck by elements from mysticism. I’m very drawn to Sufi ideas as I say. I feel a genuine connection to say Rumi or Hafez, deeply religious men. I would like to know more about what we all crave in that void and what a connection to the void creates. I’ve noticed that Marxist ‘alienation’ is similar to the Jungian shadow side for example or a religious detachment. So, my project is in part about connecting those dots. I think a lot of the feeling of being ‘incomplete’ somehow comes from this spiritual ‘void’.
In terms of haunting, a friend of mine pointed out to me recently that Derrida in the film Ghost Dance made a point of expressing that to be a self is to be haunted. And that struck a chord with what I was trying to convey largely in my work and project. To admit to myself that I myself am a haunting rather than a being. I’ve always felt like that and politically it resonates with the atmosphere I work in. Like I say I’m not particularly bodily, not practically grounded, and my work as such is almost certainly hauntological in nature.
MAI: You shoot in analogue and hand colour the images yourself. Did you ever consider the painting route, or another medium aside from photography?
ER: I have considered it, but I am very much a photographer. I’m not very good with paint and I think music is more like film than photography is, that is to say, the person making it has to understand the time and the progression of time, the tension of time. Photography is a little more like painting perhaps, but I just so happen to be a photographer, not a painter.
MAI: You have a love of folklore, and also folk horror. I would love to hear how the countryside, particularly your hometown Norfolk, has influenced your work.
ER: Folk Horror for whatever reason, and likely due to certain critics who adore the aesthetic and connections to things like British Bake Off and faux bucolic UK Tory Party imagery, has become its own thing and taken on a life of its own. It started off as a revival from leftists and became something else over time, or so I understand it. I’m not part of that.
But the landscape and people and their relationship to the landscape cannot and should not be colonised by so-called imagery of the right-wing strongholds and wellie-boot-clad English nationalists. For me and my work, I was/am concerned with re-wilding, reconnecting and everyone who lives on this island feeling connected to its landscape regardless of who they are or what their background is. My work was anti-conservative. As such Norfolk was an influence, as it was my psyche/my upbringing, it was my connection and understanding, but it’s not mine. It’s something I loved and wanted to share, as was Staffordshire when I moved there and North Wales too.
I always felt my work was about women living in a bond of rumination as I did, and the landscape was a good narrative device for stepping outside of the void of my own mind (and hopefully the minds of other women too). It was a good way of letting go, it was empowering. I worked toward imagery that felt like making the first steps into something freeing, a quest in the aesthetics–so, each image looks like it might accomplish something, some mental goal.
MAI: There is strong dialogue between you and the camera, or you and your models, or with location, which are all very much subjects themselves. Regarding the latter, how do you find places that speak to you? How do you find working with place as another subject?
ER: I’m working on something connected to my Gnosis project that is completely recasting the landscape as the main character, I don’t know, it could be the Brexit milieu or the fear of what Britain is becoming in many ways, but I wanted to chart the way I saw the place as it is, and it’s something like a dystopia to me. I am right now feeling what it is to see the landscape as the protagonist, and I had felt a duty to make it beautiful still. I watched Arcadia, the film, with a Canadian friend recently and she said upon seeing it, ‘well its part of the joke isn’t it? That England isn’t really beautiful its terrifying and you all pretend it’s beautiful, when it’s not beautiful at all.’ And that stuck with me, because I find it to be beautiful, but admittedly in a haunted melancholic way, but maybe those additions are really apologies for its brutality. And that had me concerned about what lens I viewed the country through, what my lens was doing? I grew up around barracks and militant sci-fi spaces, so what was my actual relationship to this place? I decided to revisit it from a different kind of perspective.
MAI: You have a variety of interests and each one, to a degree, is evident. I’m interested in learning how comic books have influenced your photography.
ER: I learned to hand colour by looking at the work of Arthur Ranson and he’s become a good friend as such, there are other comic artists who taught me techniques early on, but I can’t say our friendships stayed as healthy or inspirational as the former. I was always around comics and used to work in Orbital Comics in London, I was hopelessly taken with the older DC Horror comics and later artists like Bill Sinkevich etc. I think in terms of comics though it was mostly Arthur who helped shape a certain aesthetic understanding in me. Strangely he was the artist for the ‘Sapphire and Steel’ comics that I read before I saw the show. This story became emblematic in hauntological circles due to Mark Fisher bringing it back to the conversation about postmodernism and time being a trap for those working with a form of nostalgia. So, I would say comics, and particularly my mentoring from people like Warren Ellis too became pivotal in how I saw the world back when I started around 2008.
MAI: I’ve noticed that a large portion of your inspirations are work by men, especially male writers. Do you think this has unconsciously fuelled how your work subverts traditional gender tropes?
ER: In the short time I had therapy, my analyst said I have a tendency to worship men. I think perhaps that’s why my unconscious rebalances that and I photograph and celebrate only women in my work.
Quite often my work takes its interest in the trope of melancholia and women and how that is portrayed. But I think I’d have a lot more work to do if I were to challenge truly gender tropes. I have an interest in portraying women, therefore I would like to photograph transwomen, so if anyone does read this and feel that they sit in my work I would welcome that opportunity.
MAI: You may have already answered this, but I’m curious about your relationship with feminism (books, films, art, politics) and the female gaze…
ER: I don’t think anyone has actually asked me this before. My recent readings have been centred in feminism and fashion as it happens.
Mostly I’m very interested in the idea of why certain clothes sell to women and girls, as for so long I was a fashion photographer and I feel a kind of duty of understanding that because I was implicit in it. There is a chapter in the book by Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (2009) titled ‘Illegible Rage: Post-feminist Disorders’, that examines why melancholy was a result of a type of female gaze and that has helped me realise a great deal of what I have been doing unconsciously. I would say it was almost a queer look at the results of women photographers coming in, looking at more women. It was really exciting for me to read about that. This is a fairly old reference, but theoretically, it has been immensely helpful in my understanding of the female gaze in my own work as a female fashion photographer.
I also love Nina Power’s work around Beheading Capitalism–‘Decapitalism’, there are many great videos of her lectures regarding this, which I feel are very empowering and exciting.
And in regard to women’s placement in capitalist history, I assume the Silvia Federici point of view in Caliban and The Witch and find the book very inspirational.
MAI: I read somewhere that you would like to remake MR James’ work and I would love to hear more about that possibility.
ER: My relationship with him is very confusing and frustrating. He is to me one of the most atmospheric and effective storytellers I’ve come across, but it’s hard to say I love him. I listen to his stories read aloud as I work or experiment in the darkroom. But his representation of women leaves me cold and angry every time I experience them, and it’s hard to ignore. Women are to him an inconvenience and really something he would rather relegate to the background and it genuinely annoys me. Out of a sort of spite I want to reverse that, but also out of a sort of catharsis too.
It’s interesting to me that some of the most popular contemporary Cthulhu Mythos writers are Japanese, names like Asamatsu Ken and I’m sure Lovecraft would hate that, as an open racist, but the brand of horror he made was bigger than him and his bigotry couldn’t contain his style, it grew beyond him. I like the idea of that.
I found myself complaining to a friend once about the legacy of black metal, and how racist/homophobic it was, she told me how she’d been involved in a queer zine reclaiming it away from these ideas. I was kind of annoyed she had to, I mean nothing about that genre felt like it was worth saving to me based on its ideas. But she talked me out of it. It’s a complex conversation, I need to think about it more.
Perhaps it’s a way of transgressing boundaries that are placed in your way. I don’t know fully why I want to do it really, but I do, and I think I could move on from him then.
MAI: You create very personal work, but have worked commercially with high-profile clients. Do you find navigating certain boundaries regarding content, theme or censorship hard?
ER: I have done that’s for sure; an extremely high profile designer once called me on the phone and said ‘can you tell me why exactly you decided not to go with my choices for my campaign?’ I burst into tears on the spot as it was said with such disgust by a person of such privilege – who appears in the pages of Tatler – to me as a working-class girl who just started out and didn’t understand the industry at all (and I was barely paid my expenses). And I consider myself a fairly robust kind of person. I didn’t end up using the photos as the person was just so unlikeable and that was a lot of what my early experiences in fashion were like – coming out of Goldsmiths college. I think after a few years of that kind of treatment I just didn’t care so much about them and I just learned to trust my own instinct over theirs, always holding my ground. I’m a bit more diplomatic now when working commercially, but for a long time it was a hard balance for me and I couldn’t let go. The class division in the UK made it really hard, not everyone is encouraged or told they can make it–in fact, quite the opposite.
In terms of censorship that feels to me like a direct conservative tsunami that is coming to the internet and to magazines too. People are so outraged by nudity now that it feels like a strange throwback to Victorian culture. I don’t really know how it crept in, but it’s so destructive to the way we see our bodies that it creates pockets of zealots who enjoy calling out and reporting posts. It’s very limiting and I’d like to see a change in that again soon.
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