A World Without Us
Ella Morton speaks to Nilofer Khan about the accelerating deterioration of the Northern landscapes, and how she uses analogue practices to depict her perspective.
Towards the end of Philip Pullman’s first book, Northern Lights (His Dark Materials series), Lord Asriel sacrifices Roger to release an enormous surge of energy. The bright streak of light pierces a hole in the sky, gradually expanding to unveil a parallel universe. At that moment, you, as a reader, are not only mesmerised by the ethereal beauty of the dark magic but are also terrified of the unknown world that lies ahead. Perhaps, the last few lines of the book aptly sum up what we feel about this unfolding chaos, “Behind them lay pain and death and fear, and ahead of them lay doubt, and danger, and fathomless mysteries. But they weren’t alone.”
When you look at Ella Morton’s visuals, you can’t help but draw a parallel between her work and Pullman’s magical realm. In her images, too, one feels a similar sense of palpable tension and astonishment as you stand between two worlds—yours and Ella’s. “I have always been interested in making what I see in front of me look different. Through this, I am revealing the feeling of what it is like to be there,” she says.
Where the Wild Things Are
The central characters of Ella’s projects have always been landscapes. Much of her fascination with the subject took its roots in her formative years in Vancouver, Canada. She would often spend a copious amount of time in parks and forests around the city. Here, she first began to wonder about our connection with the land. “When you are out in nature, you can feel the power of it and sometimes, it can almost be scary. Even if you know you are safe. Something is overwhelming about it. I am drawn to that. The edge of the emotion that it provokes in you,” Ella explains.
Alongside, her keen interest in maps made her inquisitive about landscapes, especially the Northern and the Arctic ones. “There are so many islands that you never really learn much about. I was so curious about these parts of maps that people overlook. Nobody knows much about these places, or you assume that there is not much going on there,” she says.
In 2010, an opportunity presented itself, enabling Ella to visit the place she always dreamt of. She also created her first body of work here, Night Vision, which uses long exposures to make the landscape appear unusual. “I was accepted into an artist residency in Iceland. When I went there, I completely fell in love with the landscapes. What I am describing is the power, the overwhelming and unnerving presence of the land. And so, I decided to keep working with these places,” she states.
Perhaps, to grow one’s vision, one must constantly explore and experiment with style and craft. For Ella, this pursuit began early in her career. Following Night Vision, she felt that photography, as a medium, has much more to offer, especially with alternative processes. “Photography has such a rich history of just different people manipulating film and prints. Night Vision opened that box, and I wanted to explore more. In addition to that, I also felt the importance to stay uncomfortable with your work. It’s good to create the same thing or work with the same idea for a while so you can fully explore it and get good at it. But there comes one point when you are too comfortable with it, and that is when you have to try something new—get uncomfortable again and learn more,” she elaborates.
Amongst the various practitioners, she was inspired by Russian photographer and chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. He created colour images at a time when colour film did not exist. “I was so intrigued by those photographs. I thought, ‘How can you take something old and reinterpret it in a modern context?,’” she explains.
And thus, she began her series Urban Mirages that explore crowded urban landscapes and tourists spots. The surreal visuals are perplexing and require one to consciously observe the images to grasp their content. Although alien, the photographs force you to ponder over the passage of time. It seems like the past and the present harmoniously comes together in a single frame to create the future. “I was examining these places—why do people gather here and how do they move through space. It was kind of an exploration of how busy and chaotic the modern world is now,” she elaborates.
To create the series, she used black and white film, along with colour filters on her 4×5 film camera. “I am not photographing the three images instantaneously, but one after the other. So you see the layering. It is kind of an imperfect way of using Prokudin-Gorsky’s process, but through those imperfections, interesting things happen,” she adds.
In The Kingdom of Ice
There are times when one begins a project with a singular vision in mind. However, after the initial stages, they realise the story has multiple, interwoven narratives. Ella went through a similar phase with her project, The Dissolving Landscape, conceived during The Arctic Circle program, a residency where artists sail around Svalbard, Norway. “I started with one thing, and then I built on that with the next. I have divided the series into three parts and two movies. But it can kind of work on as one big project as a whole too. It was a project that I kept adding to,” she says.
What makes this body of work appealing is her distinct approach. During her first trip, she soaked her films in different ingredients such as yogurt, wine, lemon juice. Some also call this process ‘film soup’. In the end, what you see are colourful streaks of light enveloping the scene. The highlights have also wiped out certain parts of the image, further piquing your curiosity. “I wanted to show that the Arctic has a very uncertain future right now. Due to climate change, the Arctic is warming up at an accelerating rate than the rest of the planet. I wanted to reflect this reality. So, by this token, the film is literally dissolving and degrading the way the landscape is. The images also show a two-sided reality—you see the sublime, magical qualities of the land, while there is the fragility, uncertainty, and precarity of the landscape,” she explains.
Eventually, Ella became curious about other parts of the North. In 2018, she visited Finland, Iceland, and Newfoundland in Canada, and a year later, she visited Nunavut in Canada. During these trips, she experimented with mordançage. The process degrades the shadow areas of gelatin silver prints, then lifts the emulsion off the paper to create unique textures. While the message conveyed is about climate change, these photographs depict a stronger sense of urgency, endangerment, and even melancholy. The veil seems to weigh down on the landscapes. One is left wondering how long you have before it finally devours what is left. “I don’t think I intended it to be like this. But I feel both processes, the colour images and mordançage can reflect the magic and foreboding energies,” she says. While much was left to chance, there was also a level of predictability in her process.
Speaking about her approach, Ella says, “When I am shooting the images, I plan out my composition. I can foresee which part of the image I am going to have become the mordançage. Sometimes, it’s the sky that ends up being the veil, or a rock or a lighthouse. Initially, the learning curve was definitely challenging. Even the chemicals can be finicky, and the emulsion can easily break off and make a mess,” she says.
When she was in Nunavut, she also began to shoot footage on her Super 8mm film. Just like her photographs, her films, too, have an experimental approach where she used bleach, varnish, spray paint, soil, and coloured inks on it. Through her documentaries, she adds another layer of narrative to the series. Here, the story is not just about the land but also of its people, the Inuit. “A lot is going on in Canada these days about our history with the Indigenous people. They were not treated properly in the past by settlers. Today, there are discussions in Canada about relearning this part of history and coming to terms. It is necessary to learn more about that. Through moving images, I could reveal more things about these places, the stories that I am learning and seeing,” she says.
The film titled Kajanaqtuq (translating to ‘beautiful’ or ‘breathtaking’ in English) shows a series of photographs of the landscape with flickering grainy and glitter effects continuously moving on the images. It is paired with narration by Naulaq, an Inuk lady, who describes the story of her land. “The flickering effects are similar to what you see in my other photographs. For darker parts of the story, I am blurring the image out or erasing it with manipulation. In the other parts, where she is talking about the magic of the land, I am using manipulation to sort of make it more colourful and ethereal. It’s important for me to show a bit of everything, both the negative sides but also the positives,” she explains.
The Anatomy of Deception
Since the inception of photography, the medium’s veracity has been appreciated as well as questioned. For instance, during the Victorian Era, while spirit photography took the world by storm, it also examined the accuracy of the medium. Even today, with the invention of Photoshop, these doubts linger far more than ever. Some of these ideas translated into her project Sightings, a series of pinhole photographs that examine human encounters with the unknown. “Spirit photography is an interesting era. During the mid-to-late 1800’s, when photography was very new, this genre shocked many people. They had so much faith in photography being a completely truthful depiction of reality, and that’s precisely why these images had such an impact. It is so hard to imagine that you could be so trusting of a photograph back then,” she says.
Just like spirit photography, UFOs sightings have garnered a lot of attention. So, Ella chose to evoke a similar feeling through her pinhole images. “I was playing with these ideas humorously. After I made the images, I created contact prints, and then I used little cutouts and different objects to create these effects in the darkroom. I also used burning and dodging for the most part,” she explains.
When asked how does she know her projects are complete, she says, “When I feel like I am getting too comfortable with a process or an idea or I am making the same thing over and over, then I know that the project is complete and that it is time to move on to something else. Although, I think my work is just one continuous evolution, one thing on to the next,” she adds.
On Building New Dimensions
To some, Ella may seem like a purist, who only works with the analogue or alternate processes. But that’s far from it. Along with her 4×5 Toyo View camera, the Pentax K1000, a Minolta Super 8 camera, and a Bolex Rex 5, she also employs the Nikon D810. “I have an experimental approach. So, I use everything that is at my disposal. Sometimes, I am in a situation where I may not have a lot of time for the 4×5 camera or with the analogue process, as they are a lot slower. The digital camera supplements that. I can get a few quick snapshots, and I print out digital negatives on transparent paper,” she explains. Similarly, when it comes to film, Ella uses whatever is available and is affordable. “Honestly, I don’t really have a favourite film because I manipulate it so much. It doesn’t matter which kind it is. So far, I have employed Kodak Ektar and Fujifilm. There was also Fujifilm’s affordable roll that I used a lot called NS Pro 160, but they stopped manufacturing it. For black and white, I used Ilford HP5 Plus,” she states.
In today’s world, digital and analogue are at war. Some say the latter is obsolete, while some believe it will make a comeback. Having worked with both mediums, Ella opines, “Digital technology is not a replacement for analogue photography, instead, it is forcing analogue photography to be re-imagined. Painting went through a similar crisis when photography was invented in the 1800s. Thus came impressionism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, and other movements. When you do not use certain technology in the mainstream, it’s just sitting there, forcing you to think. With film, you have to ask yourself why you’re using it, and what can it do.”
Ella’s photographs remind you of an open-ended book, with multiple threads running through one another. She portrays humanities greatest achievements, as well as the soft rumbles of the land awaiting patiently to reclaim what it once lost. Her documentation raises questions while nudging viewers to choose which future they want to live in. “I don’t want to be overly didactic about what we should do about climate change, but I certainly try to make small changes in my own life to mitigate it. I think about what I buy, how I eat, what modes of transportation I use, and how I vote as ways to reduce my carbon footprint. Even if we’re not doing a perfect job of it, a little effort can collectively go a long way,” she states.
Ella Morton earned an MFA from York University in 2015. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at Hanstholm Art Space, Photographic Center Northwest, and the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art. You can follow her work on her website www.ellamorton.com and on Instagram @ellasharpmorton.