MEMORIES AND MIRRORS         Photo Narratives by Ellen Eisenman

REFLECTION AND REMEMORY:     an essay on the exhibit, Memories and Mirrors
        by e. Frances White
       a Dean of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University


By the time she picked up a camera in 1967, Ellen Eisenman was a college student and, like many of her generation, had been energized and challenged by the actions of those who struggled for social justice. She met people who were involved in the free speech, welfare rights, anti-war, and black liberation movements. She was inspired by artists & activists, and began to develop a different perspective about her world.

Soon, she got involved with the Image Photographic Society- a group of photographers who engaged in critiques; shared their work with everyday people by exhibiting in libraries, drugstores, and laundromats as well as galleries; and conducted workshops with neighborhood kids. Concerns ranged from addressing racial inequities to community-building projects.

Ellen's photographer's eye helped her see injustice and her involvement in political work sharpened what she saw through the camera lens. When she got a job at a settlement house she became part of the statewide welfare rights movement; she traveled around Ohio meeting with welfare recipients and observed the sinister impact of unsympathetic public policies on the lives of poor families. During this period, she was introduced to the work of Dorothea Lange and other WPA photographers. She recognized the people she saw in Lange's work, and she shared with Lange a desire to photograph the lives of the "unseen." Taken together, her experiences in the late 1960s helped her understand the power of the photographic process as a tool for social change.

In this exhibit, one can see the direct results of this work in the children know. In the image of a young girl standing next to a coal stove, we see the look of a child who has witnessed too many difficult times. Taken during a community meeting in southeastern Ohio, the image stands on its own as a documentary portrait in the tradition of Lange. However, when the young girl's image is joined with those of black and brown children, it raises the issue of racial boundary-crossing that emerges in a number of Ellen's works. The range of children highlights the intertwined nature of race and class; and we also catch glimpses of her work with young people over the years.

Ellen's work took its dramatic turn toward stitched photography after spending a weekend with James Baldwin and driving him from event to event during a stay in Columbus, Ohio in 1979. What a wonderful chance for her to spend time with the brilliant Baldwin whom she admired so much; and, of course, what a great opportunity for her to shoot his photogenic face. She was after the "real" Baldwin.

Yet, that magical, alchemical process of working in the darkroom revealed not one Baldwin-not one image that could represent her experience of him-but several Baldwins. How does one represent such a complex man? How could she look beyond his fame to see a regular human being? How does one present such a sophisticated public man who had been photographed so often? To solve these problems, she had to move beyond the limits of a traditional approach.

Unlike some other artists in the 1980s, Ellen continued to insist on the essential value of documentary photography. In order to deal with the complexity of Baldwin, she turned to the narrative tradition of quilting. In 1981, she built a 7' by 9', quilt-like work, with dry-mounted photographs pieced together in a traditional circle-in-the-square pattern. To Ellen, a quilt was a fitting vehicle for representing Baldwin because traditionally quilts have addressed many of the issues that animated so much of his work: religion, patriotism, hidden histories, and, as Baldwin might put it, the human condition. Despite her protests to the contrary, so many people who saw a quilt for James Baldwin insisted that it was indeed a stitched fabric quilt, that she hit on the idea of actually sewing together photographic images.

Ellen has found a new way to carry on the narrative tradition of documentary photography. Her quilt-like patterns disrupt our overly easy identification with her subjects. Like patches in a quilt, the mirrored images and geometric patterns tell stories and call up memories. While there is no claim to a single truth, her work maintains a commitment to "concerned photography".

Ellen's photographic references help set the context in which viewers may develop their own narratives. Up close, the fragments tug at the recesses of our minds. Indeed, the images come to us the way memories do-in bits and pieces, at times distorted, at other times in clear patterns.

There is celebration here, and tributes to people who have inspired and mentored. But the work also challenges us. Several pieces examine "rememories" -the unexamined histories that haunt us in the present, the collective traumatic memories that seep out through societally imposed silences. They represent the stories that we do not want to tell, but that haunt our lives until we find ways to narrate the difficult realities of our collective pasts.

Each piece refers to larger social realities. Several deal with work; the work of community-building and manual labor and often, the relationship between the two. For example, in Ghana palette, we see several kinds of labor including kente cloth weaving and hair-braiding, and a tro-tro or taxi lot-the place where workers gather. On the edges of the piece are the iron bars of a cell in Elmina Castle; they remind us that the slave trade may be pushed to the corners of our consciousness, but it is everpresent and continues to affect us. In Ghana palette, as in much of Ellen's work, we are asked to reflect on the histories that shape our lives.

e. Frances White is Dean of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University

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