Monthly Archives: August 2016

Eroding image

This is not my image- annoyingly I can’t remember whose it is, I think it might be by Harry Callahan..will have to look back at my research..I saved it because I liked the double exposure, the dream quality and the use of the tilted building as a surface for the two figures. This is a reference for a photograph that I need to find in the Nita archive I’m working with….

As I dream of you

The text here comes from a letter to Nita, circa 1940- it’s a love/ fan letter sent to her at the stage door of the Victoria Palace Theatre. This is the  second letter that this particular admirer and audience member sent to Nita requesting a photograph of her.  I have never really seen a love letter like this before, it is quite cringe-worthy and superficial, written in the tropes of romantic pulp fiction. It is her image he seems to want and to be “in love with”, (as well as her physical beauty), which is also about a surface. That’s what I would like to try to show here…the infatuation and worship of the image or the surface. When I studied at Goldsmiths School of Art, the painters and teachers often talked about the ‘surface’ of a painting and how this altered and affected our reading of the work both emotionally and critically. And, only in analogue photography can you have a similar discussion, because arguably it is the physical chemical layering and its materiality or actuality- that penetrates and creates part of the surface of the image and therefore how we read it. The object (as a surface) quite clearly has a life span if it is not fixed, developed or stored correctly. Otherwise analogue photographic prints probably have a better chance of survival than any current digital format- for a variety if reasons, namely, the print is an original article, one that does not need to be ‘read’ by a machine or technology. Even my VHS cassettes in my attic are increasing expensive and difficult to transfer to current readable data. ‘Stanley’s’ on Brewer St transfer pretty much everything but it isn’t cheap and, it’s for professionals, meaning much of our domestic data will be forfeit in fifty years.

The image here is eroding. I found the print like this in the archive and digitally scanned it. It must have been a test print meant for the bin in the darkroom. Maybe Nita salvaged it and because it was not fixed or developed properly, it has gone red. The chemical process has reacted because the image was not ‘fixed’ into place and the chemistry and paper have caused reactions with the air over time, which in turn cause a reaction to the image and its surface. I love the scarlet, blotchy, deep erotic red of’s not often a colour you see- the same as many colours within analogue- you just can’t replicate them digitally, which makes me think that much like the spoken word, we are all dumbing down or being dumbed down as our everyday vocabulary shrinks.

P22(red stripes)


Nita on stage performing

Nita on stage                                                          Nita singing on stage, circa 1933.


I like the lighting and scale of Nita here. Also I love the painted backdrop and how the orchestra meld into the scenery.

I have a small 3-D card stage ‘cut-out’ to work on and I will try and turn this into a 3-D stage set, using the image above as a starting point and re-photograph the final piece in the studio. The scale and cut-out figures and scenery are important as are the visible layers of theatrical construct, (stage, scenery, curtain, the wings etc). May also colour with paint..

Double exposure. Nita and her mother.


This is a double exposed negative of Nita and her mother taken outside their house in London, Circa 1940. Although this portrait is technically a ‘mistake’ it helps creates part of the narrative that describes their symbiotic relationship. There is Nita on her own, and there is Nita joined to her mother. And, the mother appears here only with Nita, never on her own. Although Nita is central to the image and there are two of her, the mothers presence somehow dominates as if it cannot be removed or prized away from Nita or Nita’s image. The bodies of both women are inside the shape of Nita’s outline, seemingly creating a new form from the three bodies, like a perverse mother figure. The plaid suit echoes the lead plate window and brick work, creating yet more patterns, links and confines.

Ideas and things.

I’m writing my Academic research staff profile for UCA (University of the Creative Arts) and its hard to articulate exactly what it is you are trying to do as an artist with your research- but this is a few sentences of what I wrote and it helps me to post it here to remind me of what I’m trying to do:

Ellen’s research focuses on aspects of the representation and performativity in commercial and domestic photography. Her work considers the use of photography as a means of exploring the act of representation as a meditation on photography and image performance.

Hopefully this makes sense (even just to me at the moment) as to what I am trying to do with the Nita archive and the dialogue of the performance in the domestic images of Nita taken by her mother and the Studio images and movies shot by Paramount. The next thing I need to do is go to the BFI in London and watch her movie archive which is housed there. They have about six of her films and I’m hoping to be able to use some of the stills as part of new works.

On a completely new subject, I went to the magical Port Eliot Literary Festival last weekend and bumped into my old friend and mucker Beth Orton and her beautiful family. I scanned the old contact sheet from the Trailer Park album cover I shot of her in L.A (1996) That was twenty years ago…it doesn’t feel that long.Trailer Park

I must get the film footage from my brother Sean first but there was a impromptu performance there (in the Sipsmith bar at Port Eliot) by my Seven year old daughter Dorith. It was a dance performance which lasted twenty minutes, mainly standing on a trunk, and I think was influenced by seeing Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth give a ten minute performance rendition of the male guitar solo, (Dorith gave me the slip and I later found her right at the front of the stage at Kim’s feet). Then on the same day her seeing Denim, the excellent theatre drag act (she also went right to the front with all the other kids). And perhaps also seeing me disco dancing around the house and doing yoga (not at the same time). If you can imagine a performance/ dance that involves influences from all those elements, then you have an idea…What can you do? I’ll post it asap..

Back to the Nita project:

Some new sketches/ ideas to work on (below)

Scan 17

Photographia (2016)

I scanned this on black velvet. I think the fact that you can have your portrait taken, buy photographic supplies and gramophones/ records, theatre and travel tickets all from a man called Keith Prowse, demonstrates how high street shops used to function. And also the physicality of everything analogue, including photography and how that informs the experience of making it/ viewing it/ hearing it/ buying it.


Luggage label for boat

SS Manhattan ship passenger ticket for Nita in 1933.

I like the physicality of label this too- especially the string and reinforced punch hole.


Small notebook1

A page from one of Nita’s notebooks, (Nita’s writing, 1935).

I might use the text from here in another piece, not sure what yet. This is not the first time Nita has spoken about ‘melancholy‘ and ‘nerves‘, terms in the 1930’s for depression and anxiety. There’s something very current about this phenomenon and, depression and anxiety are illnesses that I’ve suffered from since having children. (I can date them back to when my mother died ten days before I gave birth to Dorith). So to see the illnesses documented and contextualised here in these terms in my Great Aunts archive is interesting for me personally but also I think historically. I imagine the roller coaster life of being an actor and performer made depression more difficult to handle as an illness because there was and is so little security in being an artist and for Nita, perhaps the only constant was family life. Maybe this was another reason for her close bond to her interior domestic life. For me this also informs the ‘performance’ in all of the photographs both commercial and domestic.

Nita old ruin

Nita in a ruin (Circa 1958)

As Nita aged, her scale reduced in the archive photographs, as if she was gradually receding away from the lens. You can especially see that here as she becomes camouflaged, part of the greater image.