CONTROLLING THE MOMENT
A Glimpse into the Life and Work of Photographer NANCY ELLISON
By Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography is so pervasive these days that it’s remarkable how personal of a medium it still is. Almost everybody on the street has access to a camera now, whether it’s a point-and-shoot, a professional piece of equipment, or just a cellphone camera. Factor in wildly popular photography websites like Flickr and Instagram, and it’s clear that photography is being done pretty much everywhere, by pretty much everybody.
And yet each photograph is still unique, still comes out branded, in just the slightest way, by how the photographer sees the world. You tell twenty people to all take a picture of the same building, and you get twenty different shots, twenty different interpretations of how people feel an object is best represented. There is something of the photographer inside each photograph.
This is especially true of the professionals. One glance at a photograph by Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz and, without any other clue or indication, you just know who took that picture. It is ingrained in the colors, the subjects, the focus, the style.
Photographer Nancy Ellison is no exception. Her theater and dance photographs capture the beauty of movement, hold it still for us to marvel at. And her portraits are intensely personal, each capturing the subject in what seems like a moment of contemplation or reprieve, each giving the viewer a rare glimpse into what seems like a person in his or her natural state. Despite the wide range of subjects and categories her photography deals with, there is a unique thread to Nancy’s work that ties it all together, that makes a person automatically think, after they see a photograph of hers, “Now that’s a Nancy Ellison.”
Jonathan Metzelaar: You grew up in Los Angeles, in pretty close proximity to Hollywood and the movie-making process. How much of an impact did growing up there have on your eventual interest in photography and producing? What did you see growing up that made you realize this is what you wanted to do?
Nancy Ellison: Most importantly I saw celebrities–often out-of-work celebrities–in daily life. I saw the effects of the Hollywood blacklist on the lives of school friends. I was witness to the complete reality of celebrity. My awe was slowly replaced by sympathy.
I trained as a painter and art historian, and that clearly influenced my sense of aesthetics. But shooting on movie sets lured me back to my “Hollywood” childhood, and it was enticing. Aesthetically, my Hollywood influence would have been similar to anyone who saw films. I loved Hollywood Art Deco–George Hurrell’s Jean Harlow reclining in a bias-cut white evening dress on a polar bear rug comes to mind–and I loved the lighting used in black and white films. It is worth studying. The great lighting cameramen lit men and women quite differently; women were lit in glowing but selective lighting, literally blocking out anything that did not play to their eyes and to their mouths, while men were given the craggy shadows that brought out their masculinity. Black and white film gave drama and focus to even the slightest frame.
It was fun visiting movie sets as a child. I loved that secret, magical world in which the “adults” got to play, and I still do. Working on somewhere around seventy films as a “special photographer” has given me a superb education on lighting. Watching the best cinematographers, like Connie Hall, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Haskell Wexler, light a set and their stars was my ‘graduate school’.
As for producing, I just enjoy being part of any creative process. Producing “America’s Voices” in Berlin back in 2000, with my husband, Bill Rollnick, was an honor and an opportunity to be a representative of our country while having a lot of fun doing it.
JM: What would you say was your first big break, and how did it come about?
NE: During the filming of The Day of the Locust, I became friends with Mary Ellen Mark. At that time I was known primarily on the east coast–and exclusively as a painter–but she graciously posed for me. One of those photographs was used as her portrait in the book Masters of Contemporary Photography. Not only did she gift me with that inclusion, she helped me with my portfolio and gave me advice about photo editors. Quite honestly, I did not realize at the time just how unique her generosity actually was. I have since found that most photographers–with a few wondrous exceptions–react to someone starting out in the same photo-world with either suspicious indifference or behavior bordering on actual sabotage. I have tried to follow her example.
JM: I thought it was interesting that photography and dance seemed to be your two main areas of interest, since dance is an art concerned with movement, and photography seems to be just the opposite. How did you come about being interested in these two areas of art, considering how different they seem on the surface?
NE: Well, to begin with, photographing young, beautiful, and disciplined dancers is simply a treat, and classical ballet has created a world equal to that reality. Just showing up will give one breathtaking images. But stopping the dancer’s movement, catching the timeless and gravity-free moment of a jump, or defining harmony with a perfectly balanced arabesque, is splendor–spiritual in every way. The conceit of the photographer is sustained in conquering movement and making it still.
JM: You’ve photographed a wide range of people, from dancers to writers to politicians. Is there a particular group of people you enjoy photographing more than others?
NE: Starlets, presidents… kinda similar. Everyone I shoot wants to be loved and admired. The vainest man I photographed was Boris Yeltsin, who was quite infatuated with his pompadour hairstyle; surrounding my lens with a mirror guaranteed that I would get a perfect expression from him.
I am generally sympathetic and pretty patient with eccentric behavior, and I love shooting interesting people, but I do have a problem with overblown self-importance, and that certainly transcends any single group of celebrity. So it is not so much the group but the individual. I have to love, at least for the moment, the subject I am photographing, but if someone is behaving like a brat, I simply walk away.
By the way, the person who is actually important and powerful usually isn’t inclined to act self-important. They intuitively understand the symbiotic reality of the photo session.
JM: What goes through your mind when you’re photographing your subjects? Are you interested mainly in capturing an image that’s aesthetically pleasing? Are you trying to tell a story? Are you trying to capture the essence of whoever or whatever you’re shooting? Some combination thereof?
NE: Yes, all of the above–most of the time. For example, my session with concert pianist Lola Astanova became a spy novel. Every shot I took of her had a covert, seductive energy to it, but that is what I saw in her private beauty. If you think of photographers like Annie Leibovitz or Helmet Newton, the first thing that comes to mind would be their iconic branding of their style, which consistently overlays their subject. Very powerful images. My curiosity about my subject dictates a more intrinsic image, which means the subject often defines the style. Occasionally I achieve an iconic image and I am thrilled, but ultimately I am more interested in seeing one of my portraits and thinking, ‘there is something learned’. I love beauty, and I love finding a primordial sexuality in my subjects, but neither of these elements should overlay the essential reality in front of me.
JM: I’d imagine that growing up around so many celebrities would make you immune to it, but was there ever a photo shoot where you were starstruck by your subject? If so, did it make it any more difficult for you to do your job?
NE: Not starstruck, but I have been struck on occasion by the moment. When I was photographing the extremely distracted Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, on assignment for US News & World Report, I had a major shy-attack, feeling that I was taking up his time. I became more focused on releasing him than getting his attention and finding some insight into him. The results were professional but unfulfilled. A photographer has to control the moment–even if it is only in his own mind!
JM: I know this must be a difficult question to answer, considering how prolific you are, but what photograph (or handful of photographs) are you most proud of and why?
NE: Not difficult at all. The photographs that I am the most proud of are the ones I took when I gave birth to my daughter. After twenty hours of labor, I became re-energized when my doctor made a bet with the nurses that I would succeed, and I managed about five images of her crowning before the doctor suggested he get on with business. The crowning image was like an Imogen Cunningham or Georgia O’Keefe magnolia blossom–breathtakingly beautiful, organic, and caressed by joy.
JM: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like people to know about?
NE: I am preparing for a retrospective exhibition of my work that will open at the Pacific Design Center, aka The Blue Whale, in West Hollywood this coming March, 2013. At last I am organizing my archival work.
Nancy Ellison is an acclaimed photographer and producer.
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photograph (Page 1/Cover) by Bill Rollnick
Photography (Page 2 & 3) by & Courtesy of Nancy Ellison
Design by Marie Havens
Photograph (Page 1/Cover) by Bill Rollnick
Mick Jagger, Photography (Page 2 & 3) by & Courtesy of Nancy Ellison
Pierce Brosnan, Photography (Page 2 & 3) by & Courtesy of Nancy Ellison