Ellen Stagg has always been one of the most avant-garde downtown NYC photographers. Her passion for photographing women and empowering them through her images has always set her work apart from others in her field and her fine art images provoke emotions with an underlying sensuality.
I had the chance to catch up with Ellen in NYC to talk art, passion for photography, women and her own struggles with an illness for which she is now a vocal advocate.
How do you feel your work is so relevant- especially in such a time of misogyny? Since I started being a photographer, I have felt the misogyny in the air, but it has been even more obvious shooting nude women. The questions I get and assumptions are crazy. Assuming I'm lesbian, that I sleep with my models and such. I think it is mostly men wanting to try to live vicariously through my work. I have always seen it as WORK, my business and treat it as such with respect. When a lot of male photographers are being exposed for their misogynistic behavior and worse, it has been nice that my models can vouch for me and I respect them for that. I have always felt this work as more of a "Boys Club.” To make my work relevant, I want to be more supportive of the women around me and express the brave, sexy bad asses they are through my work.
How do you approach each shoot and subject? My nature shoots depend on what is around me and available. I go to Brooklyn Botanical Garden a lot in the Spring time, but I also try to find nature to photograph when I'm on vacation. Some of my best photos have been stumbling upon a rose bush in London, lotus flowers in Thailand and the crashing waves in Jamaica. When I shoot with women, I have to get their consent via email about being nude and then find a location that is nude friendly. Some locations aren't nude friendly, like public parks, but we just sneak around and hide from others while we explore and make art.
What inspires you and your work? Nature is a huge inspiration. There is something so timeless and fleeting about nature. A flower can look like other flowers and the smells can give you memories, but they don't last. They die and come back the next season. I love the change of seasons and trying to shoot in most of them, but winter is not possible with nude women. Also that we need to respect and protect our nature is important to me. And the nude female form is a total inspiration, as it is strong and sexy. I'm also very inspired by the surreal. I like things that have no real meaning and are dream like but make you think as you bring your own interpretations to them.
Your floral images are breathtaking. How do you begin the process of shooting flowers? I kind of talked about this above, with branching out from nudes to be more marketable subject matter, but it also started because when I traveled to places that I did not have access to nude models. nature is everywhere. I also invented the Kaleidoscope technique because of an art show I was in and they wanted two images over two pieces of 8x10 paper. I gave them one image on one side and the other image was mirrored flipped on the other. I loved how it looked so I kept working with it until I got what you see now.
I love your collage art. How did you envision that and start shooting in that way? If you mean the multiple exposures, I started shooting that way when I began shooting digital more in 2007 and had all this left over film. I had an old Holga camera, which is a 120mm or 35mm plastic camera. I knew I did not have to forward the film to every frame so I could experiment by overlapping the images to see what I could get. I would shoot one roll every time I had a nude model and loved the results. I knew I had something when I had a solo show for the work in 2010 and saw that people were really responding to the images. I have been shooting with film in my photography work since 1994. I always loved film more than digital, but more clients want digital as the turn over is faster. When it came to the more nature images, I also realized that people were drawn to my work, but didn’t want to hang naked women on their walls so I did the “Robert Mapplethorpe thing,” shooting flowers for galleries and collectors, and the nudes on the side. However, when we think of Mapplethorpe, we remember more of his nudes. I started shooting nature, flowers, waves, trees and clouds on film in multiple exposure and realized I loved it when I Rorschach test or kaleidoscoped them in Photoshop to give a more surrealist effect.( If you want to see more of process I made a short video at: vimeo.com/ellenstagg/artprocess.)
Who are your favorite photographers? I talked a bit about Mapplethorpe already, who I love. Also Betina Rhiems, Helmut Newtown, Guy Bourdin, Bunny Yeager and William Mortensen. What is your favorite image of your work? What a Sophie's Choice. I really like so many, but it’s hard to make ones that really pop. I will scan in a bunch of film, retouch out all the dust, color correct and Rorschach the images in different ways and think I really like it, but when I compare it to others, it might not pop as much. I know some painters that tell me that photography seems so much faster and easier, but for me it is very time consuming, maybe digital is easier, but not film. After all the rolls shot, scanned in and retouched I might only really like a small handful out of the hundreds that I work on. What are your thoughts on art as a political voice? It is political always. First, the nude female body is political, even though it has been the subject of art since Venus of Willendorf. I love that it still titillates and enrages so many because I want to make art that provokes an emotion, not just look pretty. But, every day a woman's body can be subject to something political, whether it be healthcare or sexual harassment. It is almost like Punk Rock to own one’s body and to be free and liberated by it!! This is similar to nature images because it can be categorized as just being pretty, but the environment is a constant political question. For instance, those who don't believe in global warming just infuriate me because the environment is so important to me. How does one not believe in science? It makes you question if the photos of flowers are all we will have left of nature, which is just an awful thought. As an artist, I know you have struggled with health issues, what guidance can you give to other women and artists struggling with health issues? I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in July 2018 and I was sick for most of my 30’s. I found out that the issue was one of my Parathyroids, which turned into a benign tumor that was removed in 2016. It has been hard, but the hardest part is getting doctors and other healthcare professionals to believe your symptoms. Mine were ignored for a long time. The two things that I have learned are to keep pushing until you find someone that believes you (and properly tests you) as well as staying positive. Instead of focusing your energy on being angry that you are sick, you need to turn that frustration and energy into art. I have noticed my best work come at times of depression, which I also call progression. I also found that being public about your symptoms and health on social media and/or talking to friends can be beneficial because you never know who is going through the same thing and you can help each other. For example, I have helped three people get diagnosed for Lyme in the past four months and people have been able to help me because I have talked publicly about it. (I made a video about my Lyme disease here: vimeo.com/ellenstagg/lyme) In the United States, there has been an overwhelming amount of women, Muslim, Native American, African- American, Bisexual elected to the House of Representatives, do you see the future as Female? The term Virgin back in the day had nothing to do with sexuality, or should I say lack of sex. It meant not married, not belonging to a man, and a woman who was "one-in-herself." The very word derives from a Latin root meaning strength, force and skill so I think we, as humans, used to respect females more. It wasn't until the puritanical Christians took the word to control women. I have been reading "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf recently and it talks about how women’s beauty, age and basically everything they do has been used against them to get more work out of them for cheaper and more money out of the to spend to make them feel better from the "Pink Tax" to anti-aging and dieting. Maybe the future isn't so much Female since it’s more along the lines of us going back to our past and reclaiming our strengths. I think the future should be about equality, and not just equality between man and woman (which is a must), but between ages, body types, sexual preference, religion and ethnicities as well. I'm excited that the House is becoming more diverse since our country is diverse and they should represent all of us. In "The Beauty Myth,” they point out that during WWI and WWII when women had to take over for men’s jobs as they went off to war Women were better at them, got more done, but in turn they realized that could pay us less. If anything, the future being Female might just be about getting more done efficiently and for equal pay!
Name 3 things every emerging artist or photographer needs to do to jump start their career. I tell anyone who wants to be a photographer that the most important thing to do is to shoot and shoot at the very least once a week. You have to practice your craft all the time to get better. I have been shooting and studying since 1994, that has been 24 plus years and I'm still practicing my craft to get better. It’s the same for any art, work on being better. The other 2 things would be money should never be an issue if you're a true artist. Yes, go get a job and pay your bills, but make time to make that art. There is no shame in a side hustle, including when it helps pay for your passion of being an artist. And then maybe take a class or go to school for art. A class is a great way to practice your craft and have a place to show your art to peers. Those peers are also your network. You never know what you will learn from them or who or what they an introduce you too. Most of the galleries and shots I have done has been from meeting someone who knows someone. Your network is important.
To view more of Ellen Stagg's work, see below.
EllenStagg.com for commercial fashion, advertising and video.
EllenStaggArt.com for fine art that has been showed in galleries
Patreon.com/ellenstagg for supporting my art
and ShopEllenStagg.com to buy work
*All artwork by Ellen Stagg and done with model's consent.*