Monday, September 16, 2013

Ellen Wallenstein

Wolf Kahn, painter

Ellen Wallenstein is a photographer and book artist from New York City. She teaches at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts, and writes articles and book reviews for photography magazines. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in the collections of many national museums archives and libraries. Wallenstein earned a BA in Art History from SUNY Stony Brook (1974) and a MFA in photography from Pratt Institute (1978). She is a NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) Fellow in Photography. Her work has been nominated for the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography and the Santa Fe Prize. She has just published “Respecting My Elders”, a first volume of portraits of creative people over 80 who have affected the American culture. (

View more of Ellen's work here
Purchase her book, "Respecting My Elders" here 

Editta Sherman, photographer on the cover of "Respecting my Elders"

Ashley Kauschinger: What inspired you to begin your project "Respecting My Elders"?

Ellen Wallenstein: I always follow my instincts and I’ve been led to interesting projects. I was drawn to this at a certain age and for certain reasons. I could not have done this work before I was fifty but I can see how it’s connected to my earlier work. My Dad died in his late sevenies, in 1996. He and I had been good friends. I couldn’t be there when he was dying, which led me to think about being a comfort to others at that time. So I trained to become a hospice volunteer. I was assigned to Anne, who was in her mid-eighties, the age my father would have been. What I expected - a short-term volunteer situation - turned into a deep, lasting and meaningful friendship. I made many photographs in her apartment and of her life over a period of time; those photographs (“Opus for Anne”) earned me a NYFA Fellowship and changed my life as an artist. When she died I decided to photograph other people of her generation (my parents’ generation). After photographing my mother and her friends and my friends’ parents I began to write to people who I admired who had influenced me artistically and intellectually. The photographers, the artists, the writers. I was pleasantly surprised to get some positive answers to my letters of inquiry.

Lois Dodd, painter

AK: How has this project grown? What has it taught you about art, life, and yourself?

EW: I tend to work on long-term projects slowly, and to take photographs in spurts, when I can make time. This project grew from a vague idea of making portraits into a book. It took a number of years to do this first volume; I’m looking forward to getting back to the process of shooting. Art and Life- small words, big questions! Art is about the power of practice and perseverence, of working at something over one’s lifetime. Hopefully creating something worthwhile to share with others. As Edward Albee wrote to me “Be useful, be useful. Do something that matters with your life”. Life is by its nature about aging. I take photographs to make a record and preserve the present. I am trying to portray older artists in all their beauty. Most of my subjects were still busy at their craft, and had a sense of theirselves and their accomplishments. For myself, working on a long-term project means dealing with all that can mean - fits and starts, mountains of lists, sending out inquiries, following up with appointments, trying to stay organized, obsessing. At least that’s my experience. No one is making me do this: it’s a labor of love. I also found that I can’t do this alone or in a vacuum. I appreciate all the feedback I’ve gotten along the way from friends and colleagues. And my husband, also a photographer- my biggest blessing- he’s incredibly supportive in so many ways. I am so lucky to have a wonderful and loving partner.

AK: You are also a book artist. How do you feel these two parts of your working process inform one another? How do you feel creating an artists book differs from a photo book?

EW: Making photographs and making books are different in some ways and similar in others. Both require visual skills, technique and practice. I make photographs as a habit, and as a meditation, a centering for myself. I carry a small camera with me all the time in case I see something that intrigues me. (No, I don’t have an Iphone, yet.) Or a bigger camera when I go to make a formal portrait. Sometimes the photos become part of a book. As a book artist I’m concerned with making a physical object to contain my art- be it photographs, collages or words. I’m concerned with particulars, such as which is the correct form for the imagery -a scroll? a fan? an accordion? a group of sewn signatures? And how do the images tell a story or illustrate an idea. You have to be ruthless about what works and what doesn’t because one wrong picture or placement can mess up the entire book. A book is more complicated, it has to work on many levels. (The three Cs- Craft, Concept and Content.) And sequence. And text, or no text, if text where, what size and which font. An artist book is a book created by an artist from start to finish - physically made by the person whose work it contains. A photo book can be an artists book; many artist books are photo books.

Rebecca Lepkoff, photographer

AK: On your resume, it says that you were an assistant to W. Eugene Smith in 1977, a year before his death. He is one of my favorite photographers, and so I must ask, what was he like? Did you get to spend any time with him before his death?

EW: Nice, funny, open, great to be around. He seemed much older than he was, actually. Literally, he’d been through the war. He was only 58, a few years younger than I am now. I was 25. He looked more like 75 to me, then. Of course I was a bit intimidated on meeting him as I’d studied his work- his photographs are so great. His output, his determination was remarkable.. All his stories for Life Magazine, the Pittsburgh Project, the Jazz Loft, Minamata…he was a true documentarian artist. And a master printer. But also just a man, you know? A very cool guy. I am so fortunate and grateful for the experience of knowing him for a bit. The year I knew him was his last in New York City; he was getting ready to move his collection and himself to Arizona, to the Center for Creative Photography where his work was to be archived at, and I believe he was going to teach out there as well. My assistant job was less photographic and more clerical; you might call it an internship today. I wrote correspondence, ran errands, bought his supplies, dusted things off - (he had a complete set of Camera Work that needed attention.) Organized, packed up boxes and hung out, with him and my friend Tom Okada, who was his major assistant. Gene paid me $5/hour, all of which I ended up giving back to him by buying one of his photographs. At that time in his life he really needed the money- part of why he was moving to Arizona. It was the mid-1970s, and the city and everyone was in a financial crisis. And he was no longer working for magazines. Everything was changing. I heard he died of a heart attack in a supermarket. Which is a sad end as he’d been through so much. But he left an incredible legacy of work which is being preserved and managed. He is honored through the International Center of Photography’s W. Eugene Smith Award, given annually to a photojournalist. I think he would be proud of all the photographers who won this award (and the countless others who toil every day all over the world.)

Edward Albee, playwright
AK: What is your process of self promotion? How do you balance your life with creating art?

EW: I’ve been a teaching artist for over 30 years so self-promotion is something I’m really just learning about. The most important thing I did for myself was to start a website, in 2005. I was going to show in an International exhibition in Madrid and realized I needed to have a presence on the web, and a business card. So I was prepared, if also lucky, to be discovered and recognized after many years of work. When I started fundraising for my book I hired someone to do “social media”. It helps to have someone else toot your horn. I’m on Facebook and have a presence there, on my own page and in some groups. I don’t Twitter, yet. This stuff takes up too much time! I’d rather be photographing or writing. I’m an artist - I photograph, I write, I make collages. I make books, sometimes with all three. And as I mention above I’ve been a teaching artist for so many years- instructing and inspiring others and being inspired back. Teaching forces me to be creative - to continue making images, and books- to keep pace with what younger people are doing and thinking. I also try to take classes so as to maintain my (computer) skills, and to remember how it feels to be on the other side of the desk. I was part-time for many years and did other things for money - worked in archives and museums; worked for the city; read tarot cards… I always managed to take photographs for myself along the way. I’m currently an adjunct professor at two schools and between them I can support myself. I’ve worked long and hard for this, so I’m appreciative of the attention being given me right now. Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you

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