I phoned Ellen whilst she was setting up a pole in her room. A pole for dancing. “I just realised there’s a lot more to it than I thought” she said, admiring the skill, strength and grace of the professionals. “I might just practice walking around it”.
She’s setting up this pole in her loft apartment by London Fields. “It’s sort of on the bad side maybe?” she says. “It’s not fancy, it’s a little alcove with a lot of warehouses. Some people make art, some people live in them. It’s an interesting place; I’m quite pleased”. This is the first time she’s settled in four years, having lived between London, Paris and New York. “I still have no idea where I am ever. Part of me has embraced being lost”. She tells me of the tribe of nomadic people she’s met living this way, between places and in each other’s spaces. “Friends are really instrumental. I’ve been able travel almost anywhere and there’s people who are friends of friends and will welcome you into their home. It’s really a very lovely community that you don’t always know is there. I wanna say it’s a luxury to be able to do it, but also I give up a lot; it’s a lifestyle. You’re constantly a little bit in a state of being a drifter, which is a really natural state for me as it turns out”.
She’s putting up the pole with her boyfriend, who is the man with her in her photographs for les girls les boys x Opening Ceremony. “He’s a sweet Danish boy I picked up in Los Angeles. I moved into his place in LA in days and we just knew he was gonna move to London”. Now that they’re here together, she’s got her visa and a UK SIM.
Ellen studied Fine Art at Columbia, New York, but began her degree in Political Science. “It’s so scary to just go into the arts. As much as your parents love you, they don’t want you to be destitute either. It was hard. I realised in the end though that I wanted to go into the arts. So the last year and a half I was drawing and painting.”
“My subject happened to be myself. So I would take pictures as reference for my painting. I liked to think of them as being hilarious, tongue in cheek kind of paintings, so the photos had to be like that. They weren’t even in focus and I didn’t care because I was painting it, I just needed the form. I was very not-perfectionist about it then and I’m still not-perfectionist now. That’s how I learned to try to be a bit cheeky about my work”.
“I don’t really feel comfortable with the idea of taking a pretty picture. I really do strive to make them have a little bit of something, some kind of irony or humour. I try. It doesn’t always work but always do try to make it not just be a pretty picture. I really love the ugly ones actually.”
When Ellen spoke to her professor about being her own subject, he said: “you can’t exploit somebody else like you can exploit yourself”. And when Ellen’s photographing models she does find she’s more precious about them than she would be herself. “I’m constantly trying to exploit myself. In a hilarious kind of studying way…I’m fascinated by it. How much can you exploit yourself and it’s still okay? What are the parameters of that…”.
Ellen’s self-objectification in her work blurs the lines between the male and female gaze. She shoots directly into the mirror, so we know she has the power, but the image of woman she presents isn’t so familiar to us from a woman’s perspective. It is perhaps reminiscent of the 1970’s bachelor she describes her taste as being like. “That’s my persona”, she joked, “the creepy guy who has a remote control fireplace… I love that kind of stuff. I mean, I’m putting a pole in my apartment now. Maybe I’m channeling this neo-female gaze”.
On whether Ellen finds it daunting to share her work publicly: “I definitely hold some back but there is an element of meditation or practice in a way to be able to put something out there. You’re revealing a lot about yourself physically, stylistically or emotionally. It’s really liberating not having to be attractive or pretty because you do something that you care about on the inside, so you care less about what superficial things might be going on on the outside. I try to put things out there that are a challenge to me. It has transcended into my daily life because there is a sort of inner or quiet confidence - you know that you’re doing something you love, are proud of or are satisfied in an internal, personal way. And it may not seem like anything but it gives you a certain, peace, I guess.”
Favourite human? “My boyfriend who just put up this dance pole in our apartment. And I know it wasn’t easy and I also saw him have a little swing on it. He’s taking out the trash now so he can’t even hear me saying this haha.
Podcast? “I listen to them a lot. They get my brain really functioning. I love ‘The Daily’ and that’s New York Times’s podcast. It’s the best news source for understanding the intricacies of how laws really really work and the tactical pressures of politics.
Instagrammer? “Alister Mackie. I love following his inspirations and references. He had a cat! Like, ugh he’s genius! These beautiful cat pictures!”.
Favourite item from les girls les boys x Opening Ceremony? “I love wearing the matching outfits! The white top with the white bottoms. Or the black with the black. Or the pink top with the green bottoms I guess. But I really love the white on white. My boyfriend and I are just wearing it all the time now.”
“My pole is up this is so exciting! The trash has been taken out and the pole has been put up. But my boyfriend’s gone. I think he’s left me! I’m in a constant state of fear like, am I doing this right?! I know we’ll probably move around countries but it is weird to have one single thing be.”
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