The Midriff Blog
I Was Lonely…Then You Showed Up- Ellen Ruden, Our Gallery and Interview
NYC photographer Ellen Ruden shoots vast and beautiful landscapes and cityscapes. Her vibrant colors give her work a dream like quality often characteristic of impressionists, but Ruden’s colors pop so vividly while combined with such desolation that I can’t help feeling there is a slight surreal element fighting to poke through as well. Her b/w’s are just as striking, giving the prevailing sense of loneliness and isolation, that are such a common theme in her work, extra depth… the extra bit of “umph” that really sells a piece for the viewer. We like it a lot. So should you.
We did a bit of an interview with her that we’ll post below/following the gallery of her work. In said interview we discussed big, big ideas like “What constitutes “art”?”, “Is the work always a fair and accurate representation of the artist?” and “How you gonna keep the girl in Iowa now that she’s seen the big city”… among other things, both personal and whimsical. If you’d like to contact the artist please do so through the blog via our “Contacts” page.
(editors note: make yourself a drink and relax… it’s a longer one and if you, like me, like thinking about art vs artist and process and such you’ll enjoy it)
RUDEN: I left Iowa almost 20 years ago and I’ve lived in NYC for the past 11. I’m typically able to get home once a year, so when I’m in Iowa I’m usually on vacation and feeling pretty relaxed whereas here I’m working full time plus just dealing with every day life- so I think maybe that whole ”freedom vs pressure cooker” vibe comes across. I also think it’s partly just logistics- there is a distance about Iowa and a proximity about New York that comes into play. In Iowa I usually shoot when I’m pulled over on the side of the highway so I often can’t get very close to my subject and in the city I’m more just right in the middle of it all… I guess being on pretty opposite ends of the spectrum has me trying to capture that in my photos- both the spaciousness of those big Midwestern skies and the more boxed in feeling of the city… I couldn’t be happier that they both really feel like home to me. I am truly thankful that I grew up in Iowa in the 70′s- it was still so sweet and innocent and I really learned how to appreciate the simple things in life. I think that ability helps me to sort through the sensory overload of NYC and narrow my focus.
MDRF: How do you view different regional landscapes and do you favor shooting one over the other?
RUDEN: I really just shoot whatever looks cool to me- which a lot of the time tends to be either The Big Picture or some small detail within it that I get caught up in- there’s not a lot of middle distance with me… I’ve always been drawn to extremes so I guess that translates into my photography as well. I love trying to convey a real sense of place so it kind of breaks down to the same process wherever I am- just trying to capture the feeling and the space of the moment . My obsession with fields and farms is actually pretty ironic. Contrary to most assumptions about people from Iowa, I am not the outdoorsy type… I’m more of a screened-in-porch kinda girl. People are usually stunned/horrified to learn that I live directly across from Prospect Park and I NEVER go there… That being said, I feel like I can really appreciate the positive aspects of both the rural and urban landscapes. I’m equally enamored with the quiet simplicity of Iowa and the frenetic energy of NYC, but I might be slightly more inclined to shoot in Iowa. Obviously its got the nostalgia factor going for it, plus there is just something so goddamn sweet about old farmers pulling their pickups over to see if I’m having car trouble Every Single Time I’m out taking pictures there.
MDRF: How does traveling effect your work?
RUDEN: I think it enhances it and expands it. I love going to different places and being exposed to new cultures, sights, sounds, food, music… I wish I could afford to travel more- I like how it opens me up to new subjects and experiences. Sometimes they are amazing and awe inspiring and other times they might be challenging and intense, but it all helps me stretch and grow as an artist and as a person and it definitely keeps shit interesting.
MDRF: Do you shoot every time you are in a new place?
RUDEN: Absolutely. I always feel driven by “what if I never get back here again?” Also, I have a terrible memory so it’s really nice to have photo documentation.
MDRF: Does being compelled to shoot your surroundings make a trip less or more enjoyable?
RUDEN: For me definitely more- maybe not so much for whoever may be traveling with me.
RUDEN: Wanting to stop and shoot constantly can really slow things down… I’m sure hearing “oooh- wait/ hold on a second/ wow /I’ll catch up with you/ look at that…” every 10 seconds can get pretty annoying if you’re just trying to get from point A to point B… When I’m shooting someplace new, I feel like I get to really see it in a more intimate way than I might otherwise. When I’m trying to create not just a photo but a memory, I think I’m more conscious of what’s going on around me. It’s so much easier to take things for granted when I’m surrounded by them all the time. I’m also kind of shy and I love that my camera gives me more of an excuse to jump in the middle of a scene (or trespass) that I might not feel comfortable doing otherwise.
MDRF: Your photos, even your cityscape’s, although beautiful, all have a very lonely quality to them thematically. Why?
RUDEN: I think the fact that the vast majority of the time I shoot alone and that I rarely include people in my photos may contribute somewhat to that perception. I’ve also had a lot of pretty depressing things happen in my life. I grew up with an alcoholic father and a bipolar mother. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 7, so for pretty much as long as I can remember I was sick and in chronic pain and missing out on things. My best friend, Tim, died 4 and a half years ago and just recently I am finally really bouncing back from that profound loss… These have all been incredibly isolating experiences and they are all a huge part of who I am. I guess that lonely quality in my photos can be reflective of my mood- especially the past several years- even when I’m not really aware of it.
MDRF: What attracts you to that subject matter?
RUDEN: Well, it clearly resonates with me. I’ve always been kind of drawn to the darker side of things- I love really devastatingly sad books and movies or listening to music that just breaks your heart right in two… I think most people (and society teaches us to) try to avoid pain at all costs, whereas I’ve never been one to shy away from depressing shit. At times I can get stuck there for far too long, but I still believe truly experiencing your own suffering is invaluable… I find something so intriguing about fucked up stuff- rusty metal, weathered/rotted wood, graffiti, broken glass- the filthy, the crumbling, the abandoned… There’s something about that “yeah, it’s fucked up, but it’s still here” that speaks very loudly to me. I like to show that there is still beauty to be found in those subjects you may not typically think of as beautiful.
MDRF: Are you a lonely person?
RUDEN: Not usually. I wouldn’t say lonely so much as I like to spend a lot of time alone. I fucking love living in New York City but it can be completely insane. Plus I work at a busy bar which can also be total madness- the whole “two’s company, 8 million’s a crowd” and all that… I need my down time to recharge- I crave it. I need to be able to get away from everything and everyone and just BE… (I may or may not have strange ideas about how much “me time” is healthy. I’ve always thought in a perfect world I would live next door to my husband.)
MDRF: Are you trying to bum the viewer out?
RUDEN: Ha. Not on purpose, but maybe I should start… how bummed would you be if I was actually trying? C’mon now… they’re not all sad, are they? Are you projecting? Are YOU a lonely person? I think a lot of them are just simple and lovely and true. (editor’s note- I probably am projecting. Bumming people out is kind of my thing, I’m told.)
MDRF: Do you avoid people or animals as subject matter on purpose?
RUDEN: Yeah, pretty much- is that weird?
MDRF: Why is that?
RUDEN: I don’t know exactly- they just rarely interest me enough to include. We never had pets growing up due to allergies in my family, so I guess I can’t really relate to animals- they just don’t do anything for me. (my apologies to the legions of animal lovers out there…) I tend to frame my photos more as vignettes or classic still-life compositions (emphasis on still…) and unless it happens to be like The Perfect Cat with The Perfect Coloring lying in The Perfect Position it just doesn’t really fit into my preconceived idea of what that image is supposed to look and feel like. The same goes for people- they usually just kind of get in the way. I’m always waiting for them to get the hell out of my shot! If their look doesn’t jibe with what I envisioned, then… sorry, go away please… Hmmm… maybe I’m just a horrible person…?
MDRF: What types of places, cities or landscapes or subject matter would you like to photograph but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
RUDEN: There are a lot of places in the US that I hope to shoot someday: the Black Hills and the Badlands, Monument Valley, Savannah, Denali National Park, Big Sur, Death Valley, Coastal Maine… and there are countless places around the world that I would love to visit: the canals of Venice, the epic majesty of Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China, stepping back in time in Havana, the Russian minarets , the tiles and spice markets of Turkey, Africa, Greece, Prague, India… I’m planning on a trip to Istanbul next spring and hopefully traveling to Uganda the following summer.
RUDEN: There is so much diversity in the world- I want to see as much of it as I can. I’ve been captivated by photos I’ve seen of those places and I want to experience them for myself. That’s the beauty of a powerful photograph- it makes you really feel it- like, “I want to go THERE.”
MDRF: What makes a pretty picture art?
RUDEN: I think a lot of it simply boils down to your attitude: if you think it’s art, it’s art… It can just get so complicated- what people find aesthetically pleasing is all so relative. I mean, if someone takes a photo and they feel it’s art and they call it art, who the hell am I to tell them it isn’t? I can’t get inside their head and their heart and know how much or how little went into creating it- on that level I just don’t think anyone necessarily has the right to define someone else’s work for them. On the other hand, if someone says something is art and you don’t feel like it is, you totally have the right to reject their premise based on what your personal idea of art is. ’If you think it’s art, it’s art’ applies to the viewer as well as the creator… like I said, it’s complicated.
MDRF: Then, what constitutes a piece as art?
RUDEN: Again, it’s incredibly subjective. Art really means something different to everyone- there are people who think everything is art, others who believe that only pieces worth thousands of dollars hanging in museums are art, some people who think nothing is art and it’s all just a bunch of overrated bullshit… and everyone in between. Personally, I think art has to evoke some sort of a response in the viewer- joy, anger, awe, disgust, hope, sadness, inspiration, anguish, enlightenment, shock… it can be a good or a bad response, but it has to make you think or feel something.
MDRF: What are the qualities and where is the line where a piece of work crosses from photo to work of art?
RUDEN: Photography is all about stopping time for that split second, so if you can convey a real connection through your image- by tapping into an emotion or telling a story- I think you’re onto something. Having a strong subject, a strong composition and great lighting is an excellent place to start. Utilizing elements of design effectively- line, color/tonal range and relation, texture, movement, negative space, perspective, etc.- whether it’s calculated or instinctual, can definitely take a photo to the next level. Then there is the question of content- the ideas behind the photo and how people react to them. I think your intention can certainly have a huge impact, but it isn’t necessarily everything. Sometimes the best photos are a careless afterthought or just pure luck.
MDRF: Does simply partaking in the process constitute the final result as a work of art?
RUDEN: The act of creation in and of itself is definitely a big part of it for me. I don’t necessarily have a motivation for each photo beyond what I think looks cool in the moment. It can be beautiful, breathtaking, sad, sweet, interesting… whatever. I’d say I’m less concerned with the visual narrative when I’m taking a picture than just trying to find a composition that feels right to me. There’s something about getting into the groove of that creative flow- letting it happen rather than making it happen… It’s hard to describe but when it happens I just know it. That was especially clear when I was shooting film and I couldn’t see the image until the contact sheet was printed- all of my favorite shots I knew when I took them: click. “YES…”