Galleries : Wet, wild, and beautiful - The photos of Ellen Butler
Ellen Butler's underwater figurative photographs are an anomaly among Island photography. The images depict the interplay of the human body and material, usually fabric, in an exploration of form and movement that only the natural elements of water could produce. In many of her photographs, the water simply appears as a black mass and is discernable only where movement has caused ripples. Light hits both figure and object, highlighting the interaction.
Ms. Butler, who has exhibited through Europe and Asia, is excited about having Martha's Vineyard as the site of her first American exhibition. Now a summer visitor, her Island family history goes back to the 1930s; her parents, Dr. Allan and Mable Butler, bought Tashmoo Farm in the 1950s and ran it for more than 40 years.
The wife of internationally noted sculpture Martin Smeaton, Ms. Butler lives in London, England, but is visiting on-Island and preparing the retrospective exhibit of her work over the past decade. The two-day show at The Grange Hall in West Tisbury, which will also display the work of silversmith Rob Butler (Ms. Butler's brother), is on for Monday and Tuesday, August 24 and 25, with an artist's reception from 5 to 8 pm on Monday.
Ms. Butler began exploring the eclectic style of photography 10 years ago when she was invited to take part in an under-water initiative sponsored by The National Gallery of Art. Since the first project in the South China Sea, Ms. Butler has visited oceans around the world including the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Caribbean.
"I have discovered that every body of water has different properties," Ms. Bulter says, noting that she alters each project based on its location. She finds that characteristics of each shore, such as its inhabitants, dictate the nature of the water and influence to her work. "My work at the South China Sea was reflective of the jungles and their mystery as well as the interplay of light and dark." For this project the artist used fabrics to imitate the struggle and ease of the figure.
The photographs she took in Mediterranean Sea were completely different, the artist explains. For her work there she used a rectangular clear plastic piece and weighed the object down to the bottom of the ocean. The model was told to swim into the rectangular space. Ms. Butler focused on the bubbles that were formed by the interaction to emphasize the clarity of the sea. She explains her inspiration came from "the beautiful turquoise and very clear and deep rocky bottom."
The combination of figures and the ocean allows the artist to bring her subjects into a world outside of her control. "When you take a figure into the ocean, you isolate it and free it from its ties. You are given the ability to study its form."
The high expenses of the process require the artist to rely only on the essentials: the boat, the tank, and her subject. The limitations create the need for a lengthy preparation phase. "There is always a picture in my mind that I am looking for before the shoot," Ms. Butler says.
Ms. Butler's relationship with water may be explained in part by her reaction to a traumatizing incident. The artist nearly drowned at the age of five after jumping into a swimming pool. Ironically, the impact left her enthralled. "I remember struggling at first and then realizing that this was fantastic. I have had so many life experiences that have taken me to the edge. There is something in my personality that loves being there, something that loves to see what we are capable of doing."
Water has been a focal point of Ms. Butler's work throughout her career. Trained as a painter at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London, the artist focused on the exterior aspects of the element. "It had what I was looking for in terms of linear qualities, chaotic patterns and its geography," she says.
Though her interest now lies in photography, Ms. Butler still considers herself a painter. It was her training in the fine arts that shaped her photographic eye. "From the perspective of a painter I am drawn to certain distortions and magnifications. It is a way for me to explore the literal and metaphorical meanings imbued in water."
Like many artists, her medium is a manifestation of her understanding of human consciousness. "To me reality is not straight forward," she says, "It exists in so many different layers. Being under water lends itself to this idea of veils of unreality."
Photographs of Ellen Butler opens Monday, Aug. 24, with an artist's reception from 5 pm to 8 pm, at The Grange Hall, State Road, West Tisbury. The show includes the work of silversmith Rob Butler. The last day of the show, Tuesday, August 25, the show opens at 10 am.