More often than not, when Mary Elliott focuses a lens on minute details of a subject, she reveals and highlights an orderly beauty. As her intimate eye recognizes and isolates distinct fragments in ice, for instance, she may abstract images from the patterns she finds. They become intricate frameworks of geometrically perfect shapes. Zeroed-in-on images exude inner life and sometimes contain serendipitous colour and structure, all of which speaks of beauty residing in parts of a whole. The rich and satisfying nearness examines a galaxy she has discovered within. This might not be unlike the situation in which an observer on Earth sees a cloudy nebula while a space traveller passing closer to it could more clearly witness its rudimentary makeup. Perspective changes with proximity. In terms of subject choice, for Mary the galaxy could very well be found in a bowl of cherries. She equates the experience of peering through a close-up lens to looking through a microscope.
Living in rural Ontario's Northumberland County, she has ready access to the inspiration of forest and field. When wanting a change, she often finds the best "studio" conditions for close-up work with such things as glass on her kitchen counter arise with natural light coming through the room's southern-exposure windows. Other material suitable for intimate study under the lens often presents itself by chance, depending on her mood, the season, or perhaps recognition of abstract aspects of her surroundings. In The Empress Interview, we'll learn how Mary's life behind the camera lens has been a voyage of dedication to craft and artistry.
When did your love affair with the camera begin?
Late in 1995, my mother gave me a Yashica point-and-shoot for my birthday - a wonderful little camera. At that point, I didn't want to have to deal with apertures and shutter speeds. I wanted to do close-up work with the background out of focus and had been told I could do so with this camera. I soon discovered that the camera wasn't actually capable of giving the effect I wanted and I had little or no control over exposure, and I became rather frustrated.
How did you realize photography had potential for being more than just a hobby?
By the spring of the following year, I'd produced a few images that I felt might have artistic merit. When a local paper reported that a juried photography exhibition would be held at Bowmanville's Visual Arts Centre, I submitted four images. Two were landscapes. The other two were close-ups of leaves caught in ice - one taken in my water garden, the other in a frozen puddle in my driveway. To my amazement, these two were accepted for the exhibition and the composition titled "Iced Leaves" was awarded an honourable mention.
How did this early recognition spur you on?
This recognition gave me enough encouragement to submit three further pieces, part of a study of a working grist mill, to the special 20th anniversary "Mill Show at the Visual Arts Centre" in October of 1996. The gallery is located in an old mill with the delightful name of Cream of Barley Mill. This was a multi-media juried show and eighteen works by ten artists were accepted, including my three. To my surprise and delight, the juror, Yvonne Singer, presented me with an Award of Excellence. She commented in her written statement that the photos were "intimate, moody, atmospheric..." and reflected a "nostalgia for a lost past."
This was all accomplished using a relatively "simple" camera. What enabled you to make a move to a more serious approach?
By this time, my main employer, author Farley Mowat [for whom Mary provides a variety of editorial services as executive assistant of his self-named company] was beginning to take notice that photography was becoming a passion and that I was showing some promise, despite my frustration with the point-and-shoot's limitations. Late in 1996 he asked if I would like to borrow his then 30-year-old, manual Pentax Spotomatic SLR, which he hadn't used for many years. But he clearly stated: "You'll have to learn how to use it yourself. I don't remember how. You could go down to the camera shop and ask them." So I did exactly that, and was given a quick lesson in loading both the film and the battery for the light meter, and setting the aperture and shutter speed. I wrote it all down and went home and tried it out. I purchased a tripod - an essential tool for careful composition and for preventing camera shake, particularly in long exposures. After six months, I purchased the camera from Farley. I love it dearly and use it to this day. Both he and his wife, Claire, also a writer, have been very supportive of my progress as a photographer and continue to encourage me.
The camera was equipped with a standard 50mm lens, and as I planned on experimenting with close-up work, I felt a stronger one was needed. I found a used screwmount 100mm macro lens in a Toronto photography shop. If I could have only one lens, I think that 100mm would be the one, even now.
I had lots to learn. It was a matter of trial and error, reading, asking questions, shooting lots of film, and making self-evaluations. It is not uncommon for photographers to get only about one image which they are particularly happy about per film. I continued to enter work in juried exhibitions, submitting the maximum number of works allowed each time. ( In 1997, none of the four pieces I submitted to the Visual Arts Centre was accepted. This was actually beneficial, as it taught me early on something about having work rejected and about differences in the judging process. I didn't feel that my photos were inferior, rather that the particular juror didn't find in them what he was looking for. Although it was disheartening, I was not deterred from continuing to submit.)
You began attending workshops. You have even taken the step of holding your own workshops. Comment on the progression of your confidence and skills.
I first began to attend (and currently do) local camera club meetings when I got the point-and-shoot, and go on occasional shoots with members when time away from my editorial work allowed. I well remember the first night. There were sixteen of us present. As is quite common in a new group, the man heading it up asked us to give our background and the type of camera we used. I heard about the Nikon This and the Canon That and the Hasselblad Something Else. Some people had two cameras. All of them sounded quite grand. When my turn came I took a deep breath and said, "I have a fully automatic Yashica point-and-shoot." We all had a good laugh - and moved on to the remaining Nikons and Canons.
At a 1996 club meeting, I learned that Freeman Patterson, one of Canada's very finest photographers, was to make a day-long presentation in Toronto and launch his newest book, Shadowlight. I'd known of Freeman for a number of years, first becoming aware of him indirectly through my father's cousin, Lillian Allen, whose 1990 book of photographs called Frost was published at Freeman's encouragement. He wrote the foreword for it - a collection of intricate and elegant images of frost tinted by sunrise on her Winnipeg home windowpane. I had long been captivated by it and it continues to inspire me.
While Freeman's presentation left me really moved and inspired, I was aware there was still so much to learn that I wasn't yet ready to take full advantage of the workshops he leads with André Gallant near Saint John, New Brunswick..
It wasn't until I was accepted for a 1998 autumn workshop (nine months in advance) that I seriously began to consider switching to slide film. I had foolishly allowed someone to put me off using slide film because of its unforgiving "what you take is what you get" exposure latitude.
When asked in June by my daughter Alison, who was then teaching at an outdoor education centre, to run a half-day nature photography workshop in August, I started using slide film and shot enough acceptable images for the presentation. I also gained valuable experience by designing a short instructional program for that workshop.
Having given the half-day workshop at the forest centre, I tested the waters further by offering a short workshop for up to four people as a fund-raising item for the Oriana Singers' silent auction. The time was spread over two Saturdays so that I could evaluate a few images from the first day and also give assignments, which would be presented the second day. I enjoyed the experience, and learned from the participants as well. In June 2002, I expanded the workshop to two-and-a-half days, with the focus on composition within a structure of instruction, demonstration, and field trips. (This coming June, I am holding two workshops. One filled quickly as a result of presentations I gave in the Toronto area and so I decided to run a second one.)
Too, before departing for Freeman and André's 1998 autumn workshop, I again submitted four photographs for the annual juried arts show at the Visual Arts Centre. I was into my second day there when my daughters called to tell me they would attend the VAC opening and on my behalf accept an award of merit for two abstracts. I was just delighted.
By now I had grown more competent with my aging equipment. I soon learned that the equipment a photographer uses is important; but it's the eye which really counts. A workshop is a wonderful opportunity to learn, to share, to be inspired, to meet others of like interest, and to immerse yourself in what you love to do.
How has the work of others affected you and contributed to your style?
I gradually began to develop an eye for the work of others and to identify with some. Freeman and André are very different, both as people and as photographers, but their images speak to me - on an emotional and on a compositional level. Freeman, a world-class photographer with an eye to match, is a wonderful and philosophical teacher. He has such a sensitive approach to evaluations that participants are left feeling good about themselves, no matter how their images are evaluated. André is a superb photographer, with a taste for subtle yet rich colours. He is the detail person behind the workshops.
Through the next year I practiced what I'd learned. I also wanted to learn from other photographers and, through subscribing to the excellent Canadian magazine Photo Life, I had become familiar with the work of the very fine Kingston, Ontario photographer Richard Martin. His architectural background is evident in his strong, clean sense of composition, and he's great for approaching his subject from unusual angles. Richard runs weekend workshops in Kingston and also leads longer workshops and tours.
In April of 1999 I attended my first workshop with Richard: "Metalworks: In search of the surreal." We worked in a huge junkyard in Milford and also photographed the yachts still on the dock at the Kingston marina. Both locations provided us with endless abstract material, and I was in my element, although I admit to not being satisfied with all the resulting photographs. Evaluating my own work after a workshop is an excellent learning experience.
How has your photography touched or appealed to others?
As I began expressing myself creatively, I discovered my images seemed to be speaking to other people in an emotional sense. This was particularly true in the case of one of my mill pieces. In the autumn of 1998 I placed some prints in the Art Gallery of Northumberland's gift shop in Cobourg, and was later delighted to find some of them had sold. I was especially curious to know where The Window had gone, but no one at the gallery knew who had purchased it.
It's as if this particular image was on a journey of its own. An old grinding wheel, no longer in use, leans against a rough stone wall at the mill beside a window covered with years of dust and cobwebs. Through the window comes softly mottled green and white light reflecting off a nearby pine tree. That image must have been captured in a magical moment, because I twice returned to the mill and was not able to achieve the same colour or feel in subsequent shots.
I received a call the following August from a woman I didn't know. Her step-mother, Nancy, had visited the gallery in Cobourg in January and The Window had caught her attention. She purchased it, mentioning to her husband only, "This is a really neat picture." Nancy unexpectedly died of leukemia in August and when he opened the file containing her "affairs," her husband found the matted print, together with a letter Nancy had written shortly after purchasing it.
Realizing that The Window had meant something special to her, he decided to give a copy to each of their children and to some friends; hence the phone call from his daughter. During my conversation with her, I learned that Nancy had interpreted the photograph as a metaphor for life and death, in the way that when one's earthly time is finished, although we don't know what lies ahead after death, we see a light shining, inviting us onwards. It was an honour to have The Window on the cover of the remembrance booklet used at the memorial celebration for Nancy. This print is now in collections in Canada, the United States, France, and Spain.
Not long after that, I was contacted by a Toronto practitioner who wanted to include a slide of The Window in her music therapy service; she had been shown a copy of the remembrance.
Could your photography grow into more than exhibiting?
In 1999, after being contacted by a publisher regarding my editing services, my résumé was passed on to a colleague of his in Toronto, unbeknownst to me. She noticed that I had studied with Freeman Patterson and called me to ask to see my portfolio. I met with her in the spring and discussion revolved around producing a gardening book, for which her company needed a photographer. Thinking it might be helpful in landscape photography, I attended one of Richard Martin's weekend workshops focusing on architecture. As it so happened, the publisher changed firms and the gardening book went by the board.
This same publisher had also given my name to the head of a prominent firm of Toronto landscape architects. By the summer I was on an assignment to photograph gardens at a downtown Toronto Square, a Rosedale residence, and York University. It was all enjoyable, albeit hard work. I soon discovered, however, that the firm had a reputation for being difficult to deal with, and I experienced trouble in getting paid for the freelance photography. It took five months of nagging.
Just when I had enough going on in my life - arranging my daughter's wedding and keeping up with the demands of my editorial business - I was invited to hold a month-long solo exhibition in the Clarington Gallery in Bowmanville, Ontario in December 2000. This became my millennium project. I am grateful for having had that opportunity to show my work; the experience taught me a great deal. I showed 28 photographs, quite a potpourri. It was successful, from my point of view, and I received many wonderful comments. In the process of evaluating it afterwards, I learned how much more effective it is to present work in a theme, to find a unifying thread to link pieces one with another.
What is involved in a workshop and how does it expand the artistic experience?
For me, the workshop experience is invigorating, inspiring, exhausting, emotional. In every respect, the atmosphere is intensive, highly focused, concentrated, wonderful. It's so very intensive that the rest of the world recedes as you concentrate on your work. It is wall-to-wall photography. I'm even apt to dream photography.
In 2001, I attended a week-long workshop held by Richard Martin and Stephen Scott Patterson (a terrific photographer from Halifax) in Gananoque. It was June, so we were up and shooting before breakfast to catch the first light. Long days full of instruction, demonstrations, and field trips continued to expand my knowledge and skills. The first morning, we shot in the rain in the community gardens, huddled under umbrellas and with plastic bags covering our cameras. The colours of the flowers were greatly intensified. I have often had people who aren't familiar with photography comment on a brilliantly sunny midday, saying it must be a great day to shoot. In fact, overcast conditions are usually an outdoor photographer's delight. The light is soft; the harsh contrasts in tone from direct sunlight are eliminated. The ends of the day are usually better for softer light too.
A certain amount of anxiety is normal the night before assignments. Thoughts such as these can come to mind: What approach shall I take? What if the camera doesn't work? What if I end up forgetting to load film in the camera? (Don't laugh. It can happen.) What if it rains?
Assignments normally occupy a morning, after which films are taken to the lab for development. They are returned in just enough time for you to sort through them all and select a dozen or two images which will portray your approach to the assignment. There is usually a lot of groaning and exclaiming, sighing and laughter as participants pour over their slides on the light tables.
You don't always get an assignment you're happy with. My Gananoque assignment was the Market in Kingston. Photographing people is not my thing; neither is a more documentary approach, the approach I ended up choosing. This would be a stretch. I didn't sleep well the night before, wondering how I was going to make something of this assignment, an assignment I didn't really like. In fact, of the fifteen assignments, it ranked about fourteenth if I could have had my preference. The fifteenth was hydro poles and wires!
The relief I felt when I arrived to find the market square empty was enormous; I wouldn't have to do that assignment! I had travelled to Kingston with another participant whose assignment location was also in Kingston. We decided she would give me another assignment down at the harbour, near hers. We drove on; but then she suggested I take a shot of the empty market square as evidence that I had at least tried. As it turned out, the market opens an hour later on weekdays - and it was just coming to life with trucks and vendors when we got back. I ended up shooting ten rolls of film! The people were very friendly and helpful, making my time a happy, even exciting, experience. There was Diane, the honey and flowers girl; Blanche, the maker of smocked dresses and hand-knit sweaters; and Steven, the good-looking young fellow in charge of the family's home preserves.
In October of that year I returned to New Brunswick for a workshop with Freeman and André. My assignment this time was the Anglican church in the nearby village of Kingston, using all my lenses. The morning started off very foggy, perfect for shooting in the cemetery and I spent about three hours on my knees out there before going to photograph the church interior to complete my assignment. I did use all my lenses: 80-200mm telephoto; 28mm wide-angle; and 100mm macro; even my 50mm regular, which I don't use that much.
That workshop held added poignancy as it wasn't long
after the September 11th attacks in the United States. All
the participants arrived feeling anxious and unsettled but
our experience there helped us focus on the good things in
life and we left renewed. We subsequently created a journal,
with Shape as the theme, each of us submitting one image and
accompanying statement. I was asked to contribute my
text-editing skills. The journal is not only a wonderful
keepsake, it's also a most interesting vehicle for the
photographs and for learning something of why each of us
made the images we did.
Over the past year or so, Mary Elliott made presentations, largely of her abstract work, to camera clubs in Belleville, Northumberland County, Oshawa, Peterborough, and Trenton. Presentations on composition to Oshawa, Scarborough, and Mississauga camera clubs took place this past fall and invitations have been extended by the clubs of Hamilton, York Region, and St. Catharines, and a return to Mississauga. For the most part, the presentations have included instruction and audio-visuals (groups of slides set to music), varying from about two and a half to fifteen minutes in length.
In a desire to give something back to the community, she has donated matted or framed work to organizations like the Kidney Foundation, Horizons of Friendship, the Oriana Singers, and the Port Hope Library.
She continues to exhibit at various galleries, finding each occasion adds to her ability to organize her works on display. For a Visual Arts Centre solo show in April 2002, she established a theme, "Reflections - in the Eye and the Mind," and made her selections accordingly. Last year also brought an invitation to take charge of exhibitions in the new photography room at the Upstairs Gallery, the Port Hope branch of the Art Gallery of Northumberland. One goal achieved has been to bring in photographers who have had little or no experience in showing their works in a gallery forum but whose work is up to exhibition quality.
Before photography became a passion for Mary, she hadn't realized just how important it is to have a creative outlet, and then she was intrigued to discover that she found herself attracted to photograph.
"I am a rather straightforward person," she concludes. "I used to have little interest in abstract painting and so it was quite surprising to find myself drawn to the abstract. I feel, through photography, that I'm expressing things from deep within. This has brought me a deep sense of inner serenity and indirectly given me more self-confidence. I think everyone should have a creative outlet. Do I owe this sense of serenity to my artistic ancestors? Who knows; but any creative tendencies I have are inherited, I'm sure. I'm just letting my photographic journey take me where it wants to go, and it's been quite a ride so far.
Mary Elliott, Freestyle Talk: Stages and Elements of Her Photographic Journey
The Natural Progression Toward Photography: "For much of my life I've been a collector - searching for shells, pebbles, surf-worn beach glass, leaves, feathers, whatever. Since photography came into my life, I find myself searching far less, perhaps because I can satisfy that need on film. My interest in photography has evolved as a means of expressing myself and my appreciation for the beauty of nature and the world around us. Perhaps it's been lying dormant and I was unaware of it; but in any event, the timing was right. If it had emerged earlier, when I was raising a family as a working mother, I might not have had either the time or finances to devote to exploring it."
On the Art of Abstracting: "In general I feel drawn to the abstract, or perhaps 'abstracting' is more accurate. My images are not all totally abstract, not just a line here and a splash of colour there. I like to get in close, to abstract by removing the clutter - what doesn't matter or add to the image. I aim to express what I saw and felt when I was drawn to the subject. I expect that is the goal of all photographers, of all artists. Whether my images reflect that is another matter, as what one person sees or feels may be entirely different from what another person perceives. And in that light, I believe much of our reaction to art comes from a combination of our personal history, our mood at the time of viewing, and where we are in our lives at that very moment. What I see in and feel about a painting may change from day to day. By the same token, I can photographically approach the same subject in an entirely different way from one day to another."
On Inspiration: "Inspiration for me is an emotional reaction to the subject matter. The beauty of the world all around me is my inspiration, such as the advent of Spring, the bursting new life of leaves and flowers, the coming warmth and end of long, cold winter days and nights. It may be that I'm simply happy, and want to go in search of something happy to photograph. So many things catch my eye and draw me to them: texture, patterns, shapes, and lines. Or the hue. Colours which appeal to me change from time to time. For a while now I've been drawn to the muted yellows, oranges, pinks, and greens - colours found in autumn.
"The work of other photographers often inspires me and sometimes gives me a jumping-off place which sends me off on a new exploration. Or it may be the work of painters, or it may be music."
Techniques and simple tricks: "The exposure settings I use depend on the subject matter and how I want to portray it. With close-up work where I want to convey a feeling rather than give every detail, I may use a wide aperture to put the background out of focus to achieve the effect I want; I may have only the edge of a petal, for example, in focus. In landscape work, or in a more documentary approach, I will close down the aperture to get as much depth of field as possible, to put everything in focus.
Misty cascades in a munificent blend of white and blue. As yet untitled, Mary took this photo of the lower falls near Bracebridge, Ontario.
Photo © Mary Elliott
"I experiment with under-and overexposure. If I want a lighter feel, I may overexpose. I rarely use extra lighting; as a matter of fact, I hardly know how to use my flash unit! I may reflect light into a flower with a piece of tin foil when photographing close-up. I do most of my close-up work of such things as glass in the kitchen, particularly in winter when the light is coming in the south windows. To hide things like the cupboards and to make the background plain, I sometimes use a piece of construction paper or fabric. Outside I try to change my camera position to make the background the way I want it.
"Mist is a wonderful softener. It can also block out undesirable or cluttered backgrounds and add a certain moodiness. Sometimes in photographing flowers, for example, I poke my lens right in so it is touching the near ones and then focus on a particular flower. This adds a soft "frame" around the in-focus subject.
"I don't do my own developing and don't chemically manipulate images. So far, I haven't done any computer-based manipulation but I am learning to use Photoshop so that I can print some of my own images. I rarely use filters other than the standard ultraviolet and polarizing ones. Occasionally I use other filters to reduce glare or tone down highlights. I have a blue-yellow filter which is helpful in this regard, and can also be fun to use to obtain a more unusual effect. I enjoy making montages, commonly referred to as "sandwiches," which are images made from two pieces of slide film mounted together. This can be done in several ways. You can use two totally different images; or you can reverse two very similar images, which gives a mirror effect . You can also make montages by shooting the same subject twice without moving the camera, both shots overexposed, one in focus and the other not.
"Developing a theme involves considerable exploration of
a subject or related subjects. I particularly enjoy working
with glass, ice, and reflections - areas in which you are
only limited by your imagination, time, effort, and film.
I'll come back to a subject, and usually shoot it quite
differently on each occasion. Other themes have included
cars in a junkyard, hulls of sailboats, the beach, winter,
barns, churches, and cemeteries. If I'm experimenting with
something, like shooting silhouettes, I may come back to
that quite a bit over a period of weeks or months. The best
place to shoot is wherever I am, so the subject matter
varies considerably; it can vary considerably even in the
span of an afternoon. One outing included a beach, a rusty
barn, and a church. However, in each of these locations I
abstracted, except for a few overall shots. I tend to move
right in and boil things down to what matters to me. I'm not
sure if I subconsciously have a theme or not. Probably.
Sometimes I discover later that a series of photos reflects
a theme. Maybe abstracting is my subconscious theme, getting
rid of clutter, looking for simplicity."
Mary Elliott has been inspired by the photography and philosophy of Freeman Patterson most of all. Others who have been an inspiration on her journey include Richard Martin, André Gallant, and Lillian Allen. The work of photographers such as Stephen Scott Patterson, Tim Fitzharris, Courtney Milne, Theo Allofs, Peter Burian, the late Galen Rowell, Maria Zorn, and Larry Monzka have spoken to her in a variety of ways.
Says Mary, "They all have a strong sense of composition, without which I feel they would not communicate nearly as effectively. But I can learn something from all photographers. My family and friends have all been most enthusiastic and supportive. Farley Mowat gave me encouragement early on because he feels that I give a different perspective on things and have something to offer others. He is currently encouraging me to produce a book and to run workshops. Who knows what the future may hold?"
Primarily self-taught in photography, and learning
largely through experience and by attending weekend and
week-long workshops under recognized experts, Mary Elliott
has a BA (1964) from Mount Allison University in Sackville,
New Brunswick. She was born in Bermuda and emigrated to
Canada in 1967, making it her permanent home.
Kudos from Peers & Critics:
"Your work is like Freeman Patterson's; you have the same
kind of vision, particularly for the detail right in front
"Your work has to be the best I have seen in a long
while. You make others see things they wouldn't otherwise
"'Leaves with Frost' - I think it is most wonderful; it
looks like a painting or a charcoal work."
"Your pictures are different. You have a touch and an
eye. Others' pictures are lacking in soul."
"Mary Elliott's intimate, moody, atmospheric photos of
the interior of an abandoned mill refer to history and
memory...a nostalgia for a lost past."
"The seasons find many representations here [at this
exhibition], one of the most interesting and beautiful
being Mary Talbot Elliott's panoramic photo of a January
"Freeman Patterson says that seeing means encountering
your subject matter with your whole being and looking beyond
labels. It is evident that you have developed these skills
and are able to abstract and compose the vital elements that
make for intriguing abstract images. Your love of
photography shines through your images and your
presentation....You have motivated us to 'really see' and
try to make some interesting abstract images of our
"A great example of photography as an art form. A great
"Fabulous eye - technically and artistically - inspires
me to shoot more!"
"Your work takes us beyond the beauty of the