Ellen Jantzen: The Quest for Deep Meaning

© Ellen Jantzen ‘Courage of Memory’ [detail] from the series ‘Losing Reality’ 2011

I am looking for ways to visualise things that have no physical presence: emotions, longings, memories…


To know is not necessarily to understand. We can learn a fact, but the richness of its meaning is only comprehended when it is absorbed into, and integrated with, our broader experience of the world and of our inner sense of self. Photographs, too, can be seen and their visual information recognised, but their deeper significance is only understood when the image is woven into the fabric of our mind, connecting it to other insights and experiences. In this way, the simple fact of an image is transformed into meaning, a meaning that is not just about what we see but how we feel.

For the American photo-artist, Ellen Jantzen, this pursuit of meaning, and the desire to express that meaning to the viewer, has led her to a creative blend of photography with digital post-production. Her images are not so much literal (images as seen by the eyes) as they are evocative and poetic (images understood in the mind and in the imagination). These pictures grow from a synthesis of personal experience and external reality. Her various artistic series track the unfolding events for her life: her changing sense of place, her connection with Nature and the poignant disconnection of bereavement.

How are we connected to place? What is our relation to Nature? Where do we go when we die? These are some of the big questions in life and they have been asked ever since humankind began to understand past and present, cause and effect, and the difference between thinking and feeling. Yet Ellen Jantzen engages these ideas through a medium and vernacular of the modern day. She uses digital cameras and computer programs to create a visual language through which she can address these eternal questions. And her work has been widely circulated on the internet through social media and art-blogs. Here it has proved immensely popular; first for its aesthetic impact and then, when considered more subtly, for the complex but universal human condition on which the work is founded. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this approach is that she does not claim to provide an answer to those timeless human questions, but rather to share her own processes of thinking and feeling about them. Her work exists within an empathic space, a space of shared emotional connection. The quest for deep meaning is a journey in which what matters is not the destination, but the time spent with fellow travellers.

Alasdair Foster

© Ellen Jantzen ‘Off Trail’ from the series ‘Losing Reality’ 2011


How would you describe your way of seeing?

I seek out the unexpected, the unusual, the unexplored. I am looking for ways to visualise things that have no physical presence: emotions, longings, memories…

The first series in which you used digital manipulation in images of landscape was ‘Losing Reality’. How did that series begin?

My mother-in-law was developing Alzheimer’s. She was losing herself and my husband was losing his mother. I was trying to understand how one experiences loss. What does loss look like? Catastrophic loss often has a direct visual representation: photographs of war, natural disaster, road traffic accidents… but what about personal loss? We all deal with loss in some form; loss of friends, home, one’s youth and, ultimately, loss of life. Death transforms us … but to what? I am intrigued with how one adapts to loss; how one absorbs such events and is changed by them.

How did you go about representing those ideas visually?

We had recently returned from California to live in the Midwest to be near to Michael’s ailing mother. In this series I placed my husband, Michael, in various environments where a loss of some sort had recently occurred. For example, in ‘Off Trail’ the loss was very specific to my husband’s mother and his return to the environment where he had grown up. He is standing in a park near where his mother lived in Southern Illinois. The park is a beautiful verdant place with many footpaths. However, I placed my husband in a location where there was no path – no preformed route for one’s journey – and digitally altered his physical form so that he appears to be being reabsorbed into the landscape.

How do you go about beginning a new series?

I start with a straight photograph, but at this point I am still uncertain how the creative process might unfold. In the computer, I begin to layer, combine and alter the original photograph. In this way I start to visualise what it is that I want to communicate through the image. Often, I begin to write a statement about the themes of the emerging series, which can help to clarify ideas for me. I then head back out to make more photographs with this clearer aim in mind. It is at this point that the series really begins to come together, although I do try to remain open and spontaneous as I shoot.

[Left] © Ellen Jantzen ‘In the Field of Gold’ from the series ‘Transforming Nature’ 2012
[Right] © Ellen Jantzen ‘Transplanting Reality’ from the series ‘Transforming Nature’ 2012

In ‘Transforming Nature’ and the subsequent ‘Transcending Nature’ your focus shifts from a human figure to the iconography of the tree. What drew you to the visual trope of the tree?

I have always had a love of trees; they played a great role in my appreciation of nature. Trees produce the oxygen we breathe; we provide carbon dioxide for the trees…. a lovely symbiosis. Forests and trees have also played a prominent role in many folktales and legends, and have been given deep and sacred meanings. They are seen as powerful symbols of growth, decay and rebirth. But, with the depletion of forests and the resulting impact on humankind, how we respond will determine our future. I hope that my images resonate with people and encourage a deeper, more spiritual consideration of our relation to the other beings that occupy planet earth.

© Ellen Jantzen ‘Evidence of Myth’ from the series ‘Transcending Nature’ 2013

That sense of the spiritual develops further in ‘Transcending Nature’ where the trees become more ethereal.

I wanted to go beyond the visual limitations of trees in nature and, at the same time, create an effect of transparency to suggest impermanence. I wanted to create a bridge between the earth and the heavens.

‘Disturbing the Spirits’ takes this more dynamic idea of trees to explore the healing powers of the natural environment.

Trees teach us about belonging; they remind us that life does not need permission to prevail. Trees are sanctuaries. If we study them closely, we can learn the ancient laws of life.

By this time, I had returned to my place of birth in the US Midwest after leaving California, where I had lived for the previous twenty years. I began searching for meaning in this new life and found it in the natural landscapes of the region; its ever-changing seasons make one aware of the fleetingness of life. My parents were ageing and, witnessing their decline, I became obsessed with concepts of change and disappearance, which I channelled into my art making.

While I used photography as a means of capturing the reality of nature, I chose to obscure its reality through various digital means, allowing only some portions to be fully revealed. This process proved meditative and led me to discover the healing powers of the natural environment, and specifically those of woodlands and trees.

© Ellen Jantzen ‘Conquering the Pull of Gravity from the series ‘Place of Departure’ 2014

The sudden death of your parents marked a distinct shift in the visual language of your work and in its central concerns.

I began my series ‘Place of Departure’ as a direct response to my father’s passing. At the time, my mother was still alive but – although I did not know it then – she too would pass away within a few months. That second bereavement intensified my work on this series. It was cathartic… I wanted to give a visual form to my feelings of grief in the hope that this would resonate with other people.

At times, I felt that my life had fundamentally changed; but, at other times, all seemed normal. I found that I was grappling with the enigma of life and death. Where did my father go? Are my parents now united? What happens to life after it leaves its body? Does the life force rise and connect the terrestrial with the celestial, or does it evaporate into thin air? In making my work, I hoped to reach some kind of an understanding.

© Ellen Jantzen ‘With Anticipation’ from the series ‘Place of Departure’ 2014

In this series you explore those ideas through the trope of the tree as well as the human figure…

One of the first pieces I created for this series was ‘Conquering the Pull of Gravity’. The title describes what I was trying to convey: an uplifting thrust; a connection that eludes gravity. The human aspect becomes more explicit in ‘With Anticipation’. The two figures could be interpreted as my parents… the image seems to anticipate their departure to another realm…

You have said that you approached your work as both a window and as a mirror. What you mean by this?

By window, I mean the photograph that records the objective reality I observe with my eyes. In contrast, the mirror is what I do with the photograph through digital postproduction, to reflect my subjective perception of the world as personal and ever-changing. I chose this hybrid of photography and digital manipulation specifically because I wanted to marry the notion that photography is somehow factual with the imaginative forms I was creating.

[Left] © Ellen Jantzen ‘Cornucopia’ from the series ‘Unity of Time and Place’ 2015
[Right] © Ellen Jantzen ‘To Have and to Have Not’ from the series ‘Unity of Time and Place’ 2015

In 2015 you began ‘Unity of Time and Place’. While the preceding work had tended to look back to the past (bereavement, spirituality, and folklore) this work looks forward. How did that change came about?

I was coming to accept that my parents had really gone. My husband and I moved back to the American Southwest and this series was created after settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico. All the images are based on photographs I had taken on and around my parents’ five-acre property in Missouri. I had many photographs made during the six years we had live in that area. In Santa Fe, I was able to sit back and analyse those images in depth.

Many of the images had been taken from the same vantage point, but in different years and different seasons. This brought to the surface the notion of memory. There is a theory that all time exists simultaneously: past, present, and future could be regarded as a singular whole. I am always interested in the underlying nature of reality… so I found this cohesive concept of time to be fascinating.

After spending the previous few years immersed in the past, I was ready to embrace the future. Of course, the past was with me, but transformed. The losses remain, but there was a brightness forming in which I could sense the entirety: the unity of time and place.

How did you develop the subtle changes in aesthetic that in this work seek to address this idea of life moving forward?

In ‘Unity of Time and Place’, I used a circular motif to represent the cycles of life. I was exploring ways to express my inner feelings about embracing the future. The form of a circle or sphere seemed hopeful. In this case, it came to stand for my personal acceptance of my parents passing and a need to get on with my life.

For example, ‘Cornucopia’ is based on a photograph taken in a rural Missouri nature preserve near my parents’ former home. I have always been enchanted by paths and the way they represent transition and the unknowable future. The circular shape could represent a doorway of some sort … a journey through to a new life, a new beginning. There is a hopefulness emerging once more.

The final two bodies of work I would like to discuss – ‘Coming into Focus’ and ‘Unexpected Geology’ – came about following your move to the US state of New Mexico. How did that move impact on your life and on your work?

I was born in the Midwest, moved as a young adult to California, then back to the Midwest to help aging parents. After they passed away, I headed west again, this time settling in New Mexico. The most profound change for me was the landscape. In these two series, I am exploring how the landscape, whether rural, suburban or urban, can utterly reshape one and how, through relocation, one might grow and flourish. 

Your focus in these two series is on mountains (and their smaller cousins, rocks and pebbles). Is there a metaphorical connection between the human figures in your early work, trees (which are often given human attributes in folklore), and these mountains?

That is a very good question!

I have always been intrigued with mountains, their formation, evolution and beauty. I find the history of geology fascinating, the ebb and flow of minerals; deposits and formations. Sacred mountains play an important role in certain religions and folk legends. That is especially true for the Native American population here in New Mexico. So, in that sense, perhaps I am absorbing this sacred sensibility into my work.

‘Unexpected Geology’ plays with our perceptions of relative scale. What ideas you are exploring in this final series?

I am intrigued with how small rocks and stones are, essentially, mountains except for their magnitude. Pebbles are made of the same material as mountains. Ratio, proportion, relative size define their difference. Scale has its own aesthetic magic. What do I mean by this…? So much of my work is intuitive. Perhaps scale is my way of representing significance?

You once said that “I now speak with clouds, the earth… with trees. Words fail me.” What did you mean by this?

Words do often fail me and I struggle to say what I mean. At the time I wrote that, I was finding it hard to come to terms with the loss of my parents and turned to Nature for guidance. I observed trees, clouds, took walks in the woods. These soothed me and so I came to use these visual references as a way to ‘speak’ without words. Perhaps, in the end, I am not really sure what I mean? Perhaps it is more accurate to say I sense what I feel. At times it seems much clearer to me to use visual language in order represent some kind of authentic understanding.

Biographical Notes

Ellen Jantzen was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. At college she earned a degree in graphic arts, going on to study fine art. Her work has featured in dozens of solo and group exhibitions in the USA, Europe, and Asia. Among the many prestigious awards she has received, Ellen Jantzen won gold at the 2018 Tokyo International Foto Awards and was named Special Photographer of the Year at the 2017 International Photography Awards. In 2016 she was awarded first place at the Moscow International Foto Awards and in 2015 she won gold at both the eighth Julia Margaret Cameron Award (which honours women in photography) and the Prix de la Photographie, Paris (PX3).

This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme that year was ‘Ways of Seeing’.