Ella Morton: A Fragile Sublime

© Ella Morton ‘Tilting Storm’ 2018 [detail] from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape III – Canada’

You are in dialogue with the materials – they participate in creation as much as you do.


Solid ground. Fresh air. Ancient forest. For millennia, people have thought of the earth as something dependable, ebbing and flowing with the cycle of the seasons, but fundamentally unchanging. Today, if we pay attention to the scientific data, we know that this is no longer true. Humankind has been changing the very nature of the earth since the advent of industrialisation and most profoundly since the middle of the last century. The environment on which we depend, the ground on which we stand and very air we breathe are threatened by climate change, air pollution, soil degraded by intensive farming, waterways contaminated by toxic waste and run-off. Yet knowing is one thing, feeling is another. And it is feelings that motivate. How might we come to empathise with the earth, to understand its fragility?

This challenge drives the creative practice of the Canadian artist Ella Morton. She draws on a range of alternative and experimental photographic techniques that seek to go beyond the evidential to reach into the heart of the matter. In so doing, she works against the tendency of a photograph to present the world laid flat and pristine; ordered and archival. To destabilise its surface, corrupt its chemistry, and create within this restive visual space a delicate sense of vulnerability. Of mountains and forests that might ripple and float away, as though the physical certainty of the world is nothing more than a veil already slipping from our fingers.

Her focus is on the Arctic. A region whose frozen landscapes might suggest a deeper preservation, but which are in reality some of the most susceptible to the impact of the changing climate. From Nunavut to Spitsbergen, and Iceland to Finland, her images poignantly evoke the subtle grandeur of these places while reminding us of their inherent fragility.

Alasdair Foster

© Ella Morton ‘Myvatn’ 2010 from the series ‘Night Vision’


As an artist, what drew you to alternative and experimental processes?

The element of surprise. I love the lack of control and sense of reciprocity. You give the medium something – you set out to create an image – and the medium gives you back something unexpected. You are in dialogue with the materials – they participate in creation as much as you do. The result is rarely what you initially planned, but it’s often even better.

© Ella Morton ‘Spákonufell (Night)’ 2010 from the series ‘Night Vision’

How did your series ‘Night Vision’ begin?

This was my first art project after I graduated. I had been experimenting with long-exposures and wanted to explore their use in natural environments. I had a growing interest in the North and attended the NES Artist Residency in Iceland in March of 2010. I fell in love with the Arctic on that trip and now, thirteen years later, that love is still going strong.

What did you seek to explore in this work?

The Icelandic light is unique. I was curious to see how it would look when captured on a negative exposed at dusk for ten… twenty… thirty minutes. Could I communicate the awe and magic that this place arouses in me through an image? To do more than show what it looks like – to evoke how it feels? By layering the fading light on the film through long exposure the colours in the image became sublime, almost surreal, which I felt was a more meaningful way of sharing my profound sense of this place.

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘Louvre’ 2016 from the series ‘Urban Mirages’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Notre-Dame’ 2016 from the series ‘Urban Mirages’

Most of your work focuses on the landscape rather than people, but in ‘Urban Mirages’ you bring people into the image in an unusual way. How were these images made?

I came across the work of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, an early-twentieth-century Russian chemist and photographer. He had devised a method for creating colour photographs before the invention of colour film. The process involved making three separate black-and-white photographs using red, green, and blue filters and projecting the results through similar filters in exact alignment. It was fascinating to see his images depicting Russia around 1909–13 in colour, and it made me wonder how this tri-colour technique could be used creatively today.

I thought it would be interesting to photograph busy places with a lot of people, so that their movement would disturb the seamless alignment of the three coloured layers. I was curious about why people gather in certain spaces in the city and at tourist attractions. Prokudin-Gorskii’s method proved an excellent way to explore this visually.

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘Antigua at Blomstrandhalvøya’ 2016 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape I – Svalbard’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Longyearbyen Harbour #2’ 2016 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape I – Svalbard’

From 2016 to 2022 you worked on an extended series called ‘The Dissolving Landscape’. How did this series first begin?

In 2016, I attended The Arctic Circle, a residency program where thirty artists plus crew spend two weeks sailing around the Svalbard archipelago [also known as Spitsbergen] on board a tall ship.

I had been experimenting with ‘film soup’ techniques – soaking colour film in different acidic solutions to create colour shifts and surface warping – and during the trip I exposed many film-soup negatives using a 4×5 field camera. When I began, I thought that the project would start and end with this one trip. But, after I returned and developed my negatives, I knew that I wanted to explore other parts of the Arctic and other alternative processes. In 2018, I undertook an artist residency in Finland and then visited Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic the following year. Both were highly productive trips.

What themes underpin these interconnected series?

I hoped that the alterations to the film would evoke the sublime and fragile qualities of the High Arctic landscape. On the one hand, the way that the images warp, melt, and degrade suggests the spiritual power of these places while, on the other, it laments the landscape’s destruction as the melting emulsion echoes the impact of global warming, emphasising the depth of what we’re losing on this beautiful planet. Later, I discovered mordançage and spent several months in the darkroom honing those skills.

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘House, Iqaluit’ 2019 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape III – Canada’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Trees, Otamus #1’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape II – Finland, Iceland, Estonia’

What is mordançage?

It evolved from the nineteenth-century process of bleach-etching and was transformed into an artistic technique by French photographer, Jean-Pierre Sudre. The mordançage working solution is a copper-based bleach that lifts the emulsion off of the shadow areas of a silver gelatin print to create unique textures and veils. As with any experimental technique, you never have full control (which is part of the magic), but you can guide the process by carefully coordinating your shooting, processing, and printing plans to ensure pure black shadow areas in selected parts of your image. It is in these areas that the emulsion will lift resulting in the quintessential mordançage veils.

What is it that these alternative techniques allow you to do that a straight photograph cannot?

Photography is an effective medium for showing what something looks like, but it doesn’t always communicate what it feels like. I use alternative processes as a way to evoke what it felt like for me when I was in those landscapes. These days, most people have a smart phone and one or more social media accounts – there are just so many pictures being made all the time… How can you create a picture that doesn’t already exist somewhere on the internet? How can you create a picture that is more than just a snapshot, that engages photography as an art form? For me, alternative processes are an attempt to answer these questions.

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘Little Fogo Houses’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape III – Canada’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Kerið Crater’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape II – Finland, Iceland, Estonia’

These works were all made in the far north – in Canada and the Nordic countries. What are the particular issues you found there that you seek to articulate visually in your modified analogue prints?

While climate change is affecting all parts of the world, the polar regions are warming at an accelerated pace. For instance, the Canadian landmass is warming at almost twice the global average. This reveals itself in many ways. Inuit people in Northern Canada began noticing changes as early as the 1970s. Toxic substances such as PCBs travel North on wind currents, settling in lakes and rivers, and in the bodies of humans and animals, creating all sorts of problems. Shorter winters have disrupted hunting and migration patterns, leading to lower birth and survival rates in many species. There are also difficult colonial legacies in these regions, which are only slowly being untangled. My photographs don’t speak to these issues explicitly, but they do seek to evoke the intertwined beauty and sadness of these places.

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘Distillery District’ 2020 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape – Local Toronto Scenes with Mordançage’
[Right] © Ella Morton framed artworks 2020 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape – Local Toronto Scenes with Mordançage’

In 2020, you received an unusual commission from the Artscape Atelier.

This commission was to create a large edition of artworks to be given as welcome gifts to owners in a new condominium building [a block of apartments where each is privately owned] in Toronto. I made mordançage images of scenes from the local neighbourhood. It was rewarding to use the process in a new way, bringing a sense of mystery to everyday scenes. And I consider it an honour and a privilege to have my work in the homes of so many people!

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘Base Brown’ 2022 from the series ‘Procession of Ghosts’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Iceberg at Portal Point’ 2022 from the series ‘Procession of Ghosts’

Your most recent project is ‘Procession of Ghosts’. What themes are you exploring here?

This idea began to form in my mind in early 2020. My mother was dying of cancer, and I had this recurring mental image of a broken car windshield. Prior to her diagnosis, I had assumed she would live a long life, an assumption that shattered as her illness progressed. I don’t like to make artwork explicitly about my personal life, so I kept thinking about broken glass in relation to alternative photographic processes and the existential challenges of climate change. This led me to two processes: the ambrotype [a wet-plate collodion image on glass] and the Japanese technique of kintsugi, in which a broken ceramic is repaired using golden resin. What would happen if I combined the two…?

I love the idea behind kintsugi that an object broken and repaired becomes more beautiful than it had previously been undamaged. How might this apply, I wondered, to the broken state of our planet and our efforts to repair it? I began creating these works with images made on a trip to Antarctica in 2021. A large part of this trip was about celebrating life again following the grief of my mother’s death. And, for me, life, death, brokenness, and healing are all present in these images. The project continues to evolve…

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘White Forest’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape II – Finland, Iceland, Estonia’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Trees, Otamus #3’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape II – Finland, Iceland, Estonia’

In addressing the existential issues of climate change your work takes an approach of modification and restoration. Do you remain hopeful that we will adapt to live more sustainably and repair some of the damage already wrought though human action?

That’s a great question, because I feel that the work itself contains more optimism than I personally think we deserve. It’s interesting sometimes how you set out to explore a certain idea and then the work gives you back something else. The hope and optimism in this series is not really something I intended. It feels as if it came from somewhere else…

Personally, I do my best to reduce my carbon footprint and I know many other folks do the same. But humanity as a whole can still seem pretty hopeless sometimes. Who knows what the outcome will be.

What is it artists can do to help us recognise and address this existential threat?

I think that art can offer ways to think about climate change on a deeper, more emotional level. We’ve all seen documentaries and news reports making clear what is happening. We know the facts objectively. But this doesn’t always mean we truly take on board what is unfolding in front of us. Art, if done well, can reach the more tender parts of our psyche, help us to see the big picture and remind us how precious life on this planet really is. Art that helps us feel can be a great motivator to enact change.

[Left] © Ella Morton ‘Trees, Otamus #4’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape II – Finland, Iceland, Estonia’
[Right] © Ella Morton ‘Forest, Pori’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape II – Finland, Iceland, Estonia’

In the process of making this work, what have you learned about yourself?

I think that photography has taught me how mysterious the world is. Working with a camera requires you to slow down and really observe things. When I’m out looking for pictures, the land offers its energies in such a special way. I enter a state of hypersensitivity where the smell of the air, the feeling of the ground under my feet, the sounds, the light, everything is so saturated. It can take years to fully digest these feelings and find the right way to articulate them, but I feel so privileged to be able to immerse myself in the process.

© Ella Morton ‘Tilting Houses’ 2018 from the series ‘The Dissolving Landscape III – Canada’

Biographical Notes

Ella Morton was born in Vancouver in 1986. She has a bachelor’s fine art degree in photography from Parsons School of Design, New York (2008), and a master’s degree in visual art from York University, Toronto (2015). She has participated in eleven international residencies in Canada, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway. Her artworks have featured in ten solo and two-person exhibitions and twenty-five group shows across North America and Europe. Her films have been widely screened at festivals and arts events in North America and Europe and also in Asia and Oceania. In 2019, she won the Community Choice Award for her work in ‘Exposed’ at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery Oshawa, Ontario, and, in 2021, the Environmental prize at the CENTER Awards in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her photographs are held in a number of public and private collections including the NES Artist Residency, Skagaströnd, Iceland; Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle, WA, USA; Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada; and the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, Barrie, Ontario, Canada. Based in Toronto, she undertakes film and photographic expeditions across the northern and Arctic regions.

Photo: Ildiko Grant

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.