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Ellen's Bio

I was born in 1950 in Queens, NY. My parents, who had grown up in NYC, had moved the year before with my two-year-old brother to the outskirts of Queens. Cambria Heights was the last stop on the bus line from the last stop on the subway; a full 1 1/2 hours of travel from Manhattan.  If you stood out on my quiet street and looked towards the Belt Parkway 1/2 block away, you would see farmland across the highway that was soon to be developed into new suburbs. I was a kid who grew up playing in the street; punch-ball, stoop-ball, hit the penny, jacks, and just sitting on the curb with my friends.  When our mothers wanted us to come home, they leaned out the side door and hollered.

My Dad, tired of making the trip to the city, purchased a stationary store on nearby Linden Blvd., on the same street as an A&P supermarket, Harvey’s Butcher Shop (where you could get feet with the chicken), Frank’s Candy Store (where you could get lime ricky’s and black & white ice-cream sodas, and a little girl could sit at the counter and chat with Frank), Seligman’s bakery (where you could get rich marble cake topped with sour cherries and drizzled with dark chocolate), a jeweler, and a hairdresser. The public library and hardware store were directly across the street. In those days, the A&P had sawdust on the wooden floor and my Mom wore dresses with voluminous skirts, a place where I would occasionally wrap myself. I explored the vacant lots nearby and started a collection of shiny stones, dried flowers and seedpods. My dad gave me any greeting cards that weren’t sale-able and I would pull off ribbons and rhinestones, scrape the glitter into a small box, and cut out letters and pictures of puppies, kittens and flowers. This loot found its way to a drawer in my bedroom and I would dabble with it for hours.

I was a happy, energetic, self-sufficient kid, not disposed to the blues. I look back to my 10 year old self, when running to a friend’s house was better than walking, and climbing over the fence was a thing of ease, and I miss that boundless, energetic feeling in my body.

I was an enthusiastic Girl Scout and did my first hiking at sleep-a-way camp. We had an annual father-daughter dinner with the moms serving. That is so weird when I think back on it…even as I loved it. It should have been a mother-daughter dinner with the dads serving!
My Dad would pull out the Brownie camera to document family excursions and events, first dressed up on our front patch of grass and then in front of the Statue of Liberty, in the Catskills, at my 10 year old birthday party. There are a few fuzzy images of me sitting alone in a little blow-up pool taken through our den window on a hot day. These fill me with a sweet sentiment, thinking I was alone, but really being observed by an attentive parent.
I went to Andrew Jackson, a large NYC high school. Junior High had introduced me to black kids, but it was in High School where whites and blacks mixed inside and outside of school. Many of the events we worked on brought us to each other’s homes and I am grateful every day for this period when my life was permanently expanded.

I hadn’t picked up a camera yet and certainly, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be my future career, though I was always involved in the artistic part of any event. 

At 19, following student strikes all over the country protesting the Vietnam War and the draft, I began working in a summer camp for special needs teenagers. This changed my life and introduced me to life-long friends, and to my husband /Mark. Though my college years took a circuitous 10-year route, I completed my training in Special Ed. at UMASS in Amherst, which brought me to this beautiful location in New England.

The Photo Years

We purchased our Olympus OM-1 just before departing for a cross-country trip. Mark and I had been live-in house parents for almost three years in a group-home in Northampton, MA for ex state-school and state-hospital men who were being eased back into the community after a life of being institutionalized. We had saved up enough money to buy and outfit a van for comfortable, long term traveling. We made our farewells, visited my relatives in Cleveland and pointed southwest to the Rio-Grande River and Big Bend National Park.

March in Big Bend was amazing, with flowering cactus covering rocky steps and the Chisos Mountains jutting up from the landscape. Mark and I started to document our travels, and I know now, that those ‘portraits’ of colorful, waxy flowers was the beginning of ‘seeing’ as a portrait photographer. It was Mark though, who worked at understanding the camera and took time composing an image. I relied more on my intuition. I remember sitting behind him at Bryce Canyon while he made images of the large landscape. When he was done, I would quickly take photos of the details I had observed while waiting.  (Now we each have our own cameras!)

We returned to the East coast, to Northampton, to our families and to having children. It was Libby and Noah’s presence that compelled me to pick up the camera most days, and that was in the days of film. I started to rethink my future after Noah was born, and signed up for photo classes, had an internship on a daily newspaper, and convinced my friends and family to sit for me. I hung out my shutter/shingle.

In the early 80’s there were very few photographers in this area and I was able to build a photo business specializing in children and family, black and white, environmental, portrait work. Nikon F3’s replaced our old Olympus, which are still serviceable by the way. The day my new set of lights arrived in the mail, Libby, Noah and I had a photo session during bath time. My camera became more and more an exciting extension of me.

We moved in 1989 and built a small, utilitarian darkroom in the basement so I could work completely from home. This was a busy time of life. I worked at expanding my business while the kids began to have lives of their own. Mark was working full time. I cooked dinner most nights…still do. My life was flexible enough to allow me to be home most afternoons after school.  I donated my photography skills to community, school and theatre groups that needed their work documented. 

In 2003 I began grad school at Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford. I felt I needed a ‘kick in the butt’ to move me from the comfortable plateau I was on. I had become an able and competent photographer and it was time to consider some changes.

I was encouraged to loosen up my style, change my format, and take risks. I was comfortable making intentional portraits, when the sitter and photographer work together to make an image, and I loved clicking into that easy give and take with someone I had just met and with everything in focus and composed.
One of my professors challenged me to make self-portraits, something I had never done. “ How could a portrait photographer never have made images of herself?”  My thesis project began as an exploration into the self-portrait. Practically, there’s nothing as convenient as self-portrait work. Frida Kahlo said; “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone. Because I am the subject I know best.” Unlike Frida, I was the unexplored subject and the subject I knew least.
In my early explorations, I quickly found I had little ability at making an interesting image of myself. I was not a cooperative sitter, feeling restless and ill at ease. Critiques of the new work were frank and frustrating.  Relationships are endlessly fascinating to me and figure largely in my family work, and I wanted to find that expression in the new photographs I was making. I love during a photo session when a family ‘softens’ to the camera. It’s a recognizable moment, when self-consciousness slips away and bodies connect and lean into each other and the photo…my goal with myself.

I commenced my new work by changing my format to a 35mm Hasselblad XPAN II, in panoramic mode. Although this camera is most often used for landscapes, I felt it  was perfect for the figure. In the vertical, it fits the length of the body, and in the horizontal; it has the peripheral vision that most cameras don’t allow for….the ability to poke into the corners of rooms where shadows and discarded clothes lay.

Setting the self-timer was another step to loosening my grip on the shutter, and I began to look forward to the images that came together serendipitously with family members and friends. Movement and double exposures became a component in my new work also.

A major development occurred during my tenure in school, digital photography. The prediction was that it would take ten to fifteen years to take hold,  but seemed to have taken only two. I was grounded in film and resisted the change and the investment in new cameras, computers, scanners, and printers. I am a practical photographer though and now own the essentials for making digital images and fine prints.  


A book project long in the works; Psalms In Ordinary Voices came together and was published in 2011. 

Since the Winter of 2010, I have had the wonderful association with four other photographers in a peer photo group. When your vision needs expanding, refinement, discussion, a fresh look, and encouragement, there is nothing like sharing work, old and new, with colleagues. Since then, my photos of double exposures and camera movement have exploded, with images made from both film and digital files. I pay attention to different things now. The natural world and the desire to preserve it in a unique way figures largely in what attracts my attention. The elements that accompany the changing seasons, buildings and graphic details, and the beautiful sky are all present. People occasionally make it into double exposures also. Mostly, I love that my enthusiasm remains high.....


Ellen Augarten Photography  

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