A World Without Us
Better Photography|September 2021
Ella Morton speaks to Nilofer Khan about the accelerating deterioration of the Northern landscapes, and how she uses analogue practices to depict her perspective.
Ella Morton

Towards the end of Philip Pullman’s first book, Northern Lights (His Dark Materials series), Lord Asriel sacrifices Roger to release an enormous surge of energy. The bright streak of light pierces a hole in the sky, gradually expanding to unveil a parallel universe. At that moment, you, as a reader, are not only mesmerised by the ethereal beauty of the dark magic but are also terrified of the unknown world that lies ahead. Perhaps, the last few lines of the book aptly sum up what we feel about this unfolding chaos, “Behind them lay pain and death and fear, and ahead of them lay doubt, and danger, and fathomless mysteries. But they weren’t alone.”

When you look at Ella Morton’s visuals, you can’t help but draw a parallel between her work and Pullman’s magical realm. In her images, too, one feels a similar sense of palpable tension and astonishment as you stand between two worlds—yours and Ella’s. “I have always been interested in making what I see in front of me look different. Through this, I am revealing the feeling of what it is like to be there,” she says.

Where the Wild Things

Are The central characters of Ella’s projects have always been landscapes. Much of her fascination with the subject took its roots in her formative years in Vancouver, Canada. She would often spend a copious amount of time in parks and forests around the city. Here, she first began to wonder about our connection with the land. “When you are out in nature, you can feel the power of it and sometimes, it can almost be scary. Even if you know you are safe. Something is overwhelming about it. I am drawn to that. The edge of the emotion that it provokes in you,” Ella explains.

Alongside, her keen interest in maps made her inquisitive about landscapes, especially the Northern and the Arctic ones. “There are so many islands that you never really learn much about. I was so curious about these parts of maps that people overlook. Nobody knows much about these places, or you assume that there is not much going on there,” she says.

In 2010, an opportunity presented itself, enabling Ella to visit the place she always dreamt of. She also created her first body of work here, Night Vision, which uses long exposures to make the landscape appear unusual. “I was accepted into an artist residency in Iceland. When I went there, I completely fell in love with the landscapes. What I am describing is the power, the overwhelming and unnerving presence of the land. And so, I decided to keep working with these places,” she states.

Reconstructing Reality

Perhaps, to grow one’s vision, one must constantly explore and experiment with style and craft. For Ella, this pursuit began early in her career. Following Night Vision, she felt that photography, as a medium, has much more to offer, especially with alternative processes. “Photography has such a rich history of just different people manipulating film and prints. Night Vision opened that box, and I wanted to explore more. In addition to that, I also felt the importance to stay uncomfortable with your work. It’s good to create the same thing or work with the same idea for a while so you can fully explore it and get good at it. But there comes one point when you are too comfortable with it, and that is when you have to try something new—get uncomfortable again and learn more,” she elaborates.

Amongst the various practitioners, she was inspired by Russian photographer and chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. He created colour images at a time when colour film did not exist. “I was so intrigued by those photographs. I thought, ‘How can you take something old and reinterpret it in a modern context?,’” she explains. And thus, she began her series Urban Mirages that explore crowded urban landscapes and tourists spots. The surreal visuals are perplexing and require one to consciously observe the images to grasp their content. Although alien, the photographs force you to ponder over the passage of time. It seems like the past and the present harmoniously comes together in a single frame to create the future. “I was examining these places— why do people gather here and how do they move through space. It was kind of an exploration of how busy and chaotic the modern world is now,” she elaborates.

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