Interview with photographer Will Ellis

Cary Benbow: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?

Will Ellis: It starts with a feeling of being intensely fascinated by a topic to the point where I have to externalize it. There’s an urge to capture it and show everyone else why it’s so amazing. I try to stay motivated with concrete goals, like completing a body of work for a book or exhibition.  I like to have a plan, stick to a subject, and really delve into it.

CB: What is the idea behind your images submitted to F-Stop’s issue, Wonder-Full? Are they part of a project, or why did you select these images?

WE: These are from a series I’m working on called ‘Arthur Kill Road’, which examines the remote edges of Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Staten Island is often called “the forgotten borough” and has a decidedly different character than what people often associate with the city. It’s more suburban in nature, and not much of a tourist destination. But in certain areas, it has this really unique sense of place, with wild, open spaces, pockets of historic architecture, and all of these odd relics and ruins that have just been sitting there for decades.  There’s a quiet atmosphere and a “haunted” quality to these areas that is unlike anywhere else in the city.  And that feeling of “wonder” is definitely something I’m looking to evoke with this project.

CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?

WE: There are so many approaches to photography; but I think the most important element of a good photograph is a clear and compelling subject. Beyond that, I like when a picture has an energy or mood that hits you immediately. And then it gives you something to chew on — details to pore over, or some element of surprise that invites you to study an image before you scroll down or move on to the next one.  There’s also basic technical things to consider. As an architectural photographer, I like very precise framing and straight lines–but I envy photographers whose images have that very subtle, effortless quality.

CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why?

WE: I love looking at the work of other photographers, Walker Evans is one that I always come back to, but in general, I tend to draw more inspiration from other mediums.  For this project, I used gothic literature as a reference for the atmosphere I was trying to create.  I’m playing with a lot of those tropes of the haunted house and the fog-ridden wilderness.  Visually, I looked at paintings by Andrew Wyeth and the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich.  But the style and color palette really comes through spending the time to get to know a place, figuring out what time of year or under what weather conditions to shoot, and slowly developing a cohesive look and tone throughout the project. It’s so important to look at a lot of work and appreciate what others are creating, but I think the best inspiration comes directly from the world around you.

CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?

WE: Context is pretty important for my work. People want to know what they’re looking at, and that information can enrich the experience of the pictures. So I like to give a bit of historical background on the places I shoot.  With this project, I would say I’m looking for landscapes or settings that have an expressive quality, convey a mood, and tell a story.  The mood I’m drawn to again and again is eerie, dark, and mysterious. “Hauntingly beautiful” is a phrase I hear a lot.  But ultimately, I’m much more interested in hearing what the viewer has to say than explaining my own intentions.

For more of Will Ellis’ work:

Originally published for F-Stop Magazine in February, 2016 here.


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