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Ellen Fisch: Architect Draftsman, Photographer, Artist. 


2023: Nemtsov Mikhail. Mathematician, literary and art critic.  Creator and editor-in-chief of the literary and philosophical journal "HERE AND NOW". Copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi. Discovered and brought into scholarly circulation a number of letters and writings of Andrei Platonov.


Today I would like to talk to you about the work of a wonderful American photographer and artist - Ellen Fisch. 


Ellen was born and raised in New York, in Brooklyn. Her childhood and school years were spent here.  Then she goes to college and gets a profession as an architect-draughtsman. These and many other interesting autobiographical information and stories, as well as Ellen Fisch's views and opinions on art in general and photography in particular, can be found on her wonderful website 


I highly recommend it. If one divides artists into intuitivists and analysts, Ellen Fisch is definitely one of the latter, and her analysis of art is largely an autoreview. Looking at yourself from yourself is not always the same as looking from the outside, but in any case it is always interesting.


So, a draftsman architect (that's Ellen's self-presentation) begins to dabble in photography. Given the analytical nature of our heroine's character, it is clear that the initial profession was not chosen by blindly falling into the alphabet with a finger. It was a conscious choice. Architecture was supposed to be a passion, a love.


And when Ellen starts looking at her native New York through the camera lens, what (and how) does she see? Buildings, gardens, parks, libraries, windows, doors... You know, we can have things at home that are so important by themselves - an empty bottle of mom's perfume, a picture of great-grandpa, an old Christmas tree toy - that we don't even think of combining them with something else. That's why Fisch has so many nice and expensive details, shot like portraits, close-ups and super close-ups: Metalwork Detail I; Art Deco Architectural Detail; Grate Cover II; Stone Flower, NYC (here and further links to photos presented on the mentioned site).

Grate Cover II
EFAD22_ Stone Flower, NYC Black and White Architectural Photography 10x10

Everyone knows Schelling: architecture is frozen music. It seems to me that the last photo - Stone Flower - is as poetic and marvelous a symbol of the city (architecture) as a flower. A flower is something beautiful, harmonious, symmetrical and yet strictly functional and utilitarian. But, in fact, now we have described the ideal architecture.  This wonderful image of the city as a stone flower is captured by Fisch in a form perfectly suited to New York (five petals = five boroughs of the city)!


The draftsman-photographer is also visible in frontal, symmetrical, deliberately "formal" photographs of buildings (and interiors), thus emphasizing their architectural idea and structure. Such are Art Deco Architecture (Manhattan), Mosaic Doorway (Manhattan), Stairs I (Places Germany/ Austria), Entry (Places Germany/ Austria) and others. In these marvelous works, for the most part, the transformational artist gives way to the documentary artist. Thus, a plant painter, having the task of accurately showing every curl of a leaf and root, completely dissolves his artistic style in the super-task of literally conveying the image of the object.

Art Deco Architecture.  Pine Street, NYC
Mosaic Doorway
Stairs I
Entry. Potsdam, Germany

It is all the more interesting when Ellen deviates from this architecturally centered point of view. The very act of stepping back serves as a message that is interesting to unravel. 

Please take a look at the photograph of Gould Memorial Library 1 (Bronx).

Gould Memorial Library I

In this black and white photograph we see part of a library building surrounded by a fence, some shrubs and a tree. Let's consider why the picture is the way we see it. Suppose we had turned the camera slightly to the left, which would have increased the area of the building, but decreased the crown of the tree. If we turned the camera to the right, the whole tree would be in the frame, but the dome of the library would lose its beauty. Thus, this frame layout is a compromise to show the two main characters - the library and the tree - in the most favorable way. The library is much larger than the tree in terms of frame area, but it is light in color and almost merges with the sky. The tree has a bright black trunk and branches, and is visually taller than the building and in front of it. If we resort to chess "weighing" - a rook equals a knight and two pawns - I would say that we are dealing with two equal characters.

What is their relationship to each other? Of friendship? Opposition? Let's analyze. 

The building and the library are located, as close as they can be - I could be wrong, but the trunk almost touches the building's foundation.

The columns of the library gallery and the tree trunk column are parallel and, according to the principle of combining similar forms, gravitate towards each other.

The round shape of the building - first floor, gallery, dome - is repeated in the rounded crown of the tree.

The color of the building and the color of the tree crown match almost perfectly in tone and also create a common space. 

I would say that we have before us FORMALLY (= precisely in form) a relationship of similarity, closeness, kinship. The library and the tree?! The leaves are periodicals (newspapers and magazines), directly reflecting the current situation (rains/drought; summer/winter). And annual rings are novels and annals - telling the story of centuries of events!


In Elen Fisch these two protagonists, these two libraries - two reservoirs of knowledge - human and natural - are equal, harmonious, similar to each other. Nature and man, tree and library do not oppose each other - their bases touch, and their columns rise parallel to the sky. A wonderful message! Wonderful photo!

Рассмотрим ещё одну работу: 125th Street (Harlem).

125th Street

The street has a clear and distinct structure. Both the houses in the foreground, the trees in the middle ground, and the building with two turrets in the background are almost symmetrical with respect to the double solid line on the roadway. 

As for the people (and the cars they drive), they break this central symmetry. In the foreground, the left side of the street is filled with cars, while the right side is almost empty. A little farther away, the right side is filled with cars and the left side is almost empty. And this story repeats even further away. And another. 

The situation is similar with pedestrians. 

People and cars form a more complex, but also naturally recurring structure, caused by their own imposed restrictions - lines of markings on the road, traffic lights, crosswalks ....

What is the first thing you look at in this picture? I think it's the bottom left corner. In the lower right corner there is empty space, and the left corner is overpopulated, as in Bruegel's paintings, with pedestrians and cars. By all appearances, it looks like an ordinary day - people are going about their business or walking, someone is sweeping the street, someone is sitting on a chair selling something. These are the things that overwhelmingly make up the fabric of our lives and that almost never make it into the annals or history books, which are overflowing with wars, epidemics, floods and fires.

What else catches your eye in that lower left corner? Something that our eye has been trained by millions of years of evolution to look for - deviations from the norm, exceptions. 

See the public bus in the foreground, walking exactly along the drawn line? Do you see the cars in the second row behind the bus, and the cars on the curb? They are all positioned according to the rules, parallel to each other. But to the left of the bus, blocking the road - perhaps parking or pulling away - are two black cars. They are an exception. An outlier. So is the man in the black sweater, who is gesturing and leaning INTO the side of the bus, apparently telling his interlocutor something. 

Listen! - I hear, “A hundred cars in a row. A hundred people walking in a straight line.” Why do we need these exceptions? Do they affect anything?

There's a very interesting thing I'd like to talk about. If we mentally turn to our experience as motorists, we can probably agree that 99% (or even 99.9%) of the time we are traveling in a straight line. But if 0.1% of the time, we didn't make any turns, then our entire journey would be completely pointless. And backwards, if we could only make turns, traveling would be impossible too.

It turns out that something unchanging, constant, straightforward, occupying the lion's share of time and length, and something fluid, constantly changing, continuing, a thousandth of time or space, are ONLY IMPORTANT for achieving the goal. 

This blatant asymmetry in weight (duration, space) and equality in importance is widespread. 


Consider, for example, our arm (or leg): long, stiff, straight bones are connected by small joints capable of rotation, a design that makes our limbs incredibly functional.

Or let's turn to the amoeba. Let's imagine that the first factor - the factor of immutability and constancy - is not working well, and the transfer of genetic information occurs with huge distortions. It is clear that in such a situation amoebae as a species will very quickly become unviable and disappear. Let's imagine the opposite - the first factor works SLIGHTLY WELL, with 100% reproduction of the original information from generation to generation, without the possibility of making any changes. Such an organism is doomed to constant self-reproduction, without the possibility of evolution and development. Such an amoeba will never become a human being.


This dialectic of rigidity and flexibility, of necessity and freedom, of law and grace, permeates our entire life. Too little rigidity leads to extinction, too little rigidity leads to ossification and inability to develop. Each time we must seek this balance, depending on the favorability (or unfavorability) of the environment; the specifics of a given situation or design; the level of simplicity (or complexity) of the system, etc. 

Naturally, people were aware of this dialectic and its traces can be seen everywhere. It is especially interesting and evident in the legal field, which claims to be universal and calls itself law.

Thus, in ancient Rome, the Praetor himself could EXPLAIN gaps in the laws or, on the contrary, recognize some of their provisions as obsolete. 

In Greece and Rome, there was the Right of Sanctuary. A person who broke the law and was wanted by the authorities could try to sneak in one way or another to a temple or statue of the emperor, and was then granted immunity. Such a situation persists in many countries to this day.

In the Eastern empires, a person for special merits could receive the title of tarhan, exempting him, among other things, from nine misdemeanors punishable by death.

If we talk about our time, then in modern states the president can, for example, pardon this or that person, i.e., CANCEL an effective court sentence.

What about linguistics? Whatever language I started to learn, I was always handed a book of rules and a stack of exceptions.

I think this harmony of formalized and informal is something we need to protect in every possible way. It will be especially relevant as Artificial Intelligence is introduced. Let's say, as they say, that already now the primary selection and screening of resumes is done with its help. Everyone will strive here to reach some optimum, there is only one optimum, so there will be a UNIFICATION of explicit and implicit requirements. And if in the case of human recruiters the "human factor" could come into play and someone would "slip through" contrary to formal requirements, in the case of AI this barrier will be ABSOLUTE. Which could lead to disaster sooner or later. In this absolute barrier we have to keep "loopholes". Well, let's say, let every hundredth sifted letter is selected by lot for further consideration. In any case, this would be better than nothing; it would give a chance for otherness, it would preserve some flexibility.

Ellen Fisch doesn't often spoil us with domestic photography. That's too bad.  This example shows how great it sounds in her performance: the Great Truth of Rules and the Great Truth of Exceptions. A loaf of bread with a grain of salt that gives Life.


The home page of Ellen Fisch's website has the motto: Art reimagines reality. A delightful example of what this means in practice is the work The Joys of Childhood (Innsbruck, Austria). Unlike the previous two, completely black-and-white photographs, this one consists of a black-and-white base and a small, very bright paste-up. But let's talk about everything in order.

Joys of Childhood. Innsbruck, Austria

A perfectly stoned Austrian square. A boy stands with his back to us. Opposite him, a street performer is blowing a huge soap balloon. In front of the artist is a container of soapy water; next to the boy is his scooter and helmet (or perhaps an alms hat). In the background is a gallery of three very massive arches. The soap ball is very intricate in shape and extraordinarily beautiful in its shimmering, very bright blue-purple-pink-yellow color. The rest of the image is black and white. 


It is clear that this is the view through the eyes of a child, for whom the soap ball is so beautiful and bright that everything else loses its colors. This technique is surprisingly accurate and appropriate here - we see how form - color in black and white (remember: Art reimagines reality) directly becomes content, revealing the boy's inner state.

In addition to the color scheme, the inner state of the hero is revealed by his pose - his hands are behind his back - and whether they will come together further behind him in a retreating rapture that gives space to the beautiful, or move towards it. The body is half-turned towards the street performer, and to see everything in the best possible way you have to turn your head strongly, but what is happening is so mesmerizing that physical discomfort is completely ignored.

What other meanings are shining through and overflowing to us in this photograph?

Let's take a look around. In the background is a gallery so low that one can only walk through it with one's head bent and ducked. It is this tightness - in contrast, just as experienced cooks salt their cakes - that emphasizes the spaciousness of the square. 

Next. If we exist in the coordinate system of the photograph, then in its center (at the intersection of diagonals) is the Artist. If we move to the system of coordinates Photographer (observer) - Boy - Artist, the frame is arranged in such a way that the distance from us to the Boy is approximately equal to the distance from the Boy to the Artist and the Boy is in the center of the composition.


Thus, our attention keeps jumping from the Artist to the Boy and back again, remaining focused on the space between these two characters. A colored ball is also located here. Thus, the attention is drawn to it not only due to the color, but also due to the position of the main characters.

The gallery in the background sets up a three-part division of the frame. If we follow this division in the rest of the photo, then the first part will correspond to the containers with soapy water and the hat/helmet on the ground; in the middle part, understandably, it is two people; and what occupies the third part? It is, after all, empty. Well, of course, accordingly, the third part is occupied by SPACE. 

When we look at the starry sky, what brings us into such awe? If we knew that the lights we see are quite close to us, like, say, the lights of a neighboring village, would we feel the same awe? It seems to me, no. The unimaginable immensity of space is the basis of our awe. It turns out that the Universe and galaxies are, first of all, SPACE. 

Therefore, it is quite logical that the idea of space is the leitmotif in the picture, where we are talking about the creation of a new universe (soap ball).

Let us now try to look at the composition of the frame from the above-mentioned point of view.

Let's imagine that we add space to the right part of the frame. A fourth arch appears in the field of vision, and the frame begins to divide the background into four parts. But there is no semantic filling for the fourth part in the construction of objects - people - space.

Let's try, on the contrary, to narrow the frame by cutting off the right arch - the frame becomes completely static, cramped, devoid of air. 

Let us now consider the left border of the frame. It is already almost closely moved to the participants, and theoretically we can imagine only its shift to the left. Then we would have an empty space on the left. The frame would look more symmetrical. But the author of the photo cropped the frame exactly as it is. The space on the left turned out to be superfluous. Why?

Let's try to figure it out. Usually we move our attention from left to right. Our mental arrow of time is directed the same way. The absence of space on the left means that the whole story begins with a small container of soapy water. Then the colored balloon of the universe appears-bloating. And then we enter the ever-expanding space on the right side of the frame. Look, that sounds like something very similar. Yeah, it's the Big Bang Theory! A primordial point containing all matter and energy, explosion, expansion, light, matter, infinite progression...

And when that bubble thins and disappears, the Artist blows another one and another....

You know what else this reminds me of? Siddhartha Guatama, later named Buddha, going to town.

Only in reverse. There already quite grown up 29 years old prince, husband, father of a child leaves the palaces for the city, where for the first time he meets a beggar old man, a sick man, a decomposing corpse and a hermit. This is how he gets acquainted with old age, illness and death...


Here, on the contrary, a still very young man meets the incredible possibilities of this world, its creativity, its beauty.

The boy and the Artist. What different characters. In age. Experience. Social status. They are even separated by a white line. But in the moment captured on the photo, there are no people more closely connected to each other. The Artist, creating a whole world out of nothing, and the Spectator, completely absorbed by this miracle. There are situations and moments when a person overcomes the forces of gravity of existence and finds incredible freedom. We do not know how the Boy's life will turn out, but perhaps this experience will turn out to be very important and defining for him. We can guess how the Artist's life will turn out, but perhaps this meeting is no less important for him. There is such a sad story-parable.

A man dies, having lived a very, very, very ordinary life with nothing to remember. So he comes before God. 

God asks: - Is there anything you'd like to ask me? 

The man gathers all his courage: - Lord, tell me, why did I come to this world after all?

God asks a question: - Do you remember 30 years ago you were riding on a train?

Man: - On a train? Man: - 30 years ago, I think. Yes, I remember!

- Remember the girl with the white hat sitting by the window?

- The girl in the white hat? ...M-M-M-M... But if you say... Yes something like that... Yes something like that...

- And she asked you what time it was and you said quarter to ten.

- Maybe. So?

- That's what you came for.

In hindsight, you often see that what you put your mind to and put your effort into turns out to be nothing. And what you thought was a passing episode becomes more and more important over time.

What would you like to add at the end? Let's talk a little more about form and show how in a true work of art, it is inextricably linked to content.

We have already said that our attention in the frame moves from left to right. The same applies to diagonals. Accordingly, one diagonal from the lower left corner to the upper right corner will be ascending, the second one will be descending. 

Let's see how this works in our case. Along the ascending diagonal are a black hat and a boy. The ratio of their sizes - about an order of magnitude - sets a very fast ascending scale. And the space following the boy seems, therefore, very significant. (The segment parallel to the diagonal that passes through the container of soap solution and the Artist works in a similar way.)

On the descending diagonal, our attention goes downward, but encounters the opposite movement-the movement of the inflating soap balloon. One movement is superimposed on the other, we find ourselves under the influence of one force or the other, and our attention is captured within this space. That is why the soap bubble seems so dense, energetic, tense.

One last thing. I measured the dimensions of two main spaces: the frame itself and the rectangle in which the soap bubble can be inscribed. I made a ratio of length to width. For the frame, it's 1.15.


For the bubble, it's 1.18. It's less than 3%! Remember when we asked why the author cropped the frame that way? That's also why. Art is freedom, but by no means arbitrary. The laws of beauty and harmony manifest themselves through the artist and her intuition.

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