Years ago, I wrote a biography on Ansel Adams for a high school humanities class, and I remember spending a whole page on one thing he said: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Here, with a change in one letter, the depth of photographic artistry, the value and power of it, shift to the visionary behind the lens. And with photographer Jillian Ellis, that talent stands behind and in front of the camera. Ellis’s self-portraits came to us at phoebe last fall, and as a collection with a story at its heart, they called for a feature. In the artist’s words, “Embody uses self-portraiture to explore the relationship between the body and the inner pain that comes from living with a mental illness. Using simple backgrounds and lighting, I photographed the shapes and gestures that allow my body to express the feelings for which I have no words, purposefully omitting the face.”
Recently, I spoke with Ellis about her series, and on screen, she is joyful and receptive, open and knowledgeable—about herself, her work, the world or art and the world as a whole. Here is our conversation.
Melissa Wade: Tell me about what inspired the collection, “Embody,” and how it came about.
Jillian Ellis: It’s kind of a long story, or at least it happened over a long time. The first image, “Number 1,” I shot five years ago. I hadn’t planned for it to be a series, didn’t know what it was about even, but I got really attached to that photo. I was living in LA at the time, working a job that didn’t suit me and struggling in terms of mental health. During the five-year gap between that first photo and completing the series, I was depressed, struggling with anxiety leftover from art school, and I was unable to create, except sporadically. I had given up on myself as an artist.
At the beginning of 2019, after moving to Santa Barbara where I live now, I was still in that same job, working remotely, and things were getting worse. I was burnt out, and I reached a breaking point. I knew something had to change, so I started going to therapy. Eventually I got on antidepressants and found my way back to being an artist, consistently practicing creativity and making new work. I quit my job and focused on “Embody.” Three images were made in 2015 and an additional twenty or so those last six months of 2019.
While I was shooting them, if you would have asked what the project was about, I would have said generally how the body expresses emotion. It wasn’t until I finished and wrote the artist statement that I fully realized that this project is about me. My struggles with mental health. And I thought, “Oh no, what have I done!” It was a surprise that I made this whole thing and I was about to put it in the world and it’s not just my naked body, it’s also my naked brain.
MW: So as your own model, how did you embody the emotions you wanted to portray in the work?
JE: That’s the reason for not having my face in the photos. If I had to fake a certain expression, as in ‘it’s now time to look angry,’ that wouldn’t be real. But if I used my body, and twisted my arms up a certain way, really tight, then that looks real, even if I’m not directly feeling that emotion at the time. These are all feelings that I have felt, but as I was making the majority of the work, I was feeling a lot happier than I had in years. So it was like channeling the way my body had felt in certain emotional places, like using muscle memory.
MW: How do you feel mental health and the body connect?
JE: They’re much more connected than people realize. That is one thing I was trying to get at in this series. Your brain can lie to you or you can ignore what it’s telling you. Yet, your body still knows and still feels things, even if you’re pushing them to the side. It’s like how stress and anxiety can manifest in people’s bodies as ulcers, or when you clench your muscles with anxiety so much that you’re tired from it later. How with depression, your body can be too heavy to get out of bed. Mental illness as an illness is not just stuck in your brain. It’s throughout your whole body.
MW: Beyond the emotion expressed in your work, did being a woman in front of the lens factor into the purposes or steps of the series?
JE: The series is not a direct comment on body image and female form in art, but at the same time, of course it is, because it’s art and it’s my body. I was trying to get at the truth of certain emotions in the body, and without a face, it could be easier for the viewer to see that and see themselves in the work. On the other hand, I am a white woman. I was using my body as a blank canvas, sort of, but it also isn’t because of things that are inherently a part of my body. Those things I can’t change.
And female bodies have been portrayed thousands of times over by male artists. It makes me think of a piece that the Guerrilla Girls did that said only 4% of the artists in the Modern Art section in the Metropolitan Museum are female, but 76% of the nudes are female. So, as a woman, to be in control of my nude body, is important to me, and there is something empowering to it.
MW: How do you hope the public will respond to this series or how have they responded?
JE: It’s really rewarding when people see it and connect with it. My friends and family have had strong positive responses to the work. It’s a very personal series, a very personal journey for me, and it’s also me saying ‘here I am, I am an artist.’ My deepest, truest artistry is my self-portraits, because my art is about feelings and how they are portrayed in the body. Humans are social creatures and we’re drawn to people, in general, and specifically when you can see our own emotions reflected back through someone else’s art. That can be a powerful experience. Sometimes we don’t see something within ourselves until we’ve seen it in someone else.
And now that I know what it’s like to be happy as an artist, I’m very protective of that. As a creative person, I’m finding out that I can’t do some random office job and still have the energy to make my art outside of it.
MW: Do you think the way that our culture views the work of the artist impacts that?
JE: Our capitalist society doesn’t value work that doesn’t immediately produce money in exchange. Creativity in general is undervalued. I think our society would be much better off if people with creative passions were free to focus and develop them without being a starving artist figuratively or literally. It makes me want to push for universal basic income, because if people were not constantly terrified of not being able to pay rent each month, then there would be so much more creativity and art, beauty and innovation in our world.
MW: Now that “Embody” is completed, do you feel pulled in a new direction in your work?
JE: I’m still really drawn to self-portraiture. There are many reasons for that, and a main reason is that I like working alone. I want to be by myself in my bedroom studio. That’s how I work. It allows me control and the freedom to do it whenever I want. I have made some new self-portraits that are sort of similar to “Embody,” that could make up a different but related series. I’ve been interested in working with family history and memory. And I still love thinking about feelings. That will always be part of my work. Our feelings are our reality. When we deny or stifle feelings, we’re denying our own reality. Our feelings and memories are what we have as humans. And, you know, without those, then who are we?
Jillian J. Ellis
is an artist and photographer originally from Dayton, Ohio. In 2011, she earned her B.F.A. in Art Photography from Syracuse University. Her work uses self-portraiture, found images, and digital photography to explore deep human emotion, the body, and memory. She lives in Santa Barbara, California. View more of her work at jillianjellis.com or follow her on Instagram at @jillianjellisart.
is phoebe’s editor-in-chief and a 3rd-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s been awarded the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her current novel project concerning assisted-suicide tourism in Switzerland. And, last spring, she won the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award for her dystopian short story, “The Wholeness Institute.” When not writing and working for phoebe, she teaches writing courses with PEN/Faulkner and runs her own photography business.