“I feel very fortunate that I have a chance to go out to these wilderness places and photograph. I know these places will change, and these cultures will disappear...As ways of life are transient, photography has the role and privilege of capturing something that's disappearing.”- Elaine Ling
Elaine Ling (1946–2016) was a tireless explorer. She was particularly drawn to isolated areas and sacred sites marked by temples, stelae, pictographs and cave paintings. She credited her love of travel and open spaces to her early childhood in Hong Kong’s crowded but affluent Happy Valley — a period when she also experienced intense pressure to excel in all areas of her life. When she was nine, her family moved to Canada, and the artist immediately fell in love with the expansiveness of this country. Her interest in photography began while documenting aspects of indigenous culture in British Columbia. She later pursued a more serious course of study in the medium, attending numerous classes at the Ansel Adams Workshop in Carmel, California.
Ling’s photographs are highly aesthetic, exploring questions of a spiritual nature within an exacting formal structure. Her body of work features images expressing both documentary and poetic visual qualities which reveal the remarkable within the ordinary.
She used a 4x5 view camera (Deardorff Special) with a Polaroid back. Her film (P/N 55) creates positive-negative images, and is famous for the rough edges that appear in the final print, as residue of the peeled emulsion. It was her mastery of the large format that became her signature trademark.
Her strength is also found in the extremely high quality of her gelatin silver prints, which she always made herself; each one a performance of black, gray and silver tones on paper. The interplay between individual tones are delicate and subtle, yet the sense of depth almost engenders a momentary illusion of three-dimensionality.
Ling's photographs reflect a deft melding of her inner, spiritual journey with the outer, physical activity of travel. She counterpoints these otherworldly inquiries to those of a more material nature, referencing the physicality of the medium through the frame of the Polaroid negative.
Seeking the solitude of deserts and abandoned architectures of ancient cultures, Elaine Ling explored the shifting equilibrium between nature and the man-made across four continents. Photographing in the deserts of Mongolia, Namibia, North Africa, India, South America, Australia, the American Southwest; and the citadels of Persepolis, Petra, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Great Zimbabwe, she has captured that dialogue.
In Havana, a city caught between the decay of the immediate epoch and the grandeur of past glory, she found an urban landscape that reflects a similar struggle between daily life and the slow forces of Nature. Havana echoes the architecture of a decadent past. However, tangible new energy of reconstruction and restoration stages this city's rebirth. The abandoned pleasure gardens and the intimate interiors of homes are in the flux of metamorphoses.
In a career that spanned 30 years, Ling produced 11 portfolios, published four books—most notably Mongolia: Land of the Deer Stone (Lodima Press, 2009) and Talking Stones (Kehrer, 2016)—and held dozens of exhibitions around the world. Her work has been collected by some of the most prestigious institutions in the world including the Houston Center of Photography, the Smithsonian Museum, the Henry Buhl Foundation, the Brooklyn Museum, the Musée de la Photographie à Charleroi, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Museet for Fotokunst, Scavi Scaligeri International Centre of Photography, the National Gallery of Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre, Windsor Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, among many others.
According to Paul Roth, director of the Ryerson Image Centre, Ling is “one of the most important photographers to emerge from Toronto’s collaborative photography scene of the 1990s and early 2000s.” The Ryerson Image Centre annually awards the Elaine Ling Research Fellowship to a student of photography.
In 2019, to honour her achievements and passion for the medium, the Elaine Ling Fund for Women in Photography was established towards the acquisition of great works by talented women photographers for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s photography collection.