A fascinating illustrated biography.
In the middle of the night, as the snow silently fell on an ancient country village, James Elliott was born on the 20th January 1951. His birthplace was Ashburton on Dartmoor, in the West Country of England, an area justly famous for its natural and scenic beauty. At the time, the village had a population of about 2,700 inhabitants. Elliott was born at home, right in the centre of the village, above a shop. His birth time was 3.20 a.m.
Elliott's father, Leighton James, was in the British navy and whilst stationed in Belgium, had met the beautiful sixteen year old Elsa, whom he married and brought back to England. Elsa was a glamorous, young city girl.
1952 (Age 1)
At 18 months old, Elsa noted that the baby Elliott had a gift for colour. She recalled he could name them all. One day she pointed to something blue and the baby Elliott said "Blue". She then pointed to something green and he said "Green." Then, in an attempt to trick him, she pointed to something turquoise. 'Blue-green", the young Elliott replied. Scientifically correct and the only description, his limited vocabulary would allow.
1955 (Age 4)
At the age of four, Elliott discovers his passion for music. Important, as music would inspire many of his early works.
1957 (Age 6)
Wins Painting Competition
At the age of six, whilst attending Ashburton primary school, Elliott won a painting competition. He painted musicians.
1958 (Age 7)
Takes up Photography.
On a cricket match outing with his parents, the restless young Elliott found the match boring, so spent most of his time at the refreshment hut, drinking over-steeped tea and eating his favourite snack biscuits, called Cheeselets. On the way home, the coach passed through the village of Chudleigh Knighton. The driver stopped and everyone got out and went into the fish and chip shop. Elliott, having scoffed all afternoon, instead wandered into the Woolworths next door and bought a camera for 4/6 (22p). The following day Elliott took his first photographs.
At age 7 the Elliott family moved from Ashburton to the neighbouring village of Buckfastleigh. Buckfast is famous for it's huge abbey. It is the only monastery rebuilt after their dissolution by King Henry VIII and used for its original purpose. Why the monasteries were closed down is not clear. Did the monarch object to religion? The alleged debauchery? Or was he just looting? One thing is, perhaps, an overlooked clue at the scene of the crime. At the end of King Henry's rampage across England, he deposited an astonishing one-and-a-half tons of gold, gilt and silver, in the Tower of London. Hmmmm.....
Elliott's mother, a devout catholic, sent him to the convent school at Buckfast, where he was taught by nuns for four years. The religion did not stick and Elliott states he first found something of the Divine, whilst studying quantum physics and astronomy as a teenager. He has always stated that the recurring crosses in his work are a symbol of mortality, not religion. They are crosses, not crucifixes.
1959 (Age 8)
At Buckfast Convent School, Elliott's 'Bust of Caesar' is held up in front of the class for all to admire.
Elliott just enjoyed the moment, as he had no idea who Caesar was.
1960 (Age 9)
Elliott creates a graphic drawing and it is pinned to the classroom wall at Buckfast Convent School. His first exhibition. What is interesting about this sequence of events, is that all the elements which would initially appear in his photography - painting, sculpting and graphics - were already beginning to emerge.
1962 (Age 11)
At 11 he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, an all boys school, at which Elliott first excels, but eventually comes to detest.
1964 (Age 13)
Having asked for a camera as a birthday present, Elliott becomes a keen amateur photographer, mostly photographing his girlfriends.
1966 (Age 15)
Elliott's grammar school was run by martinets, who considered Elliott a rebel and he was constantly in trouble for ignoring rules he considered ridiculous. With his long Oscar Wilde haircut, op art shirts and Cuban heel Chelsea boots, he was caned on average once a week, for unacceptable behaviour and ignoring the strict dress code. Long hair was forbidden and school uniform was mandatory. Elliott considered the futile attempts to curb his exuberance and flamboyance, quite disturbing. So he refused to conform with the drab, moribund, all-pervasive dullness of a half past generation. He argued with his masters, that the school and its uniforms, were 'artistically bereft of taste' and that his dress sense was 'superior to the uniforms'. He further argued that there was nothing wrong with his stylish appearance, only their response to it.
He eventually dropped out of school and instead went off on his motorbike, to juke box cafés and seaside towns like Torquay, with his auburn-haired, micro-skirted, fur-coated girlfriend. Which he says, taught him much more about life, than cloistered academia.
The artist remarked, "I wasn't going to let my schooling interfere with my education"
He didn't turn up for his exams. On one occasion when they phoned his parents, Elliott reluctantly turned up , dragging his feet, but handed in a blank sheet of paper. Which Elliott says was 'a definitive, visual statement about what I had learnt at school.' The attempts to stamp out Elliott's creative persona were completely unsuccessful. They were however, the principal reason the artist rejected the idea of going on to art college. He also says he knew his art would be "too exciting for the educational establishment".
So Elliott's talent flourished, in spite of the establishment, not because it.
As he says "I was a good student. I survived schooling with my talents still intact. The attempts by my schoolmasters to lobotomise my personality, was indeed an education."
1968 (Age 17)
Charge your glasses and pray be upstanding.....
Breaking up with the second love of his life (but tenth girlfriend), glamour queen Pauline offered Elliott her leather coat, in exchange for three of Elliott's tiny 10cm prints, of herself. She tells him, "Your pictures are great and they are different!"
Elliott dismissed this with a self-deprecating laugh, but kept the coat, which was hundreds of times the value of the tiny prints. Elliott described this as "The best divorce settlement ever." They weren't married, so this was technically his first sale. She was obviously right and simply saw what Elliott could not yet see himself. His own talent. Reflecting on her comments later, was one of the reasons Elliott took up photography. So gentlemen please, break out the Champagne, charge your glasses and pray be upstanding, for glamour queen Pauline. A very perceptive lady, who saw what the others could not yet see.
1968 (Age 17)
Later that year Elliott decided he was either going to be a photographer or a rock guitarist. He also created his first art photograph, 'Under Grave Snow'. Flowers dying under the weight of heavy snow, on an unmarked child's grave. Partly inspired by Francoise Hardy's allegorical dirge, 'Mon Ami La Rose', which Elliott listened to both in French and English as a teenager. Although this early picture is nothing like as accomplished as later works, the substance and gravitas are already there, right from the start. As is the artist's innovative use of titles. An allusion to Dylan Thomas' 'Under Milk Wood', with 'grave' working as both an adjective and noun.
1970 (Age 19)
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll.
Ellott is increasingly drawn to photography and rock music. He buys his first serious SLR camera (and a guitar).
1970 (Age 19)
"Curiouser and Curiouser" Said The Cat.
Elliott states that the reason his art became so intensely creative and original, so fast, so young, was the vast number of wild and wonderful things, he had experienced by the time he took up art seriously, in his late teens. As stated, he had been a photographer since he was seven. He was an extraordinarily curious and adventurous child, adolescent and teenager. Abnormally so. His list of preoccupations is so diverse, that it is hard to believe it all belongs to the same person. Polymath doesn't even cover it.
In no particular order, the experiences and areas of enlightenment he encountered, included inter alia, astronomy, quantum mechanics, sex, drugs, booze, canoeing, love affairs, gambling, cycling, rock climbing, poetry, music, graphics, sculpture, fashion, electronics, photography, painting, philately (yes), playing chess, rock concerts, pubs, dances, movies, television, playing guitar, glamour, horse riding, gymnastics, education by nuns, pop festivals, caving, going to horse races, regattas, serving at funerals, a mad mother, glamour queen girlfriends, dropping out of grammar school, motor boating, near death from ball lightning, ten pin bowling, motorbikes, endless seaside trips, exploring crystal clear streams, fun fairs, swarming with the Mods on Lambrettas, roaming the moors, juke box cafés, pinball, theatre, art cinema, funfairs, discos, nightclubs..... and that was all just the beginning, of what would become an extraordinary life.
As Elliott would later comment:
"My schooling was minimal, my education maximal."
With many of these activities, Elliott immediately realised their inherent danger. Less so the philately, more so the rock climbing. So many things were quickly forsaken, whilst others were pursued at length. Booze and drugs were sampled, then immediately and wisely forsaken. Elliott saw the catastrophe factor and indeed observed it in several friends. He wasn't going to be some artistic train wreck. Such a ghastly cliché these days. Elliott also understood that added chemistry shatters creativity. You labour under the delusion you are being highly creative and in the cold light of day realise your efforts are rubbish.
"The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom." said Blake.
And so it may, if you live to tell the story. Elliott however, also observed the one philosophical point usually lost on the young. He knew excess also leads to death, unless finely balanced on the edge. So there was much method in his madness. He knew when to pull back. A few near misses, notwithstanding.
However, the tremendous arc of experience Elliott savoured, meant he was totally and utterly connected to his time, in every possible way. His incredible arc of experience, so young, must surely account for the extraordinary gravitas of even his earliest works. Such depth is very rare, in the early part of any artist's canon.
The young Elliott's curiosity was extreme. As a child he dismantled a TV set, piece by piece, as he wanted to know where the picture was coming from. Even when dismantled, he would break open resistors and so on, to delve deeper. He remembers getting a bad shock from a capacitor, even with the TV turned off and unplugged. He found this all quite remarkable, as he had no idea it was possible to get a shock from electronics when disconnected, but it was a fast and unforgettable way to learn. He was always reaching for empirical understanding, rather than embracing the established theories of others. Later in life, Elliott developed the philosophy that 'A dull life equals dull art.' Rubbish in, rubbish out. All of this was fortuitous, as Elliott had no idea he was about to become an artist. And one of great stature and distinction. He never, ever had a plan. With hindsight, Elliott says it is probably just about finding out who you are. And that having experienced so much, so young, you become quite difficult to impress. And this is a very good starting point for an artist. Only the exceptional will do.
1970 (Age 19)
A Great Signature For The Great Things To Come.
Elliott says that from the moment he took a creative trajectory, he sensed he would create great things, so he wanted a signature worthy of that. Consequently he created a new signature from scratch. Something very modern. Something extraordinary and recognisable, with high graphic impact. And most of all, expressing the meticulous perfectionism, clearly visible in his work. All his works of art are signed in this way.
1971 (Age 20)
Having worked in photography passionately for some time, Elliott builds his own darkroom to print his mostly monochrome photographs. Elliott says he only ever worked in black and white as he could not afford colour, which at the time was many times more expensive than monochrome. It took about a month to print his 2 years work. About 200 images. He then laid them out all over the floor and pondered them for several days. On day one, Elliott found himself glowing with pride, extremely pleased at his progress. On day two he wasn't so sure. On day three, he took one look at his two years work and took the 10 x 8 prints outside and burnt them all. Except for just a few, which he kept. For days Elliott would ponder the handful of photographs he had kept, wondering why he had done so. Eventually, after days of staring at said photographs, he had an epiphany and realised, that somehow the images were an honest expression of himself. He decided never again to create random images, but only to create images which were true to himself as an artist. Photographs which expressed his own unique perspective on the world.
1971 (Age 20)
Pioneer One: Photo Art
In 1971, Elliott abandoned black and white completely and never returned to it. This was ahead of the curve, as the general cultural switch came 15 years later. Following his desire to make photography more expressive, Elliott began to wildly experiment with the medium, to conquer its inherent rigidity. Colour was intrinsic to this, as it allows a myriad of psychological implications.
Originally as a photographer, Elliott perceived Photography as like painting the entire image in mid air and chucking it all at the canvas in one hit. Elliott knew that to take Photography to next level, he would need to control and introduce alchemy into this process. So he began by increasing the number of exposures, introducing layers of light and moving away from the ubiquitous instantaneous snapshot. Above all he wanted to creatively and technically master control of the medium. To do with light, time, space, mass, perspective and viewpoint, what painters did with paint. Better, even. To find emotion in the machine. Passion and fire. Perhaps even a little of the Divine. And to paint with technology, a truly universal art for the electronic age.
So right from square one, Elliott was meddling with the fundamental elements of photography. Breaking it down, for a deeper understanding of it and to allow control. This can be observed in the early time lapse photography with the polychromatic seascapes, infra red photography in colour, painting with light trails, desynchronised flash and so on. These were all alternative, altered realities. Elliott was trying everything and wanted to change photography to make it reveal the most beautiful underlying truths. Things that would make you gaze in awe and wonder and reveal things beyond simple observational recording.
The Great Epiphany
One day in 1971, Elliott was in his lilac and purple Darkstudio in Devon, thinking about the permutations, potential and possibilities of photography, when he suddenly had another, even greater epiphany. He says it came in a 'flash of revelation', that photography was technically and creatively a nascent art form and largely terra incognita. He was the first to see and proclaim Photography 'more powerful than painting' and was able to explain exactly why.
1971-1977 (Age 20 - 26)
Immediately following his epiphany, the artist went into an incredible work fit for around 6 years, working day and night, creating pioneering photographic art, out of pure passion. Socialising went out of the window, playing guitar went out of the window, the only time he took off was to see his girlfriend, model and muse. Her name was Mars and she appears in the art from 1973 to 1977. Referring to his work fit, Elliott states in his video 'Revolution Innovation Evolution' of 2009, 'I just worked day and night for about 5 or 6 years..... I just lived and breathed photography and created these amazing works of art, which when I look back on it, was a pretty crazy thing to do, because the world and his wife didn't think photography was art."
Unlike the observational photography of the day, Elliott was creating images straight out of his imagination. Images saturated with substance, emotion and gravitas. And all with beautiful use of colour. Elliott saw monochrome as Photography's technological work in progress and this was the principal reason he abandoned it. He reasoned that if colour had been invented first, black and white would be only occasionally used for abstraction. Elliott says his generation would 'boo and jeer' when they realised they were about to be shown a black and white film, at the cinema.
It should be noted that unlike the preceding generations, Elliott was not and is not a commercial photographer. Not a gun for hire. He was and is, a pioneering artist, creating work of great stature in a new medium. He was alone in his quest, not part of a group, although a great many have now followed in his footsteps. The others at the time, were all doing something else: commercial, documentary, fashion, celebs, etc. Elliott just created art. The artist poignantly described himself as 'A voice in the wilderness, howling into oblivion.'
1971-2 (Age 20-21)
Elliott began to introduce creative elements for greater control and expression, as in 'Angel Of Darkness'. Apart from introducing the perviously created watch into the picture, this image also shows controlled coloration and de-synchronised flash. Together these things are hugely expressive. The picture is an early example of the Gothic period, which were all created in haunting landscape settings and largely concerned with mortality and spirituality. Heavyweight stuff for a young man just out of his teens.
1972 (Age 21)
First Colour Printing
To begin with, Elliott used the top, custom, professional labs in London to print his work. This was short lived. Increasingly frustrated by their inability to meet his quality standards, Elliott decided to print his own colour in Cibachrome. Photographers with their own colour darkrooms in the 20th century, were very rare creatures. Elliott says he has met many photographers, but never encountered one who printed their own colour. He has therefore printed every single original and became a world class master printer. He states that even back in the early Seventies, he was "a vastly superior printer", vis a vis the pro labs. Cibachrome is long since obsolete and today he creates on his own pigmented giclée machines, with equally outstanding expertise.
1972 (Age 21)
First Photo Published
It wasn't long before Elliott's work started to get noticed as outstanding, by the photographic cognoscenti. The general press and the art world ignored Photography, so the only outlet for photo art, was the photographic magazines and annuals. Elliott's first picture was published in 1972, not long after he started. This soon became a regular occurrence.
1972 (Age 21)
Radical Visions : 'Symphonies For The Camera'
In the very early Seventies, when Elliott was still very young, he created the revolutionary 'Infinity & Eternity'. This was his first real 'Symphony For the Camera', where the artist orchestrated reality for the camera. Literally sculpting and hand painting the creation meticulously for the static camera viewpoint. Photography back then, was a question of moving the camera through time and space and recording, so in effect, orchestrating the camera for reality. These 'Symphonies For The Camera' as Elliott called them, were the complete antithesis of the observational recording of the day, the overwhelming majority of which was still in black and white. Elliott by this time had already abandoned monochrome and apart from creating revolutionary work, was also pioneering colour. And showing great command of it. With 'Infinity & Eternity', the restriction of the palette to just three beautiful colours, adds tremendous power. Perhaps the really extraordinary thing about Elliott's early work, is the depth and substance. This image, like so many others in the canon, have an unmistakeable spirituality and profundity, quite apart from the aesthetic quality. It is extremely rare to find these qualities in the work of an artist, still so very young.
The other extraordinary thing about 'Infinity & Eternity', is that it somehow captures a spiritual feeling and is a precursor for the 'Spiritualism' which Elliott was uniquely in the process of inventing. Substance in photography, as in art generally, is rare. The image was also a precursor for 'Metasphere' 1974+5, which introduced the concept of the 'epic photograph', again, way ahead of the curve. This was seminal work.
It must be remembered that whilst Elliott was creating these revolutionary works of photo art, the world and his wife did not consider photography art and there was no market for it, but the artist went ahead and created photographic art, anyway. Elliott was at the beginning of his 6 year 'work fit', spending in excess of 70 hours a week, doing nothing but creating works of photo art. What triggered this 'work fit', was Elliott's realisation that Photography was unexplored as art and he wanted to pioneer it. Which he did.
The artist had a good, global overview of Photography and although there were a myriad of applied uses of photography, no-one was creating anything you could seriously call great art. Nothing of any stature. Photography back then was an applied commercial craft, not an art. Photographers were all guns for hire, not artists like Elliott. Photographers were all guns for hire, not artists like Elliott. This statement is clearly backed up by the timeless work of extraordinary stature, Elliott created at that time. 'Infinity & Eternity' was also a precursor for 'Metasphere' 1974+5, which introduced the concept of the 'epic photograph', again, way ahead of the curve. This was seminal work.
Elliott was creating pure fine art in the medium of photography, out of pure passion and love of the medium. Casting all concerns to the wind. Working 24/7. This was unique, even in global terms.
1973 (Age 22)
The Arrival Of Mars
During the early part of his work fit, Elliott would often work up until midnight and then phone friends and meet up in the nightclubs of Torquay, just to wind down, usually until 3 a.m. If you can call that winding down. One evening, whilst setting off on such an excursion from Buckfastleigh, he fortuitously crossed paths with the beautiful 17 year old Mars. She kept offering the twenty-two year old Elliott sweets and he quipped, "I'm not sure I should take sweets from a stranger." He never got to the clubs. She became his girlfriend, model and muse and they were together for 5 years. With long flowing hair, she was tall, exceptionally long-legged, elegant, curvaceous and beautiful. The meeting was important, as the nature of the artist's work changed in many ways, after he met her.
1973 (Age 22)
Emotion In The Machine
Elliott began to introduce creative elements for greater control and expression, as with the previously created 'death watch' in 'Angel Of Darkness'. Apart from that, one can also observe the artist breaking up reality to create mood, excitement and emotion. As indeed, he did with the picture 'Lady At The Lake'.
1974 (Age 23)
Alchemy with a camera
Elliott rapidly became both a creative supremo and a technical virtuoso of Photography. This was typified by much loved classic 'Remorse', which involved new, highly sophisticated levels of optical masking and shadow coloration - both Elliottonian innovations. Two techniques amongst a myriad of others he pioneered. There is no afterwork of any kind. No Photoshop, as it didn't exist and no montage as that would not allow the seamless perfection required. So it was all done in camera. The artist was learning to control light in sophisticated ways.
1974 (Age 23)
Revolutionary painted photo-sculpture
Following on from 'Infinity & Eternity', Elliott created 'In Peace' 1974 straight out of his imagination. This time using a more fluid, less geometric approach. The artist always claimed his influences were not artistic, but rather girls, music and the extraordinary things he encountered in life. The image was inspired by a memory of childhood subterranean exploration, in his home town, underneath a graveyard. A secondary influence, was a piece of music which Westward Television mistakenly told Elliott was called 'Buried Alive'. It was actually titled, 'The Days Of Pearly Spencer', but the incorrect title struck a chord. And the final influence was his muse, Mars, featured as the central jewel. There you have the three aforementioned influences. 'In Peace' was a new level of control and creativity in Photography and led on to many wild and wonderful masterpieces. This was an early 'Symphony For The Camera'. Unquestionably seminal work. As indeed, were the myriad of other creative and technical ideas Elliott innovated at the time. Elliott was literally 'opening up' photography and raising the bar magnificently, from a creative and technical standpoint. Everything was done without assistance. Assistants are the badge of the commercial artist.
'In Peace' was the first picture the artist hung on his own wall, in The Red Room. 'In Peace' took 7 days to create and introduced the concept of the epic photograph, slowly created over time. The megawork. A huge move away from the instantaneous black and white snapshot. The observational recording of the day. Note the extraordinary use of colour. Elliott says he wanted the image to appear 'like a diamond on black velvet' and that he wanted to give the face 'an almost spiritual glow.' The unique photograph was published internationally in Photography Yearbook. From a technical point of view, it should be noted that this image is again pure alchemy and is not a montage done in post. Elliott NEVER worked in that way, as the imagery thus created, invariably lacks the required authenticity, for the artist's exacting standards.
1974 (Age 23)
Super Epiphany - Expanding Ambitions
One day in 1974 Elliott drove to Plymouth, searching for a poster of Bridget Bardot to enhance his darkroom window shutter. He inadvertently stumbled across a painting by Salvador Dali. The masterpiece is called 'Sleep' and the artist says "It hit me with a power, like no other work of art ever had. I immediately saw the genius in that. I understood immediately, that the reason Photography was not considered art, was because the principal protagonists were not of that calibre. And I decided in that moment, that this is exactly what I would become."
"I would create the first canon of Photo Art which could be held up against ANY artist living or dead and it would hold its own."
Elliott states that he can remember exactly where he was sat, 22 years later, in Greencroft Gardens,
when he realised that he had accomplished his ambitions.
1974 (Age 23)
First Cover and 6 page interview in a magazine
Back in the 70s Photography was not considered art, not even by its most famous exponents, so there was no infrastructure for photo art. Elliott described himself back then, as 'Like a voice in the wilderness, howling into oblivion.' The only places that would publish outstanding photographs, were photographic magazines and annuals. There was nowhere else. During the 70s and 80s, the UK photo press published a huge amount of Elliott's work, including in anthologies. In 1974, the magazine Photo Technique was the only magazine in the UK to publish creative photography. Elliott was the first unknown to be given the full celeb treatment. They normally only published famous photographers. This did much to enhance Elliott's reputation, as many of his photographs were published internationally. It also made the work very influential. Elliott went on to get hundreds of pages of press.
1974-5 (Age 23-24)
Metasphere - Revolutionary Masterpiece
In the early work, a metamorphosis can be seen to take place, as Elliott shifts away from observational photography, towards the creation of his own reality, with images straight out of his imagination. This progresses through an incredible arc until eventually he creates the revolutionary 'Metasphere' 1974-5, where every square millimetre was created by the artist. It is also progresses Elliott's concept of the epic photograph. It took 332 hours of work to create. The artist even mixed all the colours to match.
It is the world's first painted and sculpted photograph, with the final 5 weeks work being entirely devoted to smoothing, sanding, filing and honing the piece to perfection. Elliott wore a smog mask, but the dust inevitably got into his throat and made him ill twice. The masterpiece was created between November 1974 and February 1975. Elliott referred to these images as 'Symphonies For The Camera'. They were the converse of the snapshot ethos of the time. The world orchestrated their cameras for reality. Elliott orchestrated reality for the camera. A radical departure and something which very much set photography free.
1976 (Age 25)
The early Seventies shows Elliott exploding the medium of Photography in a hundred different directions, with many new trajectories, often showing multiple innovations in a single image. This is well exemplified by 'Pseudosynthesis' of 1976. Elliott not only created the entire scenario but also created the minimalist painting. He aerosprayed the sunglasses and chocolates. Created the bottles and box, and so on. He even mixed and matched the exact hues of his exceptionally strident and highly original colour palette. Such autonomic creativity was unprecedented in photography.
1977 (Age 26)
The Fine Art Studios
Last self portrait of Elliott in Devon, pictured in The Red Room, where he lived and imagined ideas for his art. The Purple and Lilac Darkstudiio, was next door. He also had a second workshop and studio outside, exposed at one end to the elements and a third loft studio. This allowed him to work on multiple pieces simultaneously, essential when creating pieces over weeks, or even months.
The very early work was all done on location. The studios existed between 1971 and 1977 and were used purely to create fine art. No commercial activities. This was unique, even in global terms. Elliott realised that Photography was still in its infancy as an art form and it was this that inspired him to work 24/7 creating photo art. He had a good global overview of Photography, but nowhere could you observe artists of any stature working in photography. Photography was not considered art. Elliott knew that for this to change, several things would need to happen. First, the medium would have to move beyond black and white to colour. Second, it must move beyond observational recording. And third, It needed artists of the same stature as the greatest painters.
Elliott became exactly that.