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.
1958 (Age 7)
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.
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 by his teacher, for all to admire.
"Look everyone! Look at James' bust of Caeser!"
The young Elliott just enjoyed the moment, as he had never heard of Caeser.
This was an object lesson in how individuals see art idiosyncratically.
"Sometimes a beautiful lie is better than an ugly truth.
Photography tells beautiful lies and it tells horrible lies,
but it rarely tells the truth.
It's an art. You can make it say what you want."
ELLIOTT and it t
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 later appear in his photography - painting, sculpting and graphics - were already in place.
1962 (Age 11)
'Glamour' Is A Scottish Variant Of 'Grammar'
At the age of 11, the artist attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, which was 'old school' in every sense of the epithet. It had been founded in 1553, the year of the eponymous king's death, at the untimely age of 15. An all boys school up until year 5, when the girls arrived and it became mixed. At said school Elliott at first excels, but his relationship with it deteriorates as they attempt to slot him into the row of rotten cabbages.
Elliott eventually comes to detest the establishment for their attempts to crush his creativity (which patently had the opposite effect). In the 60s the main building on the HIgh Street , Totnes, was known as 'Mansion' and was a foot (30cm) deep in ivy (q.v.). Symbolic of the fact that nothing had changed there in centuries. For a creative innovator like Elliott, old school was an inevitable culture clash. And anyway the young Elliott had girlfriends and lost interest in schooling.
Girls v. Academia = Game Over.
One of the school's alumni had been Charles Babbage, who back in the 1830s, had invented the concept of the digital, programmable computer.
1964 (Age 13)
Having asked for a camera as a birthday present, Elliott becomes a keen amateur photographer, mostly photographing his girlfriends.
1965 (Age 14)
"I Think I Am Going To Make This An Original."
Other than his obvious gifts as a child, excelling at school in art and being a photographer, perhaps the first sign that Elliott might become an artist, manifested itself thusly. At Totnes Grammar, Elliott was always with a group of friends and he would suddenly and unexpectedly raise his hands in the air at ten to two, to halt everyone in their tracks. He would then turn to them and proclaim very loudly, "I think I am going to make this an original." He would then leap forward and sign a wall, a post or a window, much to the sound of laughter from all around. Elliott states that to this day he has no idea where that came from, as he had no exposure to art. Indeed, in the 26 years Elliott grew up in Devon, he never saw an Art Gallery there.
1966 (Age 15)
Too Cool For School
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, drainpipe trousers 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, flamboyance and creativity, quite disturbing. An education in itself. 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.
Elliott won a book prize for best work in his form. It was normal to choose something academic like Shakespeare or Keats.
Elliott chose the hardback edition of James Bond author Ian Fleming's 'The Spy Who Loved Me'.
The deputy head, whom Elliott described as, 'The usual sort of sadist one encounters at these establishments', made a snide remark about Elliott collecting his 'Best Work In The Form' prize in front of the school as, 'Tottering along on very high heels'. Elliott's Chelsea boots with Cuban heels made a wonderful click-clacking noise on the parquet flooring, as the young James walked in front of the entire school to collect his Bond book. Elliott says he found this all very amusing and an object lesson in the moribund dullness of establishments.
Eventually the headmaster insisted Elliott's father be summoned to discuss James' tendency to be non-conformist in both image and attitude. Elliott Senior, much to his credit, repeated what the young Elliott had told him:
'I fail to see how my appearance affects the quality of my work'.
Elliott senior put it to the headmaster, that such an observation was not easy to counter.
He eventually dropped out of school and instead went off on his motorbike, to juke box cafés and seaside towns like Torquay and Teignmouth, with his red-headed, long-legged, 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 get in the way of 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 grammar school, expressed as a visual metaphor'. 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 of 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, were 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)
Allegorical Dirges - Heavyweight Substance
Later that year Elliott decided he was either going to be a photographer or a rock guitarist. He also created his first art photographs. Heavyweight images like 'Under Grave Snow' which shows 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. And note the artist's titular innovation. Another example is 'The Solemn Sleeping Silence of Snow' (q.v.). Elliott makes great use of allusion, alliteration, euphony, poetry, even coining words, at a time when no-one titled photos. Untitled 49 and all that laziness.
Even in these early pictures the heavyweight substance and gravitas are already there.
1968 (Age 17)
1969 (Age 18)
Beauty! Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.
Whatever happened to beauty? It slipped out the back door whilst no-one was looking. But Elliott was always an aesthete, he just wanted substance as well. The artist never flinched when beauty fell from fashion in art, in favour of the frankly quite ridiculous, which was usually accompanied by a thesis explaining it's existence. Presumably in case no-one should guess. As a young teenager Elliott bought his first work of art, as a birthday present for an ex-girlfriend. It was a framed 24 inch print of the mass market painting by Joseph Henry Lynch entitled 'Tina'. Too populist for the strenuously, achingly self-conscious, pseudo-sophisticated art world. Elliott described the painting as 'Authentic, luminous and honest'.
Elliott always had the intuitive perspicacity to judge a work of art, free from the mindless, numbingly dull opinions of the flock, the shoals of fish, turn to the left, turn to the right and the stampeding runaway herds. Although Elliott's own work was pretty deep even at 18, he always loved excellence, even in a lighter vein and regardless of genre. The beautiful, the erotic and the profound, all have different rules of engagement. Each can be savoured in their own way. And they appeal to different parts of the brain.
Gorgeosity for its own sake is indeed something Elliott later mastered in the extreme, but the diversity and depth were always there. From indulgent hedonism, eroticism and beauty all the way to the dark, the deep and the profound. This has no precedent in art. No-one ever mastered that kind of arc. It spans every aspect of life, in all its enigmatic glory. Not the usual iterations on a theme. Most artists are a one card trick. Elliott plays a thousand cards with no trick. But despite the heavyweight canon Elliott went on to create, he still likes the painting today. No excuses offered. Beauty has its own reward, intelligence and meaning. It doesn't need the quasi-intellectual mental helter-skelter to validate it. Life after all, is not always deep. Some of the best times are completely superficial.
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 Vox Phantom guitar). The artist pursued both music and photography in parallel for a while and although music would remain a passion, it was photography he fell in love with. What is extraordinary about what he did next, was that his opening gambit was to create photo art day and night for about 6 years. He was on fire! Just the sheer passion and excitement in pioneering a new art form. He wasn't the usual 'gun for hire'. He did not work commercially.
Even more extraordinary, he created this part of the canon, at a time no-one thought photography was art. There were no galleries, collectors or infrastructure of any kind. The principal reasons for choosing photography rather than music, numbered three. First Elliott did not like being on stage. He wanted to create spectacular work, which he has, but has little interest in fame. Second, you needed to rely on others into have a rock group, Elliott wanted to get on with it and create an individual, autonomous art. Third, he thought the girls would be classier and more glamorous.
Considering the heavyweight work Elliott went on to create, his persona was a dovetail match for Art.
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, youth clubs, rock concerts, pubs, dances, movies, television, playing guitar, glamour, horse riding, gymnastics, education by nuns, pop festivals, caving, going to horse races, regattas, archery, snooker, tennis, 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 and creativity 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)
Epiphany One : Art Of Authentic Authorship
Having worked in photography passionately for some time, Elliott had a not inconsiderable canon of work, but lacking a darkroom they remained as processed negatives. But in 1971 Elliott finally built his own darkroom to print his mostly monochrome photographs. It took about a month to print his work and it yielded about 200 images. They were all 10 x 8 inches (25cm x 20cm) which at the time the artist considered large. Although today nothing is that small. He then laid out his new creations, 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 years of work and took the 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)
Epiphany Two : History Is A Bit Of A Bore
By 1971 Elliott was already familiar with the history of Photography, including right back to the camera obscura. Having viewed it with a critical eye he drew an extraordinary conclusion. Although there was some fine photography in its 150 year history, there was nothing one could compare with the great modern masters of painting. To begin with, upwards of 95% of Photography's history was in black and white, partly because of colour's impermanence, right up until the end of the 1960s and partly because colour's history was still very short. The technology had been a long time coming. Indeed, the sort of permanence and quality required by any serious artist, had literally only just arrived in the late 60s. This dovetailed rather nicely with when Elliott began.
Elliott had an epiphany and realised that Photography was not considered serious art partly because there was insufficient creative control. To become regarded as art, Photography would have to move beyond black and white and indeed, observational recording. A snapshot is quite a humble thing, like a pencil sketch, quickly dashed off. The creative level of Photography would henceforth need to be equal to the best of art in other fields. At the time, it clearly was not.
Elliott decided to pioneer Photo Art and create the first canon which could be held up against anything in modern painting and hold its own. This is the reason we observe an explosion of creativity in Elliott's early 70s work. It would take him decades of intense commitment, some of his creations taking hundreds of hours of work, but he eventually achieved it.
Bye Bye Observational Recording
From the beginning of the Seventies, Elliott's photography moves more and more away from observational recording and more towards an emotional, spiritual and psychological landscape. Like all great art, his images were coming not from without, but from within. As all great art does, from a higher and deeper place. This was extraordinary for a photographer at the time. A metamorphosis can be seen to take place in the artist's work. At first Elliott introduces colouration or small objects into the landscape and as he increasingly saturates the work with his own persona, this culminates in an absolute creation of entire scenarios. With every shade of reality and subjectivity in between. A multi-faceted approach he never entirely abandoned Elliott just gives every images the approach it needs.
Epiphany 3 : A Treasure Chest Of Diamonds
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. Elliott says he can still remember exactly where he was standing, next to his MPP enlarger. He was the first to see and proclaim Photography 'more powerful than painting' and was able to explain exactly why. He was also able to see the massive unexploited creative potential of Photography. He states "Even more exciting was that I knew the other photographers hadn't seen it. Photography at that time was a kind of observational recording, however skilled, but I knew I could pull original ideas straight out of my imagination. I didn't hesitate. It was like discovering a huge treasure chest of diamonds on the sea shore, of some far-flung paradisiacal location. You look around furtively and start thinking "Oh my God! Nobody's seen it! And you just know in a flash, you want to take it and run with it!"
1971 (Age 20)
Pioneer One: Photo Art
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. For example, a small colour print was seven times the cost of a monochrome equivalent. So in 1971, Elliott abandoned black and white completely and never returned to it. Following his desire to make photography more expressive and creative, 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. Not to mention the expanded lexicon of aesthetic possibilities.
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 delaying exposures, playing with time and space and generally moving away from the ubiquitous and 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, exactly what painters did with paint. Perhaps achieve even more, by exploiting the fundamental nature of the medium, which he knew must have its own unique idiosyncrasies. 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.
A few years later Elliott would proclaim in Photography Magazine "Photography is indisputably the most powerful visual art form ever devised by man." This was diametrically opposed to the general view of the populace, at the time.
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.
1971-1977 (Age 20 - 26)
Elliott Pioneers Photo Art - Way Ahead Of The Pack
Immediately following his great 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 and excitement. 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."
Certainly there was no-one else, even globally at the time, who was just creating Photo Art with a camera 24/7, with such creative intensity, substance and passion. And in spectacular colour. There was literally nowhere in the world one could look and say "Here are a group of artists creating photo art." There was nobody there. Photography was being used in multiple utilitarian ways. It was playing second fiddle to the main event. Not really seen as a thing in itself.
The best example would be celebrity photographs. The main thing is the celeb, the photographer is secondary, which is why Elliott doesn't do them. Elliott is central to his Art. That's how it should be.
Anyway, in the late 1960s there were a plethora of documentary photographers and a myriad of fashion photographers. Endless portrait photographers, advertising photographers, photo-journalists, architectural photographers, high street photographers, amateur photographers and so on, but not artists. They just weren't there. They couldn't be as there was no infrastructure, no photography galleries, no collectors of contemporary photography, no interest in photography as art, nothing. Photography was simply not recognised for what it was.
Elliott had an epiphany. He realised that Photography had massive unused potential as Art.
And not only was Photography art, it was the most powerful one.
As Elliott put it at the time:
"Photography is the most powerful visual art form ever devised by man."
(Photography Magazine 1975)
Better still, he could articulate why. Although he opted instead to walk his talk and just do the work.
His masterstroke was to create a canon of work of such creative intensity and stature,
that only a fool would question its status as 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 photo art 24/7.
As the magazine Photo Technique pointed out at the time "He does nothing else." Elliott was an artist from the very start. He poignantly described himself as 'A voice in the wilderness, howling into oblivion.' Considering his location on the edge of Dartmoor, the statement was literally and metaphorically poignant.
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 previously 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 is abundantly clear that right from the start Elliott's art was unlike any other and it wasn't long before Elliott's work started to get noticed by the media and the photographic cognoscenti.
His first published picture was this almost fairy-tale, immaculate Devonian village on Dartmoor. It was about 6 miles from where Elliott lived at the time.
At the beginning of the 70s Elliott was leading the way, creating countless new visual, creative techniques to expand the expressive capabilities of Photography. With 'A Vision In Blue' he used one of his innovations, which he termed 'Shadow Colouration'. This involved exposing the film to a precise amount of coloured light before exposure. Colouring the palette as it were. This yielded a magical quality with coloured shadows and soft gradation - the opposite of putting a filter over the lens (which yields increased contrast and coloured highlights). This innovation was later used to great effect in classic 'Remorse' in 1974. Elliott states that this picture was 'inexcusably inaesthetic' in its natural colours. As indeed was the scenario for 'Vision In Blue'. Elliott always found natural coloration rather boring and would often quip, 'Don't show me what I already know'.
In the Seventies, the general press and art world ignored serious photography, so the only outlet for great photography, was the photographic magazines and annuals. Elliott's first published picture was in 1972, not long after he started. This soon became a regular occurrence. Decades later people even started to complain about the fact that Elliott could appear 'in four photographic magazines at once', as one writer put it.
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 unmistakable 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 very tall at 180cm, in fact the same height as Elliott himself. Mars was 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 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 hold its own against the greatest modern artists."
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. And with each ensuing year became more and more convinced of this contention as he created greater and greater art, with photography and computers.
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 millimeter 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. Also, another factor was that Elliott used Kodachome. The quality was outstanding, but Kodak took 10 days to process and return it in the Seventies. So Elliott's studios were often tied up for weeks on end, making multiple work spaces essential. The artist often worked on six or more art photographs simultaneously.
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.