Interviewsand Articles


Portfolio: Elaine Ling

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 13, 2011



 An unexpected email from artist Marshall Berman, with a couple of jpegs, inviting me to a lecture by Elaine Ling at City College San Francisco was the spark that sent me to Google to find out more about this intriguing photographer. I realized I'd seen her work somewhere else, a series shot in the Namib desert as it turned out, a couple of years before. I'd looked at the work with great interest and then, as happens all the time, had moved on. 
     This time, I didn't want to move on. What were the chances I might get in touch with her? And would she let us publish some of her photos? Yes! I selected the images reproduced here from a fairly extensive selection one can browse through on Ling's website. It was tough to narrow it down to these few with so many elegant and moving images to choose from. But because of the content in our interview with Peter Kingsley in this issue, I was especially moved to include four of her striking photos from Mongolia. 
     From her website, I learned that Ling was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Canada since the age of nine. The landscape and geography of Canada made a deep impression and formed a basis for what later drew her into photography. 
     She studied the piano, the cello and medicine. Upon graduating from medical school, Elaine worked as a family physician with special interest in the First Nation populations of northern Canada. Her practice was based in specialized northern hospitals and she flew into isolated communities, from the eastern to the western Arctic, from the northeast coast of Newfoundland to the northwest coast of British Columbia. 
     Having a natural affinity to the Ojibwa, the Cree, the Inuit, the Kwakiutl, and the Haida, Elaine's images from this part of her life mark the beginning of her 20-year journey in photography. Seeking the solitude of deserts and the abandoned architecture of ancient cultures, Ling has 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 and the American Southwest and the citadels of Persepolis, Petra, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and Zimbabwe, she has captured that dialogue.
     Photographer Mark Klett writes, "Elaine Ling's photographs of Mongolia complete a full circle in her life. Her ancestry, her work as a doctor caring for native peoples, her background in music and her mastery of photography converge to yield this beautiful volume. She makes great photographs in one of the world's most remote places: this is photographic field-work in its finest form." 
     About the baobab trees, she writes that she was intrigued not only by these startling giants in themselves but also by the role they play in the lives of their human neighbors in the arid and infertile regions of Africa, Madagascar and Australia.
     About Ling's new book, Mongolia: Land of the Deer Stone, Edward Burtynsky writes, "With her photographs, Elaine Ling has taken us around the world to some of the most exquisite examples of those marks left behind many years ago. Using light to capture stone, Ling reminds us that we are all rooted inexorably to this third rock from the sun. This is at once an ancient and timeless preoccupation that touches all civilizations."

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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