INTERVIEW WITH NADJA ELLINGER
by Alice Oliver
Nadja Ellinger is a visual artist who reveals the intricacies of storytelling and the oral tale. Inspired by her childhood of growing up in a small medieval village in the middle of Germany, Nadja spent most of her time outdoors in the forests and buried in books, falling deeply in love with storytelling, fairy tales, and folklore.
SOLA Journal founder, Alice Oliver, discusses Nadja's fascinating practice and her recent body of work ‘Path of Pins’, a visual re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood, revolving around adolescence and the ever-changing representation of female characters in folklore.
AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?
NE: I grew up in a small medieval village in the middle of Germany. We had a large, beautiful forest right on our doorstep where we played almost every day as children, often reenacting scenes from fantasy books or fairy tales we had read or heard. Every year there was also a medieval festival in our village, where many residents dressed accordingly and the whole town center was decorated with many stalls, performances, and games. Seeing this transformation every time was magical. When I was 12, at the beginning of my youth, I moved to Munich. That's probably why the forest is still a symbol of childhood and play for me today.
AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? Where did you study and what were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?
NE: When I was 16, I really wanted to work in film, so I often skipped school to work on productions or make my own movies. But then I slowly realised that film is often very concrete; through the dialogue, but also through the fact that it dictates what is to be seen and when. When I was 18, I began to concentrate more on photography and started studying photography when I was 20. At first, I actually focused on fashion photography - not even out of interest in fashion, but because it offered me the most creative leeway within the framework of the quite commercial course of studies. Following idols like Tim Walker, I photographed strongly narrative series and spent more and more time on research and preparation. Some of these fashion series were also heavily inspired by fairy tales at the time.
However, as I wanted to delve deeper into theory after graduating, I went on to do my Masters at the Royal College of Art. There I had the opportunity for the first time to deal very specifically with fairy tale research, especially in the context of art, and to finally find a language.
AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your body of work Path of Pins and the starting point for this project?
NE: I started the project by researching witches, which I find an absolutely fascinating subject, but I soon discovered it is a very large field. Therefore, I limited myself to witches in the field of folklore, such as the Baba Yaga, and returned to the fairy tales of my childhood and the female characters in them. What amazed me during my research was how much the characters and storylines have changed over the ages, and how much some authors adapted the fairy tales to their own ideals. The female characters, especially, have been altered a lot. While in the oral tradition they were often still rather ambiguous characters (Baba Yaga, for example), as the tales were written down for educational purposes, the characters were rewritten into very flat - good or evil - figures. This is how I came to look more closely at Little Red Riding Hood and how the fairy tale has changed throughout history. Nowadays, it's often the version by Perrault or the Brothers Grimm that people know, but there are countless variations and none can claim to be a true or original story.
In my work, my main focus is to create awareness that fairy tales are alive and evolving as folk tradition and to question how the female figure is represented and how we can reshape the narrative.
AO: Was Path of Pins a new step within your practice, or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?
NE: I think I have already dealt with many aspects unconsciously in earlier series, such as the question of determination and identity in my book project "But a mermaid has no tears,” which is based on the literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. However, this is the first project that has a great deal of research behind it and where I have formulated many of the themes for the first time.
AO: How did the Pandemic and lockdowns affect your photographic practice, were you still able to produce your work as before or has your practice evolved from these limitations?
NE: I was very lucky to spend the lockdown with my parents in the countryside, so I actually had a lot of time to spend shooting in nature. What I found intriguing was how everything moved into digital space, and I thought a lot about spatiality and digitalisation. Path of Pins was originally planned as a room installation for my master's exhibition, but initially it could only be held online. The original idea was to create a labyrinth of images in which the viewer, now as co-author, has to find their own way in the story, thus creating their own narrative.
I then spent some time thinking about how to translate this experience into the digital. With a friend, Robert Mondry, I built an interactive website where visitors could interact with the images collaboratively, and contribute their own texts. I found it exciting to see how much fairy tales and the concept of the internet have in common, such as the collaborative, democratic approach and the blurring of the line between author and viewer.
AO: Storytelling is a large part of your practice, please can you expand on the role of storytelling or narrative within photography as a whole, as well as your individual practice?
NE: I think storytelling can serve many purposes. On the one hand, it opens up the perspective of utopias, allowing us not only to reflect on the current situation, but also to define possible goals. Utopias are essential to question the old and to find new ways.
Furthermore (and this is what my work is primarily concerned with), storytelling provides a way to manifest abstract ideas. Just as the fairy tale itself is told and retold, storytelling can be a repetition of an abstract concept that formed itself internally. The exciting thing for me is the process of translation, which I also amplify by transforming an oral story first into a visual one, and then later into a spatial one. Every translation process contains errors and inaccuracies that open up a new space in which things manifest themselves that perhaps would not find a formulation in any of the mediums alone.
AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photo books and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?
NE: My work is also strongly concerned with the question of authorship. Fairy tales are common good, and art itself also thrives strongly on the process of retelling and referencing. This process can only happen in a communal setting though. That's why it's important for me to find a medium that expresses this aspect of collaboration where I have to lose control of the narration back to the viewer. So, I work mainly with installations that allow the viewer to contribute to or change the narrative themselves. I don't think a conventional photo book would do the project justice, but I would like to experiment more with the medium in the future.
AO: Please can you share with us some of your favourite photo books or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?
NE: Even though it’s not a photobook, what shaped my view on fairy tales deeply are the books by scholar Jack Zipes, who researched folklore and its impact on society throughout his life. Other researchers and writers that inspired this project are Donald W. Winnicott, Angela Carter, Maria Tatar and Carol Mavor. Visually I’m inspired by the works of Kiki Smith, Tim Walker, Daria Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Esther Teichmann and Marianna Simnett.