Focus on the collection: Elaine Ling

Elaine Ling, Baobab #24, Madagascar, 2010

Elaine Ling, Baobab #24, Madagascar, 2010, ink jet print, 75.9 x 101.6 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Estate of Elaine Ling. Photo: NGC

Elaine Ling, Baobab #13, South Africa, 2009

Elaine Ling, Baobab #13, South Africa, 2009, ink jet print, 76.1 x 101.5 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Estate of Elaine Ling. Photo: NGC

#24 Madagascar and #13 South Africa from the series Baobab, Tree of Generations (2008–2010)

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.

As an adult, Ling’s travels were driven by curiosity, often initiated by something she had read or heard about. In relation to her Baobab, Tree of Generations series, Ling was initially bound for Timbuktu in Mali, when she saw her first baobab tree. She decided to visit other trees in Madagascar and in South Africa’s Limpopo Province.

The baobab is considered sacred by many groups; entire villages are entrusted with their care. The trees are famous for their longevity, some living more than a thousand years. They can also grow to a substantial size, with the largest-known tree measuring forty-seven metres in circumference.

Ling’s photographs are highly aesthetic, exploring questions of a spiritual nature through exacting formal means. Her photographs reflect a deft melding of her inner, spiritual journey with the outer, physical activity of travel. Ling counterpoints these otherworldly inquiries to those of a more material nature, referencing the physicality of the medium through the frame of the Polaroid negative and her choice of paper.

Ling 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. In addition, her choice of Hahnemühle Photo Rag 308gsm (a heavy, matte paper) results in rich blacks and midtones.

Ling’s work has a strong formal structure, and her body of work features images expressing both documentary and poetic visual qualities. Through these means, she reveals the remarkable within the ordinary.


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Born in Hong Kong, Elaine Ling and her family emigrated to Canada when she was nine years old. A medical doctor by profession, Ling was also an accomplished cellist. 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 work has received numerous awards, and has been widely exhibited and published. Her photographs are found in the permanent collections of many museum and private collections across Canada and around the world.

In the words of the artist:

“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. The young men can work in the mines and make a lot more money than herding their cattle. As ways of life are transient, photography has the role and privilege of capturing something that's disappearing.”

Interview with Photographer Elaine Ling: Remote Wonders

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Supported by the Scotiabank Photography Program
at the National Gallery of Canada



Soutenu par le Programme de photographie de
la Banque Scotia au Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Banque Scotia