December 6, 2018

Couple Goals with Denelle and Tom Ellis

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn. 

Working out of their Peanut Factory Studio, the Hackney Wick-based photographer duo Denelle and Tom Ellis manufacture a warped blend of 1970s suburbia, kitsch, and other types of pop culture. Their studio, which doubles as their home, is something like a tongue-in-cheek riff on Andy Warhol’s Factory loft—one that pumps out nostalgic daydreams.

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For their holiday series, Denelle and Tom recall that upon meeting they quickly shared a vision of wanting to open a studio that they would live and work in. Denelle remembers wanting to basically meet a guy and take pictures of their life. The two bonded over this vision. But within a month of marriage, Denelle underwent surgery, which kicked this plan down the road a bit. Afterward, to finance their personal projects, the newlyweds began taking any commercial they could find, whether it was band photography or gigs for local magazines. This past summer, the two finally put their money in savings to see what sort of original work they could make together.

The results are an amalgam of their personal styles. Whereas Tom had been lighting sets for professional photographers for years, Denelle had recently graduated from the Ontario School of Art and Design with a fine arts degree in photography. Denelle says that Tom’s practical experience and her background in thinking in terms of artistic bodies of work proved complementary.

“When we started working together, it was really trying to craft our life together, and figure out how we wanted to light things, and how we wanted everything to be shot and feel,” says Tom. “We made the decision to shoot on analog almost immediately, so that was something that really influenced our aesthetic. The process became autobiographical,” he adds. “And that influenced how we composed each of the shots and the stories we were telling, which were little snippets of things that happened to us.”

The nostalgic atmosphere of ’70s decor and kitsch that permeates the Ellis’ first body of work, Just Married, isn’t a complete simulated reality. Denelle says that the two built their home, situated inside a warehouse, to have that interior design aesthetic. And beyond the space, the two have a close-knit group of creative professional collaborators to help design their quirky time capsule sets. “We have a lot of things we horde away at the studio and then use,” says Denelle. “We have a great food and prop stylist, who tells great stories about that.”

“Yeah, Lucy Cooper, our props stylist, and then Francesco Napolitano, who is our set builder,” says Tom, who also named stylist Billy Tempest-Radford, hairstylist Sam Beadle, makeup artist Wilma Stigon and filmmaker Ruby Brown as other frequent collaborators. “We all collaborate and come up with these ideas. And to be honest, a lot of the ’70s aesthetic that has come into it as well, for us, felt quite natural because it is a quite good reflection on couples having trouble during that time.”

Denelle says they were interested in the thought of this time period being a golden era—how people look back at the 1970s with a sort of obsessive nostalgia that it was a great time to be alive. For Denelle and Tom, this was the perfect era in which to situate their utopic marriage. Since many photographs from the 1970s, whether instant analog or some other film format, depict families and friends celebrating holidays, it was only natural that Denelle and Tom would cook up something great for a series focused on the holiday seasons. Indeed, what else would a couple of newlyweds do but get fabulously festive during the holidays?

Typically, Denelle and Tom use a Mamiya RB67 medium format camera for their photo shoots. More recently they’ve incorporated a Polaroid SX-70 to improvise scenes before capturing the final images, which is the camera they used on the holidays series. In this body of work, Denelle, Tom and others—all done up in outrageous makeup and fashion—celebrate amidst a turkey, appetizers, New Year’s Eve party favors, pies and decor full of warm colors and wood paneling. “We just had a potluck dinner party, a sort of Abigail’s Party theme,” Denelle explains. “Abigail’s Party is a really big British play from the ’70s.”

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“Our Just Married series was kind of like a satirical honeymoon album, and we have different projects on the go within our world as these characters progress,” Tom adds. “What we did here for the holiday season is a dinner party around the festive period with a couple who are using their wedding crockery and stuff.”

Ultimately, the holiday season has three scenes—preparation, celebration, and the morning after. In the final scene, Denelle and Tom are curled up on the couch looking at instant analog photographs from the night before. “We’re thinking about the relationship between a man and a woman, this coupling idea, and this idea about it being perfect,” Denelle muses. “And there is the fact that we’re making the images ourselves and it being self-reflexive—there is a lot to it.”

“With this series, we found that there was a lot relating to what was going in our own experiences,” adds Tom. “It’s kind of that idea of how we’re supposed to be as a couple and about what we want to do.”

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