Cortes Island photographer David Ellingsen has a fair bit of internal conflict as a proud, self-described environmentalist whose family history is in logging old growth trees.
In fact, Ellingsen’s family name is attached to one of the historic leaps forward in west coast logging, the Ellingsen jack, which largely replaced the Gilchrist jack as the go-to tool for taking huge felled logs out of the soggy coastal woods more efficiently.
“But while my father was taking down and milling trees, he was also working towards getting a sustainable, eco-forestry program going on Cortes Island, putting the local community in charge of the rate of harvest on any public lands on the island,” Ellingsen says. “He was thinking not only about the present, where you need people to have jobs and make money to live within the culture that we’ve created, but also looking towards the future and realizing that current system of forestry in B.C. and reflected all around the world, for the most part, is not sustainable for the long term.
“I guess, growing up as his son, that kind of had an impact on me.”
That impact tugged at him all throughout his time plying his trade as a commercial photographer in the Lower Mainland. He knew that wasn’t where he needed to be and what he needed to be doing. He knew he was an artist at heart, and decided to shift into using his photography talents to tell the stories he knew needed to be told.
One of his current exhibitions, entitled The Last Stand, is on display at the Museum at Campbell River right now. It’s a collection of works depicting, in some ways, his family history. It’s also a series of portraits, although it may not look like it at first glance.
Because when you hear the word “portrait,” you likely don’t picture a photo of a stump in the woods.
But as Ellingsen was growing up on Cortes Island, walking through the woods on his way to school during his formative years, he saw the stumps he passed, and the springboard notches looked back at him like eyes. And having focused mainly in portraiture during his commercial photography career, he naturally gravitated towards continuing to create “portraits” of the places he photographs for his artistic work, like the forests of Cortes.
In some ways, the collection is an examination of his own internal conflict with his family’s history. It’s both a mourning of the loss of these majestic trees and a celebration of what their harvest gave the world.
“I really believe everyone is doing the best we can in the time that we live in with the gifts that we’re given,” Ellingsen says. “My grandfather was a logger who provided for his family and was working within the system that was in place at the time. That system is changing. This work reflects that, in a way.
“I also see it as reflection of the greater cognitive and cultural dissonance that we all experience in this time that we’re in. The consumerist and capitalist culture and lifestyle that we’re living, looks like, for all intents and purposes, like it’s not going to work out as we’d anticipated in the long run. People are starting to realize this now and realizing we’re going to need a shift in our society if we’re going to improve the situation that we’re in.”
Ellingsen says the exhibition isn’t necessarily a “call to action,” but he does hope it will make people think. And that’s the first step towards change.
“My hope is that contemplation will lead to action,” he says. “We are in such an emergency situation now when it comes to the climate. It’s at the point where we can’t stop it, we can only mitigate it. We need to get people on the side of sustainability.”
The Last Stand has been in the gallery at the museum for some time now, but the show will officially “open” with an artist talk by Ellingsen during the upcoming Art & Earth Festival at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21. He’ll be talking about not only this particular show, but also his work in general, what he’s looking to explore as he moves forward in his career, and will be happy to answer questions from the public about his work, photography in general, or anything else on their mind. The Last Stand will be on display in the museum gallery until Nov. 10.