I improvise. It’s my greatest talent. I prefer situations to plans, you see. . . Really, I’ve had to deal with givens. I can sort a great deal of information, and . . . very quickly.
—William Gibson, Neuromancer

Elliott McDowell has long been one of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most entertaining photographers known for his finely crafted images that abound with wonders, insights and riddles.

In the 1970’s McDowell was an expert at traditional photography techniques, acclaimed for his impeccably printed photographs of quirky and playful subjects. A collection of these classic black and white works, including Fleetwood, New Mexico appeared in the the book Photographs: Elliott McDowell (1981).

Over the years McDowell’s silver prints evolved into a stunning new body of jewel colored digital photographs that resemble miniature stage sets of dreams and fairy tales. McDowell constructs these magical works from his vast collection of color slides and digital imagery. A collection of these photographs can be found in his book Mystical Dreamscapes (2009).

“No scene that Elliott McDowell depicts ever existed. His images emerge from inside his head. Only child, inveterate fantasist, he’s most at home in the spirit world. At age six, looking into a Brownie camera, he marveled to discover “a real safe place.”

He tried becoming a classic American photographer, lens-faithful with black and white. The straight, “f-64” style was good training in technical perfection. But conventional photographic realism didn’t interest him for long. He was drawn to Jerry Uelsmann’s revolutionary combination printing. The seamless joinings of figures, landscapes, and interiors conjured worlds beyond normal perceptive consciousness, beyond “the thing itself” or the banalities of decisive moments. Surrealism was marginal in the American photographic credo. Visionary, addict of the super-real, McDowell prefers the margin. His sources are art history, spiritual literature, the silence of redwood forests, and Robert Monroe’s workshops that directed him in out-of-body experiences.

McDowell is a digital painter, surgical splicer of non-sequiturs. He collects these informational bits in slide transparencies by the thousands, and like a painter, chooses and arranges them, like colors from a palette. Whether the photographic bits originated in Missouri, Ireland, Italy, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, French catacombs, or a Paris hotel is unimportant. His “trees” may have been painted on an old vase. His “suns” may belong to some bibelot from his vast collection of ornamental objects. Combined, they become virtual geographies, virtual light and weather, cooked up mosaics resembling tarot cards or mandalas. Extremely plastic, like out-of-body experiences, his “places” are off the edge of the known Map. As mystical dream scapes, they evoke fairy tale settings where it’s eerily damp and wizards speak in rhyme.

Comfortable with these energy systems, he chooses colors like those of television: kaleidoscopic, flashy, decadent. Lurid electric blues and greens, tropical pinks, Arizona reds collide in magnetic force-fields. He invents a new kind of hot-core romance of layers, motion blur, radial blur and lowered opacity. Nothing is inviolate. His consuming question: how subtle a form can these manipulations take? “Christ, you think that looks real?” cries Case, in Neuromancer, to which his girl friend replies, “Naw, but it looks like you care enough to fake it.”

McDowell cares enough to amuse and confuse with visual contradictions. Bringing to photography non-physical energies, silver paths of the nerves, he toys with the fact that we and the world are more than mere bodies. “We stopped what you call ‘dying’ a long time ago,” the elementals in his acid-green woods might say. “Eat? Sleep? I gave those up years back.” He works best in winter. When the weather is nasty, cold, and dark, he shuts himself away, plying his enchantments like an alchemist.” — Eugenia Parry, Author/Professor

Elliott at Plaza Blanca, 1977

Elliott at Plaza Blanca, 1977