Through the Pages with Ellen Cantor

“Huckleberry Finn,” by Ellen Cantor

Slipping Under the Covers

…and glancing between the lines with Ellen Cantor

A library is a dwelling place for books, and in books dwell ideas. Books themselves, the best ones, at least, don’t need to feel or smell new, but they do need to feel or smell timeless. Perhaps that’s why Ellen Cantor’s photography exhibit, “Prior Pleasures,” seems right at home in the Peninsula Center Library.

Comprised of 22 images, “Prior Pleasures” gives the viewer a delightfully startling glimpse into numerous literary classics, although the overriding theme has to do with memory, aging, and the passage of time.

“I started out with 12 books from my childhood,” Cantor says. “Six were my mother’s from the 1920s, and six were mine.” Using a multiple exposure technique, in which endpapers, text, and illustrations are individually photographed, it’s as if the pages have fluttered open and we can view much of the contents all at once.

Ellen Cantor. Photo

Text and texture

“The idea was to create a legacy of these books for the future,” Cantor adds, “because so many people are reading on e-readers and I wanted to express that there is a place beyond e-readers, a place for books in our home, on our shelves. And these sat on my shelves for probably 50 years.”

Most of the books in “Prior Pleasures” are beloved, then and now, by young adults: “Alice in Wonderland,” “Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates,” “Heidi,” “Little Women,” “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” “Kidnapped,” “Treasure Island,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and more. Presumably no Dostoevsky or James Joyce. Altogether, Cantor has completed 29 photographs for this series.

And it has, incidentally, proved quite popular. Other venues have or will be showing selections: dnj gallery at Bergamot Station, the Spartanburg Museum of Art in South Carolina, and the Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts. Later it flies to Italy as well.

“My Bookhouse,” photograph by Ellen Cantor

Clearly, you have an abiding affection for books.

“It came from my love of literature,” Cantor says. “Just walking through the library today reminded me that as a child I walked to the library every week, took out books, joined the summer reading class,” and then, years later, “always read to my children; my children read to their children. Reading and books have just been an important part of my life.”

There’s nothing like holding a real book.

“Right. The tactile experience of reading a book, of actually turning the pages, or looking at the cover. All the illustrations in these books are really beautiful. They have these beautiful endpapers which you just don’t find today. And they’re all classics that people still read.”

Her words are reminiscent of lines in “Bento’s Sketchbook,” by the late John Berger:

“People hold books in a special way–like they hold nothing else. They hold them not like inanimate things but like ones that have gone to sleep. Children often carry toys in the same manner.”

“Nancy Drew,” photograph by Ellen Cantor

Third career’s a charm

Ellen Cantor has lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula for 44 years, the vast majority of that time in Rolling Hills Estates. She’s originally from Chicago, and attended the University of Illinois. Her first career was as an elementary school teacher, but she came to California, to UCLA, to study interior design, which would become her profession for 35 years.

Early on, however, Cantor and her husband moved back to Chicago from the South Bay: “It was 14 below and my daughter was born and we (realized), ‘We made a mistake.’ Then we came back in 1972.”

Now, as for picking up a camera: “About 16 years ago I started taking photographs,” Cantor says. “So this is my third career.”

The interest in photography “kind of happened by accident.” On vacations, Cantor’s husband took most of the pictures, but she always took a few as well and claimed that hers were better. Eventually her husband “challenged me to take a class, to learn how to use the camera, not just (relying on) a good eye. So I took a few classes locally, and I loved it.”

But of course she didn’t become a fine art photographer overnight.

“Heidi,” photograph by Ellen Cantor

“I started out like most people,” Cantor says. “I took my camera to the botanic gardens or downtown; I did architecture and trees and grass and flowers and landscapes. Then about seven years ago I had a back problem; I was no longer able to carry my tripod and my camera out in nature.” This was disheartening, as she loved photographing outdoors.

“So I started doing still-lifes at home, and that led me on this journey which I had no idea where it would take me, to (become) a fine art photographer.

“The first series that I did related to my back,” Cantor says. She called it “Unorthodox Anatomy,” and this writer saw the work some years ago at Lauren Kilgore’s gallery in San Pedro. “I did sculptures out of fruits and vegetables,” she continues, noting that she could do her still-lifes without leaving home. Also, “I was able to control things; I could do it when I wanted to do it.”

The journey continues

“The creative skills that I had from being a designer and the skills I used as a teacher,” Cantor says, “I’ve taken and applied them to my photography. One plus one equals two, right? So I feel that my previous professions have helped me in this profession.”

“I Have No Way to See Them,” from the series “I Can Only Remember What I Don’t Forget,” by Ellen Cantor

Meaning that Cantor has several other projects currently brewing, one of which she’s titled, “I Can Only Remember What I Don’t Forget;” and like “Prior Pleasures” it also explores memory, especially as sparked by old photographs.

“People are taking millions of photographs today and they’re all on their phone,” she says. “There’s not going to be little photo books, photo albums. How are people, how are my children and grandchildren, going to share their photos in the future? So I’m trying to create an idea that there’s importance to these photographs that we’ve had come up to us.”

They could take their memory cards to Costco and make prints, I point out, and then pick up a photo album while they’re at it.

“Alice in Wonderland,” photograph by Ellen Cantor

“But they don’t,” Cantor replies. “I’m kind of guilty of the same thing,” adding that she has thousands of images on her computer but ends up printing a select few. “And yet my grandchildren love to come over and look at the old photo albums. And I think that idea is going to disappear.”

So this particular project, she says, is to “remind people that there was a life before technology, that people did have a different way of sharing. Maybe it’s just as good today, I’m not making a value judgement one way or the other. But we look back at our parents or our grandparents, and they got by without items we take for granted.”

Looking back, Cantor could not have anticipated this third act in her professional life.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a photographer; I didn’t go to college to be a photographer. I somehow fell into this journey, and it’s changed me, made me see the world in a different way, and it’s been exciting for me to have a new career and to explore what I’m interested in. That’s the amazing thing to me.”

Ellen Cantor elaborates on her photography at 2 p.m. on Saturday in the Peninsula Center Library, 701 Silver Spur Road, Rolling Hills Estates. Free. Prior Pleasures, curated by Ketzie Diaz, is on view through March 12. Call (310) 377-9584 or go to ER


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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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