Ellen Watson: Finding Freedom Through the Lens

The Sag Harbor Express

Red Tractor by Ellen Watson.

By Dawn Watson

Article in Sag Harbor Express

Growing up in the Midwest, Ellen Watson was surrounded by nature. Riding bikes around the neighborhood as a kid, running around with friends in her hometown, and making expeditions to the beach were experiences to savor.

Eventually she moved away to Manhattan, where she pursued work in the field of photography. The natural world was more difficult to access in the city, but the joyful memories of time spent outdoors never left her.

To her, being outside was, and still is, freedom.

Chive Flowers by Ellen Watson.

Moving out to the East End in the early 1990s allowed Ms. Watson to reengage with the simple pleasures of her youth. Her great love of nature was reawakened, and she found herself outside again, camera in hand, documenting the world around her.

Farms, in particular, have held her interest more than anything else.

“Getting access to farms is my great passion,” she said during a series of interviews last week, which included a friendly visit to Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, where her one-woman show, “For the Love of the Land,” had just been mounted. The exhibition, a celebration of the thriving farming community of the East End, opens with a reception on Sunday, August 9, from 4 to 6 p.m. and will remain on view through September 28.

The East Hampton resident began visiting farms not long after she moved here, she says. The first belonged to Colin Ambrose, who at the time was operating Estia Cantina on Main Street in Amagansett. His garden, located behind the eatery, held the photographer in thrall.

“I was completely drawn to the fields, the light, the produce, the rough hands and many more details,” she remembers. “But mostly, I was drawn to the fact that he was growing food RIGHT THERE. It was being harvested and brought in the back door of his restaurant and served within hours.”

One of the pictures Ms. Watson shot during her initial foray was of Mr. Ambrose in the field with her son, Ned. Not quite 2 years old at the time, the little boy, now a senior at Bennington College in Vermont, had gathered an assortment of beets and tucked them under his arm, the photographer says. She added that she discovered the image this past winter when perusing through old film negatives, in search of a particular one that Mr. Ambrose had requested when he asked her to hang her work at Estia’s in Sag Harbor.

Fresh Herbs 2008 by Ellen Watson.

“It made me cry when I saw it,” she said of the picture. “The beets were almost as big as he was.”

That particular photo wont be offered for sale but the other food-and-farm-based pieces, which range in size from 16-by-20 inches up to 24-by-36 inches, will be. Printed on aluminum, acrylic and standard photo paper, the photographs range in price from $400 to $800.

Farms, fields and food captivate her, Ms. Watson explains. And it goes well beyond just making pretty pictures.

“It is hard to put into words why I am so focused on the farming community … I believe that part of it comes from some of the ideas that made a great impression on me as a kid: give to others, feed the hungry, help the hopeless,” she says, adding that she volunteered at a soup kitchen as a teenager. Making the lives of others better by sharing good food with them stuck with her, she reports, and the regular weekly experiences formed some of her fondest memories of being with family and working together for the good of the community.

Portrait of Cabbage Leaf by Ellen Watson.

Mr. Ambrose, a supporter of local talent and a number of grassroots philanthropic organizations that benefit those in need, said that he’s thrilled to showcase Ms. Watson’s work. “We like to share all that we think is good on the East End: farm fields, fresh food and smiling faces,” he says.

Reaching the culmination of “For the Love of the Land,”, which is replete with images from Mr. Ambrose’s restaurant garden, the first of its kind that she photographed here on the East End, evokes feelings of nostalgia and satisfaction, Ms. Watson adds.

“Here we are, together again, nurturing people with food and hospitality,” she says of joining forces with Mr. Ambrose. “We’re coming full circle. Which is kind of like what farming and growing are all about.”

“For the Love of the Land: Photographs by Ellen Watson” will open with a reception at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor on Sunday, August 9, from 4 to 6 p.m. The show will hang through September 28. For additional information, visit www.ellenwatsonphotography.com and www.estias.com.