Fading Reefs: Using Process To Tell A Story

By Elizabeth Ellenwood

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of coral reefs. In 1992, my family sailed from Florida to the Bahamas. I still remember my five-year-old self mesmerized by the crystal-clear water and the world of creatures living beneath its surface. My “class time” consisted of snorkeling and observing the reefs: fish of all sizes darting in and out of vibrant coral structures, conch shells glistening and nurse sharks gently resting on the sandy sea floor, jellyfish camouflaging with the water, and, on the lucky days, spiny lobsters emerging from their caves. I was witnessing a thriving ecosystem. This formative childhood experience cultivated in me a lifelong love of the ocean. Less than 30 years later, the coral reef ecosystems are collapsing or have fully collapsed as a result of climate change. Now, as a practicing artist, I feel an urgency to help protect and bring attention to the vital reef systems that sparked my interest in the ocean.

Elizabeth Ellenwood snorkeling in the Bahamas, 1992.

Climate change means ocean change. The ocean’s temperature is warming, it is becoming more acidic, sea level is rising, and storm patterns and precipitation are changing. All of these factors individually create stress for corals. Combined, they have demolished the reef systems that have flourished for centuries. The coral reefs of my childhood memories are bleaching, and entire ocean ecosystems are vanishing due to the loss of their habitats.

Fading Reefs 1, Anthotype made with beets.

The term “coral bleaching” has bounced around news headlines for years, but it took documentaries like Chasing Coral and Mission Blue to inspire me to dig deeper into the science. Corals get their colors from pigment-rich algae that live within their tissues. The coral-algae partnership is symbiotic, each supporting one another. When stressed from the ocean changes, the algae are expelled from the coral, revealing the white coral skeleton underneath. This bleaching triggers a domino effect: all living organisms that relied on the reef habitat either vacate or die, from the smallest plankton to the largest predator. The reef system is rapidly turning into a wasteland; no corals, no fish. This devastation is taking place on a massive scale and at a rapid rate, with nearly half of the world’s coral reefs bleached or severely damaged.

Fading Reefs 2, Anthotype made with blackberries.

This devastation has swept through coral reefs in the Bahamas – the very ones that brought me so much childhood joy. I feel a loss for the diverse ecosystems that depended on the corals. Caught in a vortex of pollution, rising temperatures, acidification, and overfishing, thinking about humanity’s destruction of our waterways can be paralyzing. But to improve our relationship with the ocean and bring about positive change, we must fully understand the effects of our actions.

My research on coral reef bleaching led to the creation of my series, Fading Reefs. I am inspired by the biology of corals, driven by sadness for the loss of the reefs from my childhood, and compelled to shed light on this destructive cycle. It is important to me to create based on science and in a sustainable way, using environmentally friendly processes and as few materials as possible. One of the oldest photographic processes, the anthotype, uses the light sensitivity of plants and sunlight to create an image. Because these prints fade over time, it is difficult to research historical images, though documents and research track its emergence from 1816 to 1844.

Fading Reefs 3, Anthotype made with red cabbage.

I see the process of coral bleaching and the anthotype process as linked together. Making anthotypes requires time and patience. This process begins with crushing or juicing a plant to create the light-sensitive emulsion. A piece of paper is then soaked in the liquid and dried, absorbing the pigment of the plant. An image on transparency film is placed on top of the color-stained paper and then placed in direct sunlight. The image develops and appears on the page as the sunlight bleaches the pigment in the exposed areas of the plant emulsion. This is a very slow process; depending on the plant used and the strength of the sun, the printing can take days, weeks, or even months. Once developed, anthotype images will fade over time, especially if they are exposed to UV light. There is no way to make them permanent, which I see as a beautiful quality to embrace. 

In the 1800s, anthotypes were stored in what they called “night albums” and only viewed by candlelight to help preserve the images. Some artists build boxes or use black fabric over their framed piece to protect the prints while they are on display. When Fading Reefsis exhibited, I embrace the impermanence of the process and leave my prints uncovered to speak to the vulnerability of the corals. The anthotype process is a perfect way to tell the reefs’ stories, the bleaching pigment in the prints refers to the devastating loss of pigment-rich algae that not only give corals their colors, but most importantly keep them alive. The prints in Fading Reefs are delicate, time sensitive, and beautiful – just like our ocean’s coral reefs.

Elizabeth Ellenwood with anthotype in process, photograph by Tim Martin.

Just as the algae is crucial to the corals’ survival, the corals are vital to the oceans, and the oceans are integral to human life. It is possible many of us will go our entire lives without actually seeing a living coral reef, but we must work urgently to save these necessary ecosystems. Corals not only support an underwater ecosystem, they also provide for life above the water’s surface. Reef structures provide crucial protection from storms for coastal areas and offer an abundance of food that we consume. Studying individual corals and organisms living within the reefs even helps advance medical technology and treatments. No corals means an unhealthy and unbalanced ocean, which affects the entirety of the world. 

Fading Reefs 5, Anthotype made with red cabbage.

We all have skills and abilities that can help our coral reefs and waterways. Small actions have the potential to contribute to global impacts. Paying attention to what we consume, where we shop, and what organizations we support can support a thriving ecosystem. While half the world’s coral reefs have been negatively impacted, the remaining fifty percent desperately need our help. We need to get creative in our conversations and solutions, ultimately bringing awareness to and helping to protect these very special underwater worlds.

While Fading Reefs started with my memories and my call to action, it is ultimately about our shared world, our oceans, and our shared responsibility. It is my hope that my anthotype prints will not only act as a reminder of the rare and precious life that exists in our oceans, but also provide insight and perspective on coral reefs, inspiring viewers to become involved in ocean conservation and compelling individuals to acknowledge that the fate of the oceans and of humanity are woven tightly together.

(Top Image: Fading Reefs 4, Anthotype made with red cabbage.)

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Elizabeth Ellenwood uses photography to visually explore and bring attention to critical environmental issues. She is a recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Student Research Grant and an American Scandinavian Grant. Her recent solo exhibition at The Alexey von Schlippe Gallery was supported by a Connecticut Sea Grant Art Support Award. Elizabeth’s work was recently exhibited at The Newport Art Museum, Panopticon Gallery and The Vermont Center of Photography. Elizabeth received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from The New Hampshire Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of Connecticut.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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