She receives her assignment along with her partner for her latest project. She arrives at her destination: a block in downtown Phoenix. Upon her arrival, she sees an open, abandoned field with parking meters and chain link fences.
She must make something out of nothing. A light bulb goes off. Drawing on creativity and a little bit of humor, an Entertainment Tonight spoof is formed.
Using her connections and years of experience, she has a journalist interview a parking meter. The scene is set through the eyes of the parking meter.
Photographer Ellen Barnes was involved with “26 Blocks;” a project that is being displayed in the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Phoenix. 26 Blocks was co-sponsored by ASU Humanities Lecture series in the College of Letters and Sciences.
“You were assigned a block, so you were to basically — there weren’t any limitations placed on it,” Barnes says of the project. “You were to photograph the block and interpret it in a way myself and the writer did.”
Even though the 26 Blocks project hasn’t been around for long, Barnes has had her fair share of experience in the photography business. She got her first camera at 11 years old and was first published at just 16 years old. Starting out as a photojournalist, she went on to photograph fashion all the while incorporating those techniques in her work.
“Photography is a lot about watching and anticipating and you kind of get into a flow that way,” the 59-year-old says. “In journalism you have to think on your feet a lot and … I started out in that and actually I’ve kind of come full circle and that’s where my heart is today.”
She adds, “I stepped aside from the photojournalism path, but incorporated that angle of it into my fashion photography.”
Through her career as a photographer, Barnes says she’s had the opportunity to photograph and work with great people over the years.
“In the late 80s, I shot Cindy Crawford a couple times and Kim Alexis — these are names that were very big girls back then,” Barnes says. “That’s very exciting and inspiring when you work with someone on that level.”
Despite having a multifaceted career, her parents couldn’t help her get a foot in the door. Barnes says her father worked in advertising and her mother designed fashion illustrations and dabbled in photography.
“There’s no paving of the way in the business,” Barnes says. “It doesn’t work that way and I found out because—the business is based on relationships. You get hired for your vision and you get hired a lot of times for your personality as well as your pictures.”
She adds, “The photography part of it is really 50 percent … people want to hire who they want to hire and because my father is who he is that makes no difference.”
In addition to her paid work, Barnes has volunteered her talent, which has allowed her to come back to photojournalism. She says she’s been able to travel to India, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Barnes enjoys photographing those who volunteer their time too, such as doctors. That is where her heart is.
Although she’s been able to see the world through her camera lens, Barnes says it can be a lot to handle.
“I’ve gotten to travel a lot with different clients and experience a lot of things that I never would’ve got the chance to experience it before and get paid for it,” she says. “It’s not all happy, happy. It’s very demanding and it does take a little bit of toll.”
Barnes says nothing is ever typical in photography and it’s all new everyday. One of those ever-changing elements of the job is lighting, which is where Barnes has found her forte.
“Photography, a very big component of it, is the lighting and I learned to light by observing light and most people don’t pay attention to the light,” she says. “The light has a life of its own. It is alive. It moves. It has its being in any kind of situation and it has the ability to make the picture alive.”
Barnes’ client, Dorinda McCarthy, has known her for about 10 years and says their relationship started with a cold call after she saw Barnes’ work in a publication. McCarthy, a freelance art director, says Barnes’ eye for lighting is prevalent in her work.
“Her photography always had amazing quality of the light — just shimmer in her shot,” McCarthy says. “I really liked that and her shots always had a continuity to them. They didn’t look forced or posed. They looked very natural.”
Fashion stylist Carole Cotten has worked with Barnes for many years on various projects. Their relationship started out as business partners, but has since flourished into a friendship.
Cotten says Barnes is an excellent photographer who knows what she’s doing and doesn’t just take a picture.
“What she’s so good at doing is bringing out their personality and bringing out the joy in their eyes,” Cotten says.
Through the years, Barnes has continued to produce outstanding results when McCarthy has called on her.
“Ellen has a real string sense of style and fashion—what’s current, what isn’t. What looks good what doesn’t,” McCarthy says. “I always use her as a barometer because I did a lot of lifestyle, fashion with her.
She adds, “Some photographers specialize in one or another, Ellen she can do it all.”
With a career that continues to grow, Barnes has found her niche in photography and she advises others to do the same.
“If you like working with people, then shoot (photos of) people,” Barnes says. “If you love fashion, shoot fashion. If you’re not very good with people, then you can make a living in shooting inanimate objects and make a good living at it. Do what you love to do. You have to love it because there’s a high price to be paid for it.”
You can view more of Barnes' work here.