Eldred Allen never set out to become an artist, but within a remarkable three years of pursuing his new passion, the landscape and wildlife photographer from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, NL, has landed on the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award shortlist.
Allen turns natural scenes into detailed abstractions, employing hand-held 360-degree photosphere cameras, drones and 3D modelling into his work. Since picking up a camera for the first time, Allen’s photos have appeared in various places, most recently as part of the group show INUA, the inaugural exhibition for Qaumajuq at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. In summer 2020, Allen was the cover artist for the Inuit Art Quarterly.
We spoke to Allen about his fascinating journey to becoming an “accidental” artist, the role technology plays in his practice and how he prepares himself for shooting out on the land.
Eldred Allen Wing Drift (2021) Digital photograph
Inuit Art Quarterly: When did you decide to become a professional artist?
Eldred Allen: I’m a full-time entrepreneur; I started my business, Bird’s Eye Inc., in 2016. I was working at the time for the regional government here in Nunatsiavut as a Geographic Information Systems specialist. I was consuming digital data and generating maps to help visualize projects or help make decisions. I purchased a drone for personal purposes because I thought it was interesting. I realized quickly that the drone could be used in GIS services to capture and analyze data and pictures, and generate 3D models through sophisticated photogrammetry software.
I saw a gap here in northern Labrador, where we’re so remote. It’s expensive for people to get in, hard for them to get aerial data. I said, ‘Maybe the drone could fill that gap.’ So, I decided to start a business offering those services. It never ever clicked [for me] that a drone is essentially a flying camera. It’s fun to fly, but the meat and potatoes of what you get from the drone is from the images or the video it takes.
I had a client who asked me about a year later whether I could supplement my drone photography with handheld photography. I really didn’t know anything about photography, I used the camera on the drone in automatic settings or for data capture. That was sufficient, but it wasn’t really for artistic purposes. I thought maybe I could handhold the drone without the props turned on and take pictures because it’s got a good-quality camera. But that’s not going to look very professional, and it’s not the safest thing to do. I decided to purchase this mirrorless camera, and do some handheld photography. I decided I had to learn how to use it, I don’t want to just have a camera in my drawer and use the automatic settings. So, I took a deep dive into all the aspects that go into photography and how to do it well.
Eldred Allen Fall Family (2020) Digital photograph
IAQ: How has your career unfolded over the past few years?
EA: I started taking pictures and just posting them on social media. I came to realize that it’s a passion, I enjoy doing it. After a while people started seeing my photography and saying, ‘That’s art, the images you’re capturing, the subject matter and the way you’re presenting it.’
I never ever saw myself as an artist. But after certain people started to see my photography, and when my images were included in the first exhibition, [Nunatsiavut: Our Beautiful Land, which opened at La Guilde in Montreal, QC, in October 2019], it all started sinking in.
It was probably a couple of years before I started saying, ‘Yeah, I think I’m an artist. And what I’m doing is artwork.’ When you start getting recognition from other people, that solidifies it. Since I started photography in the fall of 2018, I think I’ve been in six exhibitions so far. I sold a couple of images, two collections, I had some of my images on covers of magazines, and an image on the cover of a book. It’s been a pretty fast and wild ride, but it’s been really enjoyable.
Finding photography has been a real joy for me, with the support of my family and my wife wanting to see me develop and follow things I enjoy doing. I’m travelling in a couple of weeks to an exhibition opening that I’m in down in Newfoundland. I have four pieces and they have them printed on materials to be displayed outdoors that are eight feet tall and six feet wide. It’s going to be a real experience to see that.
IAQ: Have you seen your work printed that big before?
EA: Never that big. I went to the opening of my first exhibition which was at La Guilde in Montreal. The pieces printed there were about 24 inches by 30 inches. I did have one piece printed a bit larger, but nothing to that magnitude.
Eldred Allen A Seagulls View (2019) Digital photograph
IAQ: Do you edit your photos when you’re done shooting?
EA: I always edit my photographs. In order to edit them to the best of my ability I capture my images in what’s called a RAW format. They’re a little bit less contrast-y, they’re not as vibrant, and they’re more of a blank slate. That gives you more control, because when I edit my photography, I try to represent my subject matter in a realistic fashion.
If you look at a scene through your eye, when you look at a really bright sky and really dark trees or water, you can see the details in everything all at the same time. But a camera sensor is not as advanced as a human eye. You might be able to get detail in the clouds, but then the trees are really dark. That doesn’t mean the information is not there, [it’s that the camera] just can’t present it to you. That’s why you have to edit your photographs, because then you bring the detail back in shadowy trees.
IAQ: What do you listen to when you’re creating?
EA: Solitude and the sounds of nature. When I’m out looking for things to photograph, I like to be present so you can hear the birds calling and singing. Or if I’m photographing baby seals on the water, you can hear when they come up, and their breathing, or whales as they breathe, when they surface. I use earbuds if I’m listening to music, generally, but I never use them when I’m out doing photography. I enjoy being engulfed in the moment. It connects you a little bit better with your subject matter.
Eldred Allen Fog (2020) Digital photograph
IAQ: How do you balance your time between your photography and your drone business?
EA: My business is still my full-time job. I was just travelling for two weeks for work, because that’s how we make an income to supplement our family. But as an artist, whenever I’m travelling anywhere, I always have my camera and a drone with me.
Being in remote northern Labrador, we have so much wildlife, we have such beautiful landscapes. I don’t have to travel to exotic places to make interesting images. One of the things I have found about photography is that it has opened my eyes to where I live. You might walk to the store, and you look back and pass two streets, and don’t even have a mental recognition of walking past them. It’s your daily routine. But now I’m always looking for light, I’m looking for subjects, I’m looking for shadows. I’m very cognizant, present now, where I’m at. It’s given me an appreciation of where I live and the things that are around me.
IAQ: What challenges have you faced in becoming an artist?
EA: I’m an accidental artist. I never set out to do this, but I’m very appreciative of people enjoying my photography and enjoying the types of images that I’m capturing.
It was just something I picked up. I taught myself over time because I was excited and passionate about taking pictures and sharing them. Everything just progressed naturally. It was never, ‘by the end of the year I want to be in two exhibitions.’ I never put any stress on myself. It’s been all up so far.
Eldred Allen Mirrored Flight (2020) Digital photograph
IAQ: What would winning the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award mean for the future of your practice?
EA: It is gratifying, knowing that people appreciate the artwork that I’m creating enough to see it and recognize it and feel it’s good enough to be considered for such an important award. When you see all of the accomplishments of Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, RCA and all the things that she’s done all over the world—even to have myself listed as someone who would even be considered, that’s a win in itself. More people are going to get to see my artwork and I can only assume that’s going to open more doors.
If I do actually win, I’d be so appreciative and honoured. Of course, the financial award could be really helpful, because photography gear is really expensive. Lenses are extremely expensive. The style of photography that I do—more abstract-type works, and getting in close with detail—there are lenses that would allow me to do that better. Maybe this would precipitate purchasing one so that I could further explore different aspects of my artwork.
The recognition would be extremely humbling, and I’d be very appreciative, but to be at this point, I’m extremely happy.
Read interviews with the other shortlisted artists
This interview was conducted by video call in August 2021. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Join the shortlisted artists for a conversation about their work and contemporary Inuit art on Tuesday, August 24 at 7 PM EST on Zoom.
The winner of the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award will be announced on Wednesday, September 8 at 7pm EST via Zoom.
Register today to secure your seat!