Iris BookCafe Shows Extraordinary Photographs of Mongolia

Elaine Ling's compelling photographs of five summer visits to Mongolia, now on the walls of Iris BookCafe, are admirable both as works of art and sociologically.

Jul 10, 2013 at 8:56 am
click to enlarge "Wrestler Brothers" by Elaine Ling
"Wrestler Brothers" by Elaine Ling

If you’ve wondered whatever happened to the “Renaissance Man,” that able fellow who could do any number of things with skill and had multiple areas of real knowledge, perhaps you need to look at some of today’s women. 

Elaine Ling, born in Hong Kong and a Canadian since the age of 9, qualifies. Her compelling photographs of five summer visits to Mongolia, now on the walls of Iris BookCafe, are admirable both as works of art and sociologically. Ling’s college-level studies began in agricultural research but switched to medicine and she is now a practicing physician. Her serious photographic studies include the Ansel Adams advanced black and white photography workshop in Carmel, Calif., and she also plays cello in a classical orchestra group in Toronto, where she lives. Renaissance Woman indeed.

Not surprisingly, Ling has developed a singular style of photography that fits the subject matter of the works at Iris as though intended for it. Elaine Ling’s Mongolia shows us a landscape that lends itself to black and white, a culture that seems of another time, a people pleasantly without guile. She uses a 4-by-5-inch view camera with Type 55 Polaroid film, which produces an instant print that she can give to her subjects and provides her with a peel-away negative that can be used in an enlarger. The prints at Iris, with a few 8-by-10-inch exceptions, are 20-by-24 inches. These archival silver gelatin prints retain the ragged, interestingly patterned edges of the negative, forming an immediate frame for the work within the slim shafts of the actual frame. Several times she joins two prints to form a diptych.

The exhibition reflects Ling’s visits to Mongolia made between 2002 and 2006. The people living there are moving cautiously into contemporary times, more 20th than 21st century. Although the occasional battered Jeep can be seen with motorcycles and bicycles, horses are omnipresent, along with camels — the two-humped Bactrian kind are native here. 

The first section of the exhibition shows us the out-of-doors: people, animals, cycles and Jeeps almost always seen in front of gers, the moveable domiciles that are nomadic homes. Circular constructions of white felt held in place by wooden poles and eminently foldable, the gers’ tops bulge up in a dome-like shape. 

People look directly at the camera, smiling, friendly. A pair of wrestlers — wrestling, horsemanship and archery make up the culture’s three manly skills — are seen in their minimal wrestling gear but a young woman, certainly dressed in her best, wears a distinctive hat and elegant clothing.

The second section takes us inside the dwellings, where the furnishings are more elaborate than might be expected. Ling’s label explains that the entrance is always to the south, an altar is in place on the north side and cooking, beneath a flue and an opening in the ceiling, is accomplished in the center. Beds, carved chests and a surprising amount of decoration by pictures on cloth or otherwise is around the sides. There is much patterned fabric — on the floor, on the bedding and seating — all somehow blending rather than fighting. Wooden shafts slant across this interior, holding up the roof, and perhaps defining areas. 

These are extended family households; 20 or so people can be accommodated. As in the outdoor shots, the residents look into the camera and in one picture form a three-deep group with welcoming smiles. Ling’s label copy comments on the people’s resemblance both physically and temperamentally to Alaska’s Eskimo population. 

The final section moves from today in Mongolia, retro as it seems, into the deep past of this remote world. Ancient stone sculptures, some thousands of years old, stand in the bleak surroundings, mysterious and self-contained. We see what seems to be a massive turtle, head cocked and feet out of the shell and ready to move; we see humans, as stocky in form as the inhabitants today. We see remains whose meaning now is lost. All these figures stand in a wind-wracked landscape but seem themselves impervious to such force although one blocky human figure has unaccountably split diagonally, the top section lying at one side.

Ling is a talented photographer, confident of her medium and endlessly curious about what she sees. Her use of black and white, nominally restrictive but capable of much subtlety, is ideal in depicting a society both more complex and satisfying than might be expected. The exhibition is curated by William Messer.


is on view at Iris BookCafe, 1331 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, through July 24, with a possible extension. More info: