Elaine Ling’s Mongolia, Iris BookCafé and Gallery

By Karen Chambers

Walking through “Elaine Ling’s Mongolia” exhibition at the Iris BookCafé and Gallery in Over the Rhine, her photos read as ethnographic records documenting the life of nomads living in the independent Outer Mongolia. Looking at them gave me the sense I knew these people through their portraits, the trappings of their lives, and the monoliths and carved stone statues standing alone in the Gobi Desert.

Ling, who is a practicing doctor as well as a well-respected photographer, found the ancient and unchanging in Mongolia: 3000-year-old deer stones and Turkic stones and statues from 800 years ago. She also found nomadic peoples who continue their centuries-old lifestyle while adopting 20th-century—yes, 20th, not 21st century–technology. Although their most prized possessions remain their horses, they drive Jeeps and ride motorcycles to herd their livestock–goats, sheep, cattle, and horses–from grazing area to grazing area in the brief summer.

Taken over the course of five summers, from 2002 to 2006, Ling’s photos are sensitively composed images, belying their apparent straightforwardness, and have a rich range of grays that capture the summer’s light.

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Her most compelling images are of the nomads who welcomed Ling as she “bombed along the steppes (frequently) in a jeep full of singing doctors and (fermented) mare’s milk (kumis). . . . If they see you coming, they just get out the food and the drinks.”*

The rowdy crew would stay with the last family they visited each day. In return for the family’s hospitality, Ling would make a Polaroid photograph, giving the positive to them.

In the digital age, Ling uses rather old-fashioned technology: a 4” x 5” view camera with a Polaroid back and Type 55 film. This film produces a black-and-white positive and a negative, which was used to make the archival silver gelatin prints presented at Iris.

“Now these people are pre-Kodak-moment; they don’t even have little cameras yet,” she explains. “So they don’t know they have to smile or pose. I said, ‘Don’t move, everybody. This camera is very slow. Don’t move for 10 seconds.’ And they patiently sit and wait, without protest. Sometimes you can see the horse move or clothing in the wind.”

In Nomadic Family, Western Mongolia, 2003, you see a family in front of their felt ger or yurt with two tied-up camels. The nomads live year round in their gers. When the snows begin in August, they move into little villages with dirt streets and small houses, which are used for storage, while they continue to live in their gers erected behind them.

Elaine Ling, Nomadic Family, Western Mongolia, 2003, archival silver gelatin print, 20” x 24”. Courtesy Iris BookCafe and Gallery.

This family of 11—as many as 20 people may live together in a single ger—is dressed in their best, a combination of traditional clothing and Western attire with children wearing sweatshirts decorated with cartoon characters. They all sit perfectly still, but some of the children’s faces and a black dog are blurred, an effect that coveys much about this family with fidgety children and a lively dog.

Ling’s photographs of the ger interiors, with or without the family, are revealing. In the diptych Kazakh Ger Interior, Western Mongolia, 2004, Ling asked the Muslim family (Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in Outer Mongolia) to stay on one side while she photographed the other half and then to switch. Each half is shot from a slightly different angle so they do not make a panoramic view. “It is taken out of context. . . . So the image is not often totally what the reality is. It is what I wanted to create,” explains Ling.

All of the family’s possessions, which must be packed up many times throughout the brief summer grazing season, is crammed into the ger. The floor is covered with geometric-patterned rugs, all different and, I would say intuitively coordinated. Similar weavings cover couches and beds. There are carved chests around the perimeter as well as a stack of suitcases and pillows. A dung-burning stove is in the center as is traditional. Everything is crowded together, and with all the patterning, it’s sensory overload.

Ling uses the same diptych format in other photographs, including the 2004 Healing Avarga Lake Ovoo, which is a pile of stones that is a shamanistic marker. Two photos are installed in a corner in the toilet, so they are butted up against each other at right angles. The placement is unusual, unexpected, and unnecessary since it adds nothing to the visual experience.

Horsemanship is one of the Mongolian culture’s historic “Three Manly Skills,” the other two being wrestling and archery. In Boy Jockey, 2004, a young horseman sits astride his horse beside a Jeep. Its spare-wheel cover is decorated with two horses in a heraldic-like pose, facing each other and rearing.

It’s the ancient and the modern co-existing, a balance that is threatened as young nomads give up roaming the desert to mine rare earth minerals, essential to many electronic devies. More than 95% of the world’s supply has been found in Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia.

Elaine Ling, Wrestler Brothers, 2005, archival silver gelatin print, 20” x 24”. Courtesy Iris BookCafe and Gallery.

The second “Manly Skill” is wrestling. Cave paintings, dating back to the Neolithic age of 7000 B. C., show naked men grappling. Genghis Khan used the sport to keep his army combat ready. Ling’s Wrestler Brothers, 2005, stand with arms linked in their knee-high boots and wear what looks like arm warmers, traditional hats, and shuudags, the Mongolian equivalent of Speedos.

The third group of Ling’s photographs—frankly the least interesting and relegated to the rear seating area–documents the deer stones–monoliths engraved with reindeer motifs that were made three millennia ago near the Siberian border—and the stones and statues erected by Turkic speakers, the earliest people to occupy Mongolia in the fourth or fifth century B. C.

Two of the most impressive are the Turkic King and Queen Stones in Eastern Mongolia. They sit “alone in the middle of nowhere holding silent court of the wind and the sand. It’s magic for me. They’re just sitting there, monumental and serene,” says Ling. “People come driving up in their jeeps. They bow down and put in a (blue) prayer flag**, and then they leave. They all come to pay tribute. It’s not a burial site.”

The 2004 photo of the King and Queen is arresting, but it would be easy to breeze by the 8” x 10” (all of Ling’s photos are this size or 20” x 24”) Man Stone in the Morning Light, 2003. The unusual standing stone with a face, possibly a shaman, and without reindeer carvings is situated amid rocks and against the expanse of desert with mountains in the distance.

Elaine Ling, Half Man Stone, 2004, archival silver gelatin print, 20” x 24”. Courtesy Iris BookCafe and Gallery.

Ling has photographed this monolith at an angle so one side is in shadow except for a very stylized oval face at its top. It has just discernible cheekbones, eyes, and flattened nose and may represent a shaman. It reminded me of Cycladic idols, but also of the sculpture of Bertil Vallien, a Swedish artist who works with glass. His heads are also ovoid and suspended in their clear glass are symbols of Scandinavian myths. Although the physical attributes of Vallien’s and the head on what is a deer stone are similar, it’s the sense of the mythic that truly unites them. It’s worth noting that monoliths are also found in Sweden.

The Iris BookCafé does not make viewing its exhibitions, curated by William Messer, easy, especially when the café is busy. It was uncomfortable to lean over an occupied booth to see the almost nude Wrestler Brothers, or as someone carrying a latte squeezes by to study the photos in the rather narrow corridor that leads to another sitting area and the restroom

Those conditions are part of the deal. Moving the tables away from the walls is not a practicable solution. But the works could be numbered so it’s easier to connect the title information on the laminated list of works that is hung on the wall with the photos, or, even better, labels could be put on the wall.

Elaine Ling, Desert Long Song Chanteuse, 2002, archival silver gelatin print, 20” x 24”. Courtesy Iris BookCafe and Gallery.

Despite the challenging environment, Ling’s photos still manage to transport you to another place and another time. Ling sums it up by saying, “I’m just thrilled that at every remote corner of the earth there is something that is really, really beautiful. And something you might not have known about.”

She’s brought some of the magic of Mongolia to this part of the world.


As I studied Ling’s photographs, I found that I wanted to know more about her. She was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada at nine. She’s coy about her age, but does say her serious photographic work began soon after graduating from med school. It should be noted that she received an Ontario Arts Council Award in 1994 and was in her first group show in 1995.

As a child Ling trained as a classical pianist, but now plays cello (an instrument she took up while in med school) in a community orchestra. And obviously she is an accomplished photographer. She has an impressive résumé with an extensive list of exhibitions, both solo and group; her work is included in prestigious collections such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, Brooklyn Museum, and Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Ling feels like she always photographed. When she was in the sixth grade, her father gave her a camera, and she and a girlfriend photographed each other in the woods. But her serious photographic work began when she took her first job as a doctor in Abu Dhabi.

As Ling told Richard Whittaker in a June 27, 2011, interview, she saw a man sitting in the waiting room with a hawk on his arm and little curved knife in his belt. “I came out and said, ‘I have to take your picture before you come in.’ So I took pictures all the time, and I tried a lot of different things. People always told me I had a good eye. So I thought, well, let’s see how good it is. I went downtown and bought a Hasselblad.” (In her matter-of-fact April 7, 2013, lecture at Iris, she said that the camera was purchased with her first paycheck.)

Since then she’s photographed on four continents, recording abandoned cultural sites, such as Persepolis, Machu Picchu, and Angkor Wat, and deserts in Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia.

Ling currently practices family medicine in Toronto. In a December 17, 2011, interview conducted by Polly Stoker, “A GP and professional photographer” in BMJ (British Medical Journal) Careers, Ling said, “I love my work—photography and medicine—and they tie in together a lot of times.” She adds, “My photography career grew with me throughout my medical career, except I needed to work harder on the photography to establish myself.”

Ling concludes that interview by saying, “You must have a passion for medicine, but there is room to develop other interests that enrich your life as a dedicated doctor,” and Ling has.

Karen S. Chambers

*This and subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from a June 27, 2011, interview by Richard Whittaker in works&conversations (conversations.org/story.php?sid=275; all subsequent quotes come from this interview).

**The color blue represents the sky in the religion practiced by of Temüjin (1162?-August 1227), who took the title of Genghis Khan or Universal Ruler in 1206. In The Secret History of the Mongols, which was written in the Mongolian language as a near contemporary record, there is an account of Genghis praying to the Burhan Haldun mountain. However, he was known as being religiously tolerant and interested in learning philosophical and moral lessons from other religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Taoism.

“Elaine Ling’s Mongolia,” on view through May 24, 2013, at Iris BookCafe and Gallery, 1331 Main St., Cincinnati, OH. 513-381-2686. Mon.-Thurs., 8 a. m.-7 p. m., Sat., 10 a. m.-7 p. m., Sun., 11 a. m.-9 p. m.


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