Ellen is a professor at the University of Washington School of Art. She received a B.S. at the University of Wisconsin (1979) and a MFA from the University of New Mexico (1987). She has received a Fulbright–Hayes Scholarship, National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship Grant, and an Artist Trust /Washington State Fellowship. In 2021, Garvens was an artist in residence at I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally and featured in "Each Wild Idea" by Geoffrey Batchen, "Contact Sheet" by Light Work, and the journals "Creative Camera" and "Visual Studies".
Currently, she photographs temporary set-ups that mimic drawings and play with visual illusion. Her work has consistently been a cross between photography, drawing and sculpture often blurring the boundaries between them. Also interested in documentary work, between 2003 and 2010 she made a series of photographs in prosthetic clinics in the U.S., Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The images were then used as a catalyst to hear and record stories and thoughts from the patients, prosthetists and researchers.