Tessa Traeger

The Chemistry of Light

25 January - 21 February 2013

Known for intricate still lives (such as her acclaimed colour photographs of food for Vogue Magazine 1975-91) she has photographed a variety of subjects including a study of the declining rural communities of The Vivarais, a mountainous region in Southern France. Tessa Traeger writes, `Recently I have spent my time in Devon responding to a large collection of 19th Century photographs, negatives and camera equipment which has stayed in our garage for as long as we have been there, a treasure trove inherited from a great uncle in Tunbridge Wells who left them to me when he died in the 1960’s, waiting for its time to come as a subject. The collection includes very early Daguerreotypes and oiled paper negatives, leading up to large glass plates from the 1890’s. Untouched since the 19th Century, many are severely damaged. Various forms of chemical decay have set in as well as dramatic lifting and tearing of the gelatin emulsions which are peeling from the glass. This damage and destruction became a metaphor for me of the steady but inevitable loss of the materials and rituals of my craft (and the nostalgia it has created) as darkroom photography and chemistry has been superceded by digital technology. Photographers like me have witnessed a technical revolution of our profession from its early dramas and skills, all alchemy and tripods, dark-cloths and large-plate negatives, carloads of equipment and perilous printing, transformed into a single lap-top and a little bag of cameras and chargers. Like many photographers I went through a period of mourning when the old ways became threatened. However to my relief and surprise this new medium has proved to be subtle and flexible and ripe with infinite possibilities, especially in colour, and the ability to make the image exactly as you wish afterwards….now it is possible to make images which you see only in your head before their creation become a reality on the computer, rather than toiling away in the dark where chance and luck played inevitable starring roles. For me making photographs out of photographs has been a confirmation that the new world of digital photography and computers is just as fulfilling as our old romantic world of darkrooms, chemistry, papers and film, whilst connecting me directly to a part of my own history. Like a flock of phoenixes rising from the ashes I have been able to make new discoveries in these old and disintegrating emulsions, finding new and unexpected relevance in their corrupted materials and fading images. They are a hymn to the layered mystery of time and light in photography, and to the miraculous work of its pioneers. I have picked my way through this lost garden of old prints and negatives, discovering new ways of seeing the forgotten walk on the beach, the boat leaving the harbour, the church door swinging wide on a vanished afternoon. They are living again in the present, born, resurrected as the originals die in the splendour of their almost psychedelic chemical erosions and photography’s early crafts die with them. ‘