26 June 2008
Ben Cauchi’s deft manipulation of objects, light sources and darkroom or studio effects places his photography in a mysterious, illusory zone. Well-known for his retrieval of mid-19th century photographic processes, Dead Time shows the results of Cauchi’s recently completed residency as Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin. Most of these works are shimmering ambrotypes and tintypes - photographs that exist as one-off images.
“In transforming picture plane into conjurer’s stage, Cauchi creates lingering questions in the images, which resist and retain as many of their secrets as they are ready to reveal,” according to Christchurch Art Gallery Assistant Curator Ken Hall.
Cauchi is a master of the wet plate photography technique - perfected in the 1850s. The photographer starts with a sheet of glass or blackened metal, adds collodion (nitrated cotton dissolved in ether and ethanol with various salts added); then sensitizes the plate in a bath of silver nitrate before exposing and developing the plate - all within the 10-15 minutes before the plate dries. The process necessitates having subject and darkroom in the same place - even if that means using a portable darkroom.
“There’s a real sense that when you first pour the plate the clock is ticking,” says Cauchi.
While nineteenth century photographers managed the ticking clock by converting carriages and tents into portable darkrooms to enable them to photograph landscapes, Cauchi used a modern day van to capture his Dunedin landscapes. “Working in the van was definitely an experience - crouching in the back with red plastic over the windows. The smell of ether everywhere, holding a wet plate of glass in one hand and pouring various liquids onto it with the other. Certainly one to get odd looks from people,” he says. “The first outing with it was met with threats to stop selling drugs on someone else’s patch.”
Cauchi has always had an interest in history and took a job at the library at Wellington Polytechnic - where he discovered the photography section and had his eyes opened to early photographic techniques. That started him on a path that led to an advanced diploma in photography and, ultimately, the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship.
Cauchi says the title for the exhibition comes from the notion of “the in-between.”
“I’ve always been interested in ideas around absence and the before or after (the non decisive moment) and this idea of the space between actions.”
Dead Time is being toured by the University of Otago’s Hocken Library, and joins an exhibition by Laurence Aberhart in touching on different aspects of historical photographic technique.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to show historical photographic techniques through the eyes of present day photographers, “ says Christchurch Art Gallery Director Jenny Harper.
Ben Cauchi: Dead Time will be at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu until 3 August. Laurence Aberhart will exhibit from 18 July.
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