Vanitas at Double Negative Darkroom – review

Vanitas Double Negative Darkroom

Vanitas: a renaissance of the wetplate collodium technique. Photograph: Lee Horsley 2012

Double Negative Darkroom, a space for aspiring photographers in Homerton, is hosting Vanitas, an exhibition of bizarre photographic plates by the historical photographer John Brewer and tintypes from multi-media artist and writer Kate Horsley.

Brewer is a world expert in a complex photographic process called wet plate collodion. His artworks present a modern exploration of the Renaissance tradition of ‘vanitas’ – still life riddles with symbols expressing the transient nature of life.

His pieces are unique acrylotypes, produced using this Victorian technique. Sebastian Sussman, a photographer who runs Double Negative Darkroom, said: “As it was non-patented, wet plate collodion was the first process that allowed photography to go out to anyone. It was the first democratisation of photography.”

Magic emanates from Brewer’s still lifes, creating a theatre of curiosities with human skulls, candles, medical instruments, tarot cards and other memento mori. The photographer’s series of acrylotype plates entitled Fragmented Dolls is remarkable for its artistry and kookiness. In these fascinating portraits, we see star dolls pre-dating the seventies made of porcelain or cheap plastic. But their rosebud cheeks, smiling faces and blinking eyes have long been lost – the toys of old now only present a decaying form covered with cracks and chips, bathing in spookiness and grotesqueness.

Vanitas also showcases pieces by writer and artist Kate Horsley, whose multi-media art mixes literature and photography. Her tintypes merge with altered books and her wooden peep boxes create a series of uncanny literary tableaux where the viewer is captivated by such fantastical creatures as a baby-headed spider, flying dolls and stuffed animals.

At the exhibition opening, Brewer and Horsley organised a tintype portrait event which helped raise £170 in aid of Core Arts, a Homerton-based charity that promotes the arts among people with mental health issues. The photographic plates produces bear testimony to the appeal of wet plate collodion – the sharpness and texture of the black and white plates that give the sitter what Sussman terms ‘the Great Depression look’.

The exhibition is a unique introduction to a now rarely used photographic technique and an insight into John Brewer and Kate Horsley’s bizarre and dreamy art of still lifes and portraits that expose the brevity of life and the suddenness of death.

Among its regular courses and workshops in alternative photographic processes, Double Negative Darkroom is offering courses in wet plate photography – the only place in the UK to  do so. John Brewer will be running monthly wet plate workshops until October 2013.

Double Negative Darkroom
178A Glyn Road
E5 0JE
Until 17 February 2013

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Also go to John Brewer, Kate Horsley and Sebastian Sussman.