Like Garry Fabian Miller, whose work rounded off last week’s sequence, Ben Cauchi is a photographer who looks to the early history of photography in order to make work that is firmly rooted in the present. He uses box cameras from the nineteenth century and constructs modern variants adapted to work on a larger scale, made of wood, leather and brass.
Inside these wooden boxes he explores one of the very earliest photographic techniques; the wet-collodion process, producing ambrotypes and tintypes in which a chemically coated plate (of glass or metal) reacts to light to capture an image seen through the lens. It is a process invented at a time of pioneering discovery in the worlds of science, industry and reason, yet also a time when ideas of spiritualism and mesmerism held the public imagination. A dichotomy that haunts Cauchi's work.
The present image Untitled 13 belongs to a series of ‘burnished’ ambrotypes in which the surface of the image is further worked by the artist’s hand. As Ben describes it: “Basically, all the image is composed of is pure light and silver… what I’m doing is making the image from working over the silver salts in the surface of the film. Buffing the film flattens the silver salts embedded in the collodion which makes them reflect like a mirror with an opalescent, almost bottomless quality”. In short, “it's all about light and what’s there and what isn’t” which seems like an appropriate note on which to start week seven of The Unseen Masterpiece.