January 18, 2013 6:42 pm

Tessa Traeger: Double alchemy

When Tessa Traeger was left a photographic legacy by a relative, what might have been a chore instead inspired a fascinating new body of work
'No 6', glass negative c1890©Tessa Traeger

'No 6', glass negative c1890, 12in x 10in, silver gelatin emulsion in decay

In 1971, the photographer Tessa Traeger’s “great uncle” Godfrey (in fact, he was her grandmother’s cousin), a keen amateur photographer and co-owner of a chemist shop in Tunbridge Wells, died and left all his photographic equipment to her in his will. This included not only his cameras, glass negatives, backdrops, instruments and chemicals, but equipment and negatives dating back to the mid-19th century, which he had bought at auction.

At that time Traeger was beginning to make a name as a still-life and food photographer, and though she subsequently used some of his lenses and backdrops in her pictures, she always put off the task of sorting through the boxes of heavy glass negatives. However, by last year, already into her seventies, with a reputation as one of Britain’s most distinguished photographers and working as hard as ever, she decided it couldn’t wait any longer.

As she began to examine them, she discovered the silver-gelatin coating on the negatives was disintegrating in curious ways. Used to studying and capturing objects with precision, she realised that here was the potential for a new series of works. “At first I thought sorting all this out would be terribly boring, but it’s quite the opposite. When I got to that picture of the boats sailing along in the mould [“No 20”], I thought, ‘Eureka! I’m going to make a piece of work of my own.’

“What interested me,” she explained, “was that some of the negatives were in excellent condition, while others were crumbling away in the most colourful chemical and fungal displays. The fungus is usually more pronounced in the dense parts of the emulsion and almost non-existent where the negative is thin, leading to my belief that it is flourishing on the silver-gelatin emulsion. By using back lighting and mirrors I was able to enter the mysterious world of the very beginnings of photography, with the strangest narratives playing out before me never fully understood but leaving me with the strongest sense of the atmosphere of the times.”

There is a neat symmetry in using an image that has been made in one camera to create another image by another – although, apart from lighting the negatives, and enlarging some areas of an image, Traeger didn’t alter the images digitally.

Thomas Batting

Thomas Batting (left), 'great uncle' Godfrey’s father, standing outside the family’s chemist shop in 1880

Most of the glass plates are 9in x 12in “dry” plates, coated with silver halide crystals suspended in gelatin, widely used from the 1880s onwards. But some of the plates are ambrotypes, dating from the 1850s, in which the back of the negative has been coated with black paint, thus turning it into a positive image. The two portraits shown here [in the slideshow] are ambrotypes which have developed a craquelure effect, very similar to that of ageing paintings. The collection also includes some daguerreotypes, made in the 1840s, which have to be carefully lit so that she can recapture their fugitive images, which disappear in seconds depending on the angle of the light. “You enter these strange worlds. You don’t see anything, you’re straining your eyes to see something, and then suddenly it all leaps alive.”

Traeger is very conscious of the legacy of photography as a craft: she studied at Guildford School of Art on one of the first photography courses in the country, learning to use a large-format plate camera and to respect the dedication of her predecessors, who struggled with unwieldy equipment and unstable chemicals. When her husband, the painter and photographer Ronald Traeger, died in 1968, at 32, she was left his archive to look after; then, in 1971, she was bequeathed this other, huge photographic responsibility. “I feel it is my destiny to get these people sorted out.”

So far, she says, she has gone through about an eighth of the glass negatives in the collection. This is before she begins on the paper negatives, which use the process developed by Fox Talbot in the 1830s and 1840s. “I couldn’t help seeing a metaphor [in this] to my own history in photography. I was trained on glass plates and learnt the craft of large format work and the chemistry of developing and printing … Now that discipline and craft is fading away, just as the negatives themselves.”

‘Chemistry of Light’ runs January 25-February 21 at Purdy Hicks, 65 Hopton Street, London SE1

........................................................

To accompany the exhibition, Tessa Traeger writes:

“When I was a child we lived with my grandmother Olive and saw a lot of her first cousins Thomas and Godfrey Batting. They were two brothers from Tunbridge Wells who ran a chemist shop, inherited from their father, Thomas Gilbert Batting M.P.S who was also a dentist. The photograph [see above] shows him wearing a fez to keep out the draught from the cold shop window… (date 1880). The shop also supplied the photographers of the town with all they needed such as cameras, tripods, glass plates, darkroom chemicals etc.

The brothers never married although both of them proposed, at various times, to my mother who was a widow. Because of this we made many visits to their house at 69 Upper Grosvenor Road. They had very strong views on everything including never to use washing up liquid as it would kill the fishes in the rivers and not to take hot baths as it was bad for you. Instead they sponged down every morning with cold water from a jug and pitcher in their bedrooms. They were keen astronomers and discovered and named a new star with their telescope on the roof. Godfrey was an amateur developed and printed his own work at home in their basement darkroom which was still left complete and untouched during my childhood. He never threw anything away and I remember looking at rolls of painted backgrounds stacked in the corner… longing to know what was on them.

They were both avid collectors and attended all the auction sales in Tunbridge Wells. Tom collected paintings, and Godfrey cameras and photographs. During the 1930s he acquired the complete works of Dr Francis Smart, an accomplished amateur photographer working in the 1890s, which included a large collection of glass negatives and albums of prints. He also bought the portfolios of Thomas Sims, a much earlier professional photographer, whose work dates from 1845. There was a collection of paper negatives and prints, and specimens of his miniature paintings. There was also a nearly complete darkroom, cameras and tripods and lenses of every kind , and much of the old stock of the shop included unopened boxes of plates and films.

When I decided to train as a photographer myself, Godfrey was horrified and wrote a letter to my mother saying that it was no profession for a woman and that I should keep it as a pretty hobby. Even so he did leave his entire collection of cameras, photographs and negatives to me in his will... knowing that no one else in the family would be interested. That was in 1971 and from the beginning I found it all fascinating and used many of the items in my work as a still life photographer, including the painted backdrops which I use to this day.

However, investigating the vast collection of glass negatives was a much more daunting project, which I was saving for my retirement… thinking that I would have plenty of time to sort them all out then. Now I realise that photographers never retire so I started to look them over in my spare time… What interested me was that some of the negatives are in excellent condition and yet others were crumbling away in the most colourful chemical and fungal displays… The fungus is usually more pronounced in the dense parts of the emulsion and almost non-existent where the negative is thin, thus convincing me that it is flourishing on the silver gelatin emulsion. I started to photograph these decaying emulsions digitally and began to see that it could become a seriously interesting form of expression. By using back lighting and mirrors I was able to enter the mysterious world of the very beginnings of photography with the strangest narratives playing out before me never fully understood but leaving one with the strongest sense of the atmosphere of the times. I could not help seeing a metaphor to my own history in photography. I was trained on glass plates and learnt the craft of large-format work and the chemistry of developing and printing from most distinguished teachers and technicians… Now that discipline and craft is fading away… just like the negatives themselves.

These new photographs are to be shown at the Purdy Hicks Gallery in January but my project continues, and as I progress through the collection more and more amazing images are revealing themselves.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE