By PAUL GESSELL
The black and white photographs are like windows into the past — the Victorian-era or perhaps even further back to Dutch paintings from the 17th and 18th century. Captured in these prints are artfully arranged vases of flowers and other plants.
But look more closely. The cut flowers, vases and tabletops are crawling with insects — pretty butterflies, but also grasshoppers, poisonous scorpions and stinging centipedes purchased, already dead, from insect farms in various countries around the southern hemisphere. And could that dead bird in one photo be just ordinary Canadian roadkill?
Whitney Lewis-Smith had also purchased some live snails to let loose upon her still life creations. But the snails were not still enough. Slow as they are, the snails’ movements would wreck the picture, which requires that everything must remain motionless due to the long exposures necessary for Lewis-Smith to shoot her creations using an old-fashioned 8×10 studio camera.
The vintage camera and specific darkroom techniques give the photographic prints an antique look. The camera captures images on glass plate negatives, which are coated with emulsion over a three-day period in the darkroom. The images are then contact printed and scanned so they can be tweaked to remove the unglamorous, such as the pins holding the dead insects in place.
The results are an aesthetic marvel, with just a soupcon of creepiness from the insects to generate a slight shiver as you stare intently upon the arrangements of objects that were surely stolen from some eccentric’s cabinet of curiosities. This new body of work called A Collection of Natural Fascinations is on exhibition at La Petite Mort Gallery until Aug. 31. This is an exhibition not to be missed.
Lewis-Smith is one of those young talents SPAO — the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa – has been unleashing upon the world for the past few years. Actually, artistry is in Lewis-Smith’s genes. Both her parents are artists: Mom (Dodie Lewis) is a portrait painter, while Dad (Neville Smith) is a graphic artist.
So far, Lewish-Smith is best known for her photographs of taxidermy animals. They look so alive. Yet you know they are dead. There’s that creep factor again. The images are unforgettable.
Come November, Lewis-Smith is off to Mexico for a one-month residency in the colonial city of Puebla, where she will have daily access to specimens in a local natural history museum. Mexico is the perfect place for Lewis-Smith — a country that celebrates Death like no other in its art and customs. There will surely be endless sources of inspiration for Lewis-Smith rummaging through cabinets of curiosity in Mexico.