Ben Cauchi’s Photographs Turn Everyday Objects into Occult Metaphors

’s eerie, technically impressive images are quizzical objects created to exploit the nostalgia of bygone eras. Rather than using still photography as a documentary tool or an illustration of the truth, Cauchi carefully stages his photographs and mines historical techniques. In “Echo Chamber,” he’s assembled a series of ambrotypes—an obscure mid-19th-century wet-plate photograph process—that reveal the fluid, mystical nature of the everyday, a kind of alchemy the artist has become notorious for.
In the era of Photoshop and high-definition smartphone cameras, some artists have turned to older, more time-intensive techniques. The Berlin-based Cauchi, who has used wet-plate processes almost exclusively since 2002, has taken the practice to extremes, mastering a number of early emulsion techniques including tintype (photographs made on thin sheets of metal) and cyanotype (which produce cyan-blue negative images). In 2010, he commissioned the construction of a bellows camera, used to capture negatives on a chemically treated glass plate so large it produces images that measure 20-by-24 inches.
Cauchi has said that “the mechanical side of photography has never really appealed to me anywhere near as much as the alchemical.” Throughout his career, he has paired such alchemy with carefully staged studio setups and lighting schemes that mine the otherworldly impressions characteristic of his techniques, often photographing simple self-portraits or windows surrounded by halos of light.

In “Echo Chamber,” the scope of Cauchi’s explorations is hyper-specific: the doors and windows he curates are almost geometrically identical. But this simplicity is deceptive, as commonplace objects take on a character that borders on religious. In The idle argument (2015), a door and a window, bathed in the brightest of spotlights, appear to be in conversation. A simple square in White light (2013) brings to mind the heavenly and sinister character of an occult text. The results are familiar yet uncanny scenes, images that appear as if in a dream or filtered through the hazy filter of memory.

—Molly Osberg

Echo Chamber” is on view at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, May 30–July 4, 2015.