www.hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk     Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Bruce Rae at Lucy Bell Gallery

Just opened at Lucy Bell’s Gallery in St Leonards is an intriguing, collaborative exhibition – Tableaux Whispers Echoes – from the photographer Bruce Rae, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and painter Tom Phillips.   HOT journalist Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went to discover more about Bruce Rae and how this exhibition came into being.

Before I went to see Bruce Rae, I stopped off at the gallery to look at the work.  I have long admired  Bruce Rae’s striking flower photographs, but these images have a different quality – quite other from his flowers.  These images are tender vignettes constructed out of shells, found driftwood, moths, butterflies, extraordinary, unique sea horses… ‘extraordinary’, because they are small, almost primitive, skeletal creatures that can hardly swim and carry the eggs in a pouch until they hatch.

These are tiny, 5×4 ins salt prints, a technique dating back to sixteenth century. Salt printing produces textured washes of blacks, greys  and white, which bring out the atmosphere, texture and depth in these mysterious and magical images. Rather than some of the big, brash, in-your-face images produced by a production team of assistants, these are created solely by Bruce Rae and you need to look into the photograph to discover what lurks there. Much like Bruce himself, silver haired he can look slightly austere, but not far from the surface is a twinkly, mischievousness.

When I meet Bruce at his flat I ask him more about how the project evolved. There is nothing fast and furious about Bruce’s work; it is almost meditative in its evolution.   It started back in 1991, when he would literally construct his own little theatrical tableaux.   He would  build a balsa wood frame, cover it in tissues, aero-modelling ‘dope’,  fill it with gauze and crumpled paper, light it with 60 watt bulbs – like a theatre – then painstakingly arrange his little treasures into other worldly scenarios.  He photographs them with an ancient Kodak at a three minute exposure over which time he can hardly breathe.

In his sunlit sitting room I notice a frame balanced on the window sill.  This proves to be a salt print – a negative, on coated paper attached to a frame ­and exposed over several hours in the sunlight. A delicate process.

“I used to have about a 10% success rate, now I have been working with light and process for 45 years, it is more like 90% success rate. Technically, that is.  Printing always has an element of surprise. You never know exactly what you’ve got until it is completely dry. Things that look wonderful can appear to be absolutely dead when dry.”

Bruce says, smiling self deprecatingly that “the whole project has been a total accident.”

It is a singular project that required an empathetic response and collaboration. Bruce decided that the photographs were crying out for some sort of linking text; a script to his theatrical tableaux.

He gave them to his then next door neighbour, Terry Jones, to ponder and record his reactions to the little scenarios. Nothing presented itself. But the images had taken root in his brain and some time later, Terry asked for them back so that he could live with them again. This time there was a real communication – the images started whispering.  Almost in a stream of consciousness Terry transcribed the whispering and in a 48 hour period 35 poems arrived perfectly formed. The final part of this serendipitous organic process was when painter Tom Phillips became involved and echoed Terry’s whispers.

The objects for the theatre-style settes are things he has collected for years. The butterflies and moths used to come from Syon House Butterfly Farm, “They were the sweepings off the floor of dead butterflies and would arrive in a shoe box. Full for a fiver.” Then he would put them in bleach rendering the  butterflies strangely transparent. “Sometimes they would break in extraordinary ways and become like battered soldiers.”

Bruce evidently relishes the happy accidents. “I like the fact that I am not totally in control. Sometimes when I am making a still life, it might take me two hours to arrange and then one of the pieces moves or falls and it looks much better.”

The scenarios appear to be tender little evocations of life and death particularly with the shroud-like gauze, is that what is intended? “I suppose it is about life cycles. I have had serious illnesses throughout my life – I should have died twice – so it is all around and about me.” A poignancy in the reality.

Exhibition at Lucy Bell Gallery from 15 September -13 October.
Bruce is holding a salt printing workshop on September 22 from 12–3pm. 
Call 01424 434828 to book a place.

Accompanying the exhibition is a beautifully produced book Tableuax Whispers Echoes.

Posted 11:25 Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012 In: Photography

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