In this age of digital photography, where the romance (and corollary health risks) of film chemistry has been displaced by the pixel, there’s something gloriously rebellious about a contemporary photographer who works with a 19th-century process such as the daguerreotype. A labour-intensive and potentially harmful medium — one which involves deadly mercury fumes — it is the antithesis of the instant and easily-obtained digital image. It is perhaps surprising, when you factor in the risks, that the number of contemporary daguerreian photographers in North America is large enough to warrant their own Society where they hold symposiums on this anachronistic art form. (In fact, there are several such ‘societies’ dedicated to working with these historical photographic techniques).
Thus, when Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut — herself not unaccustomed to labour-intensive work — called upon the specialized technical skills of Toronto-based daguerreian Mike Robinson, the results were their nostalgic and hauntingly beautiful ‘Mannequin’ project. Admittedly, I know very little about this series, other than it was a response on the part of Hurlbut to the permanent collections at the Royal Ontario Museum in some sort of collaboration with this institution. The daguerreotypes, along with the 1917 mannequin featured in the photographs, were exhibited in 2002 at Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto. Here’s a nice review published in Canadian Art magazine.
I love the otherworldly elements of this work, from its skulls and ghosts to the frozen smile and Sphinx-like missing nose of the girl-mannequin. At first glance, I thought these items were miniature in scale. However, the mannequin is, well, the size of a typical mannequin (albeit the size of a small child) and the skull that appears in Melancholy (image on the right) an actual human skull.