Re-framing the past: historical imagery for the future

I’ve been thinking about how artists use historic photographic processes and imagery to create modern work for new audiences. Mat Collishaw who works predominantly with photography and video, is represented in the UK by the gallery BlainSouthern. In 2017 he created Thresholds, an exhibition using new technology in the realm of VR (virtual reality) to take us back in time. Also working with historic photographic imagery is Tom Butler, who creates new images about concealment from Victorian cabinet card collections.

The work of both of these artists piques my curatorial interests in creating experiences through the development of ideas from historical research. Also in examining how audiences see things and the ‘act’ of looking. My current curatorial aims are to inspire people through new perspectives, linking the past and future with the present. 

Mat Collishaw’s exhibition ‘Thresholds’ came from an ambition to work with VR (virtual reality) but not being sure where to take it. His contemporary Pete James, a photographic historian and curator, suggested he look at the 1839 exhibition of scientific advancement which took place in Birmingham, for inspiration into new technologies and photography advancement in particular, and the ideas for ‘Thresholds’ developed from there. I worked with the Visitor Experience team at Lacock Abbey on the facilitation of the installation and took the lead with marketing the 6 week run of the exhibition.  This placed me very close to the concept, and it’s aims and goals. I met with Mat several times to discuss his vision for the Lacock Abbey installation and visited the exhibition in the two preceding galleries to host it, London’s Somerset House, and Birmingham Art Gallery.  The connection to the past is made in VR by the recreation of the first exhibition in which William Henry Fox Talbot presented his photographic advancements to the world. Many of the images inside the virtual exhibition no longer exist, or have faded so much that they are kept in light-proof vaults. This exhibition allows you the freedom to explore the space without being tethered and restricted by wires often expected with a VR experience, to view and even pick up images, feel the heat of the fire, to hear voices of chartists rioting outside the virtual room. The contextual information has been faithfully represented in the space. Without the VR headset, you see the exhibition landscape as a ‘white cube’ gallery aesthetic, elevating its modernist contrast to the virtual world of 1839.          

Eaton, R. (2017). Mat Collishaw: Thresholds. [Photograph] London: Somerset House.
Tom Butler’s exhibition The Divided Self in the print sales gallery at The Photographer’s Gallery, London ran from 15 September – 5 November 2017.  Butler’s background in sculpture and fine art allows him to sensitively re-frame memories hidden within Victorian cabinet cards, and he transforms them into intricate collages using hand-painting, gouache application to add layers, or geometric blocks of colour or by cutting and re-assembling details.  Each cabinet card is unique and the ongoing series looks to express Butler’s interest in concealment. The exhibition, held in the print sales gallery was an intimate experience, with the cabinet cards only measuring around 16 x 11 cm. The feeling of viewing precious objects was at the forefront of the experience for me.

ydruP 2016 from Divided Self © Tom Butler Studio_1
Tom Butler Studio (2016) Taken from Divided Self


Featured image:

Hoare, AJ. (2017). Technician inside Thresholds exhibition at Lacock Abbey. [Photograph] (AJ Hoare’s own collection).


Butler, T. (2017) Rearranged cabinet card from Divided Self. [Photograph] London: Tom Butler Studio.

Collishaw, Mat. (2017). Homepage [ONLINE] Available at: (Accessed 4 October 2017).

Eaton, R. (2017). Mat Collishaw: Thresholds. [Photograph] London: Somerset House.

Tom Butler Studio. (2017). Cabinet cards [ONLINE] Available at: (Accessed 4 October 2017).



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