Meet Tessa Traeger FRPS

25 May 2018

Region: Headquarters

Meet Tessa Traeger FRPS

In conversation with Society Vice-President, Del Barrett ARPS.

In a glittering career, spanning nearly sixty years, Tessa Traeger has a list of accomplishments that most of us can only dream about.  She has exhibited widely in London, Paris and New York, and her work is held in a number of leading galleries and museums, such as the NPG and the V&A in London, The Biblioteque National in Paris, and The Metropolitan Museum in New York. Traeger is the acknowledged maestro of still life photography and is accredited with elevating food photography into an art form. She produced the photographs for the Vogue food series for sixteen years and worked regularly for American House & Garden magazine. Her books include A Gardener's Labyrinth, for the NPG, with husband Patrick Kinmonth, A Visual Feast with Arabella Boxer, I Am Almost Always Hungry with Lora Zarubin, and Fern Verrow with Jane Scotter and Harry Astley. In her book Voices of the Vivarais, the text and photographs were both by Tessa.   Most recently she published Wild is the Wind with poet Mark Haworth-Booth about her home in North Devon.  Previously based in Rossetti Studios in Chelsea, her work has been funded by an active career in advertising which she greatly enjoyed.  Her clients included many iconic names, many of whom became friends …. Jasper Conran, Laura Ashley, Crabtree and Evelyn, Wedgewood , Whirlpool, Kenco, Jordans , Allinsons and many others.

Now devoting most of her time to her own work, rather than commissions, she is still pushing boundaries and exploring new ways of creating artistic works through photography.  Recently invited to become a Fellow of the Society, Tessa agreed to meet me so that I could learn more about her photographic background.  I was astonished to discover that we not only live in the same area, but in the same block of flats, so I didn’t have far to walk to meet Tessa in her studio!  

Del Barrett:  Was there a “decisive moment” when you realised that you wanted to be a photographer?

Tessa Traeger:  During the summer holidays of 1951, when I was 13, I was walking with my family along the beach near Newhaven, when the conversation turned to the matter of my future. I come from a family of many painters and my sister was at Guildford School of Art at the time. She had many friends in the photography school there and she said:  “Why not be a photographer? You are so good at science and maths but also good at art which is an unusual combination.” And so my future was decided there and then as far as they were concerned. But I felt too that something was absolutely right about what she had said. I remember that moment vividly, staring down at a chalky rock pool with bright green seaweed in it and it was as if I took a photograph of that pool which has remained with me ever since as the "decisive moment " when I decided to be a photographer.”

DB:  Having made the decision, how did you follow your ambition? 

TT:  Three years later, at 16, I took a one-year foundation course in general studies and then moved on to three years at the photography school. The head of photography was called Ifor Thomas, and I was in luck. He was simply the most inspiring teacher I could have possibly had. He had been teaching at the Reimann school in London (before it was bombed) and he and a group of others re-formed to create the school at Guildford after the war. The Reimann School was a branch of the Bauhaus in Berlin and some of our teachers had come directly from the Berlin school, such as Fred Lammer, who was Swiss. I can honestly say that since that day on the beach I have taken photographs every day of my life. Regardless of what cameras I have used I have had a lifelong training in learning to see the world around me. Following the tradition of the Bauhaus we were taught that Photography was a serious art form equal to any other, a diverse medium of expression of the same impulses, yet with its own significance, differing in the way that painting differs from sculpture. In the right hands, with craft and a trained eye, photography could stand proudly beside the more traditional forms of expression. We were told that there was no need for fancy new ideas, it was each individual person who was the new idea and we had to learn to show the world who we were through our work. This we did and came up with the most extremely artistic portfolios…… which were of no earthly use or application in the commercial world of photography that we were soon to join.

After I left art school I was lucky. I became the assistant to John Hedgecoe (ex-Guildford student) on The Queen Magazine and learnt the basic arts of fulfilling a magazine assignment. The job at Queen lasted for a year and was the only full time job I have ever had. I had always known, growing up, that when I was 21 I would receive a small inheritance from my great grandfather who was a distinguished engineer and built the cataract dam in Egypt. In 1959 it was enough to buy me a set of cameras and a small blue Mini Minor car. From that day on, I have been a freelance photographer.

DB:  Photography has often seen as the poor relative in the arts.  Do you think that this perception is now changing?

TT:  Throughout my life as a freelance photographer I have always nurtured the fine art aspect of my work, by which I mean consciously making photographs as objects to hang on a wall, rather than other kinds of applications and had many exhibitions starting with the Photographers’ Gallery in 1978.  But it is only really over the last decade, since I have joined and worked with Purdy Hicks Gallery, that I have been able to give that side of my work free reign. Their attitude is that they do not care which medium their artists are working in …only that the work is, in their opinion, worth exhibiting. I think this is now the general attitude of most gallerists, as so many contemporary artists use some form or aspect of photography, video or film as part of their practice.  And now it has been normal to have keepers of photography in contemporary art museums, latterly at Tate Modern, so I think the idea of dismissing photography as an inferior art form that has been a background noise to my career is finally a thing of the past. Let’s face it, most of the most iconic images of the 20th century are either photographs or paintings that refer or specifically use photography from Warhol to Kiefer and Richter and beyond.

DB:  What are you currently working on?

TT:  I am currently working on an extended series of images collectively called Chemistry of Light. In 1971 I inherited a collection of 19th century glass plate negatives, by a little known photographer called Francis Smart.  These large glass plates have in some cases degenerated and grown fungi of beautiful shapes and colours. I have used these fugitive and decaying images as a historical clay from which to discover new photographs in which the passage of time and transitory techniques are strongly present. There is something at once poignant and optimistic about bringing these images back from the brink and to contrast the possibilities in the advent of digital photography with the materials and practices of the past, with all its romance and science. [Examples below entitled Distant Cousins]

 

DB:  What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

TT:  To collect and study photographic books and inform their work with the achievements of our wonderful predecessors. In some ways I feel that books provide the best way to look at photographs and our medium's history which is so rich in magnificent editions.

DB:  What does being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society mean for you?

When I was a student, I made a huge effort to become a member of the Royal Photographic Society and photographed English cathedral interiors on my plate camera and toiled in the darkroom to make beautiful prints of them. For some reason I never submitted these pictures, I simply cannot remember why…. So that is why, now, at this late stage in my career, it is particularly gratifying to be made a Fellow. It has always been a lurking ambition of mine.

DB:  If you could host a dinner party with five other photographers (dead or alive), who would you choose?

  • Berenice Abbott
  • Julia Margaret Cameron
  • Eve Arnold
  • Evelyn Hofer
  • Lee Miller

DB:  And finally, is there any one photograph or painting that has had a significant impact on your practice?

The paintings that have influenced me are many…. But I have been inspired by Monet's Bridge at Giverny and made a collage out vegetables of it in homage, which is currently on show at Purdy Hicks Gallery in London. (Featured image at top of post: Homage to Monet).

For more examples of Tessa’s work, visit her website:  www.tessatraeger.com

Follow Tessa on Instagram:  @tessatraeger

All images © Tessa Traeger FRPS