Whitney Lewis-Smith is a Canadian photo-based artist. Her work uses a combination of historic and modern photographic processes as a means to speak on contemporary topics, most recently discussing consumerism, commodity accessibility, and globalization’s impact on the environment. By referencing dutch golden era floral tableaus, Whitney highlights the evolution of humanity’s relationship with the planet. A painting from the 17th century displaying various flora and fauna that could never have existed together has now become a reality to almost anyone at the tap of a button. Her seemingly living moving scenes are made predominantly using insects, animals, and plants that have died, but this only becomes apparent upon close inspection. The result is a subtle tension, engaging the viewer’s fascinations and fears. Lewis-Smith challenges viewers’ distance from the ecological; her pieces evoke childlike curiosity while simultaneously directing us to consider the profound environmental changes we are giving rise to.
Lewis-Smith works predominantly in Canada. She attended the Studio Arts program at Concordia University where her focus was in painting, drawing, and sculpture. She completed her photographic education at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa where she is currently a full time college instructor in Studio and darkroom techniques. In 2014, Lewis-Smith was awarded a one-month production residency at the Arquetopia Foundation for the Arts in Mexico in tandem with the museum of natural history there. Her work sits in prominent private collections in Canada, the United States, England, Spain, Mexico, and Chile, as well as in the private collection of Sophie and Justin Trudeau, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery of New Brunswick, Maison Simons collection, SUMMA Contemporary Art Fair's permanent acquisitions, and in the Ottawa City’s Public Art collections of 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
She is represented by Galerie St-Laurent+Hill in Ottawa, Canada, and Subject Gallery NYC in New York.
Biophilia is a term coined by renowned psychologist Erich Fromm and popularized by Harvard Biologist Edward O. Wilson. It describes how humans possess an innate tendency to seek connection with nature and other forms of life. As of 2008 The United Nations says more than half of the world lives in cities and the average pre-teen in the UK recognizes more video game characters than common wildlife. With technology and the way we live changing faster each year, I am preoccupied with the evolution of our relationship with the natural world.
Flashing back to a walk through Ottawa’s national gallery about six years ago, I came across a small dutch golden era painting of an ornate black vase impossibly full of flowers, insects crawling throughout. It was curious to me how this work of art would have come about. A painting of flowers, including various flora from different regions, seasons, and climate zones, long before the invention of the photograph, would have required months or years to finish. What luxury and wealth would it take to deliver a painter to all of the places those flowers would grow at the appropriate times of year, or to transport them to a European studio. To see a painting like this would have been to gaze upon an impossible thing. What a contrast between that reality and ours today where anything can be ordered, no matter the time of year or location, to our doors without ever having to leave one’s home. That seventeenth century painting has lost it’s magic and symbolism, the fascination in it lying elsewhere now. One constant remains: no matter how or where these specimens of nature exist and how long the journey to acquire them, we must have them.
As opposed to creating scenes that are impossible, I have used the photograph to display what can be amassed in the flesh, by internet purchase or otherwise, highlighting how globalization impacts the way we understand the world around us. By drawing on art history I’m asking the viewer to situate our current time as a passing moment and to highlight that the way we perceive things now is not necessarily the way they will be understood hereafter. Considering humanity’s impact on the environment, I would guess that my images will one day hold scenes of living things that will again be an impossibility. By using antiquated darkroom techniques and reanimating collected specimens I hope to create an underlying tension that prompts the viewer to question what it is they are looking at. Is it alive? Is it a drawing or a photograph? For those engaging with my work I aim to evoke a sense of awe and fascination with the natural world. Having an attachment to the environment we impact is the only way to stimulate responsible practices looking forward. Creating oversized complex and immersive tableaus, I hope to enthral viewers in a seductive way as opposed to the dark, too little too late attitude we so often see when discussing environmental topics.
Looking forward to future projects, I have been given the opportunity to work with a group of world renowned set designers and artists in Mexico City. They currently do all of the sets and building for Netflix show Narcos and amazon.com and have given me access to their wealth of props and resources. With this space to create I will have freedom to incorporate a human element into my sets, expanding my images from discussing consumerism into an exploration of the ways humanity connects and it’s symbiotic relationship with the earth. The final works will be presented in a more immersive way than traditional photographic shows with the vertical panoramic prints running from ceiling and spilling down onto the floor. Each scene will be life sized, permitting the viewer to feel like an integral part of each one. The proposed work will be presented at a solo show at St. Laurent+Hill Gallery in Ottawa in November of this year.
My past images have been created with a large format 8×10’’ view camera. I hand coat my negatives on panes of glass in a complex three day process. Their sensitivity is extremely low (around ISO 1 or 2) meaning that the photographs are created over a long period, sometimes many minutes. Once exposed and developed the plates are contact printed in the darkroom. From here I take the historical process and meld it with a contemporary one. High resolution reflective scans are produced of the prints and the photographs are then lightly edited and printed on archival uncoated cotton rag paper with pigment inks. Though this process requires a high level of technical skill I do feel the resulting detail in the large format prints(usually approximately 6 feet tall) are unparalleled. All flora and fauna used to create my sets are sourced sustainably by myself. I have recently embarked on a new chapter in technique education learning heliogravure printing to translate my images onto copper plates. The result is more powerful than I had imagined, turning the animals and ecosystems I photograph into near icons. We have created the largest heliogravure photographic etchings to date worldwide. The final prints created by pressing the inked plates to Japanese paper are an unusual bridge of the photographic medium into something deeply painterly. By pushing the boundaries of current photographic practices I hope to change our understanding of what a photograph can be and help define it’s seat at the table of contemporary art.