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 and drawing. She completed her photographic education at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa and has shown in galleries in Canada and abroad. In 2014, Lewis-Smith was awarded a one-month production residency at the Arquetopia Foundation for the Arts in Mexico. Her work sits in prominent private collections in Canada, the United States, England, Spain, Mexico, and Chile, as well as in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery of New Brunswick and the Ottawa City’s Public Art collections of 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Most recently Whitney’s work was purchased by Justin and Sophie Trudeau as part of their personal collection.
She is represented by Galerie St-Laurent+Hill in Ottawa, Canada, and Subject Gallery NYC in New York.
Flashing back to a walk through Canada’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.The image of this painting, that seemed so insignificant in that moment, was something I couldn't shake. After some time it became clear that there was an underlying reason my mind wouldn't let it go. It was curious to me how this work of art would have come about. A small 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 time of year, or to transport them to a european studio. To see a painting like this would have been to gaze upon an impossible bouquet that could never have existed alive. What a contrast between this reality and ours in the world today. Now I can order almost anything, no matter the time of year or location, to my door without ever leaving my living room. That seventeenth century painting has lost its magic, symbolism, luxury, and it’s fascination.
As opposed to creating scenes that are impossible, I am using 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 further down the line. Considering humanity’s impact on the environment, I would guess that my images will one day hold scenes of living things that will once again be an impossibility due to extinction and other mainly man-made reasons. By using antiquated darkroom techniques and reanimating dead 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 real? 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 are destroying is the only way to encourage change. By creating oversized complex and immersive scenes 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 issues we face.
All of the insects I acquire have been harvested on sustainable insect farms. This means that farmers and rural land owners that may otherwise have used detrimental practices such as slash and burn farming can now harvest insects at a controlled rate to sustain their families while maintaining the local ecosystems. Any taxidermy used is antique or borrowed from museum collections. I am adamant about maintaining a sustainable practice. All of my images are created with a large format 8×10 view camera, similar to camera’s used in antiquity by Ansel Adams, Ottawa’s own Yousuf Karsh, and current contemporary heavyweights like Sally Mann and Ed Burtynsky. I hand coat 8x10 inch negatives on panes of glass in a complex and time consuming process. The plates are coated over a period of three days as each of two coats must dry before the next step can take place. The second coat is light sensitive and must be poured and dried in almost complete darkness. Once prepared, the negatives are carefully loaded into a holder and exposed one at a time. A darkroom must be built on set to develop each shot immediately after it is taken. 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 melt 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 large format prints(usually approximately 6 feet tall) are unparalleled.