Rachel Brewster-Wright - Women in Photography
Rachel Brewster-Wright is a whirlwind one-woman photography practitioner based in Liverpool and she trades as Little Vintage Photography.
A self-described analogue adventurer, Rachel is passionate about old cameras and old processes. She also recognises the value in digital and the intersection where old and new photography can meet.
She is one third of the Sunny 16 Podcast discussing vintage photography in a digital way. Rachel uses her many film processes to produce bespoke wedding photography. Rachel is a workshop facilitator and her Peace of Mind project – cyanotypes produced in collaboration with a variety of young people including those undergoing dialysis at hospital is part of the Yoko Ono and John Lennon exhibition – Double Fantasy housed at Museum of Liverpool.
What first drew you to Photography and in particular analogue photography?
I made my first photograph when I was about 3 I think. It was entirely my Dad’s fault! He learnt the trade working in the RAF and pretty much as soon as I could walk, talk and show interest in things, he showed me how to make a pinhole camera and we took photos with it. I remember us using the box bedroom at home and the attic as makeshift darkrooms & watching the prints appear. It was completely magical then, and it still is now.
I did my A-Level in Photography at art college and loved the peace and limitless time and opportunities to experiment that the darkroom seemed to offer. I also appreciated the fact that it levelled the playing field. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t afford the best kit, you could still create interesting images that could stand alongside anyone else’s work. This was the late 90’s and it was just as the digital photographic age was dawning.
After going to university and several years running the technical department and teaching in higher education I got to the end of my 20’s and I lost my Mum and my job. It may be a cliché but these two major events for me, really were the catalyst that led to me picking up photography again. I bought myself my first digital camera for my 30th birthday and set about documenting everything and anything I could. I was terrified of missing a single moment.
I took a few days off to go to Scotland to try and deal with my grief and I came back with thousands of photos. Two months later, they were still sitting on my computer hard-drive and I hadn’t looked at a single image. That was when I knew something had to change and I needed to make a shift. I sat down with a notebook and pen and looked at my life. It took me all day and well into the night, but I remember going to bed bursting with excitement over my realisation that I was going back to analogue photography and was going to set up my own vintage photography business - Little Vintage Photography.
I knew how powerful it could be to slow down and shoot more mindfully and was conscious of wanting to make a move away from the disposable, throw away and consumable and towards the physical, tactile, magical processes that analogue provided. I wanted to use analogue cameras and processes to provide a different, more connected experience and with the aim of sharing that excitement and curiosity with others too.
Can you tell me a bit more about the Peace of Mind exhibition hosted at the Museum of Liverpool and what your role was as facilitator?
Being asked to work on the Peace of Mind project by Dot Art and the Museum of Liverpool was such an honour. It forms part of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy exhibition and is the first thing you see as you arrive at the top of the staircase in the Museum of Liverpool. It’s part of the permanent display in the ‘Skylight Gallery’ until the exhibition ends in November 2019. I ran a series of cyanotype sunprint & pinhole viewer workshops with groups of young people in the Merseyside region, based around the idea of Peace. I started with a quote from Yoko Ono about love and simplicity and wanted to show how accessible photography can actually be, using simple processes and introducing a younger generation to the idea that you can create really unique work without expensive equipment, using just daylight, chemistry, water, basic materials and imagination.
Some of the groups I worked with on the project had limited opportunities to enjoy activities that others were able to, as they were patients at the local children’s hospital and undergoing dialysis treatment. This was a way to bring creativity and a bit of magic and enjoyment to them as I helped them create photogram sunprints using a lamp and they were able to build and use their pinhole viewers without leaving their treatment room. It also gave them a way of learning about the process and contributing to the final composite images which I turned into digital negatives and used to create a final set of 10 pieces, each of which had elements that had been created by the groups during the workshops. These are the final prints that now form part of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s Double Fantasy exhibition.
Why do you think it's important to make Photography more accessible?
The more accessible something is, the more we’re able to level that playing field. Photography is such a wonderful tool for allowing absolutely anyone the opportunity to tell their story. Billions of people are now able to use their phones to capture the world around them visually in such quality that it’s astounding. I use both digital and analogue photography in my work and I think it’s just incredible that we have so many options today! It’s a wonderful time to work in photography because although in some ways it is more challenging than ever before to stand out, deal with the data we produce, or create a career through it, in other ways, we have the opportunity to utilise not only digital tools and techniques, but if we choose to, we can also embrace the whole plethora of analogue processes that were invented over 200 years ago. Within that breadth of options, there really is something for everyone and it means that regardless of any demographic, economic and social boundaries we may face, we can all still create, we can all still have a voice.
I am particularly passionate about growing the movement which champions the achievements of women and want to encourage a greater balance of female voices in the world.
I believe that analogue photography is the perfect way of introducing more women and girls to the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in an engaging way, as it combines them all, with the outcome being artistic, creative output.
One of my favourite moments ever, was being asked by a seven year old girl in one of my ‘Analogue Adventurer’ workshops, whether I was a scientist or an artist and being able to show her that I was both. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you have to “see it to be it”, and that the more women and girls are seen to be working and involved in non-traditional gender roles, the more readily others will be able to visualise themselves in, and contribute awesome things to, these industries too.
You co-host the Sunny 16 podcast about film photography - do you think digital (podcast) can advance the cause of film photography to a wider audience?
Yes, absolutely! I’ve been co-hosting the Sunny 16 Podcast for over 2 years now and it has opened up doors, conversations and friendships that I never would have had otherwise, making my life all the richer for it. Every month we get messages from listeners saying they are new to the podcast and/or film photography, or else it has encouraged them to come back to analogue after years away. With a podcast being a digital medium, it gives us the opportunity to speak to people literally all over the world, bonding over and learning new things from each other all the time.
I have found the analogue photographic community to be incredibly supportive and having all the digital platforms available to us such as podcasts or using social media can give us a way of communicating with each other and growing the conversation around the resurgence of analogue. I’m always thinking about how analogue photography is actually a ‘new’ technology to young people and how amazing that is!
I’ve been conscious from the start too, about the importance of there being more female voices both metaphorically and literally (on a podcast!), being present in the conversations we have around photography in general and specifically about analogue. It comes back to this being another way of showing that women are in the industry, have things to say and that we need to be heard. The opportunity to do this by virtue of it being a digital podcast brings that visibility to a wider audience than would be possible in other ways.
Given that you live and breathe old film processes, who are some of your favourite 19th and 20th century women photographers?
I’d have to start with Anna Atkins. Such a lot of what I do is based around the traditional cyanotype process that she’s been a huge influence for me. Other names I’d add would be Julia Margaret Cameron, Gerda Taro, Vivian Mayer, Margaret Hardman but there are honestly so many!
You regularly photograph weddings - in the past decade or so, there's been a big move to photograph these in a candid way - in what ways do you think Little Vintage Photography is part of this creative movement?
I absolutely love shooting Little Vintage Photography weddings! It’s such a special day to be involved with. My couples tend to be those looking for something a little alternative who value memory and legacy and who appreciate the beautiful imperfections and classic look that film gives. They are conscious of wanting to move away from the ‘perfect’ photo-shopped look and want something that shows real emotion, that captures that little bit of magic and that it is something handmade and truly unique. They would rather spend their day joyfully with their loved ones, than posing for hundreds of photographs with forced smiles, and therefore prefer to have a few truly special images of the day that capture those candid moments, than thousands of flawless files.
I tend to shoot weddings and celebrations as a hybrid photographer in order to ensure I can deliver my best work no matter the environment I find myself in, and I tailor the percentage of film vs digital, to the couple and the day itself.
I process all my black & white film by hand in my darkroom and colour at one of my favourite professional labs. Honestly, nothing beats seeing those images come out of the darkroom tank and holding them up to the light for the first time! Again, the fact that we can choose whether to scan these to create digital files or make physical prints from them in the darkroom, is just awesome. We have so much choice, for me, it’s all about using the right tool for the right job and creating the aesthetic that works for that particular couple. They care more about how the experience makes them feel than brands or shiny labels and they value the little beautifully imperfect moments and the simple things over an Instagram filtered illusion of ‘perfection’.
My aim with using vintage film cameras to capture a wedding, celebration or deliver a workshop, aside from the fact that it is a joy to work with these beautiful old cameras, is that the experience and the final images will be as unique as the people that I work with.