Tessa Traeger has built an international reputation as a master of still life photography. She is widely acknowledged to have raised the subject of photographic food still life to the status of art. Her early still life photographs, taken on large format cameras, were published during her long association with Vogue. Inspired by some of her illustrious predecessors, she has sought to balance the demands and development of both commissioned and personal work.
In the 1990's Traeger began to photograph in the Vivarais, a mountainous area in the Ardèche, Southeastern France, peopled by communities that continued to practice traditional farming methods and of whom she wrote: 'My hope is that we can learn something from their simple and straightforward view of life...that they have enough to satisfy them, enough and no more, and for me their attitudes are both a lesson and a warning'. The resulting works, taken over many years, were published in the award winning Tessa Traeger, Voices of the Vivarais, 2010.
'When I first began this project, I made a conscious choice to use a method which was in tune with the subject matter. I saw before me a 19th Century world and recorded it with essentially 19th Century photographic equipment: a plate camera and wet negatives. By the time I concluded fifteen years later, the very subject matter was already fading, changed, or lost. And whilst my subject had started to disappear, so too, ironically, had the means that I had chosen to record it… My last pictures for the project were taken on a digital camera, in colour, and the wet process with which I had begun had been consigned to the art gallery and the museum'. (Tessa Traeger)
Voices of the Vivarais was followed in 2013 by the ongoing series The Chemistry of Light: Traeger's response to a large inherited collection of 19th Century photographs, negatives and camera equipment. Many of the images were severely damaged with various forms of chemical decay as well as dramatic lifting and tearing of the gelatin emulsions which peeled from the glass. This damage and destruction became a metaphor for Traeger of the steady but inevitable loss of the materials and rituals of her craft as darkroom photography and chemistry has been super-ceded by digital technology. However, to her surprise, this new medium proved to be subtle and flexible with infinite possibilities. For Traeger making photographs out of photographs was confirmation that the new world of digital photography and computers is just as fulfilling as the world of darkrooms, chemistry, papers and film, as well as connecting her directly to a part of her own history.
The series, Calligraphy of Dance, 2015, was inspired by the family portrait and rare music collections owned by The Duke of Buccleuch. Appointed Artist in Residence at Boughton House where both collections are housed, Traeger was asked to create new works which would express aspects of the music collection in visual terms. She focussed on two books of choreography, published in the 18th Century, which record dance using a calligraphic system and combined this with details she discovered amongst the many family portraits which hang in the house.
Her most recent series Family Trees (Purdy Hicks Gallery, 2 March - 1 April 2023) reimagines the history of Boughton House in Northamptonshire, combining old and new by seamlessly blending paintings from the Duke of Buccleuch’s collection into her photographs of the landscape.
Tessa Traeger trained at Guildford School of Art and has worked in London since the 1960's. She has exhibited regularly since the 1970's in Paris, London and New York. Her work is represented in many public collectioins including the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.