Redox Reactions – Hannah Fletcher

I grew up in Oxford, UK, and moved to London for university, where I completed an art foundation course, followed by a Bacherlor’s degree in photography at London College of Communication.

I stayed in London after graduating and am still here now, but I don’t intend to stay in London much longer. My partner and I are in the process of buying a van and converting it to live and travel in for a year or so. The past six months has really made me realise that I don’t need to live in London any more. I have an urge and desire to live more of my life outside, in the open air and living in a van allows this. In a van you are exposed to the elements – the outdoors becomes your  space of living. 

Like many creatives, I do a mix of freelance work; I teach workshops and do private tutoring in alternative photographic processes and sustainable practices, I occasionally assist a photography specialist and advisor, work for art galleries, mentor and advise on sustainability within the arts, and work as an art tech / installer. These all support and feed into my practice.  

I co-direct the London Alternative Photography Collective (LAPC). LAPC is a community interest company that I co-direct along with three other artists: Melanie King, Almudena Romero  and Diego Valente.

It was founded in 2013 by Melanie and has grown from a small group of analogue and alternative photography practitioners to a collective which produces large-scale symposiums, exhibitions  and workshops. LAPC is an open collective which anyone can join, open to artists who have ideas for  projects. We have always been about promoting the accessibility and creative possibilities of analogue and experimental photography, and aim to support practitioners who challenge traditional ways of using photography to reflect on contemporary issues and to provide a platform for skill exchange. The premise of the open collective therefore allows a wide range of artists, photographers, makers, curators and theorists to guide the activities of LAPC, enabling practitioners to swap ideas, skills and foster collaboration.

Much of my work with LAPC is volunteer-based but sometimes we are able to secure funding for specific projects. I recently successfully secured two batches of funding for a project I initiated called The Sustainable Darkroom, an ongoing research, development and mutual learning programme that aims to support practitioners in developing a more sustainable analogue  photographic practice. You can see more about all of this on the LAPC website here

What’s your story?

From my first interactions with photography, I have always been drawn to the materiality of analogue processes. At school, I had access to a tiny cupboard-like darkroom. Only one person could use it at a time, so there was never anyone else there to tell you that you were not doing things the “correct” way.

This was where I would spend a lot of my spare time, and it was here that I started to play around with the process of developing prints. One afternoon, I noticed a few prints in the bin that had been thrown away before being fully fixed. In  their wet state, they had stuck to the plastic lining of the bin, causing an impression of crumpled plastic to be  left on the prints as they continued to absorb light and react to their environment. I was so intrigued by the relationship between the photographic surface and this plastic bin bag – a non-photographic material. From there, my practice gradually moved away from simply making photographs with a camera.

I am very environmentally focused in the way that I live my life and it was natural that my work would begin to  echo these feelings in manifestations of their own. Typically, I will limit myself to working with a singular material, and attempt to understand the relationship between the specific material and a photographic landscape.

My work is a flow between processes and materials, between research and exploration, between  poetic and political. There is no start or finish point, and I do not see any boundaries to the photographic medium. This challenge that I present myself with, of entwining organic matter into the photographic medium, a medium which is inherently sterile and perfectionist, is a challenge which fuels my fascination and creative drive. 

Let’s talk about your series ‘Redox Reactions’.

I have been researching the sustainability of the silver industry and how our photographic  landscape could take form without it. Silver is a key element in analogue photography. It is suspended into an emulsion or gelatine to create a fine light-sensitive layer, and when exposed to light, a reduction oxidisation reaction – also known as a redox reaction – occurs. This causes the silver to blacken once in contact with development components.

However, silver is a limited resource on our earth; it is in short supply and ore grades continue to reduce. I  have concerns about the scarcity of silver and have consequently been thinking about the possibility of  producing photographic images with other metals that also change colour when they go through a redox reaction.

Iron is one of these metals. It is the fourth most common element in the earth’s crust and can be fully recycled to produce a new form of the same quality and integrity as the product it has been recycled from, making it a very sustainable  element to work with.

When iron goes through a reduction oxidisation reaction, it produces red rust. This series of works have all been produced incorporating the redox reaction of iron into rust, raising the suggestion that if we want photography to be sustainable then the future of photography might look quite different to the black and  white analogue imagery we know and have associated with since the 1800s. Perhaps the future of  photography will be tones of orange, red, brown and white. 

At present, this work exists as a material exploration rather than a scientific study.  

Can you tell us a bit more about the issues surrounding silver usage? If I recall correctly, we can also find silver within our mobile phones?  

Yes, silver is used in mobile phones – in the circuit board I believe. Our phones contain a whole host of other rare and precious metals including gold and platinum. These metals are extremely difficulty to mine and very energy intensive. The amount of energy that is needed to extract these precious metals means they are not very sustainable to mine.  

The chart bellow shows the abundance of metals in the earth crust by parts per million. In comparison to other metals, we can see there is a very small supply of silver in the earth’s crust.

Source: Silver Bullion

On top of this, much of our available silver above-ground is being buried in landfills, in the forms of electronics, batteries, CDs, circuit boards, photographic fixer. According to a forecast I found on Visual Capitalist, at our current rate of silver mining we are likely to run out of silver before 2030. However, I have not found the scientific data to back up this claim, so I am not sure how accurate this forecast is. 

Any mining in general can greatly impact our environment, however, and industrial mining is seen as one of the world’s most destructive industries.

A report by Earthworks and Oxfam America called ‘Dirty Metals: Mining,  Communities and the Environment’, claims that the costs of mining metals include using as much as 10% of world energy, arsenic emissions, cyanide and mercury poisoning, as well as vast landscape damage. These environmental costs increase exponentially with rare and precious metals such as silver.

For more detailed research into the scarify of metals, I would recommend looking at this free resource – ‘Geochemical Perspectives: Future Global Mineral Resources’.

While working on the project, were there any moments or experiences or realisations that stood out to you?

My understanding of the research and physical work always continues to evolve after the work has been produced. I leave my projects open to evolve and enrich with further research and new information. Nothing  is certain, and science is always changing. I don’t want the works to be routed in research that then becomes obsolete. I see them as ongoing explorations into areas of research… never really having an ending point.  

Recommend us something.

I’m currently reading one fiction and one non-fiction book – ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers and ‘What a plant knows’ by biologist Daniel Chamovitz. They are both great books, especially if you are interested in plants. 

I’ve also been staying by the coast for the past ten days, so I’ve been watching and listening to the ocean everyday.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

This question is really hard for me to answer… I’ve never enjoyed choosing favourites. I’ve never  had a favourite colour, song, book, food… I love variation and unpredictability. I rarely cook the same dish twice. 

More than any man-made piece of art, my environment and the natural world inspires me. Understanding the balance of the earth and plant life is more influential to me than any work of art I’ve looked at or book I’ve  read.

hannahfletcher.com / instagram.com/hfletch