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A Mysterious Archive Reveals its Secrets

In 2014, artist and designer Alan J. Ward became fascinated with looking at the physical structure of photographic negatives. “Their fragile materiality gave them a presence, one that bore the marks of their histories as objects,” explains Ward in his new book, Photographs From Another Place. This fascination led him to compulsively buy three boxes of glass plate negatives on eBay from a seller in Brighton, England. 

When his purchase arrived, Ward realized the 230 glass plates were part of a family collection, dating from 1914 to the 1950s. “Without knowing what I was buying, I became their custodian,” writes Ward. Some of the boxes coincidentally, and very surprisingly, were titled “Wellington and Ward.” A simple fluke, the first of many, instilled the collection with a personal connection. 

Released by Dewi Lewis Publishing, Photographs From Another Place chronicles the evolution of Ward’s relationship with the glass plates. Through meticulous, forensic research (conducted with his anthropologist daughter), Ward pieced together part of a family history, revealed to be oddly parallel to his own. 

The collection, he discovered, was the work of amateur photographer Sydney Gearing. Fascinated, Ward continued to uncover the subjects’ names and locations. In the process he was compelled to create new photographic work in response to the archive.

Gearing’s photographs, and in turn Ward’s photographs, are awash in maritime scenes. Mixed with images of family members, dogs, rifles and curious landscapes, the two photographers’ images form complex and inviting explorations of their surroundings. 

“Intrigued by the odd, and easily overlooked elements and repeating motifs of the collection, Ward explores the forgotten, lost, ordinary, and extraordinary distant voices and still lives of the archive,” writes Dewi Lewis in the press release. In an interview with Ward, David Govier comments that Gearing’s photographs, like “ghosts,” are “slowly giving up their identities.” Thanks to his inextinguishable commitment to researching Gearing’s work, Ward unexpectedly tracked down living members of the Gearing family. They discovered a total stranger had obsessively created a years-long and detailed document, one between fact and interpretation, of their family.

Photographs From Another Place
By Alan J. Ward
Dewi Lewis Publishing

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