Ben Cauchi, Dead Arm, 2006, tintype, 350 x 270mm. Collection of the artist. Ben Cauchi, Dead Arm, 2006, tintype, 350 x 270mm. Collection of the artist. CREDIT: City Gallery Wellington

The Sophist's Mirror, Ben Cauchi at City Gallery Wellington

Friday 19 October 2012, 4:23PM
By City Gallery Wellington


Artist Ben Cauchi admits he’s “happily homeless” as he sets off for a year in Berlin for his next artist residency, as the 2012 Creative New Zealand Berlin Visual Artist at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.

Cauchi returns to New Zealand however for the installation and opening of his upcoming solo exhibition at City Gallery Wellington, Ben Cauchi: The Sophist’s Mirror, 20 October – 10 February 2013, curated by Aaron Lister.

The 37 year old photographer has gained attention for his unusual practice which utilises 19th century photographic processes. He creates unique photographs; one-off positives on glass (‘ambrotypes’) and on metal (‘tintypes’), creating a highly distinctive body of work that has been widely collected by public galleries and private collections in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

This exhibition is the largest showing of Cauchi’s work in a public gallery, weaving through a decade’s work. Curator Aaron Lister promises that the exhibition will include all of Cauchi’s recurrent subjects: from his mock-spiritualist summoning of photographic spirits, acts of dark room trickery and magic, staged tableaux of ambiguous objects and scenes, and will draw heavily on his self-portraiture, which offers one of the most distinctive acts of self-imagining in contemporary New Zealand art. In doing so he produces, in the words of Ron Brownson, ‘photographs that I never ignore. They are already some of the key photographs made in Aotearoa.’

The exhibition covers the range of Cauchi’s formats: the glass plate ambrotypes and metal plate-tintypes he is best known for, as well as a portfolio of salt prints, and a recent series of large format lightjet prints scanned from parent tintypes. It includes major institutional loans from the collections of The National Gallery of Australia, Te Papa Tongarewa, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery, and the Hocken Collections, as well as a number of private collections.

Cauchi is so familiar with living out of a suitcase his email address used to include the word ‘suitcase@’ and in the past five years he has had residencies at the McCahon House in Titirangi, Auckland, The Rita Angus Cottage residency in Wellington (2011) and the Francis Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin (2007). He has sold the Gospel Hall he and his partner shared in the town and now the contents of his photography making equipment is making its slow way across the Pacific to the new home in Germany.

Cauchi confesses he enjoys this transient and open artist lifestyle. But it’s a lot harder to carry the dark room with him. “Admittedly the freedom isn’t quite there. It’s not like I can pull my camera out of my pocket. The equipment takes up a lot of space and I was lucky enough to be able to commission a camera to be made in Wellington thanks for the expertise of a man called Brian Scadden.”

Lab Manager at Park Road Post it took Scadden a year to make Cauchi’s current camera, a studio wet plate camera that takes large sized “mammoth plates” at 20 x 24 inches. Scadden has called it “the behemoth”. It’s large enough for an adult to climb inside, takes two people to lift and is the largest camera ever made in New Zealand.

Cauchi more affectionately calls it a “19th century polaroid” as it takes a relatively quick thirty minutes to expose. Instead of using film, the picture negative is captured on a glass plate treated with chemicals. Once laid on a black velvet background, you have a unique image which then requires the use of a dark room immediately before and after the picture is shot.

While it is large and cumbersome, the results will be on display in The Sophist’s Mirror with one large plate included in the exhibition.

While Cauchi is a self confessed “luddite” who has never heard of Instagram and does not engage in social media, he credits his love of books and photographs to his father who as Deputy Librarian at the National Library of New Zealand, surrounded his children with posters and books when growing up. “We spent school holidays looking at libraries and there can’t have been too many kids that spent their summers setting letterpress printing blocks at Waiteata Press.”

Growing up in Wadestown with two English parents Cauchi, “became interested in photography through an interest in history and working as a librarian at Wellington Polytechnic when I left school. I was drawn to the books there of early experiments in photography.” He discovered tutor Wayne Barrar was interested in early historical photographic processes so he enrolled in the course and gradually built up a collection of cameras for his tin type and photography.

City Gallery Wellington Foundation and Victoria University Press are producing a publication to accompany the exhibition, which includes essay by exhibition curator, Aaron Lister.

Artist Biography

Ben Cauchi was awarded the New Generation Award (2011) from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand and the prestigious Creative New Zealand Berlin Arts Residency in 2012. Since completing his studies at Massey University, Wellington in 2000, Ben has become highly recognised both for the ‘wet-plate' processes, which he has used almost exclusively since 2002. In 2007 he was the Francis Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin. The resulting exhibition, Dead Time, was mounted at the Hocken Gallery in Dunedin and also toured to Christchurch Art Gallery.

In 2011 Ben completed the Rita Angus Cottage residency in Wellington. Cauchi’s work has been collected by every major public collection in New Zealand, as well as the University of Wollongong and the National Gallery of Australia collections. A significant holding of his work is also housed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.



Geoffrey Batchen, Paul McNamara and Mark Strange respond to Ben Cauchi, Wednesday 24 October, 6pm. Free entry. Join Mark Strange, Senior Conservator of Photographs at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Paul McNamara, Gallerist specialising in the medium of photography and Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of Art History at Victoria University of Wellington, as they discuss the photography in The Sophist’s Mirror: Ben Cauchi.


Ben Cauchi: The Sophist’s Mirror

20 October –  10 February 2013

Free Entry

City Gallery Wellington

Civic Square, Wellington

Ph: 04 801 3021,


City Gallery Wellington is managed by the Wellington Museums Trust with major funding support from Wellington City Council.