There’s nothing like a visual project which makes you question your own eyes, and the Discoverer’s Alliance, a series and exhibition made as a result of a collaboration between set designer Owen Gildersleeve and photographer Benedict Morgan, certainly does that.
The series takes the name of a fictional society of sea and space explorers, the Discoverer’s Alliance, which celebrated its 100th anniversary by opening its doors to the pair, offering them “unprecedented access to the organisation’s offices and archives.” It’s a mockumentary of sorts, showing off Owen and Benedict’s skills to their very best, with every image painstakingly constructed using paper and smart lighting tricks.
“Benedict and I met last year whilst working on a job together,” Owen explained. “During the shoot Benedict showed me some references he had gathered of a rocket launch and told me how he wanted to try to recreate it as a set.
“We chatted it through and decided it would be nice to also do an accompanying underwater shot and that these two could be linked by some made-up society, like The Explorer’s Club in New York. Then we started wondering what the inside of the offices would look like, and after many excitable conversations over the following months we eventually had ideas for over 20 images. These were then whittled down to the nine that now make up the series.
“For inspiration we went on a few day trips to various museums around London,” he continues. “One of the best days was when we visited the Rocks & Minerals section of the Natural History Museum. Both of us were really geeking out about all the crystals, and were throwing out silly ways we could recreate them using household materials such as noodles, Blu-Tack, expanding foam and Twiglets. This formed the basis of the ‘Rocks & Minerals’ shot which was the first image we made, and was a lot of fun to create.”
“One of the best days was when we visited the Rocks & Minerals section of the Natural History Museum. Both of us were really geeking out about all the crystals, and were throwing out silly ways we could recreate them using household materials such as noodles, bluetack, expanding foam and Twiglets.”
In spite of being constructed mainly out of household objects and snacks, many of the images look uncannily like real-life photographs on first glance, but that was a part of the fun, Owen explains. “Realism was actually an important part of this project. We decided early on that we wanted to try to blur the lines between the set design and documentary feel, so that even though they’re all obviously handmade sets there’s still a sense of mystery in the series.
“Benedict and I spent a lot of time with each shot working out how the lighting and mood should be, and also adding in little intricacies like the window pane lighting in the Executive Office and Press Cuttings shots just to help bring them to life. This obviously added a lot of extra work for us, but we think it makes for a stronger series.”
Owen Gildersleeve & Benedict Morgan: Discoverer’s Alliance will be on display at Downstairs at Mother in London from 4 June.
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