“I’m interested in the history of places and the human relationship to the landscape,” explains London-born, St Leonards-on-Sea-based photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews. With a background in fine art, Chloe spent four years working in the film industry before coming to photography as a way to “express myself in a much more spontaneous and economic way.” Now, through projects like Shot at Dawn which documents the sites at which British, French Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion during the First World War, Chloe explores the parallels and juxtapositions that exists between humans and our surroundings.
Chloe’s work is rooted in narrative, telling stories through images, often with a very specific relationship to text. “I hope to give insight into a particular subject or situation but, at the same time, retain some element of mysteriousness and questioning,” she tells It’s Nice That. During a recent residency in Switzerland, these qualities once again presented themselves resulting in her series In Search of Frankenstein.
“After I was invited to do the Verbier 3-D Foundation residency in Switzerland, I embarked on some preliminary research on the area,” she recalls, “I came across the extraordinary story of the ‘Débacle du Giétroz’.” Between 1816 and 1818, she describes, the four-kilometre-long Giétroz Glacier built up to form a large dam of ice which, due to mounting pressure, burst releasing gallons of water that tore through the valley to Lake Geneva, devastating everything in its path.
This disaster was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora on an Indonesian Island in 1815 which cast a huge cloud of ash that blocked out sunlight over much of the world, causing temperatures to plummet. As a result, 1816 became known as the “Year without Summer”. “It was at this time that Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe, Lord Byron and John Polidori were holidaying on the shores of Lake Geneva,” Chloe explains. The group spent day after day confined indoors due to the bad weather and, in response to a ghost story writing challenge, the 18-year-old Mary Shelley produced the world-renowned novel, Frankenstein.
“I was fascinated to discover that this iconic novel could be seen as a cultural consequence of these climatic abnormalities during the ‘Year without Summer’,” Chloe explains of the beginning of her latest work. This discovery prompted In Search of Frankenstein, a series of images shot in the alpine landscape which inspired Shelley’s story. With beautifully tranquil and intimidating shots of snow-covered mountains, the series juxtaposes these with a network of eerie subterranean bunkers, built in the 1960s to shelter the entire population of Switzerland in the event of nuclear war.
This juxtaposition is at the core of what makes In Search of Frankenstein so intriguing. “I asked to visit the bunkers, just out of curiosity at first, but then I realised how relevant they were,” Chloe recalls. Where Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about hubris and what happens when humans mess with nature, Chloe’s stark aesthetic contrast between the man-made bunkers and the mountains feels incredibly pertinent. By presenting both scenes as fragile and daunting at the same time, In Search of Frankenstein embodies Shelley’s “nightmarish vision”, tapping into our fears of technology, the ethics of science and our complex relationship with the natural world.
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