Reigate may initially seem like your bog-standard middle-class suburban British town, complete with an M&S and a Conservative MP. And for the most part, it is. Yet it’s singled out by, among other things, its network of manmade caves, many former mines and air raid shelters. Laura Brown, a local photographer who resides in the town above said caves, shares its love of the underground through her work. Her photos are filled with catacombs, stalagmites and stairwells, leading to some breathtakingly lucid images.
‘There’s something about underground spaces which (to me) makes you feel like you’re getting a glimpse of another world, one that feels separate from reality in a way that’s very appealing,’ she tells me during our phone interview. ‘You can find incredible works of art where people have used the space as a blank canvas to create wonderful sculptures and paintings.’ She is eloquent and passionate; exactly what ones hopes for in an artist talking about their work.
Her photos, including many from the Paris Catacombs, certainly embody this. ‘I wanted to document all this with my photography and capture what I felt was beautiful and unique because these spaces can also be very transient,’ she says. ‘Formations and sculptures get damaged on a regular basis; some places can be lost altogether due to collapse.’ Indeed, the ephemeral nature of a lot of underground spaces only adds to their mystique, something that Brown’s work understands perfectly.
Unfortunately lockdown has put to bed any possibility of further international exploration, at least for the time being. Since it started, Brown has been working on a series of more domestic photographs. ‘Being restricted to a certain space forces you to be more creative with that space and to try and see it and use it in a different way,’ she says. ‘I enjoyed the challenges it presented, and it inspired me to do a whole series of photos centred on the idea of using mirrors to demonstrate the immersive power of books and the idea of them coming alive in our own homes.’ Lockdown has forced her to be both stranger and more inventive with her work; these mirror-photographs may not have the grandeur of the subterranean pieces, but they make up for it with their enigmatic playfulness.
Speaking of the home, Brown grew up in a house full of art; her Mother and late Grandmother were both artists, and being surrounded by otherworldly artistic objects during her childhood had an immense impact on her adult life. ‘My Mum’s home is full of her paintings, they’re on every wall. She’s a prolific artist.’Having grown up surrounded by art, she was fascinated by the idea of photographing people from a very young age.
Yet Brown doesn’t live in her family’s shadow. Citing inspirations as diverse as the Pre-Raphaelites, for their heavenly quality, and the Polish photographer Laura Makabresku, she has a keen vision of where she fits into the art world as a whole. She has become a successful artist in her own right, her photos being used by the BBC and the National Geographic. Yet the achievement she is most proud of is being featured in Practical Photography magazine. ‘I liked the fact that people appreciated what I was doing in the photos,’ she said. ‘Even though they were taken around my home rather than portraying exciting locations.’
Looking to the future, she’s straightforward about her ambitions; improving photography techniques and trying new things. While this may seem modest, if she sticks to her current trajectory, she’s no doubt capable of achieving great things.