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It’s not particularly easy to locate the Archive of Modern Conflict. It lies behind a side-door, down an unmarked path, tucked back from one of the more modest streets of Kensington. Holland Park lies just to the north, with its open-air opera nights, Japanese gardens and lining of grand mansions. To the east is High Street Kensington and then Sloane Square, the most affluent of playgrounds. It’s likely many of Timothy Prus’ neighbours won’t know him from Adam, or have a clue that one of the most eclectic photography collections in the world nestles in their midst.

You can understand the aura of hushed discretion and hearsay when you stand inside the archive. But for the standard issue Apple computers, the building and its decor could be from any year after World War II. Photographs are crammed into every available space of this homely office; performing, posing or caught unawares, the stories of countless people, the world over, lie in rest here.

I’m here to discuss the archive’s latest creation; perhaps its most strange and compelling yet. The Whale’s Eyelash is a ‘five-part play’ Prus has constructed from 19th century microscopic images found in slide cabinets, sourced from art dealerships and, on a couple of occasions, eBay. While I wait for Prus to appear, his daughter Milli shows me some of slides. They sit in beautiful hardwood cabinets on the windowsill of a carpeted, ornately furnished room, evidently her adopted office space.

On each slide sits a separate sample from a very different era of scientific discovery; monkey’s testicles, the fibers of a man’s eye, the tongue of a tortoiseshell butterfly, an ovary of a kitten, the magnified hair of an albino girl. “I took one out and was holding it in my hands before realising it was anthrax,” Milli laughs. “I’m hoping there won’t be an outbreak in West London.”

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is a Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper*, BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, Independent, Foam, New Statesman, Wired, Vice and The Royal Photographic Society Journal, for whom he won Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards 2020.

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