An Interview with Kirsty Mitchell – a ten page special feature on Wonderland, about to be printed in Portugal’s biggest selling photography magazine ‘ O mundo da Fotografia Digital’.
I’m sure that a lot of you know, but apart from doing weddings, I do photoshoots too. Wonderland is the project that I cherish the most, it’s been an ongoing project with photographer Kirsty Mitchell. We started with it TWO YEARS ago, and never expected it to become so big. It was an organic process, and it just got bigger and bigger. A lot of hard work has gone into it, and that’s why I wanted to share this interview with you, to give you a little bit of background. I am so so proud of this, and overwhelmed by the response! The magazine will be printed in Portuguese, but here is the English version.
(Scroll down for more exciting press!)
. How and when did your passion for photography begin? What were your first steps, your first contact with photography?
I studied analog photography many years ago when I was 18 at art school, but this was before digital become mainstream. It was my first contact with the medium, and sadly I felt defeated and frustrated by my tutors focus on the technical processes and chemicals involved. I saw photography as an art form not a science, and so in the end I followed a career into fashion design instead. It was another 13 years until I picked up a camera again in the summer of 2007. At the time I was recovering from 4 months of chronic insomnia and was undergoing hypnotherapy. The drugs I had been prescribed to make me sleep were extremely powerful and had numbed my senses and awareness to the point I couldn’t really feel temperature or touch. I was in the process of recovery and slowly as things began to return, my sensitivity seemed to change to an almost heightened state. It is hard to describe, but I had an overwhelming urge to record everything around me, like I was seeing the world for the first time. So I simply started with a little point and shoot I kept in my handbag, and just took as many pictures as I could on the way to work, on the train, the bus, wherever I was. It became my release and a therapy, it was an indescribable need and I became completely addicted to my camera
. What is about photography that challenges you? Where do you draw your inspiration from? From books, fairy tales, dreams? What is your major source of inspiration?
I would say emotion was absolutely the drive behind my early work. There was a reason for every picture, and usually it was my way of reflecting how I felt, even when the pictures were of other people. I started photography as a way of venting my emotion, and then the Wonderland project (which is my most recent work) was sadly created in memory of my mother who passed away in 2008. The fantasy images were my way of escaping the tragic realities of daily life which at the time was a dark and deeply sad place. The entire inspiration for Wonderland was my mother, and the stories she read to me as a child. She was an English teacher and read to me almost everyday for many years as well as the children in her classes. So this project was how I wanted her remembered – as a conjurer of magical worlds, beauty and colour. She was an incredible woman, and I needed to produce something utterly beautiful and extraordinary that would celebrate her gift.
Creating the series also became my way of dealing with grief, creating an alternative world to run away helped me cope with my loss and focus on the precious memories I had of her. So yes fairytales, fragments of old book illustrations, films and music are huge influences on my work. My ideas always form in my dreams, they are never researched and developed in a cold academic way, so I try to translate this into my work. The challenge for me is creating these dreams for real, without digitally faking the backdrops and situations. Every image you see in the project is real; the pictures were all taken on real locations, with natural light, shot throughout all the seasons. If a girl appears to be 3 meters tall, its because I made her balance on a hidden stool, or climb a ladder – there are no Photoshop ‘tricks’ used. I obviously retouch, and spend time editing the images, and sometimes use manipulation to help create a magical feel, but all the props, characters, costumes and landscapes are true.
. Alice in Wonderland is an important book in your life?
Actually no it isn’t at all. This may be a surprise to people but I named the project Wonderland to convey that fact this would be a place where anything could happen. I considered lots of other titles, but everyone can relate to the concept of a magical world delivered through a book, and really this was exactly what I was trying to explain in a simple way. This is my ‘personal Wonderland’, made up of anything and anyone I dream of. I think this quickly became apparent as the series developed, because there were no recognizable copies of Alice in Wonderland characters. I wanted to create something unique; my only relationship with the book was to share the notion of a girl’s escapism through stories.
. Heavy tones and sharp contrasts are one of the key features of Wonderland. What’s the reason behind these choices?. Your portfolio takes us into the world of dreams. You want to show that we can all live in a wonderful world. You choose real scenarios, like fields of flowers, landscapes with snow or unusual trees. Tell me more details about your intentions.
If you mean the strong colours, I have always had a great affinity with the power of colour and its effect on us. Working as a fashion designer colour was a necessary, and vital part of my daily life and it is something I have been tuned into for many years. It can transport our mood and emotions to a better place and this was my intention. One of the best things about creating the Wonderland series has been learning and experiencing more about how incredible nature can be. The characters in Wonderland may be make-believe, but the locations, and the amazing diversity in our weather and seasons are not. I was trying to show that actually Wonderland is real, we all live in it – its just about discovering these extraordinary places for ourselves. So I spent a great deal of time location scouting, and learning about the times of year when flowers bloom. Some of the scenes such as the bluebell woods, only flower for around 2 weeks of the year and in some cases I had to wait for an entire 12 month cycle in order to be ready for the shoot. It became an important focus for me to find these extreme areas of natural colour, and then push them to their limit by creating characters that appear to have evolved in those surroundings. I wanted an explosion of colour, a celebration of how utterly beautiful our world can be.
. What kind of jobs really challenge your skills as an artist?
I think the hardest part of what I do is trying to blend the character with the location in a believable way, so that they appear to belong in their surroundings, as opposed to being just ‘placed’ in the environment. Wonderland has been the biggest challenge of my career so far because despite having a great deal of control, in the sense of I art direct the entire image, I am also at the mercy of the landscape on the day. The one truly wonderful (and difficult) part of shooting on location is that you cannot control the weather. Throughout the entire series I have never cancelled a shoot, we always go out and face whatever is thrown at us, and living in the UK often means it can be anything! Some of my best pictures have been created by what some would call bad conditions. The day I shot Wonderland 42, it was raining so hard we thought we would never complete the scene. There were only 4 of us including the model, and we were all slipping over in the mud trying to create the set whilst holding umbrellas. It was exhausting and the light was extremely bad, most people would have given up, but in the end it conveyed the exact emotion I was after. The smoke bomb we used hung in the damp air like a strange red mist creating a mysterious, dark and almost sad atmosphere for the final picture. It was beautiful and unexpected – this would never have happened in bright sunshine. So embracing the elements and working in all conditions is definitely a big challenge
. What makes you focus your work on fantasy? What message are you trying to convey through your images?
Escapism is my main reason. Creating a more beautiful and wonderful world is far more attractive than focusing on the negatives in life. I feel I have seen enough sadness and pain over the last few years with the treatment and eventual death of my mother, and I have always been a dreamer. I love losing myself in an incredible film, book, or work of art. I think the human mind is extraordinary, and I am fascinated with the creations of others. I would hope that people could feel the same about my work, but maybe also regain some passion and respect for the beauty of our natural world.
. What are the biggest lessons that you take from photography?
I think it has made me appreciate things and the people around me in a completely different way. How fragile people can be, the beauty in tiny details. Starting with street portraiture gave me a real empathy with some of the lost souls I observed, I took more notice of people, I think it changed my sensitivity. I spoke to strangers, and have made so many friends in other countries around the world, all because of this universal art form. Photography can show us the world in a basic fundamental way, but it can also deliver a whole new level of seeing, and appreciation. For me it has been a therapy, a teacher, a way to express myself, and medium through which I continue to explore my local landscapes with each new day.
. Who are the greatest influences on your work? How do they reflect themselves?
I wouldn’t say I am influenced by any other photographers, apart from Tim Walker who really opened up the notion of creating entire sets purely for one amazing picture. Seeing his work was definitely been a catalyst for me start making these big productions. Apart from that, I would say the biggest influence in my work (apart from the obvious links with my mothers stories), is the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. I was studying costume for film and theatre when his work first became public, and he was the reason I chose to take my studies even further into fashion. He was an incredible artist, who seemed to be influenced by all the things I found fascinating myself, and so I followed his career intensely until I finally gained an internship at his design studio in 2000. The way his shows created entire worlds in which he pushed the limits of fashion, music and production have always been a huge inspiration to me. His influence can be seen in the headdresses I have made out of out of flowers, some of historical shapes, and the sometimes darker edge I try to bring in and out of the pictures, in order to avoid being too obvious or whimsical. My experiences at his studio will always remain with me, he was a genius.
. What was the most striking moment of your career?
Unfortunately I can’t actually discuss this right now! Something amazing has just recently happened in the last few months and I cannot confirm it until probably the end of the year. All I can say is that I have been having meetings about taking my concepts and imagery to an entirely new industry and level that I can’t imagine yet, and I’m extremely nervous, but equally thrilled to have been approached in this way! I wish I could say!
. Which photo/project on your portfolio you consider the most striking one? Why?
Wonderland is definitely my most striking project. Choosing one photo is almost impossible, I’m not sure I can! Can I say 2? I have so many favourites it is extremely difficult, but the 2 pictures that bring together everything Wonderland stands for – the costume design, the prop making, the marriage of these with the landscape, and finally achieving that magical edge I’m always hoping for, I guess it would be the scenes of Wonderland 29 (and 30) ‘The storyteller’ and Wonderland 21. But really there are about 8 I can’t ever imagine choosing between. The reason I have selected these two pictures is because for me I can’t imagine how I would change or improve them. They conveyed everything I could hope for, and seem to exist in their own special private worlds. The picture in the snow will always be a very personal and precious shot because it is of Elbie Van Eeden who is the hair and make-up artist for the entire Wonderland series. We created the picture without any planning, and literally packed our bags with sandwiches, powdered paint and my camera and trekked out into the deep snow on our own. Elbie is vital to the success of the series and without her Wonderland would never have been the same. Something just happened with this shot, everything came together when I added that final trail of paint in the snow; it connected Elbie so beautifully with the tree and the landscape, even though she looked so bizarrely in contrast to her surroundings. It just worked, and the picture barely had any editing, just simple retouching, – it genuinely looked exactly as you see it. It was breath taking to stand in the silent falling snow, and press the shutter, I will never forget it.
The other scene I have chosen was really about personal achievement, in the sense that is definitely was one of the hardest costumes I have ever made, and that I had waited a whole year to take that picture. Everything again is exactly as it was, there is minimal retouching to the main wide angle image (Wonderland 29) all the work was done in the prep, and the all the books were completely authentic and over 120 years old. People presume I cloned the books and the pages on the dress, but its all real. The location is probably the one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, the flowers were extraordinary and the fact they only bloom for around 2 weeks meant that getting this shoot together and creating the image I had always dreamt of, to me was something very special. I tried to convey the magic of the setting with the portrait of the storyteller character (Wonderland 30) by layering a blurred bokeh shot I took of the bluebells, over her image – it was to amplify the vibration of colour and intensity I felt on the day – It was more post production than I usually use, but in this case it felt necessary to convey the emotion.
. Which project was more difficult to achieve?
. What are you working on right now?
I’m still working on Wonderland, it isn’t finished yet. I am on the final scenes now and there are about 10 more pictures to come in the series. I have deliberately slowed down my production, and am focusing on these hopefully being the best I can possibly produce.
. What was the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made for photography?
My spare time and personal relationships. I literally work 7 days a week, and never have a spare moment to myself. If I’m honest I am permanently exhausted, this has been the hardest thing I have ever done, and anyone that knows me personally will definitely agree with that. It’s a passion that I have to get through and complete. Luckily my closest friends are very understanding, and know I will get through this eventually, but it’s a big sacrifice for me. When Wonderland is finished I think I will lie down and sleep for a month!
. Please, tell us the two of the most peculiar stories you’ve experienced during a project or photo shoot.
Ahah, oh goodness! Wonderland is pretty peculiar, so I have seen some strange sights during the series! I suppose the most bizarre one has to be Wonderland 24 ‘The Candy Cane Witch’. All of us had worked around the clock to produce that picture, I have never been so exhausted on a shoot, I was literally shaking the entire time. We had to work through the night painting the candy cane props outside in the dark, and so everyone was pretty hysterical by the time we had finally set up the scene. Once everything was in place and the circus performer Katie Hardwick was in position, we lit the smoke bombs and told her to come at camera like she was a furious creature that had been disturbed in the woods. She was absolutely fantastic and stamped towards me on her stilts, waving the giant candy cane stick, pulling faces with the red smoke spiraling around her. It was an utterly insane sight to see, and I still look at that picture and laugh remembering how it was to have been standing just few meters away from her!
The second pretty peculiar sight has to have been when we built the giant wooden cake in my back garden for Wonderland 22. It was the biggest prop we had ever made, and I still can’t believe how lovely it looked on the day. We iced the shape with industrial insulating foam, made giant stripy candles, and even created some amazing paper trees for the background. The entire time it was being created I had neighbours looking out their windows pointing at what we were doing,. Once the shoot was over, we had to carry the cake out into the road, only to be followed by a small parade of local children riding their bikes behind us laughing and pointing asking it was real! I think my house has definitely become a talking point amongst the locals!
. What kind of kit do you usually use? Why?
My kit is quite basic, mainly because I don’t work in a studio. I never use lighting apart from 1 picture in the Wonderland series. I rely on natural light and reflectors. My camera is a Canon 5D Mark II, and I only use 3 fixed lenses. These are an 85mm f1.8, a 50mm f1.4 and a 28mm f1.8 . I have these 3 because when I started I could only afford to buy 1 lens at a time, so I bought the ones that covered the ranges I needed. I use 85mm for portraits, I find the 50mm is great for full body shots and then I use the 28mm for my full-scale landscape shots. There are plenty more I would like to invest in, but for now my biggest cost is producing the sets and costumes, and they have to come first. The other piece of equipment I use (non camera) is a stepladder! I take it on every shoot and often take my shots from an natural height, it common to se me balancing at the top of it on location! I also have to say I don’t feel that the kit makes the photographer. I know a few people who spend a fortune on buying endless equipment expecting it will make their work better. I think the biggest investment you can make is in yourself, and developing your eye.
. What kind of relationship do you have with digital photography and the post-processing techniques?
At the beginning of this interview I mentioned that I originally trained in photography before digital was mainstream, and found the technical / darkroom side of photography frustrating. For me personally digital allows me to focus on the emotion, and the artistic side of the medium, rather than be bogged down with technicalities. It frees me to concentrate on the image, and without it I doubt I would be doing what I do now. I do however try my absolute hardest to keep all my pictures real, in the sense that I never fake locations, create Photoshop ‘tricks’ like levitation or blow up the scale of small elements to look huge etc. If something is enormous in my pictures – for example the giant bow in Wonderland 20 , it really was that big, and I made it with that intention. If there is coloured smoke pouring out on an umbrella, it is because we physically attached a smoke bomb to it and lit it for real. I’m amazed and frustrated that some people assume my work is made up in a computer; my life would be so much easier if it was! I even had one model sit under another in a backbend once to give the illusion of the character having 4 legs! However, having said this I also want to be clear that I obviously do retouch my images in Photoshop, and I am not a purist. There are a few pictures in the series where I have used photo manipulation to exaggerate a sense of magic, and I do this as and when it feels necessary, a perfect example being the doll arms and leg sockets on the model in Wonderland 41. I take editing very seriously and can work on a shot for a long time until it is polished and beautiful in every detail.
. If you weren’t a photographer and a fashion designer what would have been your other interests?
To be honest I am interested in so many things I wouldn’t know where to begin. I love painting, antiques, vintage clothes, historical buildings; film … there is so much out there, and of course there is my obsession with forests and unusual trees! I have no idea really!
. What advice can you give young photographers who want to become professionals and start their own projects?
Don’t give up. Don’t compare yourself to others, and try to find your own identity and passion. It may not come for a while; I started taking street pictures with a tiny automatic compact camera. I had no intention on it becoming what it has; I just enjoyed photography and pleasure it gave me. I fell into different styles and genres until I felt I had truly discovered what felt right. I would say experimenting is extremely important, and I would also like to add that determination is key. I get a lot of emails from people saying they would love to do what I do, but they don’t have time or any money. What most people don’t understand is that I started Wonderland whilst I was working full time as a fashion designer. I worked a full week, and then produced the pictures on my weekends and evenings. I had no budget, and we made things out of old bits of wire, stolen flowers from parks, and anything we could find. Some of the dresses the models wear are just fabric I pinned around them on the location! I suggest joining networking sites to make contact with other aspiring make-up artists and designers and form a team. Wonderland was entirely built out of blood sweat and tears and none of it was easy, but it has also changed everything and given me some of the most wonderful moments of my life so far. If you can visualize it, you will get there, somehow….. just push your boundaries never give up.
. If you were asked to sum up your work in a few words, how would you define it?
I would hope magical, creative, emotional, beautiful and precious – only because these are the words I find myself using. It’s hard because all work is subjective, and I completely understand if someone hates it too. All I can say is I never created any of it for any other reason than it was what was in my heart. It wasn’t commissioned, it wasn’t for a magazine, it was for my mother, and my own sanity, and for the very special people who have helped me achieve it. (Thank you Elbie Van Eeden, Matthew Stevensen and Katie Hardwick)
. If you were asked to sum up your path in photography in a few words, what would you say?
Utterly exhausting, passionate, exhilarating, emotional, and inspiring
IN OTHER NEWS
Wonderland has also been featured by Vogue Italia’s Photo of the Day, as picked by the picture editor!! I was so excited when I saw this, hoping that it’s only a matter of time until we get to be in the printed version…
Here’s a screengrab.