UK base photographer Kirsty Mitchell has been on our radar for quite some time. This amazingly talented photographer seems to have taken the magic of color, nature, and space and combined them to create pure magic. Her work has been seen around the globe and for good reason: her composition and creativity push the boundaries at what one can create with a camera.
Currently in the middle of her “Wonderland” series, Mitchell took the time from her busy shooting schedule to answer some of our questions regarding her work…
Where do you currently reside?
I live in Surrey in the south of England – a 40-minute train ride from the center of London
The entire focus of Wonderland was a tribute to my mother who died in November 2008. She was an English teacher, and was the greatest storyteller you could ever imagine. She read to me constantly as a child and well into my teens (which I never admitted to any of my friends). My earliest memories of her were burying myself into her side whilst she read from my favourite book ‘Moonlight and fairyland’. It was a beautiful collection of strange stories that always had a slightly dark edge to them, and the illustrations were extraordinary. A few months after she died I managed to track down and buy the original 1970’s edition, which I now treasure. It was like getting a piece of my childhood back, and only amplified my need to do something in her name. As I grew up I often passed by her school on the way home from college and would catch her reading to an entire assembly of children, all transfixed as she launched into the voices of the different characters. Even the cool kids had stopped messing about, and sat with slack jaws in silence completely under her spell. So really the project was to celebrate her gift, the imagination she gave to me and so many other children. In all honesty it also became a very genuine place for me to run away to. I became pretty ill with my grief, and photography was my only therapy, without it I would have ended up in a very dark place. So basically I created an alternative world, where it was colourful and beautiful, and I could control what happened….. when in reality my own life was pretty awful and so, so sad.
Flowers play a central role in your Wonderland series, do they hold a deeper meaning in your work?
The main reason for the flowers is their colour, and the narrative they give of the seasons. The thing I constantly say about Wonderland is that it is predominantly real. Yes the characters and costumes are all make-believe, but the fact is all the location are real, and not made up in Photoshop. Before I started this project I had a basic knowledge of nature, but that is nothing compared to what I have learned in a year and a half. I try my hardest to find naturally occurring extremes – like the bluebell woods in England. The bluebells only flower for a very small window of time, but when they do, it is extraordinary, it’s a natural magic so many of us miss sitting at home watching TV. The landscape is constantly changing especially in spring, wild flowers come and go in a matter of weeks, and it’s a nightmare trying to hunt them down….. but when you get lucky and capture it, it’s an overwhelming site. The other reason is about transience – the fact they nothing lasts forever, Wonderland is about escape – running away from reality – the metaphor of flowers is something that will become apparent as the series starts heading towards the end. For me the constant changing gives the sense of a journey, as does the weather in the backgrounds…. There is a sense of time passing… so yes they are very important to the story, and are a permanent challenge to work with!
In 2007 you suffered from an illness that sent you on your path to creating a professional photography career, can you tell us a little bit about that time in your life and how it has impacted you as an artist.
Basically due to post-traumatic stress linked to my job, I slipped into a terrible period of insomnia. To most people this doesn’t sound like a ‘serious illness’ but I didn’t sleep for 4 months. It sounds like an incredible claim, but it is true, and was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me. I was put on a great deal of heavy drugs that slowed me down and turned me into a zombie, but never managed to actually make me sleep. Instead I developed anxiety, became paranoid and literally felt like I was going mad. I lost a great deal of my sensitivity to touch and temperature, and spent my days drifting around in a completely numb bubble. The more drugs I was put on, the worse things became, until out of desperation I tried hypnotherapy. It took a few months to start making a difference, but that and counselling slowly brought me back. One day walking to work I remember feeling the wind against my skin for what felt like the first time in months, it was the strangest sensation and I remember stopping and sitting on a wall because it was such a shock. As the days passed taste, touch, and my general awareness slowly came back, but it seemed to return in a more intense way – almost like a super sensitivity. I stopped looking at the floor of the train in the mornings, and started looking at the people around me instead, and for some reason I started taking their pictures. All I had was a little point and shoot camera that I kept in my handbag, and whenever I felt I could get away with it, I would just capture what I could. I fell in love a hundred times a day at the vulnerability of strangers, it became an obsession. I felt more connected to everyone and everything around me, it was the strangest thing. I started writing a blog of just random emotions, descriptions of how I felt walking home at night through London, talking about the people I had seen on the tube etc, I still don’t really know why this happened, but without trying to sound dramatic, it was a bit of an awakening for me.
You were obviously close to your mother, can you tell us a little bit about how she has impacted your life as an artist/photographer?
The majority of my earlier photography was taken whilst she was going through treatment, and so my self portraits are often an expression of what I was feeling emotionally at the time. I took the street pictures when I used to walk around on my own looking for people who somehow reflected how I felt – lost souls I guess. Having a camera is like having a dog, you can walk for hours in the rain on your own and no one bothers you, because you look like you have a purpose. It was an excuse to just be left alone, and some time to myself to try and come to terms with what I knew was going to happen. Second to all of that my mother also wrote diaries throughout most or her life – big volumes full of pictures that were emotional and personal. I think this where I have developed my own need to write as well as produce the photographs, sometimes I want to remember the process as much as the result.
Can you tell us a bit about your process, from conception to the actual shoot?
My process is somewhat chaotic as all the characters and ideas are honestly the result of my dreams. I don’t research anything, I’m influenced by the smallest thing, that suddenly explodes in my head until I am obsessed and can’t rest until I have followed the entire idea through.
I’m heavily influenced by nature as I only shoot on location, and also by naturally occurring colour – which predominantly comes from flowers. Wonderland is about taking these elements to the extreme. so I often start with a place I have discovered, and then build a story around that. Once I know my location and my colour, I start imagining the characters – they often just fall into place. I will find strange old props in antique shops, or stumble across something bizarre a vintage fair and then the concept snowballs. I usually make the costumes myself, or I will find antique pieces and customize them. I don’t work with any designers or stylists, I create the entire image from start to finish and have a very small team of a couple of helpers who volunteer to come and help me at the weekend. It’s all made completely from scratch – just using chicken wire, glue, cardboard and papier-mache. Sometimes it can just be just me and the make-up artist Elbie van Eeden making everything, or at times for the very big
productions like the Candy Cane Witch, I can have up to 8 friends helping out. I’m amazed at some of the things we have created, considering its all made up as we go along! I never plan how things are going to be produced, I just picture what I want, and then put my complete faith in the fact that we will get there somehow in the end (which is usually about 2am the night before we finally shoot). Running parallel to all of this I start looking for the right model. To me Wonderland is about the extraordinary, with is why I don’t always use typically commercial faces. For me beauty is about intensity, I’m bored of picture perfect faces, and am far more interested in models that will push to do the absolute extreme. My favorite model is Katie Hardwick who is absolutely vital to Wonderland and appears constantly throughout the series. She is like an immaculate white canvas – who constantly morphs into each new character, and will do anything for a picture. She has stood in minus 2 degrees in the snow for over an hour in just a dress, stood in rancid swampy lakes, modeled naked in the cold and rain, swung from trees and happily had paint thrown at her…. the girl is incredible! She is also a circus performer, and has used her aerial hoop and stilt walking talents for pictures – a complete gift for my ideas!
So finally once everything is made, the location decided, and the model chosen, the last element is the light. I don’t use any artificial lighting on my shoots (apart from 1 picture in the series) – natural light is vital to what I do. So I usually spend the weekend before a shoot visiting the location at different times of day to see what is best. More often than not this results in some very early starts, which can mean everybody has to sleep at my house the night before. The earliest Wonderland shoot was the lavender field series, which was a 3.45am wake up call! It all sounds like a huge list of hard work, and it is…. but none of this could be achieved in a studio. I love the unpredictability of location shooting and the weather, you never know how its going to affect the results. Sometimes it can become a whole area of focus in the finished image that was never part of the original idea.
How has your professional career as a fashion designer inspired your photography?
It is absolutely inseperable to what I do. I studied costume for film and theatre before entering into fashion, and have then spent the last 10 years designing dresses covered in hand drawn embroideries, beading and various unusual techniques. It means I am constantly looking at visual material, whether is fashion photography, what people are creating on the catwalks, film, music, art or vintage fairs for research. It all mushes together somehow, and massively influences me…. I think its why I use so much colour as well. I would not be able to do what I do without that side to my life.
How has the Internet played a role in spreading your work worldwide?
I think the Internet is the only way anyone would have ever seen my work, and the only way I would have ever known anyone might have liked it! I began taking photos for myself, and never, ever imagined selling them or doing ‘proper shoots’. It was an escape, and a way to express myself at a difficult time in my life and nothing more. Without flickr and meeting some of the amazing friends I made on there, I wouldn’t have developed any further than having that point and shoot in my handbag. I firmly believe that to be the absolute the truth, I constantly doubt myself and my work, and without the support of other artists I would have given up a long time ago.
What’s next for you?
Wonderland still has a long way to go. I have begun shooting the ‘beginning of the end’, and I have a backlog of editing from pictures no one has seen yet. The aim is to finish the series, produce the book and finally do a full exhibition of the entire collection, including some of the costumes and props in London. So realistically it’s hard to imagine a time beyond all of that right now! I guess I just have to see what happens when it’s all over.
Be sure to visit Kirsty Mitchell’s website for updates and her latest photographs here:
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