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Wonderland – ‘The Last Dance Of The Flowers’

April 16th, 2014

Untitled‘The Last Dance Of The Flowers ‘
200 x 130cm view large here

Sitting down to write this today is a completely different feeling compared to my last few entries, and to be honest it feels like a happy relief. My head is full of laughter as I look back at this absolutely chaotic shoot; it was carnage from start to finish and we all worked so damn hard.  For once there are no heavy emotions for me, no underlying sadness, I have loved every part of this pictures creation from concept, to shooting and even the editing. It has felt like a page from my childhood slowly filling with colour, growing under my fingertips as the days have passed…..and I let go of it today with nothing but joy inside of me. It has become a huge favourite of mine, and one I have every intention of having the full 2-meter print on the wall of my own home. Each time I look at it I long to be there again, standing beside Katie in the warm shadows, remembering Elbie’s laughter echoing around us. The wonder of creating these scenes for real is that I will always be able to connect back to that day, and that place with all my senses because we were truly there, and we created that moment together. I know how the earth smelt, I can remember my hands, dirty and sticky with the sap from the flowers, and the rush of adrenaline as we raced against the low sun to get the shot before it was too dark. All of it is precious and has come to be the thing that makes me feel alive…….

trail cropClose up sections
(below is a closer crop to show Katie’s almost black eyes. her irises were wide open due to the dark set, resulting in this slightly unnerving appearance which I love !)

trail eyes

So to return the previous scene ‘The Stars Of Spring Will Carry You Home’ we watched as Katie said her silent goodbye, a last look back at us, and all that Wonderland has been over the years. It was about her acknowledgement that nature has always been her guardian and a metaphor for my mother throughout. Her fusion with the flowers was to depict this acceptance, and the trust she placed in the path she would be led along during her final hours.
Throughout the series I have always used trails in my work to demonstrate journey and movement through a static image, like the yellow leaves in The Journey Home or the powdered colour on snow in Spirited Away. Here I hoped to take that one step further by making the flowers physically lift Katie’s form, raising her up in a surge of colour that would carry her through the forest to the hidden place that has waited so patiently for her arrival. At night I dreamt of the flowers coming to life in this last maternal gesture of protection. Inside my own body I could feel my spirits rise with her, a sense of completion on the horizon for both of us, as Katie’s journey parallels mine in the real world. I am so close now, just 4 pictures away from the end of the series. In the mornings I can feel a change in me, I walk to the studio in a different way, I look up again, I feel lighter, I breathe slower,….. I whisper to myself with each step  ‘almost there……. almost there…….  almost there’ ……….

phone shot(original phone snap of me on location)

I thought with this diary entry I would begin with the background and write about my process a little, as in how the image came to be, the choices I made, and even show you a shot that despite the fact I really liked it,  I rejected it in my final selection. I’m so sad to say that this time there wont be a beautiful accompanying film by FX media for this picture as Richard wasn’t able to join us on the day. However (for your great amusement) we did shoot some very rough, (and terribly under exposed) footage to show you what it was like to be there with us  (scroll down).
The whole scene started back in June 2013 from one little camera phone picture of me (above), taken by my husband Matt.  I had spent a week location scouting, the rhododendrons were budding and about to bloom in the woods, and I needed a private place where we could be left alone and out of sight to build the floral ‘wave’. I spent the day walking and taking pictures; finding some beautiful areas, but nothing that felt dramatically different to the others already used in the series.  At one point in the late afternoon I was standing in a path of bright light, framing a shot of the sun in the trees when Matt happened to take this snap of me.  It was only when we got home that night and I felt disheartened and uninspired with my research that Matt showed me the picture, and suddenly everything changed. The irony of seeing myself standing with my back to the most amazing natural vignette of twisted storybook trees, completely unaware was almost laughable! My mind was suddenly on fire and I knew that was it, the location was chosen, as well as the framing of the scene in one fair swoop. There was no doubt in my head and I stayed faithful to it throughout the shoot, not moving my position once.

wigMaking the wig

The next day I began work on the wig. To explain, I shot the entire final sequence of the series in reverse, in order to meet with the correct weather and bloom of certain flowers. So the wig you have seen over the last few pictures was modified and added to in-between shoots (there is also a reason for these modifications, which I will explain in my next blog) So this shoot was the first time it had been used. As I said previously I have never made anything like this before, and still cant believe it actually worked. It was so incredibly difficult to work out how to attach it to Katie and keep it balanced on a location shoot. Unlike the last few scenes there were no trees above her head to wire it to for support, so this really was a baptism of fire for Elbie trying to attach it to poor Katie’s head, and for Katie to balance it throughout the shoot. Below are the pictures of us trialling the wig in my studio and then attaching it on location.

double hair trail^ So funny !!!! The first attempt at attaching the wig in the studio

double hair on locationSecond attempt on location which turned out much better !
dressing KatieDressing Katie ! The coat was made by me, to see finished photographs of it please view here

The day of the shoot was absolutely crazy, all Wonderland shoots are exhausting, there’s never been a ‘quick’ one and there is always the worry of the terrible English weather, the unreliable light … endless factors that mean I never sleep the night before and always worry for days in advance. However this shoot was a whole new level of panic because it relied on cutting fresh flowers on the day and building a huge construction – something which I had never attempted before. I had no idea how long it would take, no idea if it would work, no idea what I was doing, or whether we would actually be able to collect enough flowers … but it was all so clear in my mind that we just pressed on regardless!  We began early in the morning, just me Elbie and Saskia; we went to the woods armed with bags scissors, gardening gloves and old clothes, and cut flowers for 4 hours. It was exhausting and ridiculous, we quickly became filthy with mud and sap, our hands cut to ribbons, arms scratched and worst of all we were attacked by mosquitos at every turn. We scrambled up trees, and muddy banks, groaning, swearing, laughing …. It was hard work, but this physical part to the photos is something I have always loved. The child in me delights in the dirt and the wind on my face, especially when there is the promise of something magical at the end of all. So we worked tirelessly, stashed our hoard in the shade of the trees and returned to the studio to collect the costume, equipment and Katie.

building frameBuilding the floral ‘wave’ from fresh flowers

By 2pm we were back on site and work began on creating the ‘wave’. The location was set in the heart of the trees, and the warmth and shade was a breeding ground for hungry mosquitos. I honestly can’t describe how many there were, but it was unbelievable. We coated ourselves in repellent, but they just kept coming – which is why was well as our horrible old clothes; we also had to wear ridiculous hats to stop us from being bitten on the face and in our hair. I cant stop laughing looking at these pictures because I can remember the names we were all calling each other, not to mention the hysterics we were in after seeing Katie in the full coat and wig for the first time. It was a moment of utter, utter delight, the wig was extraordinary, and once it was balanced and Katie was able to walk around, suddenly everything felt possible again.

building flower frame

spraying katieMe and Elbie working on the finishing touches – dressed like idiots :( !!!!

finishedThe finished result, I don’t think any of us imagined it would look so beautiful, it was such a wonderful sight!

It took a further 3.5 hours to build the set and get Katie in position in time for the early evening sun. Over the previous week I had returned to the site several times to check the position of the sun so we knew exactly when it would hit the set. By 6.30pm we were ready and I was shaking from adrenaline I was so tired and excited. We shot two types of picture, one with smoke and one without. Here is the video of that moment. As I said its appalling quality, everything looks way too dark, but it’s pretty funny to watch,  especially as you get to hear me barking orders like a mad woman. The groaning and whooping in the background is Elbie, who always makes me die laughing, the poor bloke getting shouted at is Matt, and my assistant was Saskia who you can just make out buried in the skirt of flowers. There were only 5 us on the day and it was a killer, but the results were so, so worth it!  Video warning……..  terrible clothes alert.. cringe !!


Selecting the shot …..

Finally I wanted to just say a word about the choice I had to make regarding the final image.  Above you will see the new picture laid along side its predecessors. Something I have learnt about building a series this big over such a long time, is the importance of continuity in colour and balance. If you have ever looked at the whole series lined up together on my flickr or 500px you will notice it flows through bands of colours, seasons and light and darks. This has been something I take very seriously and really agonise over with my printing. The dream of all these pieces hanging together in one huge gallery show for me is very real, and so I always have in my mind what comes before and after an image and the relationship between them. This was not the case when I first started the series, but over time it has developed within myself, and I now pay great attention to it. Below is a little snap taken in my studio, it shows you the rough test prints of my last two images lined up next to each other. This is how I work – obviously each new image is shot on a different location as a different time of day / sometimes season, so it is impossible to expect the pictures to magically work alongside each other. So now I make a habit of working in this way

pin boardTest prints in my studio

When I first looked at the shots from this shoot I was really torn about which picture was my favourite, I loved the drama of the smoke and it had been so much fun to shoot, it was hard to separate myself from that memory and the cinematic gut reaction to the result. However, almost a year later and after taking the shots that would come before and after this scene, it became clear that the smoke simply wouldn’t work or make any sense.  Below I’ve included one of the raw shots straight out the camera for you to see. People often ask me if I find it hard to chose only one image from these elaborate shoots, when the natural temptation for any photographer is to use 2 or 3 or more.  It is extremely difficult, but I firmly believe in trying to keep every single image in the collection unique and for it to have purpose, otherwise it simply dilutes the overall impact and the sense of preciousness for a collector of my work. In this case I now adore the freshness of the picture I chose and in print the landscape feels so inviting that it is something I want to hang on my own wall and enjoy losing myself in everyday…..
So this was just a little insight into how I develop the series, but I thought some of you might like to see!  Now on to editing the next huge scene, involving the biggest prop I have ever made!

smokey spookyThe one that got away. Such a fun picture picture but in the end it wasn’t suitable for the story.

UPDATE *** 17/4/2014 The picture was just selected by Vogue as their photo of the day !

vogue 4

Wonderland – ‘The Stars Of Spring Will Carry You Home’

March 25th, 2014

The Stars Of Spring Will Carry You Home‘The Stars Of Spring Will Carry You Home’
150cm x 150cm (View large here)

I have loved this photograph from the day I took it 9 months ago in the summer of 2013, it is full of all the things that drive and inspire me with my work …, human connection, colour, the landscape, and above all a certain unsaid English eccentricity.  It has been six years since I first discovered the overgrown mouth of the abandoned path, and stumbled into its hidden tunnel of fallen leaves and twisted vines. It felt like entering the pages of a forgotten storybook, where the trees grew gnarled and stunted, knotting their branches together overhead, weighed down with their cloaks of wild ivy.  It was a timeless place, one that has inspired me many times over the years and felt like the perfect setting for this next scene………..

Returning to the story, and following on from the ‘Secret Locked in The Roots of A Kingdom’ this portrait was really about further expressing nature’s role as Katie’s guardian,with the branches encircling and outstretched towards her, and the precious coat  – a gift from the flowers to protect Katie during her final days in Wonderland.. The scene was really to portray a sense of knowing that time was running out, and Katie’s own self-awareness that she would soon be gone. I suppose I intended it as her last look back at us, like a brief private moment of connection and understanding through the screen. As strange as her appearance is, this final fusion of her body and nature together was to emphasise her completion and acceptance of the bond between herself and the landscape, and where it would eventually lead her.  To me I see strength in her eyes, and as we all stood wrapped in the womb of the woods that day it felt intimate, quiet, and echoed all that nature has become for me in reality, …. my comfort …… protection, and the place I am truly myself.

fixing hair 2
Costume and Wig were made and designed by me, to see the full photographs of the pieces, please visit my previous blog entry here

make up doubleElbie Van Eeeden working on Katie’s make-up

preparing katie doubleThe wig had to be wired to the branches above for support

katie close up double

Since then this picture has sat on my computer untouched for 9 months waiting for its moment in the closing sequence, unaware of the second meaning it would soon sadly adopt. Little did I know that 1 week after opening the shoot files and beginning work, that this piece would become far deeper, sadder, and more emotional than I ever could have imagined. As I write these words tears are running down my face, because this will now always be for a life that was taken from this world far too young, without warning, and has left so many of us stunned in its wake.  On March 5th our dear friend John Clarke tragically died in a motorbike accident, he was only 35. My husband had seen him just 2 weeks before, when John had talked of moving out of London to the countryside to be nearer to us with his girlfriend Samira. His life had changed so much in the last year, he had found love, happiness and purpose within himself, and I cannot begin to explain the extent of his warmth and kindness as a human being; in short everyone loved John. So once again throwing myself into work and pouring everything I have into the pixels before me became the only way I could make sense of things and somehow try to honour his memory
As the picture came to life, the light around Katie became more relevant and vital with each day that passed, and in my minds eye it became how I imagined John. Everything I had mentioned before about a sense of journey, looking back and making a final connection, suddenly gained new meaning, worth and weight. It is the strangest thing how events can suddenly impact and resonate through something created from a different origin, ……but this is how the photograph evolved.

set up double
shooting Katie 2
shooting Katie 3
shooting katie
sunFor a few brief moments we were visited by a beautiful sun burst, this is the only behind the scenes picture we managed to snap at the time.
waiting 3
filmingFX Media filming the process
** (Update March 27. The picture was made ‘Photo OF The Day’ by Italian Vogue)
vogue 3

The coincidence of the picture’s original narrative still takes my breath away,  and for that reason I feel I can dedicate it to John’s memory in the most genuine and heart felt way. I have named it ‘The Stars Of Spring Will Carry You Home’ . Part of the title I took from an Epic45 song that for me will always represent love, and secondly for both John and Katie they were now set on their path home, returning to where they came from. It is about strength, and the merging of flesh with nature….. completing the circle of energy I feel we are all a part of.  As I have said many times I believe we do not end, and that our vibrations simply ripple and grow, becoming all things.  On the day of the shoot for a few brief moments we were visited by a sunburst that sent shattered stars of light across the path and haloed Katie’s form. It was brief and beautiful, like Johns life and I still remember how I had softly greeted it under my breath as my mother. This is why I will always shoot in the landscape because of the gifts it brings us; ……. that unexpected light became the defining part of the image and the glue that now holds the emotion of the piece together.

But despite all of this, I do not wish to end on a sad note because this photograph still brings me great warmth and happiness, and even a little laugh when I remember the chaos of us wiring the wig to the tree branches to support the weight on Katie’s head. It was a simple, happy shoot with all my favourite people around me, and I love it dearly. John will always be remembered for his infectious laugh and warmth, and I see that radiating through in the form of the hazy light flare rainbow in the leaves.. During the funeral John’s father read aloud one of John’s favourite quotes and these beautiful words somehow seem to sum up everything I feel and can hope for when I think about what has happened ……

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”
(Australian Aboriginal proverb)

I take comfort in this, and all I have learnt through personal experience is that we must try to love and live for each day with no regrets. I am grateful for every day I have been able to work as an artist and truly feel alive in what I do. If I hadn’t lost mum I may have never taken this path, and discovered this part of me.  So John, wherever you are tonight, I just wanted to say thank you…… you are so loved……. fly free dear friend xx


John Paul Clarke
2nd June 1978 – 5th March 2014

Wonderland – ‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’

February 17th, 2014

Pair blog size

‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’ (Left) 200 x 133 cm
(View Large Here)

‘The Pure Blood Of A Blossom’ (Right) 200 x 137cm
(View Large Here)

 It’s late, I should have gone home hours ago but the thrashing rain at the dark mouth of the window, and the roar of the wind that rips through the empty streets below has kept me here later than planned. This blanket I’m wrapped in, and the soft lights of the studio are far more appealing than the broken umbrella that waits awkwardly by the door, so I guess I’ll stay and write a little longer. In a way this will be a different kind of diary entry compared to the last two, simply because these new pictures feel so much lighter for my heart. Somehow it always feels like coming home whenever I photograph Katie, my muse and heroine of our story. For almost 5 years I have projected my emotions on to her, and created a world around this timeless gift of a girl. I feel I know every hair on her head, crease in her skin, and have stared into her eyes more over these last few weeks, than probably any other person she knows. Without Katie this series would have been nothing, and I am so grateful to have been on this remarkable journey with her. As I look around my studio, her image radiates back at me glowing from a lake filled with lilies at sunset, in another she sits upon a giant cake dripping in liquid yellows and pinks, whilst high up on my shelf she walks through waist deep ferns, wearing tattered wings just after the dawn. All are real memories, captured and framed, like fragments of the most fantastical dream – a dream we all lived for real, and one I never want to wake up from.  They are postcards from the most extraordinary moments of my life, treasures I will cherish always, and tonight my company for now…….

                                             Behind the scenes film created by Richard Wakefield of FX Media

So, to return to the story, during the last scene “She’ll Wait For You In The Shadows Of Summer’, Wonderland was changing, nature had begun to shift and rise, embracing her inhabitants with outstretched arms of ivy and suffocating cloak of fauna. She has always been a silent part of every picture, an unspoken guardian leading each character along their paths of wild flowers, snow and golden leaves. She is all things, a shape-shifting backdrop of seasons and skies, life and death, and if I am honest, throughout all of this, has become the metaphor for my mother. The landscape is my comfort; it is what soothes me when I need her. From the very first shoot we often joked my mother was part of the team, I would say ‘she does the weather’, I put my trust in her, whatever she gave us, we would deal with it. This energy I feel in the woodlands is deep and indescribable, but above all it is home to me………. It is love………….

This emotion was something I always wanted to bring to the forefront of the story, and address in Katie’s last days. From now on the scenes are purely about this bond, and the relationship between the two. ‘The Secret Locked In The Roots of Kingdom’, is the moment in which nature reveals herself as Katie’s guardian.  A secret is whispered between the flowers of a hidden place that waits deep in the woods for her to find.  As the tale is told, their roots and vines entwine her form, overwhelming her frame with a coat of protective petals for the journey ahead. The flowers will guide her final path, their knowledge forming tendrils that pierce her mouth as ‘The Pure Blood Of A Blossom’ seeps into her heart………

The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’
(Close up detail crops below)

Kingdom close up
Kingdom face close up
‘The Pure Blood Of A Blossom’
The Pure Blood of a Blossom
Close up eye detail

eye close up


01 Inspirations (7)
01 Inspirations (8)
book(33 years later) My photograph beside the original illustrations by Errol Le Cain

As I have said many times before, the photographs are always completely intuitive for me, and something that just seems to flow from dreams and memories like a tap I am unable to switch off.  In particular this image was one of those, in that it had been clear in my head for almost two years and yet I had never really stopped to think about where it had come from. It was only this week, as I was preparing this entry that I honestly had quite a shock. Throughout the entire process of producing the pictures and editing them, I had feverishly been playing the soundtrack to the film ‘Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer’, thinking about the language of flowers, secrets, and the darker undertones of the stories my mother read to me. I never wish to be seen as someone who produces ‘pretty’ images; my work will always have a melancholy or darker edge to it than it may at first appear. I feel beauty and decay are intrinsic, and this is probably why I am so fascinated with nature.  The sense of a journey through seasons has always been at the heart of Wonderland, and this is a direct link to one of my favourite stories from my childhood ‘The Snow Queen’ specifically the edition illustrated by Errol Le Cain from 1981. Throughout the tale the little girl Gerda is guided by nature to find her missing friend Kaye (kidnapped by the queen). She listens to the voices of the wind, the water and most importantly the flowers, who use their roots to speak to their cousins in distant parts of the kingdom.  Gerda’s relationship with the earth had always been on my mind, and how the roses that grew around her window in the book were a symbol of home. So when I dug out my original copy this week, I suddenly found myself a little lost for words. As I placed my finished picture beside the illustration of Gerda and her flowers, a shiver ran through me…… the colours matched, the purples, green and corals, the silhouette of the witch’s hat, the shape of her profile, even the exaggerated eye drawn in soft mauve. The way the green earth studded with peach roses surrounded the characters took my breath away, it was as if it had been planned, but it hadn’t, at least not consciously.  So now I simply can’t stop looking at the two together as a pair, it’s hard to explain the fondness I feel, but it is as if a gap in time has momentarily closed. Vivid memories of my mother turning the pages as she read to me, her voice, her warmth, it fills me with happiness and heartbreak all at once. I am moved that 33 years later they bizarrely work beside each other, it is an unnerving mix of emotion that makes we wish I could run to her like a child and show her what I have made.


coat front small
coat sides small
coat back small
wig 1 small
wig2 small
Making The Costume

making wig
Adding vintage silk flowers to the base of the wig

making coat
Katie’s coat of flowers and wig being made in my studio  (unfinished)

naking wig and coat 2

Katie’s costume for this scene (and the pictures that follow) is probably the most beautifully made and refined of all the outfits in the series. I absolutely love every part of it and now have the wig and coat on display in my studio (which makes me smile every morning when I arrive). I have never made a wig before, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and just made it up as I went along. I used a LOT of glue, a lot of extremely cheap hair extensions, gardening wire and just stitched and squished the shape to life. The coat started life as a humble £9 duvet, which I then quilted and covered using antique curtains. All the flowers took a long time to source as they are from endless places, many were old vintage shops as I was specifically after typical English garden flowers.  It was an expensive and difficult piece to make, but in the end I have no regrets as it was a dream come true once I had finished, and I now take great delight in owning such an ridiculously eccentric flower display!

Shoot Day

make up

The day of the shoot was nothing like the huge production of my previous entry, but even so it was still very stressful in a different kind of way. The biggest problem with working with plants is the obvious fact that they simply don’t last long before they start to wilt. The hollyhocks were especially fragile with only a window of around 8 hours of use after being cut .To add to my problems Elbie was unable to come a day early as planned to help gather the ivy from the woods, and then to my utter dismay my car broke down !
In the end I was faced with 24 hours to find two specific types of ivy, one that grew in trails, and another more unusual pale cream species that grows together like a blanket over stonewalls. Car-less, I spent the day in a blind panic searching my local area by bike and on foot, until to my great embarrassment with scratched arms and muddy clothes, I was forced to drag sack loads of ivy from my local wood back through the streets to my home. I worked non-stop into the evening, spending a further 3 hours cutting and sizing leaves from the trees in my garden to create the backdrop and base of the picture. By sundown I was shattered, I hauled my bounty to the studio and began building the set using an old screen and chicken wire frame to hang the ivy from. As midnight approached I was only half ready and vaguely hysterical, I went home and slept for a few hours and then set out again at 3 am to cut the flowers. Hollyhocks are a flower I had wanted to use for many years, they grow to extraordinary heights like great spears of colour with strange bulbous pods that knot at the stem. If you are lucky they can be found wild, so I cut bundles from the roadside in my village, as well as a few utterly odd flower’s I later discovered to be called ‘Bears Breeches’ (which are now my favourite flower)!
By 5am I dragged myself and the flowers back to the studio, placed them in pots of water and fell asleep for a handful of hours before Katie, Richard and Elbie arrived.
Despite my best efforts by the morning the leaves I had cut the night before were already beginning to curl and the hollyhocks were starting to droop in the July heat. It took a further 5 hours to prepare Katie and finish the set, simply because almost every part of the foliage and costume were connected with wire or woven together. It was incredibly static, Katie was only able to sit in one pose and not move for the entire shoot. All the curves you see in the pale ivy that echo the shape of the hair are real and not manipulated in Photoshop. The wig was impossible to support naturally and so had to be wired to the ceiling beam above the set, and then threaded into the leaves.
                                                               (Film stills below from time lapse by FX Media)

bts 5

bts 1
bts 2
bts 4

However, exhausted as I was, when everything was in position I couldn’t help but hop from one foot to the other, it was such a beautiful, beautiful sight, even more magical than I had first imagined it in my head.  Elbie was squealing and Richard couldn’t stop grinning as he filmed the final wide shot of Katie in full character, she just looked so extraordinary I had to keep covering my gaping mouth in delight. If I’m honest I feel its one of my best ever portraits, and I’m very proud of it.  It took an entire month to edit as the final piece it is actually 2 meters high. Thanks to my new D800E every single microscopic frayed petal edge, glue strand, stray hair and broken leaf is visible at that scale, (especially when spot lit in a gallery) so the retouching was a whole new level of refinement for me as an artist, and took a great deal of patience. Anyway to end, there will also be plenty more of this costume to come, so the coat will also have its full photographic moment in the pictures that follow. It has been a monumental amount of work to create this character, but now it’s all finally over I’m so glad I pushed through it to create something I now love so very, very much……

** Update ! since posting this entry  ‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’ has been selected by Italian Vogue as their photo of the day :)

vogue new
And I also had the amazing news that last week Wonderland was published in ‘Stern’ Germany’s biggest selling weekly magazine (almost 1 million readers). It was a huge honour to be their main photo story, the magazine has been running since the 1940′s and has enormous coverage. I don’t usually write about press in these entries anymore, but this was quite a special moment for the series, I’m really thrilled.

stern full

Wonderland …. ‘She’ll Wait For You In The Shadows of Summer’

December 2nd, 2013

‘She’ll Wait For You In The Shadows Of Summer’
(View Large Here)

This photo represents such a deeply  complex range of emotions for myself that I often struggle when I look at it, and no doubt I always will. It is about love, loss, and longing, tinged with the dark aftertaste of my own self inflicted impossible standards. It is one of the hardest pictures I have ever created, and the one I would call my ‘limit’ in terms of how far I now know I can push myself . It is a roller coaster for my heart, filled with highs and lows and for once I am finding it hard to write the right words. I am proud of it, largely because of the amount of time, patience and preparation that went into the scene , but also because it forced me to attempt a new level in shooting I have never done before, one that scared me to be honest.

But before I explain the process, I must begin with the meaning so you can slowly sink back into the story.  The picture is of the ghost of Gaia’s former  human self….. her ‘shell’, abandoned by her spirit, like a snake that has shed its skin. We are returned to Wonderlands landscape following the picture of Gaia’s rebirth, to discover the aftermath of her transformation . The butterfly effect has begun…… her vibrations have shattered the fine balance between life and the land, and nature has begun to overpower its inhabitants. The scene was intended as an echo of ‘Gaia’s Spell’ ….. a similar yet entirely different image that would be the metaphor for this ‘shift’ in the earth. Gaia’s ghost is left forgotten and weeping in the shadows, slowly becoming entwined and swallowed by the vines that chain her to the galleon and the ground. This ‘hollow self’ has parallels to many feelings in my life right now…..  the concept of waiting for something you know you will never have, or see again. It has been 5 years since I lost my mother, a time that feels endless but in someways still leaves a sense of possibility, in that it has not yet been long enough to feel final. That I could turn a corner and she could still pass me by . This faint anticipation is hopeless, but nonetheless lays quietly in the pit of my stomach, and maybe this photograph is the reflection of that. They say every photo is a self portrait no matter what the subject is, and there have been times when my blood has run cold at the realisation of the connections locked deep within my finished pictures. Wonderland is ending, but I can never imagine the characters fading, they will always be alive within me,…..and maybe this is how they will remain…. encircled by nature, albeit brutal… or an embrace.
In short this is about trying to face a goodbye, one that you know you can never say out loud, and instead would rather wait in those last remaining shadows of that person…. until they came back to you, to feel their arms around you again …. no matter how long it took.
This picture weighs heavy on my heart,  and I am so grateful to Marianna my model for channeling the emotion so beautifully for me. It is a strange and haunting melody of release, one that was necessary for myself and the story, so I guess it is only fitting that it became one of the most difficult shoots and edits I have ever produced. However despite it all, I am left with the most extraordinary thrill when watching the film back from the day. The final scene that reveals Gaia and the her boat just after twilight, feels like a dream ripped from my body and brought to life. Sometimes these pictures are so much work I cannot understand it all until it is there in front of me living and breathing, and often even then it is almost too overwhelming. It took 6 months of waiting for the right time, the right light and weather, and for nature to grow around the boat. I know some people may think I’m mad, but it was worth every minute to be able to step inside that fragment of another world on that day, and this is simply  why I work the way I do ……

Close up crops

6 months before the shoot …………….

So this was how it all began, 6 months before the shoot day back in February 2013.  The yellow boat from ‘Gaia’s Spell’ had been left outside in my back garden for almost 2 years and was in a terrible state (which was deliberate). It was full of leaves and watery slime, and we were faced with the daunting challenge of transporting it all the way from my house to an area of protected bogland in the middle of a private wood. To set the scene, it was so cold we could barely feel our fingers, snow was due at any moment, and the sun would set at around 4.30pm (It was  2pm). The van we hired was too small, and there was only myself, Elbie and my husband to manhandle the boat across the lawn and into the back…… (its fair to say there was a lot of swearing)
The whole way to the woods every rattle and thump stopped our hearts as the back doors were only held together with rope. The tip of the boat was overhanging by about a half a meter, but we had no choice but to carry on as  it was a race against time to reach the location before sun down.
Once we arrived at the foot of the wood, the kind land owners Alexandra and Alex turned up to help us with the epic boat drag down the hill and through the trees to the underbelly of their bogland, where the boat would be left. I wont go into the comedy that ensued, but the photos below will give you an idea. Basically it was night by the time we had made it ,and the disheveled little galleon was laid to rest in its new home…….

Like most things I attempt in the Wonderland series, almost every new picture is an unknown and a challenge for me. When I had the original idea of leaving the boat somewhere in the woods to overgrow, I had no idea where or how I would be able do it. I knew I couldn’t leave it just anywhere unprotected, and it was only by a fleeting chance that I discovered a friends sister owned some woodland. It was my only option, unlike other locations in the series I obviously choose them for their aesthetics, but in this case I was entering into things blind.  When we left the boat in February the entire area was dead and barren, it was a complete gamble, I had absolutely no idea how the landscape would look by the summer. It would basically be impossible to move the boat ever again, as we would have to pull it from the sinking mud  and drag it up a steep hill, so I had no choice but to say my goodbyes to our galleon, and return over the coming months to chart natures progress

Thankfully, as you can see from the picture below, the transformation was extraordinary and far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined . Over the years  since starting the project I think my greatest lesson and advice to others is to have patience, and I mean this most sincerely. Be patient with your work and your ideas, do not rush them for the sake of producing pictures quickly to feed the internet. Work hard, plan and only when you are ready and satisfied follow your concepts through. I guess this had to be the ultimate example for myself, and now all the stress is over I am so glad I went through with it.

Shooting The Picture

(All behind the scenes pictures taken by FX Media)

It was now July 2013 and for the first time in years Britain finally had a hot summer. I cant express how nerve wracking it is for me trying to plan big outdoor shoots in this country as the weather is so unpredictable anything can happen. I don’t have huge teams and a massive budget, everything is made by hand and I scrape through every new experience on a wing and a prayer. So to face a situation that would involve exposed constant lighting, a generator, a decorated galleon and a model in a 9ft silk dress in a muddy bog was a worry to say the least. Luckily the promise of dry weather was an enormous relief, and so the date was set for July 17th.
In the two weeks that led up to the shoot I spent most of my time visiting the boat on my own. It was a time I really valued and felt so precious to me. I would leave in the early morning around 6.30am, and arrive just in time to catch the first bright shards of sunlight that sliced through the silent wood. Those mornings gave me time to think, to connect with the land, and slowly let the picture form in my head. Since losing mum its fair to say that the woodlands have become my spiritual home, it is where I am my true self. Where I sit, and watch life crawl, fly and grow around me, tilt my bare face to the sun, and trail my hands through ferns . I love being on my own in this way, no one really knows this side of me because It is so private, but it’s where I feel better, I can breathe and my demons leave me alone.
During those days I charted the sun, where it would be in the sky and how the light would look on the boat. I took pictures from all different angles and heights using my trusty step ladder and started work on decorating the boat. I made new distressed sails , and collected two car loads of ivy to weave around its disheveled form.. I sprayed bleach onto the sails to fade their colour, and used spray paint in white and brown, to create ‘real-life photoshop’ adding highlights and low lights to the fabrics and the boat edges. It was a real luxury of time that I have never experienced before, and was invaluable for the picture.

It was during this time that I had also become mildly obsessed with the work of Gregory Crewdson. I rarely look at other photographers, In fact I am always more influenced by historical painting, but I had found myself watching his documentary Brief Encounters and became more and more interested in attempting lighting for an outdoor scene .To be clear I have never used professional lighting on location, only home made contraptions with light bulbs, cables and the contents of a DIY store. But once I had set my mind to it, I knew this would probably be the only possible picture that would be suitable. I wanted to take the shot just before twilight, at the end of the ‘golden hour’ when there would be  enough light for the woods to have a warm glow, but the boat and the model would need to be picked out with spotlights. It was a ridiculous idea… my first ever attempt would be in a muddy bog, full of dangerous pit falls, water, and only one small generator. But I decided to go for it nonetheless…. (gulp)

Finally the day of the shoot arrived and as usual I felt sick with worry as it was such a big idea and I knew it would take hours to set up. We got to the foot of the woods and spent hours carrying all the equipment down to the bogland. The mud was a serious issue, people were getting stuck up to their knees, and there was a genuine threat of going waist deep in parts. We had to use wooden boards as bridges and crates to set up small areas for the equipment. Elbie worked methodically on our model Marianna turning her into our ‘ghost’ spraying her hair and body white, Whilst I ripped vines from the surrounding trees to cover the base of the dress. It was hard, hot, physical work and took hours. Poor Marianna was then balanced on a table, her enormous dress put on, and finally the vines were attached to her body.  We had to run wires from the trees to support her hair extensions, and further lengths between her body and the boat to attach the vines that ‘chained’ her to its side. In short, she was completely unable to move for over 4 hours. I hadn’t really thought about the reality of that until Elbie and I had  finished dressing the scene, and I am eternally grateful to her for such a super- human effort on her part for the picture.
Finally  I am so thankful to say I was lent a full rig of amazing Lupolux constant lighting by my dear friend Miss Aniela for the shoot. They were fantastic, and powerful enough to light the set from quite a distance (as this would be a very wide shot). The constant lighting helped me visualise the scene far better, and allowed us to try out various effects such as textured drapes using lace over the lamps. This helped to mimic a similar dappled light pattern to the natural one formed by the surrounding trees.

Finally at 5pm everything was ready, the late afternoon light was softening and the insects were out in full force searching for blood (hence our bizarre headscarf fashions for protection). To top off the pressure my father had also come along to witness the chaos, it was the first shoot he has ever seen me do, and will probably be last considering it took about 18 hours from start to finish =S !!  So I had no choice but to bite my lip and pray I would get the picture I had been dreaming of for well over a year. We lit the powerful smoke bombs and Adrian my assistant began to zig zag through the scene filling it with a mix of yellow and white smoke. Richard our film maker (FX Media) managed to capture the most epic crane shots panning the entire set from the grass to the sky, swallowing up every detail as the camera rose. We all stood and watched as the smoke curled and hung in the humid air, pools of golden light clung to the trunks of the trees in the distance, and Marianna transformed into Gaia’s ghost…. twisting and pulling at the vines that wrapped her pale body. It was the most surreal and extraordinary sight to behold, the branches appeared to ravage her tiny frame, and the distressed knotted hair extensions gave a ghostly glow around her shoulders, as they were caught in the lights……..

As day turned to night I carried on shooting. I had envisaged two versions of the scene and wanted to carry on until sunset. I wasn’t sure which would be the most successful, so we continued for four hours until 9pm when I finally called it a day. We released the last of the smoke bombs in one epic finale which Richard filmed with a 9ft crane, capturing the last trails of smoke as they soared over the galleon below, and then it was over ……….
It had been one whole year of thinking the scene through, 6 months for the boat to bed down in the landscape, 2 weeks of prep on location and an 18 hour day for the shoot. I had barely eaten all day, and was shaking with adrenaline at the close. It had been an absolutely gargantuan effort on everyone’s part. The amount of equipment that had to be carried and the state of the land we had to work on was a huge challenge.  I had frequently shouted, panicked, and been a total detail freak during the day, testing everyone’s patience, and all I can say now to my dear friends and family, is thank you for helping me get through one of the hardest shoots of my life. It was definitely my physical limit, but was also (as so many of the Wonderland shoots are) one of the most extraordinary days of my life.
I cannot explain what it is like to do things like this for real. the sense of achievement on the day is overwhelming. It is not about back slapping and taking an ‘awesome picture’ (I still had no idea if I had actually taken a decent photograph) , for me it is about living ‘a life less ordinary’ . We had built something incredible that day, out of sheer blood sweat and tears. We were muddy, tired, and wired, but had experienced the most bizarre and beautiful thing. Each person had enriched the scene with their own efforts, worked together and had be rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that you don’t often get in everyday life. We had made our own little movie set, minus the Hollywood budget, and for that I am so damn proud…..

To end ….. just as we had started cutting the vines down and began to release Marianna from her 4 hour prison, to my surprise, my dad appeared through the back of the set and strode in for a souvenir photo . As I write these words , I am sitting here grinning because I’m so very glad he did. It had never occurred to me to get such a picture as I was just too tired, but now I have them I will treasure them always. It has been 5 years since we lost mum, and both our lives have changed dramatically because of it. When we had no hope, I seriously doubt either of us could have imagined a future where we had this photo taken together deep in an english wood at twilight. I guess it proves the yin and yang of life, how at times we will all pass through the good and bad. How it breaks us, heals us, tests us, but ultimately we have to try and find beauty in its depths somehow….. and learn to live again…..
To me that is what these pictures stand for, we are surviving our loss, and Wonderland has brought us closer together than I think we’ve ever been….  So dad if you’re reading this (at 3am knowing you)….. I just wanted to say I love you very much  xxx

*** Special thank you’s !!!!

As I frequently mention in my blog I am constantly humbled by the support of others and the kindness I have been shown by friends, and more recently companies who are approaching me and giving me the chance to work with their fantastic products. As this was such a big production I wanted to just take a moment to thank the following people for their contribution to making the  picture and film.
First is my friend the composer Diego Buongiorno from Rome. Who came to our rescue and created a beautiful unique mix of his tracks ‘Let Your Eyelids Close Down‘ and  ‘All The Days’  from his album The Bush for the film. I am so grateful and lucky to know someone who can compliment the emotion of my work with their music in such a way, and just wanted to say thank you for all your hard work and patience on this piece Diego.
Secondly I want to take this opportunity to thank Andrea Lupo of Lupolux who following this shoot heard about my use of their lighting, and has since become a sponsor of my work. I am now the proud owner of 4 beautiful lights and I can’t wait to use them on my next big shoot !
Basically this picture would not exist if it was not for the kindness of the land owners Alexandra and her husband Alex (yes that’s their real names :) !  If you are a budding photographer or film crew and are in need of a woodland location for our project, you can contact them about hiring the land for tour purposes here – @  The Magic Wood

Wonderland Team Credits

ModelMarianna Toka
Hair and Make-upElbie van Eeden
Film and behind the scenes photosFX Media   ** I wanted to say a special thank you to Richard for the production of this particular film, as it has been an especially challenging one to shoot and put together. Thank you for your patience and putting up with all my endless requests and tweaks. I adore the film and I’m so grateful for all your hard work on making this into something really beautiful, that I am incredibly proud of .
Assistants - Adrian Farr  and Matthew Stevensen

Wonderland -The Final Chapter …. “Gaia,The Birth Of An End”

November 18th, 2013

Gaia, The Birth Of An End(200 x 130cm)
(View Large)

(Scroll down to watch the film)

Tonight it’s dark in the studio, and I’m curled up in my chair staring at this blank page, about to write the first Wonderland diary entry in 9 long months.. Outside its raining, and this morning brought the first frost I have noticed since last winter. Earlier, as I walked to work I stopped and watched a flutter of yellow leaves circle my boots, reminding me fondly of the cloak I made for ‘The Journey Home’ almost one year ago to the day. These fragments of seasons have become like old friends I find myself silently greeting, one by one as they return unannounced, blown by the autumn wind. The landscape is changing in colour and I’m hoping for snow, as there is still one last picture I need to create before I can let the story complete. But for now, after months of work I am finally ready to let this last chapter unfold, of what has since become the last 4.5 years of my life.  I still can’t imagine the day I write the words ‘The End’ but it is slowly becoming a palpable reality, which leaves a bitter sweet emotion in my gut. The pictures I have created over the last few months have at times pushed me to my limit, and I know I have learnt so much about myself in the process. I have had days when I have never felt to so happy to be alive, standing in the woods with my camera, so grateful for every precious moment ….. and others where my own crushing lack of self confidence has made me sick with worry, as to whether or not I have created something good enough. It is always the same with me …. all or nothing, the highest highs and lowest lows, but throughout it all I can say I have tried my hardest. I faced challenges I was genuinely scared of, but forced myself through as they were the only way to produce the ending I always dreamt of. So I just wanted to say how thankful I am to the people who have been on this journey with me and taken Wonderland into their hearts, both the followers of the project and the irreplaceable tiny team I work so closely with.
This is every ounce of what I have in me, and more …….it has taken so long to to make everything by hand, and I know the wait has been excruciating, but sitting here now I feel it has all been worth it, and I am so excited to share this last journey with you.

Close up detailed crops

So to begin, I named this first portrait  ‘Gaia, The Birth of An End’, as it about the last seen character ‘Gaia’s’ transition from a mortal to her true goddess form. I named her after the Greek equivalent of our Mother Earth, and this picture represents her incarnation, (birth) surrounded by an explosion of vibrating, shimmering energy. Her character affects everything, …… she changes so to will the landscape, creating a butterfly effect that sets in motion the end of the story. It was heavily influenced by how I see the human spirit; after losing my mother people often ask me what  I imagine comes afterwards, and my only answer is my belief in an endless energy, the circle I feel we are all a part of. My mother is with me always, she is the earth …..the rain, the wind in my hair was I walk to work. The body may cease, but I feel the vibrations of people continue, like ripples from a stone cast in a lake, and It was this power of spirit that I have tried to express within the picture.

I expect some will see the scale of the headdress and ask why I didn’t focus more on the costume, but that was not my purpose with this piece. It had to be about emotional impact, transition and a human connection with the viewer, which is why I often get so frustrated when people call me a ‘fashion photographer’. My work is never about clothes …  there is so much more, and I guess that’s why I write these diaries for anyone who wishes to understand my motivations. The finished piece will be printed at 2 meters high, and so although on a computer screen it is hard to take in the detail, when faced with the print in real life it is a completely different experience, and is the reason I did not crop the frame tighter. Printing and exhibiting my work has been a learning curve over the last few years and has drastically changed the way I look at my work, with the treatment of this portrait being a perfect example.

Finished Costume

The headdress, like the character was a reinvention of the original piece worn by Gaia in the rape seed field pictures. The basis of my design was to elevate the costume to a new goddess- state. I was heavily influenced by Inca gods, and my trip to Tibet in 2012, during which I had specifically collected traditional bells and tribal necklaces for this picture. I began by building up an entire new lower level to the piece, that would help surround the face and balance the enormous proportions of the top section. The headdress was entirely hand painted, dyed and beaded by myself and weighs so much, that it had to be wired to a wooden beam in my studio to take the weight off the models head.

Separate to the headdress I wanted to create body adornment for Gaia, which came in the form of these over sized necklace pieces. Every part of these were hand made, beaded and painted by me, apart from the central traditional necklace. (You can see the process below)

Making The Costume

A few examples of the things that influenced the characters costume and styling. The film Apocalypto , Tibetan traditional dress and the history of decorative Inca gods in art.

Me working on the half finished headdress back in August

Making the giant beads for one of the necklaces

Yellow enameled hand beaded collar pieces, and weaving hair extensions to make oversized decorations for the headdress.

Shooting The Picture

(Behind The Scenes photos by FX Media)

Stills from the incredible short film Solipsist which inspired the powder ‘explosion’ in the portrait

Throwing powder on to the backdrop

To be honest the day of the shoot was very hard going. It was actually my last photo of the summer, as I had shot everything out of sequence in order to get the right weather for each scene (beginning with the snow back in February ) . It had been a manic 2 weeks of shooting 3 huge pictures back to back, and the pace was almost impossible to deal with. I had been awake for what felt like days, gluing painting, researching make-up, sourcing environmentally safe powder paint… (the list was endless). The night before the shoot Elbie, myself and Marianna (our model) had been up until 1am attempting a make-up trial, but in the end we had to face defeat from exhaustion. Between us we managed to wire the enormous headdress to the ceiling of my studio, and left it suspended until the morning (for what I thought would be a ‘simple’ shoot).
As Elbie and Richard will tell you, nothing I plan ever comes out ‘simple’ even if I am the only one convinced it will. So predictably the shoot took an entire day from 9am till 6pm. I could barely speak or focus when Richard arrived I was so tired, and dear Elbie was faced with the hardest make-up challenge I have ever given her. In total the entire preparation of Marianna’s make-up / body painting took around 5 hours. Elbie and I work incredibly closely, and in some cases the make-up will develop like a painting, as Elbie builds more and more depending on how I feel it balances with the costume. This day was no exception, and became the most complicated look Elbie has produced for the series. I needed the make-up to be powerful and extraordinary, with a hint of tribal (without hitting the point of over-kill). It was all about balance, and so she worked relentlessly with yellows and shimmering powders until we jokingly felt we had achieved the ‘holy light’ appearance I had wanted for the picture. The yellow tears were the crowning glory, and as they dried they unexpectedly cracked becoming a perfect delicate link back to some of the original tribal images from my research.

Richard setting up the crane shot of the costume (before the yellow powder covered everything in the room) !

Once Marianna was in position I had one last challenge to face, which was the dreaded yellow powder . As I described earlier I needed this picture to be about an explosion of radiating human energy, and ever since watching the incredible ‘Solipsist’ film a year earlier, its mind blowing scenes of shattering bodies had heavily influenced my thoughts. In the end it became a combination of two things, real time throwing of powder into the shot, and the happy accident of realising that the powder instantly gripped and remained on the black backdrop behind the model. This made life so much easier, as I was able to control the paint’s direction and shape, and then bring both together in post, as well as add new layers to achieve the ‘vibration’ effect I was after.  By the end of the day I had shot 700 frames, destroyed my entire studio (and most of Richards filming equipment) and all of us were coated in a faint layer of yellow !
In truth I’m still very new to shooting in a studio environment, in fact I have barely any experience. All my pictures are usually shot out in the landscape, and I find being indoors quite an alien and nerve wracking feeling. Its not something that gives me that tingle down my spine, it feels more sterile and controlled in a way, but on the day it was the only option. However, despite struggling with the unknown factors of powder and lighting, in the end there still came that wonderful, creeping familiar moment when Marianna truly became ‘Gaia’. It always takes a while to reach that point, but as I worked with Marianna on her breathing and played music to help her mood, eventually she reached a slight trance state of mind, allowing her to sink into the emotion. So finally, just before the sun began to fade everything came together, and we got the last shot of the summer…. it was a long day, and a lot of mess, but worth every minute.

***On a small personal note, this picture is dedicated to a very dear friend and talented photographer Miss Aniela . Natalie if you ever read this, I know you will understand why, and I love you dearly  xx **