Wonderland – The Lavender Princess
‘The Lavender Princess’
‘A Listless Dawn’
‘Portrait Of A Princess’
It is so hard to begin to write down what the lavender shoot meant to me. It felt like the hardest day of the series to date and I suppose that is mainly true because it was in fact the first. I want to write this honestly, and maybe that’s going to be a little embarrassing as I know that the people involved will be reading this, but at least now its all done I can finally admit how absolutely terrified I actually was.
It’s easy to laugh about it now, but at the time there were points when throwing up with nerves was definitely a realistic option. The whole idea began at the end of June, the concept of ‘Wonderland’ didn’t exist, I hadn’t planned the project or even had so much as a title in my head. I just felt a need to begin something new and bigger than I’d ever done before. Something magical, colourful, and if I’m honest create a more beautiful existence than the sadness in my everyday life.
I had remembered a lavender farm I used to pass by a couple of years ago, and decided to go back and take a look. It was genuinely a complete coincidence that once I managed to find the old path that I found the fields in full bloom, at the height of their season. Full of excitement I had left my card with one of the farm workers, and went home to write my first ever begging letter for the project. A few emails later, it seemed that the farmer had been constantly bothered by local photographers asking to use his land for free. Suddenly my requests of “can I use your field, and can you give me a load of free lavender?” began to sound equally rude, and I felt my chance disappearing before I’d even started. However, I was lucky and after the farmer had looked at my work online, he agreed we could use the field for a handful of hours before the public were allowed in each morning at 9.30am. Although there one big problem – the entire crop was going to be cut in two weeks! My stomach twisted and heat went to my head. I had two weeks to find a model, meet Elbie for the first time in real life, research, come up with a theme, an outfit, make props, and find a team of friends to help. It was ridiculous but I had no choice – the date was set for dawn, July the 19th.
I know some people maybe reading this thinking I’m making it all sound rather melodramatic, but for me this was honestly a big deal. I have always been nervous of working with others because in truth I have little self-confidence, and I suppose I didn’t want to be found out as a ‘fake’. The fact that I still don’t know what half the buttons on my camera do, and I have never hired a model or worked with a make-up artist before, made things pretty daunting. I was worried it would all end up looking home made and unprofessional, but I’d reached a point where I simply couldn’t carry on taking endless self-portraits and random street pictures. I needed to see what would happen if I tried my absolute hardest, it was time to step things up, and so I posted a casting call on a modeling website, and sat back nervously waiting for a response.
Next I had to think about props, the farmer said we could have 10 enormous bundles of lavender to help, and so I bought an old 70’s wicker chair from eBay to customise into a flower throne for the model to sit on. I began work on designing a dress, and researching what kind of mood / theme we could build on. I made a storyboard of my favourite pictures, paintings and movie stills, and came up with the idea of using coloured smoke and powder paint to add a more magical feel.
I finally met Elbie in person the Sunday before the shoot, and we spent the entire day working on the lavender throne. It took 6 hours to cover less than half the chair, at which point we realised that almost none of the props could be made in advance, as the fresh flowers would die and fade before we had time to use them. So we abandoned the chair and planned the hair and make-up instead. This meant we only had the following Saturday to make all the props before the shoot on the Sunday morning.
Elbie and I spent the next week constantly emailing updates back and forth whilst she spent her lunch times visiting theatre make-up shops, and I spent my evenings, sewing and spray painting parts of the dress. We had so much to do it was overwhelming, and just as things couldn’t get any more stressful, our model dropped out of the shoot with 3 days to go. I posted another casting, and by now was beginning to feel seriously out of control with it all.
A week passed and I had managed to secure the help of a few good friends, a new model was booked and a van hired. The Saturday began with me racing to the farm at 6am to collect the last of the lavender, then to the shops for more spray paint, and by 7am I finally sat down to finish making our throne. As I worked in the garden desperately threading lavender together I realized how badly I had misjudged the amount we had left. We needed to make a huge umbrella from wild flowers, the chair was far from finished, and the dress was still in pieces and needed to be fully customised. There were hair and make-up trials to be done, garlands to make, It was all far too much and I knew it.
By 10am my friends had arrived from London on the train, I grabbed 3 pairs of scissors and met them at the station. The first thing we had to do was steal enough buddleia to make the umbrella. Buddleia is the closest colour flower to lavender that grows wild and is big enough to cover large areas. It grew in great clumps along the train tracks, so we began hacking down armfuls of stalks every time the coast was clear. All the best flowers were way out of our reach, mainly hanging over the fence that separated us from the tracks. So we jumped and cut in vain, until in frustration Eva pulled down an entire bush, which we dragged back to the car squealing and laughing thinking we had more than enough. We were so, so wrong……
After stripping away the leaves and stems, the flowers looked tiny and wouldn’t cover a third of the umbrella. We returned and in desperation gave up waiting for people to pass and just pulled at the branches frantically. It took forever to collect enough, but we finally stuffed the car to bursting point and headed back to the house. It was now 4pm, it had started to rain, the glue on the umbrella wouldn’t dry, which left the flowers impossible to stick. The lavender throne was half finished and the dress was still in pieces shoved in the corner. I went upstairs and sat on my bed panicking, everything looked dreadful, I had no idea if any of it was going to work or be ready for the morning. I knew I was going to have to sew the rest of the dress by hand and I had already run out of my last can of spray paint. I checked my laptop, the forecast had changed to rain for the next day and we only had 8 hours left until midnight, which gave us 3 ½ hours to sleep until dawn.
I felt sick, this was embarrassing, the model would be arriving any minute to walk into this mad house covered in glue, flowers and insects, to have her make-up trial sat between the oven and the dustbin in my kitchen.
What had I done? I was completely out of my depth…….
Spray painting the dress
Thankfully when our model Natasha arrived, she was wonderful and found all the chaos exciting. Everyone soldiered on and by 9pm we somehow made a breakthrough and things miraculously began to look good. The umbrella looked quite amazing, despite the fact it was so heavy with wet glue that I could barely lift it above my head. The dress was finished and fitted the model (thank god) and we were now on to the finishing stages. By midnight everyone was exhausted, Eva and I were sat in our pyjamas sewing the last of the buddleia to the dress, whist Matt worked on the garlands and Elbie finished preparing Natasha’s hair for the next day. We went to bed at 12.30am
At 3.45am Elbie was up and working on hair and make-up, whilst I got my kit together and started drawing sketches of how I wanted the pictures to look. I always do this when I’m nervous so I wont forget what my original idea was when I’m on the location. The boys loaded the van and by 5.45 am we were late but on the road. I sat in the front seat and stared out the window willing the clouds to break, the sky was lifeless and overcast. I remember how I kept rubbing the ring my mother gave me for my 18th birthday praying she would somehow fix the weather for me, as I anxiously leant forward in my seat.
Finally we arrived, unloaded, Natasha was dressed, and there It was, a dull, depressing field. Every time I had been to the farm in the past week the dawn had been magnificent – the flowers lit up like a sea of bright purple in the crisp early morning light. Now I stood and stared hopelessly at our dawn, it was dead, drab and the wind was picking up.
The first picture I had always imagined in my head was the umbrella scene. I had dreamt of a girl in a towering dress clutching a parasol made of flowers with coloured smoke pouring from the top. This was the one picture I really wanted to get, so I started jumping over the aisles of lavender searching for a spot that felt right. We convinced Natasha to balance on a stool, as the dress was nearly 9ft long, and then set up a stepladder opposite her for me to take the picture from. I hadn’t realised during past visits that the field was absolutely swarming with bees, and unknown to me Natasha had a very real phobia of them, and was by now absolutely terrified. I was badly stung within minutes and tried my best to hide my reaction and rapidly swelling red leg. It was a disaster, nothing was looking right, even the dress hung limp and narrow. Everyone turned to me for direction, whilst I tried to remain calm and ignore the panic creeping up my spine.
I decided I had to do something dramatic and quickly, so I grabbed a pair of scissors and to everyone’s horror slashed the entire back of the dress open which instantly filled out and doubled in size. I forced myself to take some responsibility and told Elbie and Eva to get under the skirt and hold it out to create further volume. I barked at the boys to mold a smoke bomb to the top of the umbrella and get it lit, and then I climbed the step ladder ready to take the first shot, muttering under my breath… “come on, come on, for gods sake make this happen.”
Lighting the smoke bomb took several attempts, but just as it sparked and was passed to Natasha, the sun came out. It was still low in the sky but it lit her entire body with a soft warm glow. The smoke began to fizz and plumes of blue burst from the top of the umbrella…… and then the wind came. I could barely catch my breath; it was exactly how I had imagined it in my dreams. The skirt of the dress began to billow, and with a sudden gust it filled up like a giant circus tent! The boys started cheering, whilst Elbie and Eva were collapsing with laughter under the skirt, it was amazing and it was all happening at once! Natasha held onto the heavy umbrella, bracing the wind and I marveled, mouth open at how everything had completely changed in a matter of seconds. The smoke spiraled and danced, the dress rocked in the wind and I kept pressing the shutter, it was working, it was working !! After we caught that first incredible picture, I felt anything was possible. We moved around the field setting up the different props and scenes and I quickly found my confidence as things fell into place. We ran over our time, and ended up with the public entering the field and following us around to see what we were doing. Much to everyone’s delight we threw 3 kilos of powder paint over Natasha, which was such an incredible thing to see in real life. The colour was extraordinary, she looked liked she had died right there and then in a cloud of purple, deep in the flowers. We ran backwards and forwards dragging props and buckets of paint and by 11 am we had finally finished. We packed up the van, returned to the house, I made everyone bacon sandwiches and tea, and then drove them to the station to go home.
By 12.30pm I staggered back through the front door and stood exhausted in my empty kitchen assessing the aftermath of the past few days. There was lavender everywhere, paint on the floor, bags of equipment and cups and plates stacked on every surface. I pulled out of my pocket the crumpled sketches I had drawn in a panic that morning, and smiled at them smoothing the corners with my purple stained fingers. We had done it, and it had looked good. I didn’t mess up, nobody knew how I had felt, and probably didn’t until reading this now. The relief was so acute I could have cried. I went straight to bed and slept until late afternoon, got up, cleaned the house and loaded the pictures onto my laptop. I immediately emailed Elbie the first raw shot of the smoke umbrella picture, it took my breath away and I couldn’t connect myself as being the person that had created it. In my heart I now knew we could do this again; it could only get a little easier after this. I thought about all the help my friends had given me, no one was getting anything out of it, yet they had still worked until midnight and been up with the dawn. It had been chaos, but wonderful chaos, I suppose none of us would have ever sat in a field at dawn with a lavender giantess and a smoking umbrella before that day, and that is what it was all really about – creating something magical for the absolute hell of it.
That is when things changed for me, and photography became more about the moment, the experience I shared with these people, rather than just the act of finishing of the final picture. I was getting to do this for real and sharing it with equally passionate people. It felt good, and I felt closer to all of them for it. We had laughed ourselves stupid and we all looked like hell, but it had also been so much fun. A moment later my inbox chimed and Elbie had replied with an overexcited email full of squeals and exclamation marks, ending with the words ’what are we doing next?” ….. and I guess that was when ‘Wonderland’ really began …………..