Wonderland – The Enchanted Bluebell Shoot

The Storyteller‘The Storyteller’

A Forgotten Tale‘A Forgotten Tale’

The Blue Saint‘The Blue Saint’

The Pink Saint‘The Pink Saint’

The Beautiful Blindness of Devotion‘The Beautiful Blindness of Devotion’

The Lullaby of May‘The Lullaby of May’

This entry has been a long time coming; it’s been two months since the day of the shoot, and a whole month before that when I began working on the costumes and props. For me there are a strong mix of feelings about these pictures, they represent an entire emotional scale that I have never experienced until now, some good and some bad…… and that feels a little strange.

Whenever I can, I try to make Wonderland about the real world that we live in, the true natural wonders that occur and disappear in the blink of an eye and so often pass by unnoticed. Moving to the countryside and working on this project has taught me so much, and my knowledge of wild flowers and the seasons is something I am slowly grasping with each new month. Growing up the sudden appearance of bluebells always remained one of the most mesmerising moments in nature I can remember as a child. I cannot think of another sight I had seen that has struck me in the same way, so it felt incredibly important to capture this very special phenomena for the series.

I first discovered our location in the spring of 2009, it was unlike any bluebell wood I had encountered before. The flowers were so dense that the ground seemed to vibrate with the intensity of their colour. I can still remember my frustration as I stood in all that beauty, utterly helpless without any costumes or props, exasperated by the fact it would be gone within a matter of days. So I photographed the area for my records and reluctantly trudged away promising myself I would return prepared the following year.
It was now March 2010 and a matter of weeks before the location was due to bloom. I had been dreaming of a pale woman in a huge headdress cascading with bluebells, it’s shape was very definite and reminded me of old Dutch paintings and nun’s wimples. Sometimes I can’t quite explain where the ideas filter from, the bluebells were undoubtedly a link to my childhood in Kent and their colour constantly reminded me of the midnight blues of my favourite storybook ‘Moonlight and Fairyland’. It’s illustrations always had a strange melancholy about them, the characters were often austere with pale faces and cold eyes, and maybe it was these two elements that subconsciously became the basis of my ‘Storyteller’.

It was during this time, on one of my regular trips to scout the progress of the location that I accidently took a wrong turn and found myself entering a towering Rhododendron forest I had never seen before. It was incredible, some of the trees were as high as a house, and although nothing had flowered yet, it was possible to imagine how it would look when they finally did. I left the car behind and continued on foot walking down the winding paths staring up, mouth open. The hairs on the back of my neck tingled, I had goose bumps and knew we absolutely had to shoot here too. After an hour of excitedly taking notes and pictures, just as I was leaving I found a bud at the foot of one of the tallest trees, and there inside discovered the damp curl of its fuchsia pink petals. Now I knew the colour a plan began to form, two locations, two powerful contrasting hues and in my head that meant I needed two models – something I have never done on a shoot before.

In the weeks that followed, the endless wait for the bluebells had triggered thoughts about the life span of seasons and how their cycle brings us constant change. Their surrender to the each other as their plants flower and die in the wake of the next. This led me to working on the concept of creating giant floral eggs as a symbol of new life, whilst the religious undertones continued in my dreams. It was something that became so ingrained that it later dictated the poses and costumes for the pink and blue saints, and was also the inspiration for the final scene ‘The Suicide of Spring’  – intended as Springs self sacrifice to the arrival of summer.

It was now April and I had around 4 weeks to make everything for the shoot. Elbie had to go back to South Africa, and most of the jobs were very delicate and time consuming. Unlike building big wooden cakes and chicken wire candy canes, this wasn’t something I could give to anyone other than myself. The eggs had to be made from endless layers of papier-mâché and then covered in hand painted silk flowers. I knew this was going to take a long time, so I started straight away

 

After two weeks both eggs were nearly finished. I had two models booked, but no costumes, no headdress, and still no bluebells in sight. I was visiting the location every few days on constant alert but everything was flowering late due to the snow in January. To be honest the delay was a relief as I was beginning to worry over the amount there was left to do. As usual I had taken on too much, my Storyteller character had evolved into to a grandiose scene involving a giant throne made from of books and an enormous dramatic dress made of hundreds of ripped pages. It was all beyond my capabilities on my own, so I called my lovely assistant Charlotte for help who came to the rescue and patiently spent endless days sat on my kitchen floor sewing and and stapling pages into the dress.

Once the costume was underway I began the headdress. I started by moulding a wire scull cap that I embedded into a papier-mâché and plaster of Paris shell, It was incredibly difficult and unlike anything I had attempted before. It took a solid week of working late into the night to decide how I would create the shape, but finally after a lot of attempts, cut fingers and bad soldering the frame was complete. The days continued to fly by and there was still so much to do. I can’t ever remember having such an intensive run up to a shoot.

 

Finally, at long last the bluebells arrived in early May. The shoot date was set for Sunday 9th and once again my house was thrown into utter chaos. I had taken the Friday off work to try and finish everything early, it was actually my birthday, but there was no time to celebrate. During the week Charlotte had called to say she had found us the most incredible collection of old books, that had belonged to the great grandmother of a friend of hers. Almost all of them were over 100 years old, collected throughout her entire life and were full of hand written messages, dates and tiny pieces of newspaper cuttings. I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact it had on me when they arrived. I shuddered as I opened each one, sometimes with delight, and other times almost in tears. So many had been gifts,  birthdays, Christmases, they were all there.
Amongst the collection I found a small number of beautiful little prayer books, given in condolence for the grandmothers husband dying. I sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by all these fragments of another life, reading the hand written inscriptions, slowly turning the thin yellow pages. In one I found a newspaper clipping in the crease of the spine – it had been the announcement of her husband’s death in the local paper. It made me stop, and look far beyond these being just props, I thought about mum and how I was unable to keep hardly any of her things. Yet here in my hands were somebody else’s precious little possessions and that was when I decided to make a necklace from the books. I can’t really explain it, but the idea of turning them into something special, and being worn across the heart of the model for the pictures was my way of showing some respect for this woman I had never met.

The next day felt like one of the longest days of my life, we were up with the dawn, stealing cherry blossom from the road sides, and then on to more sewing and dying for the costumes. Adam arrived mid morning and within a few hours him and Charlotte managed to drill and nail the book throne together. As the day stretched on the weather became increasing worse, the skies faded from grey to black, and the rain fell in broken sheets. At 4pm Matt and I made the final journey to the location to collect the enormous amount of bluebells we needed to cover the headdress. We parked the car and skidded down the slippery path to the wood. It was ridiculous really, it was the night before the shoot and we still hadn’t actually seen the location in full bloom. However, when we arrived it was a breathtaking sight. The carpet of blue radiated out through the gloom, no one was around, it was silent, not even the distant rumble of a car. We stood in the drizzle in our wellington boots, hoods up, scissors in hand and couldn’t help but laugh at each other, we were soaked what a sight! Thank god Matt understands me, I don’t know another man on the planet who would suffer stealing bluebells in the dark and rain with his mad girlfriend! So we began cutting, it took about 40 minutes to collect enough, as we needed hundreds. The rain finally stopped, and we squelched our way back to the car and then home to Elbie and the others. For the rest of the night we had to cover the headdress. Elbie and I spread all the flowers out, and then threaded each one onto long strings, which we then attached to the base shape. Meanwhile Adam prepared the last of the poisoned dream potion bottles. We eventually finished everything at 1am. I was at my wits end, I had tried so hard to be ready at least a day before the shoot, but once again here we were, Elbie and I glassy-eyed in my kitchen mumbling words of encouragement to each other about how the shoot was going to be ‘OK’.

 

The following morning we were up for 6am, preparing the models took almost 3 hours. Elbie did the make-up whilst I made small crowns from painted Ivy, which we then sewed to the coloured stockings that covered the models hair. By 11am we left for the location, the weather was dismal and I felt pretty unwell at the prospect of the long day ahead.

The first picture was our ‘Blue Saint’ staged in the rhododendron forest. We positioned our model Francesca high into the flowers, and wrapped spray painted Ivy around the skirts of her costume, attaching it with wire to the surrounding branches. In the end the dull light actually created a beautiful softness, and allowed the rest of the details to melt away into the darkness under the tree. I pinned the extra frills and silk pieces to the costume, layering all the textures until it was a truly beautiful sight to see, I was thrilled.

From there we moved on to ‘The Pink Saint’ picture, which was set at the foot of the tallest tree. It was absolutely mind blowing, I have never seen a rhododendron that size in my life. Each picture took well over an hour to set up and I could already sense things were getting a little strained. Considering it was cold and drizzling the models were extremely patient, but it is just the nature of how my shoots are – no toilets, lots of insects, and long delays between scenes. It is never glamourous and so with a growing sense of unease, I decided to scrap a picture I had planned in order to move us on to the next location.

We arrived at the bluebell wood within minutes and parked the van and two cars bursting with props, flowers, generators and endless equipment. I remember opening the back double doors and staring at the vans contents for what felt like the first time, unable to really piece together how all these things had come to be. I was feeling quite dizzy by now, I hadn’t eaten all morning and was about to take the most important picture of the shoot, ‘The Storyteller’.  In the distance I could hear the whoops of Elbie getting out the car behind, I forgot that coming from South Africa she may have never actually seen a bluebell wood before. It was an extraordinary sight, the flowers were a shimmering haze of blue against the phosphorus green of the trees, it was a truly enchanted place, that was for sure. It soothed me for a moment, before I turned and we began unloading the enormous throne and the endless boxes of heavy books. Everything had to be carried up hill, it was slow exhausting work. At the top we set up the scene, and eased Francesca into her dress. Sadly, this is where things became a little difficult. Once she was in position on the throne, we lowered the headdress onto her head which to be fair it was very heavy and had to be held by an assistant from behind. The weather had clouded over, and after a couple of minutes she raised her hand and said she wanted to stop. My heart dropped, she said was too cold. I suppose up until now I may have been extremely lucky with the people I have worked with, or maybe they have been too polite to be honest about how cold and wet they were on my shoots. Suddenly I was faced with a scene that had taken weeks of work and cost over £500 in raw materials which didn’t even touch on the time, and support of everyone making it all for free. It included the book collection of a dear friend’s dead grandmother, in a field of flowers that would be gone in a matter of days, something which I had already had to wait an entire year for. I looked at the back of my camera, I’d taken about 20 frames, what on earth was I going to do?

We stopped shooting, covered the model and took away the headdress, it felt like the longest 2 minutes of my life. Everyone shuffled around awkwardly until we convinced her to carry on for a little longer. The covers came off, and I tried to get as many pictures as I could but the headdress didn’t look as good as it had the first time around, and I kept slipping on the wet flowers. Another 2 minutes passed and that was it, she wanted to be taken back to the car, whilst I stayed on my own by the throne trying not to cry. I desperately needed her for the double suicide picture I had planned but there was absolutely nothing I could do., she asked to be driven home and suddenly everything was falling apart, it was so hard to carry on.

Finally, feeling utterly defeated I took the Madonna and child picture with Anna, our ‘Pink Saint’. I was feeling so low, but Anna put on an amazing performance and seeing her swathed in neon, clashing so violently with the bluebells made the whole scene appear as surreal as possible and it was thrilling to sit in front of. The picture was instantly very strong and my confidence crept back a little. We then lay Anna down in the flowers for the final suicide scene, spreading her clothes and laying the bottles of dream potion on top of her pale body. Next came the book necklace, then more books around her head, and finally I shook the cherry blossom over her from above, creating a gentle snow of petals. I had thrown one of the lengths of silk attached to her arm outwards, and from the top of my step ladder the effect was incredible –  it was like she was flying. The whole vision was a Gustav Klimt painting, full of texture and colour. It was one of those moments that I have tried to describe so many times before, when everything stops and suddenly I feel I am there, in the story, experiencing it all for real. I had needed this so badly all day, and now in the last moments it had finally arrived.  It was 6.30pm and I called it a day, I came down from the step ladder, took a couple of close-ups and it was over.


Everyone started packing up the props, whilst I stood in a daze staring back at the wood. My stomach was pulsing and cramping badly, my head hurt, I hadn’t slept properly for days and I knew I had found my limit with this shoot. Elbie and I gave each other a knowing look of ‘how the hell did we get through this one?’ and quietly began carrying everything back to the van. Usually packing up and going home from the shoots is a loud and funny time. People cracking jokes, and sighs of relief, but I think everyone was just exhausted beyond anything we had ever experienced before. We drove home in silence down the twisted lanes and I worried about the blue egg picture I hadn’t been able to take. The bluebells would be gone by next weekend and I no longer had the model it was meant to be taken with. I had to leave for a business trip to China the next day, and my chance to complete the set of pictures I’d planned was gone.

However, I’m a strong believer in all things happen for a reason. Two weeks later I was back in the UK and despite the bluebells having disappeared I decided I wanted to return to the rhododendron forest. I called on dear Katie and asked if she would model for me early the next morning. I wanted to take a picture of her naked, clutching the blue egg high up in one of the trees, wrapped in silk just after the dawn. As always without hesitation she agreed and came to my house at 5.30am. We rushed off to the location where Elbie and I proceeded to rub Katie’s almost naked body with insect repellent and gold body cream, laughing ourselves sick as two very surprised dog walkers accidently stumbled on our little set! It was effortless, She was patient and everything felt ‘right’ as the early morning sun gently framed her face and hair. It was simply beautiful and at last my heart felt light again.
We have all become such special friends since this project started, something I am so deeply grateful for. It had been precious and fun, and at long last I finally got my picture.