Wonderland – ‘The Briar Rose’

The Briar Rose‘The Briar Rose’

It was November 9th 2009 when I first discovered the tiny bridge hidden deep in the woods and one year to the day since I lost my mother. I had been inconsolable all morning and had gone to my favourite place to try and calm myself down. As I walked along the familiar track I discovered an overgrown trench that led down into the mouth of a small archway with slanting stone walls. It was only about the width of two people and around 5 meters long.  I remember dragging my fingers across the cold wet stone, slowly walking backwards and forwards from one end to the other, my jaw slack with excitement. It was like she had led me there and my sadness slowly gave way to complete wonder as I stood in the shadow of that enchanted place. At the time I was completely unprepared but knew whatever picture I took there in the future would have to be special. So as each season passed I would return and photograph the changes, the mist in winter, the first leaves in spring, through to the overhanging moss in the summer. There were occasions when I’d planned to take a large team and attempt something grand, but circumstance always stopped me and it wasn’t until two whole years later that the time finally came.

It was a dark January morning on the Friday of the shoot. It had been raining for days and I had just lied to work and called in sick. It was the only date our little team could be together for some time so I had no choice, and now the weather was horrendous. Elbie and I had worked till 2am the night before and were up with the dawn. I had made the costume out of every last scrap of antique lace I had left, and sat up most nights with Georgie my giant cat laying on top of it all, whilst trying to hand sew it together. The largest piece of the costume was a huge lace wall hanging from a stately home in Paris. It was over a 100 years old and had found its way into my hands at a vintage fair in London about 18 months before. It was one of the most precious things I owned, and I was terrified of taking it out into the woods, but it felt like this was its moment and looking back now I’m so glad I risked it. Katie’s costume was enormous, there were 3 tutu skirts, and 4 layers to the dress. The kitchen was bursting with red fabric, as I was planning on taking the motif of the red trail from the previous scenes and pushing it to an entirely new level by wrapping it around and through the bridge. It was meant to slip though the picture like the scene in ‘The Voyage’ but this time it was to gain momentum, and become a far larger aspect.

By 11.30am everything was packed, we filled two cars with bin sacks of cloth, a stepladder, toolboxes, and endless extras before setting off into the rain. Outside the roads were grim; the skies were dark and swollen with clouds, Katie would be warm with all the giant skirts, but her top half was just a tiny piece of lace and a small red bodice. I was so worried, as she was still recovering from tonsillitis, and here I was about to stick her on the top of a ladder in the rain for the next few hours. I quietly begged my mother to change the weather under my breath as I watched the houses give way to trees and the roads churn to mud… we were nearly there.

On arrival we loaded ourselves up with kit bags, and started walking towards the forest. It was absolutely beautiful, silent, vast and dark, with the shimmer of emerald green moss everywhere. No matter how many times I visit this place I always feel the same, my heart quickens, my breath changes, I feel more alive and true to myself than anywhere else. It is hard to explain but it’s a love affair I have with it all, and is the reason I will never be a studio photographer.

Once we reached the bridge it was still raining, we placed everything underneath for shelter, whilst I started testing for the right framing, lens and exposure. Usually I panic a little when we are finally on the location and everyone is ready to start. It sounds ridiculous, but I don’t like to hold things up by endlessly fluffing around with what angle I need, so it was another reason why on this day I was so grateful for it just being the four of us. It was a difficult situation, cold, wet, extremely muddy and slippery. Setting up was very stressful as Katie was helpless marooned up her ladder, whilst the 3 of us scrambled around in the mud pulling meters of cloth over our heads from one side to another. We had to physically nail Katie’s hair extensions to the stonewall of the bridge, but in places it just fell out where the bricks broke to dust. There were lengths of invisible wire everywhere holding hair and fabric in place, which resulted in the location being turned into one enormous booby trap for us all. The fabrics left on the ground had began soaking up the mud and Katie’s beautiful curls were already falling out of shape. The light was so strange as it was incredibly dark, but on camera Katie’s pale skin was still bleaching out against the mottled browns of the bridge. I ended up having to underexpose the image far more than I usually would, and it was making me nervous. I had to take the picture on a tripod as anything hand held was useless, which added to my stress as I only own fixed lenses. So I spent the entire shoot shunting backwards and forwards constantly swearing until I was finally satisfied with my positon.

It took almost 3 hours to get everything perfect; the whole time my heart weighed heavy in my chest, I knew we needed more people to help and it was too much. Had I ruined this shoot because I was too stubborn to cancel because of the weather?. I’d been staring at the floor feeling so cross with myself, until I looked up with fresh eyes and suddenly took things in with a whole new clarity, and there were no words to describe what I saw. In the gloom Katie was curled into the side of the bridge, her hair tumbling around her face and shoulders, clutching the little red galleon ship to her shivering body. The rain had finally stopped and the red cloth billowed gently in the breeze, dancing around her waist, slowly slipping away through the scene until it curled out through the corner of the frame. Somehow it seemed royal, it must have been the colours and the grand antique lace, I’m not entirely sure, but I felt like I was in the presence of a real sleeping beauty. It was without doubt one of the most magical scenes I have ever produced…..

I began to shoot and almost filled the entire memory card I was so excited. It was only when I reached the final frames that I remembered we had some small red smoke bombs in the kit box, and I decided to light them all in one go for the last remaining pictures. I thought it would be over-kill and ruin what already appeared to be the perfect shot, but as they fizzed and the initial clouds dispersed, the colour simply hung in the damp air like a strange ghostly red fog It was utterly heart stopping.
I rushed to shoot as many frames as I could before the card ran out and the smoke melted away . I couldn’t catch my breath as I called to the others to come and see, whilst I played the images back repeatedly checking they were there and real. It was like a film, so strange and beautiful, I couldn’t get my words out, we had created something truly, truly extraordinary

By now it was an hour away from sunset and the cold had crept into our bones. We packed up as much as we could carry and headed for the cars. Matt and I returned to the bridge one last time to collect the remaining kit and check there was nothing left that could hurt any wildlife. I had only had 4 hours sleep and had been surviving on complete adrenaline all day, but as we staggered back that final time I will never forget the rush of the wind in my hair, and the specks of rain on my face. I felt so alive, so free, so truly, truly myself and so in love with the landscape. I was wearing my old parka covered in mud and the bright purple wellies Elbie had bought me for Christmas. I was 34 dressed like a six year old, and I didn’t give a damn. I found my feet quickening, and then I was skipping and then I was just running towards the trees laughing. If I could have put my arms around that forest and hugged it for all it gave me I would, I honestly wish I could have done.
I now know where I belong, and it is not spending hours commuting on trains to my day job in the city permanently miserable and empty. This is my heart, the woods are my place, and I just pray that one day I will be able to be there always, and do what I love so very, much. I ache writing these words as it means so much to me. Shooting The Briar Rose was an extraordinary day that challenged me more than most and looking back, I now know I need to give serious thought to leaving my job, which scares me and excites me all at once. I learnt to put my trust in nature, even when I thought it was raging against me, without the rain this picture never would have achieved the same level of emotion and poignancy I now feel it has. So I am incredibly proud of it, and will love it always…..

So after all of the dramas of the shoot day, the next morning I woke up to read that the winners of the huge global  ‘One Life’ photography award had been announced. I had entered Wonderland back in October last year, and knew the chances were slim as thousands upon thousands of photographers from all backgrounds enter from around the world. The prize was $25,000 and a solo show in New York, it was a total pipe dream, but I gave it a go anyway. I sat at breakfast chewing on my toast thinking, “oh well, that was a waste of money” unsubscribed myself from the website and went to the gym. It was only a couple of hours later a friend sent me a message congratulating me on my success with the One Life photo competition. I was completely confused and went home to check the announcements again. It was only then that I saw Wonderland had made it into the top 100 runners up best portfolios!!! I sat on my bed and burst out crying….. there was my work amongst all these amazing photographers, it was such a shock I didn’t know what to do with myself. I am so grateful and so thrilled and I can’t begin to explain, but here it is ……. And here is the link to see it online – (click)

And finally more press! And one I am so excited about too. Spirited Away has been printed in beautiful full size glory in the long established Italian ‘Inside Art’ magazine. The article that accompanies it is about creating dreams…. It looks so lovely I can’t wait to receive the hard copy in the post!