Wonderland – ‘She’ll Wait for You in the Shadows of Summer’
‘She’ll Wait For You In The Shadows Of Summer’ (200cm wide)
This photo represents such a deeply complex range of emotions for me 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 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, one that scared me, to be honest.
Before I explain the process, I must begin with the meaning so that you can slowly sink into the story. This picture was intended as the ghost of Gaia’s former human self, her ‘shell’, abandoned by her spirit like a snake that has shed its skin. We return to Wonderland’s 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, as nature overpowers her 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. It has been five years since I lost my mother, a time that feels endless but still leaves a faint sense of possibility in that it has not yet been long enough to feel final. I sometimes wonder if I could turn a corner and she might still pass me by, but then a hopeless reality weighs heavy in the pit of my stomach and I know full well it will never be. I suppose this photograph is the realisation of waiting for something you know will never happen. There have been times when my blood has run cold at the connections I later recognise in my finished pictures that were there before I understood them; this image is one of them. In short, this was about trying to face a goodbye, one that you know you can never say out loud. Instead you would rather wait in those last remaining shadows for that person to come back for you, to feel their arms around you again, no matter how long it took.
It has all weighed heavy on my heart and I am so grateful to my model Marianna for channeling this emotion so beautifully for me. Producing the picture was a strange and haunting release, one that was necessary for both the story and for me, and I guess it is only fitting that it ended up becoming one of the most difficult shoots I have ever experienced.
However, pushing all this emotion to one side, I am left with the most extraordinary thrill when watching Richard’s film from the day. The final dramatic scene that reveals Gaia and 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 a total of six 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 am absolutely mad but it was worth every second to be able to step inside that fragment of another world on that day, and this is why I work the way that I do.
Close up crops
6 months before the shoot …………….
It all began six months before the shoot in February 2013. The yellow boat from ‘Gaia’s Spell’ had been left outside in my back garden for almost two 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 bog 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 four-thirty in the afternoon – and it was already two o’clock. The van we hired was too small and there was only myself, Elbie, and my husband Matt to manhandle the boat across the lawn and into the back. The whole way to the woods every rattle and thump stopped our hearts as the back doors flapped wildly, held together with only the tiniest piece of rope we could find. The tip of the boat was overhanging the bumper by about half a meter, but we had no choice but to carry on, as it was a race against the clock to reach the location before it got dark. Once we arrived at the wood, the kind land owners, Alexandra and Alex, turned up to help us drag the boat down the hill and through the trees, to the bog where it would be left to bed down. I won’t go into the comedy that ensued, but the photos will give you an idea. It was not an easy trip and was night by the time the disheveled little galleon was laid to rest in its new home.
When I originally had the idea of leaving the boat in the woods to overgrow, I knew I couldn’t just leave it anywhere unprotected. It was only by a fleeting chance that I discovered a friend owned some private woodland and was willing to let us use it for the shoot. Unlike all the other locations in the series, which I obviously choose for their aesthetics, in this case I was entering into things blind. When we left the boat in February the entire area was dead and barren and I had absolutely no idea how the landscape would look in the summer. It was a complete gamble , but I was left with no choice other than to return over the coming months to chart nature’s progress and hope for the best.
Thankfully, the transformation was extraordinary and far exceeded anything I could have imagined. 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. Work hard, plan well and then 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 had a hot summer. I can’t express how nerve wracking it is for me trying to plan big outdoor shoots in this country; 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. To face a shoot that would involve an unprotected set consisting of a generator, a full lighting rig, a cardboard galleon and a model in a silk dress almost three meters high 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 17 July.
In the two weeks that led up to the shoot I spent most of my time visiting the boat on my own. I would leave in the early morning around six-thirty, 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, it’s 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 about this side of me because it is so private, but it’s where I feel better, I can breathe and my demons leave me in peace. During those days I charted where the sun 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 stepladder and started work on decorating the boat. I made new, distressed sails, and collected two carloads of ivy to weave around the boat’s rotting form. I sprayed bleach onto the sails to fade their colour, and used spray paint in white and brown to add highlights and low lights to the fabrics. It was a real luxury of time that I have never experienced before, and was invaluable for the success of the final 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’ work. In fact I am always more influenced by historical paintings, 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 homemade 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 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 by spotlights. It was a ridiculous idea: my first ever attempt at outdoor lighting 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.
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 reached the entrance of the woods and spent ages carrying all the equipment down to the bog. The mud was a serious issue, people were getting stuck up to their knees and there was a genuine threat of stepping waist-deep in unknown 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, while 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 four 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.
At five that evening, everything was ready: the late afternoon light was softening and the insects were out in full force searching for blood. To top off the pressure, my father had also come along to watch the chaos. It was the first shoot he has ever witnessed, and no doubt will be the last considering it took about eighteen hours from start to finish! Finally it was time to take the picture I had been dreaming of for well over a year.
We lit the powerful smoke bombs and my assistant Adrian began to zig-zag through the scene, filling it with a mix of yellow and white smoke. Richard, our filmmaker, captured the most epic crane shots, panning across 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 as pools of golden light clung to the distant tree trunks and Marianna transformed into Gaia’s ghost, twisting and pulling at the vines that wrapped her pale body. It was the most surreal and utterly extraordinary sight. The branches appeared to ravage her tiny frame and the distressed knotted hair extensions gave a ghostly glow around her shoulders as they caught the light. It was breathtaking.
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 nine that night, when I finally called it a day. We released the last of the smoke bombs in one impressive finale, which Richard filmed with a three-meter-high 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 through the scene, six months for the boat to bed down in the landscape, two weeks of preparation on location, and an eighteen-hour day for the shoot. I had barely eaten all day and was shaking with adrenaline at the end. 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. I was definitely at my physical limit but it was also – as so many of the Wonderland shoots are – one of the most extraordinary days of my life.
Just as we had started cutting the vines down to release Marianna from her four-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 am so 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’ll treasure them always. It has been five years since we lost mum and both his life and mine 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 have ever been. Dad, if you’re reading this (at three in the morning, 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
Model – Marianna Toka
Hair and Make-up – Elbie van Eeden
Film and behind the scenes photos – FX 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