Phlearn Interviews Kirsty Mitchell
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Kirsty Mitchell was born in 1976 in the English county of Kent, known to many as the ‘Garden of England’. Growing up, art became Kirsty’s sole passion. She studied until 25, taking courses in the history of art, photography, fine art, and then on to train in ‘Costume for Performance’ at the London College of Fashion. Having graduated and worked for a short time in the industry, Kirsty decided to further her education, returning to university and completing a first class degree with honours in ashen design, at Ravensbourne College of Art in the Summer of 2001. During this time Kirsty completed two internships at the design studios of Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan.
Since then, Kirsty has worked full time as a senior designer for a global fashion brand, until 2007 when personal illness brought a sudden change, and led her to pick up a camera. Photography became a passion, and gave her new purpose.
Tragically, in March of 2008 Kirsty’s mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and Kirsty felt like her world was falling apart. Photography became the only escape when she could no longer talk about how she felt.
Kirsty’s mother died in November of 2008, and since then Kirsty has been producing amazing photos inspired by her mother. Her series titled Wonderland (which is a dedication to her mum) has been ongoing for over 3 years.
In this intimate and personal interview with Kirsty, she shares with us how scary it can be to do one career your entire life, and then move onto another. We go in-depth with some of Kirsty’s most amazing photos, she shares her frustrations, as well as the breakthroughs. We talk about location scouting, building props, and we find out how many people really are on her team! This is a long one, but it is definitely worth the read.
After spending a decade working as a senior designer for a global fashion company, you left your job to become a photographer.. This must have been an incredibly difficult decision to make. What was it that gave you the final push, to leave behind that part of your life to be a full-time fine art photographer?
It was the hardest decision of my adult life, and one I agonized over for at least 18 months. I wrote a diary entry (my blog) on my website about the day I made the decision to leave my career behind called ‘May your heart be the map’ which explains everything I went through and describes the day I handed in my notice – The emotions involved are far too much to write in a brief answer here, so I suggest people read the entry if they have time, but in short I reached my breaking point, emotionally and physically. The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that I created over 70% of Wonderland whilst working a full time job as a fashion designer in the city. I literally worked around the clock for over 2.5 years – every evening, every weekend, even my holidays. It was this all encompassing cathartic outpouring that sometimes I felt had more control over me than it being the other way round. I made myself ill with stress and exhaustion, but equally it was my therapy and the way I dealt with my grief … to call it an obsession would be an understatement. In the end, my life had changed so much that the only place I truly felt myself was when I was out in the landscape with my camera. Sitting behind my desk in London felt like being in a relationship I knew was over, I just reached a point where I couldn’t take it any more, and there seemed to be so much excitement for Wonderland on the Internet that I decided to make the leap and embrace it. Giving up a successful career in the middle of a recession is just about the most ridiculous thing I could have done, however losing my mum somehow took away the fear. Its hard to describe, but when you have been through something so traumatic, it changes your perspective on life, for me the worst had already happened, so in a strange way it freed me from the ordinary constraints of more normal things. It’s a cliché but you only live once, and so I chose to try and make that ‘once’ be my dream.
How does your knowledge in fashion help you during your shoots?
It’s just enormous to be honest and is deeply embedded into every image I produce. I am extremely passionate about color, ornament and craft and these are all a result of my training and career in costume and fashion. In order to study fashion I went through the traditional route of training in art and art history, which also underpins all of my work. I worked with Alexander McQueen back in 2000 and he remains one of my greatest inspirations to this day. Apart from nature itself, the concept of wearable art is what inspires me the most – which is why I hand make all my costumes and props. I spent ten years as a designer working on surface decoration, proportion, and balance in design – and I apply this same understanding of composition in my work. It has trained my eye – even though it was in a completely different medium, to me the lessons have been invaluable.
Before the project ‘Wonderland’ had begun, you started a self-portrait series titled “Nocturne”. Tell us about this series.
Nocturne was basically all the self-portraiture I created during my mother’s treatment and the early months after I lost her. It is a melting pot of misery and pretence, or ‘My Darkest Dreaming’ as I sometimes called it. I have removed a lot of the pictures I took at that time from the Internet now because I find them too personal and I want to keep them private, but they represent the mess that was in my head. They were a means of expression and escape when I had no words left in me to explain what I was going through. I was surrounded by a wonderful family and friends, but I was unable to talk about the fear of losing my mother. For some reason dressing up to create an alternative me, or just screaming at a camera and sharing it on the internet to strangers was my way of handling the situation. They are my visual diary of who I was then; I find them pretty painful and rarely look at them because they say far more than words ever could.
Out of the series ‘Nocturne’, which image holds the most meaning to you?
It is a difficult choice, probably Black Narcissus as it is the most raw and violent in many ways. I took it when I was at my absolute breaking point, when I had been told my mother would die and there was nothing I could do about it. I had scrubbed my face until it was raw, and them threw talcum powder on my skin and then more water – it was like a melting warrior mask. My eyes look completely dead and I still remember how it was to press the shutter. It was one of my lowest points… I was numb, angry and empty inside, and for me that photograph really expresses who I was that day…. I was a shell.
Now that you are working on the ‘Wonderland’ series, do you think you will ever return to self-portraits to deal with your feelings of grief?
No. The last self-portrait I took was called ‘What Remains’ which was a picture I took with dead flowers around my neck, it was a goodbye in many ways, I often use flowers as symbolism and for me that was about the closing of the door. I felt misjudged with my self-portraiture, I have often struggled with my self-confidence and some people misunderstood my pictures as vanity when it was the absolute opposite. I was nervous of approaching models and instead was stuck in a situation where my only outlet for ideas was myself. I have grown past that now and am much more comfortable hiding behind the camera.
Tell us about your series entitled Wonderland.
The series is my tribute to the memory of my mother who passed away in November 2008. From a brain tumor. She was my best friend; and died miles away from her family and friends in the UK, after moving to France for her retirement. She was too ill to bring home, and so she had a tiny funeral that broke my heart. I remember walking away on that day wanting, and needing to do something that would let people know who she was, and how she had touched the lives of so many children. She had been an English teacher all her life, and spent years inspiring her students, and myself with her passion for literature and her captivating stories. She used to read to me everyday and instilled a belief in beauty and wonder that has now become the root of my work. I decided this was how I wanted her to be remembered, to create something that would celebrate her gift to others – magical worlds full of color and endless possibility. Six months after her passing I began work on the concept of creating a visual storybook without words, filled with unexplained strange characters, deep in the woodlands that surrounded my home. It was basically an escape – creating an alternative existence to block out the reality of losing her. The series is actually nothing to do with Lewis Carrol’s book Alice in Wonderland – the only link was the concept of a girl’s escapism through a book – something that paralleled my life entirely. I needed something to run away to that felt more beautiful than my real life. The end purpose was to produce a book and an exhibition in mum’s memory. To read more about the series and its origins there is an essay on my website here.
Tell us about the process of working on an image for ‘Wonderland’.
To be honest this is quite difficult as every single image is different. I have written a 4 year journal of my shoots and their development on my website under the title ‘Diary’ this enables people to see how the pictures were created and read about why I produced them and the emotions I went through in the process. Some pictures can take up to 5 months to prepare for, whilst others can be around 4 weeks, it really depends. The most important aspect though is that I make or design almost every element within the frame, and that the pictures are not photomontages they are real, shot at their true scale and color, photographed in real landscapes. I push myself to create ‘fantasy for real’ – so if you see a 9ft woman with a smoking umbrella in a field, that is because she was balancing on a ladder and had a smoke bomb tied to her prop. It can be very frustrating for me when I spend months creating a picture for people to dismiss it on the internet as ‘digital art’ … but then many of my friends say I should take that as a compliment, in the sense that people can’t always believe it is real.
So far you have been working on this series for 3 and a half years! In the beginning how long did you expect to be working on this?
No, this is kind of an in- joke between me and the people I work with! It started as a small summer project, but as time went on it was just impossible to create the ideas I had, and get them made in time to coordinate with the changes in the seasons and the weather. There have been a number of pictures in the series where I have found the perfect location, but have then had to wait a year to go back at the exact right moment with a model and a set to capture it in full bloom. A perfect example of this is ‘The Storyteller’ (see below) scene in the bluebells, which only flower for around 2 weeks a year. In other cases it has even been two years, I have a memory like an elephant when it comes to location scouting! Basically I set out to create a visual journey through every extreme nature can give us – the four seasons, the weather, the extraordinary high points of natural color – fields of flowers, the Autumn leaves – but all at their maximum. A few leaves, or a small meadow were never enough, I wanted to seek out locations that would blow peoples minds and celebrate nature at its best.
A massive amount of work goes into each photo. Despite what people may think there is hardly any Photoshop involved whatsoever in any of your work, and almost everything is designed and handcrafted by yourself.
In the series Wonderland, what is the shortest and longest amount of time spent on one shoot?
All my images are re-touched /cleaned up in Photoshop to make them absolutely perfect (in my eyes). I do all the normal things like sharpening, brightening, and process them professionally. But yes my work is not ‘created’ in Photoshop, what you see was what was in front of the camera at its correct scale and color, I do not composite in imaginary elements or clone props etc. There are some images in the series where I add manipulation to boost a slightly magical feel, but these are low level and are to compliment the image not create it. I spend my time creating the scenes for real, which is why I spend months laboring over the costumes and props. The longest I ever spent on creating a character was The White Queen – she took 5 months to produce. The shortest would be one of the earliest scenes – probably Lady of the Lake where it was entirely about the beauty of the landscape – that was created on the day I had the idea.
How do you deal with the stresses in between ‘the idea’ and ‘the shoot’? Upon reading many of your diary entries on your website you have mentioned that there are times where you just want to give up. What keeps you going?
The simple fact that this project is in memory of my mother keeps me going. I couldn’t embark on this journey to create a book in her memory and then half way through say I’ve had enough. I’m committed to it – like she was to me as a child. On bad days when she was tired she couldn’t just give up and abandon me, and I suppose it is same way I feel about the series. It is a labor of love, and one in which I wanted to reflect the time and dedication she gave to me. I also feel a responsibility to myself and the people who have been supporting and following the series over the years. I recently did a lecture about Wonderland and was so moved by the people I met – how connected they felt to the series and how much it meant to them emotionally. I get a lot of emails from people all over the world who have lost loved ones and see their own stories within the pictures, there is no way I could just suddenly stop, put my hands up and say ‘sorry everyone I’m done’. I have to finish it, and finish it in a way that brings closure for myself and others
What shot was the most frustrating to create? (due to things not working out, weather, time, money, etc)
I think that would have to be The Thousand Empty Days of a Frozen Heart. It was incredibly hard going, I was so stressed at the end of it I couldn’t look at the raw pictures for about 3 days! Working with the British weather can be exhausting – you just never know what is going to happen, there are never any guarantees of sun or in this case snow. It was the type of snow that comes and goes in a day, and was realistically my last chance as it was almost March. The snow came and I managed to get everyone together at a moments notice but it literally started melting from the moment we arrived on location. There were only 3 of us, and we had to keep filling buckets of snow to keep topping up the set as it was melting. It was back breaking and I couldn’t cancel for another day as it really was the last chance of the year. I love the final picture, but feel quite sick sometimes when I look at it!
In the beginning of this series it was only yourself and a few friends working on images. Is the team still as small today?
Yes – it’s absolutely no different. Everyone always thinks there are about 20 people behind the camera, when in reality there are usually about 4 – sometimes even less.
I get hundreds of emails from people asking to assist me, but I am extremely private, and work in very secluded areas of woodland. My connection with nature is extremely important to me and I don’t want to trample all over a location with a huge entourage. The series is deeply personal, and for me it is always about finding that moment of emotional connection with the model. I can’t feel this with lots of people starring at me, and so I need to work with friends who are dedicated to the sentiment of what I am trying to create. These are not fashion shoots …. These are supposed to be about human emotion and precious moments in nature, I need quiet and clarity; it’s hard to explain. But with regards to my team I have only ever used one hair/ make-up artist throughout the entire series who has become my best friend in the process. Elbie van Eeden is vital to the success of Wonderland as is my muse the model Katie Hardwick. Our relationship has grown and developed over the years to a point where we all work like a well-oiled machine, I love and respect both of them for their talents and am so grateful for the relationship we have. My husband is equally invaluable, and has been with me on every shoot – its like a little family, and sometimes I will need a few extra helping hands but these people are mainly friends, or have become so in the process of assisting me for over 3 years.
As the series moved forward did the goals of the project change?
The goals have never changed, the story has mutated and morphed slightly at times but I have been completely focused throughout and as stubborn as a mule. I have known how the series was going to end for over 2 years – the hard bit has been making everything!
What photo in the series holds the most meaning to you?
Oh gosh this is almost impossible to answer …. Almost all of them have been such a huge challenge they all have so many emotions and memories connected to them – this is partly why I write my diary entries the way I do. For me it is impossible to separate the two sides. I guess there are two that are very symbolic, one is Spirited Away – which for me represents the day mine and Elbie’s relationship really blossomed into truly special friends (Elbie modeled for the picture) and the other is probably ‘May Your Heart Be The Map’ which for me represents how Katie has become a mirror for me in the series. Somehow she always manages to channel the emotions I feel, at times her pictures are almost a self portrait of myself, it’s hard to express but without her intensity Wonderland would not be half the project it has become. I love both of these women and we have all been on this journey together, so I guess its right I choose these images.
As of right now, which shoot in the series was the most satisfying to create?
I think The Queens Armada and The Ghost Swift are the two I am most proud of in terms of accomplishment. The Queens Armada was just the most ridiculous amount of work; I look at it sometimes and cannot believe I created it. The Ghost Swift, although much smaller in scale, I really feel shows the direction I want to take further In the future and I am extremely proud of the level of craft and patience I put into producing the costume and the final set.
How has ‘Wonderland’ changed your life?
Immeasurably I think is the best word to use. It has turned my life upside down. On my website biography I say I feel I ‘Never truly looked until it was through a lens’ and I stand by that. Wonderland may be highly fantastical, but it is also about the fact the landscapes are real. We spend our lives watching the TV looking for escapism, when at risk of sounding clichéd – there is a whole world out there. I have only discovered this in my 30’s; I just hope others find it earlier. The bond with nature I have formed has moved me and changed me so deeply. I have less need for ‘things’ and am more inspired and in tune with myself than I have ever felt. It has been an awakening that may have never happened if I hadn’t lost my mother. I am still in the process of making my life how I want it to be, but one thing is for sure I am much closer to it now, than when I spent my days squashed in a packed commuter train traveling to the city everyday.
You were obviously very close to your mother. How has she affected you as a person and as a photographer?
People who knew us both say ‘I am her’, my father says I become her more every day. In my eyes she was passionate, inspiring, intelligent and a very strong woman who fought to help children who weren’t necessarily academic. She used to get me to come and teach art classes at her school and try and excite the kids who had been told ‘art wasn’t a proper job’ by their parents. She was gentle, loving and … well she was my ‘everything’. If I can ever be half the woman she was to anyone it will be enough. She made me open and unafraid to pursue my dreams…. I’m only writing this now because of her. I cannot explain how she affected me really ….. she will always be engrained into everything I do. I miss her so much it is pretty overwhelming just writing these words to be honest.
Now we get to take a close look at the series in Wonderland, “The White Queen”.
What is the inspiration behind “The White Queen”?
The White Queen was a dream I had, The Queen’s Armada feels like such an achievement for me because the final image is exactly what I saw in my head that night. The galleon design was based on the illustrations of one of my favorite books my mother read to me called ‘The Kingdom Under The Sea’ and the Queen’s character was heavily inspired by Queen Elizabeth 1st and England’s battle with the Spanish Armada. The overall style concept was the result of me being inspired at the time by paper cuts, pop up books and folklore paper art. Wonderland needed an evil queen but as always I never try to re-create an existing idea, or some exaggerated naff sterotype. I needed her to be powerful, and believable – Ashley the model fulfilled the part effortlessly, I had found her 14 months before the shoot and constantly had her at the back of my mind as I developed my ideas.
In total, how long did the shoots for The White Queen take?
It took 5 months to make everything for the character – the costumes and props. On the day it took 5 hours to get everything in position and ready for The Queen’s Armada. For The Faraway Tree it took about 6 hours to get the ships up into the tree and everything lit and ready.
Tell us about the process of creating the Queen’s dress, headdress, and props? What was creating this costume like?
It was the hardest costume I had made without a doubt. I make my costumes the way I make my photos – I have a mental picture of the end result, and usually no idea of how I’m going to physically make it! So I just try my best and experiment until I drag myself to the finish line! Obviously the fact I trained in historical costume for film and theatre, and used to be a fashion designer are vital to this, but a lot of the costumes I make are not sewn together. Most of the time they are more like sculptures, and the Queens costume is a perfect example. The main skirt part was made from 240 delicate wooden fans from China. I wanted something that would suggest lace, but also be hard and sculptural – to link with the idea of paper-cut outs I mentioned before. I was also massively influenced by Alexander Mc Queen 1999 show where he moulded forms from thin wood to create extraordinary shapes.
The corset was an antique piece I rescued, repaired and hand painted, but apart from that the rest was made by hand. Including the necklace, headdress, lace nails and the key prop.
The skirt was made in panels that would connect over a cage skirt – the costume was too big and delicate to transport in one piece, so my husband came up with the idea of being able to assemble it in panels when on set using a series of hooks and wires.
I knew that being white, the costume would bounce back a huge amount of light, so I spent 2 weeks hand painting shadow and contrast into all the contours so the detail would not be lost on the day. It was so tiresome to do, but it saved the picture and really worked.
The necklace and key prop were made from antique rabbit bones from a taxidermist and various pieces of celluloid carvings I bought from the Internet. I am always collecting unusual bits I find even without knowing their use – this enables me to create unexpected things when the time is right. To be honest I think the photos explain it better than myself…. It was an enormous amount of work!
View gallery of each part of the costume in detail below, click on the images for full-screen, use arrow keys to browse images.
Do you ever sketch the shoots in Wonderland beforehand?
Did you do sketches for “The White Queen”?
No. I never sketch my scenes, I think because I spend months and months working on the development of my pictures by the time it is shoot day, the final picture is so clear and resolved in my head it’s like it already exists. I don’t need a sketch to remind me of the idea that has kept me awake for the last 2 months!
How did you go about making the props of the ships?
The ships are the props I am the most proud of in the entire series. They symbolize the biggest challenge I have ever given myself and if it was not for the very direct link they have to my mother I would have given up. They were excruciating to design and I really had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted these huge paper-cut out looking galleons filled with the illustrations from my childhood storybook. To begin with I couldn’t even remember the name of the book, so I sat and typed in endless keywords into Google to do with the sea, mermaids and paper-cut illustrations. Eventually an image popped up that I recognized that gave me the book title and I then managed to track down the original 1970’s edition. Once I had the book I naively thought I could scan the pictures, make a stencil design and simply get it laser cut from card – I have never been more wrong in my life.
It took 2 factories and 3 months to develop the ships. I had to completely re-draw all the illusions by hand using a tablet – the originals were fluid ink drawings and were useless when it came to the precision required to create an entirely connected stencil that wouldn’t fall apart. I had 3 prototypes made in card, and the final drawing took 70 hours to complete. The first factory I worked with could not produce the size I needed and the design was so complicated the laser could not achieve what I required. I wrote endless begging letters to factories and researched like mad until I finally found an industrial steel factory with one of only 2 machines in the country who could produce the scale and detail I was after. Unfortunately this also came with an enormous price tag and it was the first time in the project where I had to commit to a whole new financial level. At this point I had already spent 2 months working on prototypes, I felt sick at the cost but equally felt I couldn’t turn back, and so we went ahead. With hindsight now I wish I could go back and reassure myself, I had felt completely out of my depth, but in the end The White Queen mini series marked a turning point in my work and I felt it gave the series new recognition as being ‘fine art’ rather than the frustrating ‘fashion’ tag people kept giving me. It stood for what I wanted to achieve, and now I know the money was worth it, and I’m proud for pushing myself so hard to create exactly what I wanted.
Video of creating the steel ship props for the shoot The White Queen below. If you can not see embedded video you can view here.
Your first shoot based on the concept of the White Queen took place on a little ornamental island on a fishing lake, which was verging on being a swamp. How do you go about location scouting? Do you have any advice for photographers who need to find the perfect location?
For me location scouting is a way of life, and its something you need to adopt into your everyday. I am constantly walking, driving, and riding my bike ‘off grid’ into remote places. Even my husband will drive past an interesting tree and pull over at the side of the road to get a closer look! It’s burned into our brains that where ever I go I record interesting things. Sometimes I will take specific trips out with my camera, but usually a phone is enough. I have never found any of my locations from Google. You need to get out there and walk, walk, walk. I have learnt about the seasons and when various flowers bloom, about how to find certain types of tree… sometimes I will find areas that look bland, but I will revisit them at different times of year to see how much it changes. There are many locations in Wonderland that I discovered 2-3 years before using them in a picture, a perfect example being ‘The Briar Rose. I found this bizarre magical bridge in the middle of a wood, and revisited it for 2 years until the time felt right for a picture. So really there are no short cuts, just record all your movements with reference pictures and I even mark various trees with GPS so I can find them again!
You have utilized the prop of the steel ships twice in your photographs. Usually it is hard to use the same prop in two images without it becoming repetitive, and you also run the risk of having images that are too similar.
However with your images you managed to transform a completely white steel stencil of a ship, into a beautiful detailed light source. Not to mention the transformation of the dress in both images as well. How do you ensure that you get everything you can out of a prop?
Really that was a rare opportunity. You are right, if you use the same prop in different pictures you dilute its impact and in the end I don’t think it works in your favor – unless you find a way to completely reinterpret it. The ships becoming lanterns was a totally unexpected eureka moment. I was in the garden in the summer working on them and a gust of wind blew some thin paper against the back of the prop and suddenly the light filtered through the cutouts with the ship appearing dark in shadow. That kicked off the inspiration to do a kind of ‘positive/ negative’ version of two scenes – one all pale and white, the other black and in complete contrast. I also often cut up old props that aren’t beautiful enough to save for display at the final exhibition, or are made from perishable natural elements. I will spray them different colors and incorporate them into something bigger and sometimes better. Me and Elbie have this joke mantra ‘don’t throw anything away’ and its true I’ve re-used things endlessly. It’s just about recreating them in a new and exciting way and sometimes you’ll find yourself improving on their original use.
How has the Internet helped with the exposure of your work?
Massively, without the Internet I would just be some crazy woman making bizarre cardboard monsters and fairies in my back garden! Sometimes I can’t believe how far Wonderland has reached, it was even on the Chinese news once!
What makes all of this work and effort worth it?
The sense of achievement is massive I have to say. When I did the huge Wonderland Regent Street Installation for the Queens Diamond Jubilee in June last year, it was about 2am and Elbie and I were stood in front of a 3 meter wide billboard size photograph of The Queen’s Armada. Despite the fact both of us knew the picture inside out, seeing it at that scale was like walking on to a film set. We both stood half asleep with our arms on each other’s shoulders taking it in, as if seeing it for the very first time, and we both felt transported. We talked for 15 minutes about the little details and things we imagined happening within the frame, it was extraordinary to think it was real, and that a tiny little gang of friends had made it happen. For me that is the kick, the adrenaline rush, to know that it once truly existed and had lived and breathed. Experiencing the scenes in real life can never compare to faking it, yes it was 5 months of stress, but now I love every part of it, and am so grateful to have shared these moments with precious friends. After all its not every day you get an excuse to make the dream you once had a reality…… and that’s reason I work the way I do.
Once ‘Wonderland” is completed, you plan on having an exhibition with all of the images, as well as releasing a book with all the images and your mothers name on the inscription inside. Thinking about this moment must be very surreal.
How do you feel about the end of ‘Wonderland’?
I am ready for it now. Wonderland saved me at a point in my life when I needed to escape, but I finally feel I am coming back to the surface and want to get the series out to the people who have supported myself and the project over the last few years. The dream is to create a traveling museum show that will take all of the photographs, costumes and behind the scenes images to other countries and of course the book. I don’t think I will ever create anything this big again in my life – it was a one off enormous effort for an incredible woman who can never be replaced, and this is my testament to her. For me I need the closure, but am also very excited about creating the final scenes, I plan to finish shooting in May this year.
Do you have any projects in mind for once ‘Wonderland’ is completed?
Of course ….. but that’s a secret !
Interviewed by Angela Butler