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Kirsty Mitchell Interview

I often get asked who my favourite photographers are and though my top three sometimes changes, Kirsty Mitchell has remained a constant since I first saw some of the images from Wonderland. I had no idea of her story but like Alice down the rabbit hole, I was drawn into the storybook world her images depicted. I am officially obsessed with her work and was very star-struck when I met her at the Wonderland exhibition opening night. When I first thought to do Farm Week, I never thought Kirsty would be able to find the time to join us but I am very thrilled that she agreed and can’t wait for her talk. Here she spoke to Kat Williams about the story so far…

Hi Kirsty, can you tell us your story – how you started in photography and a little bit about your journey from then till now?

I studied analog photography many years ago when I was 18 at art school, but this was before digital became mainstream. It was my first contact with the medium, and sadly I felt defeated and frustrated by my tutor’s focus on the technical processes rather than creative expression. I saw photography as an art form not a science, and so in the end I followed a career into fashion design instead. It was another 13 years until I picked up a camera again in the summer of 2007. I was in the process of recovering from 4 months of chronic insomnia brought on by post-traumatic stress. The drugs I had been prescribed, had numbed my senses to the point where I had pretty much lost all awareness of touch, temperature and interest in the lives of the people around me, I was a zombie. I was undergoing hypnotherapy and slowly things began to return, but my sensitivity came back at an almost heightened state. It’s hard to describe without it sounding like a cliché, but it was like I was seeing the world for the first time, and I had an overwhelming urge to record everything around me.

So I simply started with a little point and shoot I kept in my handbag, and just took as many pictures as I could on the way to work, on the train, the bus, wherever I was. It was a sudden and very emotional awakening, that I still can’t explain, but it was utterly addictive to me. It was shortly after this that my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and I was thrown into the horrors of her treatment and decline. My camera became my escape and my only outlet for self-expression. As well as street photography, I began photographing myself, creating more and more elaborate pictures, to push the real world as far away as I possibly could.

Tragically my mother died in 2008, and that was the catalyst for beginning my project ‘Wonderland’ in her memory. It is such a complicated story it is impossible to explain everything in a short answer, but it is this work that 2.5 years later has gained a world wide following, and led me to leave my career in fashion to work as an artist.

I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. Wonderland is such an amazing thing to dedicate in her memory. Can you tell us a little more about the overall artistic idea and direction for the series?

The project and its origins are extremely personal and emotional to me on levels that might not always be apparent to the casual viewer. The series is my tribute to the memory of my mother who as I already mentioned passed away in November 2008. 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 had read to me everyday until I was too old to admit it to my friends, and instilled a belief in beauty and wonder that has now become the root of my work. So 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 colour and endless possibility.

Six months after her passing I began work on the concept of creating a visual storybook without words, of unexplained beautiful strange characters, each within their own magical worlds. I never planned for the series to grow in the way it has, or to last over 2.5 years. It just evolved constantly, and seemed to capture the imagination of so many online, that it began to have its own following.  The support of so many kind people has spurred me on, and I am now entering into the final stages of the project. The final focus is the publish a book and create an exhibition of the entire series in her memory.

How many Wonderland shoots have you done so far and how do you come up with each idea?

There are over 61 pictures in the series that are currently public, with another 10 scenes to come, which I have already shot and am in the process of editing and uploading. I have lost count of how many actual shoots we have done, but I’m guessing it’s around 45. You see every single picture is more or less a whole shoot. I treat the images as individual artworks like paintings, so I don’t take endless pictures of the same thing. Each character has its own part to play in the series and won’t be repeated constantly, unless the image is completely different or re-shot on a different location. Sometimes it’s so hard to do this after months of work, to only choose a maximum of 2 pictures from a shoot, but I want everything to have a high impact, and not over saturate an idea.

With regards to the ideas that’s the easy bit, I have too many, and they are almost always the result of dreams and the broken fragments of the memories of my mother’s stories – the hard bit is making the idea once I have it!

There is a real sense of the journey you have been on since 2008 on your blog. Are there other images that are too raw for public view?

Yes, I have since taken down some of the self-portraits I had on flickr during the final weeks of losing mum, simply because they were just too personal. At the time the pictures were my self-expression and although the Internet is obviously public, I somehow felt more able to bare my soul in that forum than talk to any of my friends about what I was going through. I needed a place to let rip, and I did … but now my life is different and I don’t want them seen anymore. Some pictures never made it out of my computer and I look at those sometimes and they break my heart, they are so sad.

I imagine that when some people first see the Wonderland images, they would assume that a large team was involved and there were masses of post-production for each one. However because it is just you and a very small team, do you think that you are able to keep a sense of intimacy despite the large sets? Is there a particular reason why you’ve kept the teams small, worked with mainly the same people and that you still choose to hand make everything yourself?

Wonderland is obviously deeply emotional for me, and I started it at a time when I was very ill with grief. My ‘team’ at the time was basically me, and a complete stranger Elbie Van Eeden who was a hair and make-up artist I had met online. Neither of us knew when we finally met in person what was about to happen to us, and what the project would become. Elbie became a sudden special friend to me through some of the worst months of my life – Wonderland was our baby and our escapism from jobs we were unhappy in and my grief. It was our playground, where we would run off to the woods at the weekends with our long suffering muse and model Katie Hardwick, and just made up our own magic.

As the project progressed I had no intention of changing Elbie for anyone else, we were in it together, and we grew as a team and as friends. Over the months lots of people wrote to me asking to be assistants, but I didn’t want a huge crowd on set. Usually the locations are quite private places in the woods, and I don’t want to draw attention to us, or disturb the wildlife. I also think you cant get that emotional connection with the model if you have a massive entourage. I want to be around people I trust, who respect the surroundings and understand the sentiment behind it all. I’m very protective over what I do and quite private in some ways (hence no twitter account!)

As for why I make everything in my pictures – that is basically the whole point of what I do. I am creating my vision, my dream, and so I can’t go and buy these things in a shop – they don’t exist. I call myself an ‘artist’ not a photographer even though it sounds cringe worthy, because making everything is of equal importance to taking the photograph, and is always far more work.  For me it is about creating a piece of magic for real… that is the escapism… the passion… the whole point! Making a load of stuff up in Photoshop feels empty to me, but I must stress I don’t see that as a bad thing. There are some incredible digital artists out there, who express themselves in that way, but for me the adrenaline rush is physically witnessing the scenes for real, and that is what drives me.

Do you find it difficult to separate the hard work of a shoot and the ‘behind the scenes stuff’ with the final images? Can you look at the final images and just love them for what they are?

I can after a few months. Sometimes the run up to a shoot can be unbearable, especially when I was still working full time. I made myself seriously ill with stress on several occasions, but once it’s all over the final picture is always worth it. A mild form of childbirth I guess! Some shoots were much harder than others, and some have huge emotional memories tied to them that I will always cherish. I think both Elbie and I can say Wonderland has changed our lives and made them pretty extraordinary at times. I’m just glad we have gone through it all together, working with friends rather than a cold team of strangers makes anything bearable.

Can you talk us through the process of coming up with a shoot idea? Where does this inspiration come from and how long does it take to get from that initial idea to a final image?

There is no set way the pictures come into being. Every single picture can take dramatically different amounts of time. The biggest shoot I have done to date took 5 months to produce, which was ‘The White Queen’ mini series. It was actually 18 months from the day I had the idea, to the day the photos went live on the Internet, and cost me £2000 to make. The model waited over a year for the part, and the shoot slipped by 3 months from its planned date because there was so much involved. Whereas other pictures like the heather images (Gammelyn’s Daughter) were very natural, and apart from the dress I designed, the whole thing came together in 2 weeks.  I am constantly working, and constantly collecting strange things, from all sorts of places – vintage fairs, eBay, car boot sales. I drive my husband mad filling the house with weird objects that all eventually find their place in the pictures. I have had the characters and the story of how Wonderland ends in my head of over 18 months, it has just taken this long to slowly work through them all and create the costumes and props. My main inspiration is obviously the stories my mother read to me as a child, but none of these are literal interpretations – it is always bits of them mixed up with other unrelated fragments, exactly how the subconscious works. So more it’s of a ‘mish-mash’ of colour, memories, book illustrations and obviously nature plays an enormous part in my work.

The other huge inspiration by far is film, it definitely affects everything I do and film scores are extremely important to me. I will always start with the end image in my head and work backwards. I have the idea and then do everything in my power to recreate it as accurately as I can. If it means learning a new skill, then I’ll research it and have a go. I just started working with resin for the first time and taught myself what to do by watching youtube videos!

I design everything in the image – the clothes props, sets and find the locations. I will start making the costume and then when the time is near, I will story board how I want the hair and make-up to look. I’ll then get Elbie over and rant like a lunatic at her about all these crazy ideas, and she sits calmly, laughs, agrees and then we work out how she is going to interpret her side of things. She’s very patient with me because I’ll tend to sit right next to her when she working on a model pointing, suggesting and generally getting in the way, but its how we work. It’s always very organic and we know each other so well we instinctively like and want to produce the same things. Elbie is an enormous support and is far more involved than just hair and make-up. Whenever she can she helps me with making the props, and it’s always us together at 2am the night before a shoot finishing the last bits, moaning like two old fishwives!

The response to the series must blow your mind! Can you tell us some of the things that have happened because of it and where Wonderland has taken you and your business?

I still can’t believe how far Wonderland has reached. Considering I make this stuff in my back garden and kitchen, how on earth it has reached the Chinese world news website Xinhuanet.com and has been discussed in lectures in Israel’s top photography school is beyond me. It has been blogged and published around the world in Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Bulgaria, and America and will be in next month’s Italian Vogue. I have been interviewed on BBC news, Wonderland was a billboard installation on London’s regent street for the Queens Jubilee, it was exhibited with Italian Vogue in Milan, I was showcased as one of 16 international artists at the Ulsan Internation photography festival in Korea, had two solo exhibitions in London, and after a feature in The Daily Mail became one of their most popular on record, I have also been featured on MSN & the Huffington Post. This weekend The Times is listing mine as one of the top 50 websites, and Thames and Hudson are considering publishing the book. I receive emails from people all over the world.  One of the most precious things is that I sometimes receive very emotional emails from people who have lost members of their own family to cancer. Its is hard to read, but I understand the need to pour your guts out to a stranger, and when someone feels connected to the series in this way it means a great deal to me.

This question is from a photographer friend of mine, Lisa Devlin: When I first saw the Wonderland images I thought they might have been shot on large format. I pictured lots of setting up then you taking just a few 10 x 8 plates, but then I saw you on your blog with a DSLR. I was just wondering what kit do you normally bring to a shoot?

My kit is appalling by most photographers’ standards. I recently told a commercial photographer what I took on a shoot and he just looked at me in horror! Basically I have 1 camera, which is a Canon 5D mark II which is a fantastic full frame DSLR. It was given to me by my father when my mum died ‘as the last present she would ever give me.’ It was £2500 and to me that seemed like an enormous amount of money.  After that I bought what was called the ‘trilogy’ of lenses which is a poor man’s range of three lenses that should cover you for all basic situations, a 50m F1.4, an 85mm f1.8 and a 28mm f1.8  The lens I use the most is the 28mm which is wide and is for all my ‘big’ scenes, and the 50mm I use for my portraits, I don’t use the 80 that much to be honest.

I bought the fixed lenses as opposed to a big zoom which can covers most of that range because I never use artificial lights or flashes. So I need the maximum aperture for the low light situations I often find myself in. I use a reflector, but hate the false effect of lighting, nature is always my root in what I do, and blasting a subject with strong light seems to single them out and separate them from their surroundings – shattering the illusion that they truly exist in the habits I put them in (I hope that makes sense!)

I also shoot in some really tricky places, which can involve wading through water, climbing trees, walking through woods for miles – nothing is ever easy. So I can’t take tonnes of equipment with me either. So that’s it, I have 1 little 400D camera for taking behind the scenes pictures, but nothing else. I don’t have back-up cameras and bags of lenses, I’m very very low tech, which is why I spend a huge amount of time working on the props and costumes planning ahead for the situations I will be working in. For example I hand painted shadow into the entire White Queen costume because it was all white, and I knew the sunlight would bleach out all the detail. It took ages to do, but meant I didn’t have that problem on the day, and didn’t have to spend hours in Photoshop with the burn tool defining all the fans I used. I try to do as much in real life as possible to help with the editing afterwards.

There’s lots of kit I would love to own, but currently all my money goes into creating the scenes, B&Q have made a fortune out of me!! I also feel very strongly that the camera does not make the photographer. There are lots of very disillusioned people out there spending thousands on equipment, expecting it to make their work better, when they don’t need to.  I am a completely self taught rookie, and I get by with what I have, so if I can do it, so can other people who are starting out.

With regards to my business, well it has given me the courage to walk away from a successful 10-year career in fashion, which has been terrifying, but also empowering. I never dreamed this would happen, but it has and I’m now on the road to chasing my dream. It’s pretty scary, but after losing mum I don’t want to spend my life wondering ‘what if’ so its now or never I guess.

You publish all your Wonderland images online – on your blog, flickr, facebook etc. Have your images ever been stolen and would this put you off self-publishing in this way?

I only upload web size images, so they are useless to anyone wanting to print them in that sense. With regards to anyone stealing my work and pretending its theirs I’ve never seen that done, mainly because Wonderland is so recognisable now you’d be a bit stupid to do it. It would also stand out a mile in anyone’s ‘normal’ portfolio as its pretty weird in places, I feel its not really work you can pass off as your own without a lot of explaining. I have had a lot of people copy my ideas, mainly young female photographers, but I think the new work is pretty impossible to rip off, unless you’re prepared to spend 5 months making your own giant sets and costumes. Most of it is harmless, but some people have upset me in the past, especially when it has been outrageous plagiarism of my entire concept for the project. Someone I considered a friend did this, but made the mistake of announcing how brilliant it would be before creating the images, and the results were so poor, that it doesn’t upset me anymore. At the end of the day this is all because I lost my mother, and anyone who wants to steal from that has their own conscience to deal with.

Which photographer(s) do you admire the most and how and why do they inspire you?

It’s funny because I rarely look at other photographer’s work. This may sound strange but I have never had time in the past, having a full time job and then working all weekend and every night on my own stuff, I have always been frantic and completely blinkered by my own work, let alone sit and look at other people’s pictures.  Having said that, I have always been fascinated by photographers who are involved with creating what is in front of the camera as well as behind it. Obviously Tim Walker was the person who first captured my imagination and made me realise photography could be so much more than just taking the shot. The scale of his images certainly inspires me – gift-wrapping an entire house, or hanging cars out of trees definitely floats my boat! On a smaller scale I am fascinated with peoples magical little worlds, and I love the old staged Victorian photographs with hand painted sets and homemade costumes. There is a modern photographer who I know through flickr who works in this way, and I absolutely love what he does, especially the fact it has quite a dark, disturbing edge. His name is Mike Garlington and he travels around the world with a huge old plate camera developing the prints in his specially converted ‘photocar’. He makes his own bizarre costumes, photographing very eccentric people, in very odd situations. I think he is an utter genius.

I admire these photographers because I see them as creators of an entire vision – there is a suggestion of so much more in their work, and the images really make you escape through the frame.  As I have already said my number 1 influence is film rather than photography, and I think a big part of that is the combination of music with the images, and the way it transports the viewer into another place. The effects of film stay with me for years and really inspire what I do. Film scores especially help me visualize the mood of the pictures I want to create.

I imagine that closing the project will bring its own grief. Is there another project in mind when the series finishes or are you planning on giving yourself a break?

I seriously need a rest. I have been working everyday on this for over three years and I’m pretty broken now. So when the series ends I will have some time off, but it wont be for a long time yet because I will be straight into working on the book. For me, I am hoping for a little bit of closure, producing the book will be the biggest achievement of my life, for the most important person I have ever loved. The day I hold it in my hands with her name written on the inside page, I will feel like I had finally done one small thing to repay all the love she had given me. I need people to know who she was, and what she meant to me, and then I hope I’ll be able to let go of her ashes. I can’t express how that will feel; it is all I can think about some days if I’m honest.

As for a new project … Umm yes (I already have the title in my head… my husband is going to kill me!!)

This interview was first published on Rock n Roll Bride. Visit Kirsty’s amazing website to see more of her work, keep up to date with exhibitions and purchase Fine Art Prints. You can also connect with her on Facebook to see more on behind the scenes.

2 Responses to Kirsty Mitchell Interview

  1. Shella says:

    So so inspiring! I can’t wait to meet Kirsty at Farm Week! x

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