It's impossible not to be blown away by Kirsty Mitchell‘s Wonderland series. Picking locations that are genuinely real, Kirsty produces incredibly vivid, colorful, and beautiful fairytale-like settings.
I reached out to Kirsty to ask her a few questions about the set. The answers she gave me were not only extremely thorough but also surprisingly candid. Below, she shares with us the story behind the scenes, the painstaking process, and the very intimate reason why she created this dream-like Wonderland…
Can you please give us a brief description about yourself?
I live in a small village surrounded by beautiful ancient woodland in the English county of Surrey. It's near London, but it feels a million miles away sometimes, which suits me very well. I live my life between the two places, and have one identity as a photographic artist, and the other as a fashion designer. I have spent my life being involved in the creative industry, and have studied many aspects. I originally trained as a costume maker for film and theatre, and then completed a second degree in fashion design and textiles in 2001.
After almost ten years in fashion, my passion for photography has engulfed me, and I now work to combine all of my previous backgrounds into one big melting pot. The result is a collection of fine art photographs in which everything has been designed and created by myself. I do not work with any stylists or designers, everything has been created by hand, often from very basic raw materials. It is all shot using natural light, and is all on location – I refuse to fake scenery in a studio! I have a tiny handful of friends and volunteers who help me with the props and sets when they can, but apart from that I only work exclusively with one very special friend – the hair and make-up artist Elbie Van Eeden. She works alongside me to finish realizing the creation of the individual characters in the series, as well as spending many hours helping me make the props till the early hours of the morning!
Your imagery is so bright and colorful. How much time and effort went into preparing each shot?
A huge amount of time goes into preparing for each shot. In some cases it can take up to a month, and we are always working against the clock because so many of the scenes rely on the extremes of weather (snow for example), or the appearance of wild flowers that can often only be around for a very short time. Sometimes these flowers can come into season all at once and I can be desperately trying to prepare for three ideas all to be shot in the same week. The perfect example of this were the bluebell ‘storyteller' pictures and the rhododendrons ‘saints.' It took around 6 weeks to be ready for one frantic day of shooting, running between two locations. After one week both areas had lost every single flower, like they have never been there, it's an extraordinary thing how quickly these cycles come and go.
Regarding the colors, I take them extremely seriously. I make everything from basic raw materials, which means I often hand dye the fabrics for the clothes to match the exact shades of the flowers they will be shot against. This is where my costume training was really helpful, this attention to detail is normal in the industry, and is perfect for my needs. It means I am always in complete control of the balance of color and don't have to compromise. You can often find me trudging around my local DIY store holding bunches of flowers up against spray paints, and giving petals to Elbie to mix up her lip and eye colors to match too! So yes, color is vital….. It's not something I want to fake in Photoshop, I take it very seriously!!
Who/what was your inspiration for Wonderland?
This is such a huge question; I often dread being asked it in interviews because the answer is difficult, emotional and not very straightforward. I think to understand it properly most people need to visit my website and read the ‘About Wonderland‘ section, as well as my own biography and some of the oldest blog posts I have written. Without dressing things up, Wonderland is a tribute to the memory of my mother who tragically died in November 2008. She was my best friend; she died of a brain tumor miles away from her family and friends in France, and had a tiny little funeral. I remember wanting, needing to do something that would let people know who she was. Something that would explain the gift she gave me, which was a vivid and overly excitable imagination. She was an English teacher and read to me (and hundreds of other children) for many, many years. She instilled a belief in beauty and wonder…. and this is how I wanted her to be remembered.
Six months after her passing I began the project with Elbie who at the time was a total stranger to me. I wanted to create a storybook of unexplained beautifully strange characters, each within their own magical worlds. In all honesty Wonderland was as much a place to run away from her death, as it was to celebrate her. I suffered terribly with my grief, and the project not only became my therapy, it has also genuinely changed my life, bringing me ‘real' life experiences I know I would have never discovered sitting at home watching TV. When the series is finished I want to publish the series as a book with her name on the inside cover, and end it all with an exhibition in London.
What type of mood were you going for? Did you have to give a lot of direction to your models?
My models are very special to me. The main model in the series is Katie Hardwick who is not only a model she is also a circus performer, aerial silks expert, stilt walker and all manner of other wonderful things. The moment I saw her I thought she was extraordinary. I am not interested in conventional beauty, I prefer timeless faces, or girls with real character who will throw themselves into the ideas. I am very direct with how I want things to be, but I like to think I'm also very easy to work with, and we always have a laugh when things go wrong.
Most girls find the hardest part being to shake off the habits of traditional fashion posing. I am always looking for some kind of connection…. more like portrait photography – a little more soul, or mystery … a lot less pout! I also have a reputation for making my models do dreadful things like stand in the snow for an hour wearing just a dress or wading through filthy stagnant lakes. Katie's has been almost naked several times in public places, as well as having paint thrown at her and hung upside down out of a tree. I suppose stamina is pretty important for Wonderland!!
Where did you shoot the set?
All the pictures were shot in the south of England. I'm afraid I don't disclose any of the locations. I get bombarded with emails from other photographers constantly asking for directions to various trees and ponds, which I don't think is very fair. I spend hours walking trying to find these precious places, and I think that is vital to the series. They are meant to be magical, special, secret, and that is how I'm going to keep them. The one thing I will say though is that they are all real. I'm shocked at how many people think the lavender field wasn't real, or the snow pictures were composites. My life would be so much easier if I made it all up in Photoshop!!
What's your favorite thing about the series?
The memories. I genuinely mean it when I say that doing this project has changed my life. Now that I have a load of the pictures framed and hanging in my house, everyday I walk past an incredibly special moment that has been frozen in time and will never fade, and I can stop and look at it, and I'm there again. One of my favorite things is to sit on my landing where I have Wonderland 21 placed on a pure white wall, in a white frame. When the sun hits it in the morning, its like the snow goes on forever, and suddenly I am there again with my dear friend Elbie. Each time I walk past it, I touch the frame and say hello to her, because it was such a special day for both of us. No one else was there, it was just us together wildly creating something crazy in the middle of a snowstorm. I think the best way to sum it all up is to quote from my ‘about' page on the website and say that through all of this –
‘I have walked on snow covered in flowers, stood in lakes at sunset, painted trees, set fire to chairs, made smoking umbrellas, and giant wigs from stolen flowers. I have laughed, been overwhelmed, and left in awe of all the things I had previously passed unnoticed until now…'
– and that is the very best way I can explain it all I guess…
Thanks for the great interview, Kirsty! Your work is beyond amazing!