Wonderland – ‘She’ll Wait for You in the Shadows of Summer’

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 myself, 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 for once 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 before, one that scared me to be honest.

But before I explain the process, I must begin with the meaning so you can slowly sink back into the story.  The picture is of the ghost of Gaia’s former  human self….. her ‘shell’, abandoned by her spirit, like a snake that has shed its skin. We are returned to Wonderlands 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, and nature has begun to overpower its 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…..  the concept of waiting for something you know you will never have, or see again. It has been 5 years since I lost my mother, a time that feels endless but in someways still leaves a sense of possibility, in that it has not yet been long enough to feel final. That I could turn a corner and she could still pass me by . This faint anticipation is hopeless, but nonetheless lays quietly in the pit of my stomach, and maybe this photograph is the reflection of that. They say every photo is a self portrait no matter what the subject is, and there have been times when my blood has run cold at the realisation of the connections locked deep within my finished pictures. Wonderland is ending, but I can never imagine the characters fading, they will always be alive within me,…..and maybe this is how they will remain…. encircled by nature, albeit brutal… or an embrace.
In short this is about trying to face a goodbye, one that you know you can never say out loud, and instead would rather wait in those last remaining shadows of that person…. until they came back to you, to feel their arms around you again …. no matter how long it took.
This picture weighs heavy on my heart,  and I am so grateful to Marianna my model for channeling the emotion so beautifully for me. It is a strange and haunting melody of release, one that was necessary for myself and the story, so I guess it is only fitting that it became one of the most difficult shoots and edits I have ever produced. However despite it all, I am left with the most extraordinary thrill when watching the film back from the day. The final scene that reveals Gaia and the 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 6 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’m mad, but it was worth every minute to be able to step inside that fragment of another world on that day, and this is simply  why I work the way I do ……

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Close up crops

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6 months before the shoot …………….

So this was how it all began, 6 months before the shoot day back in February 2013.  The yellow boat from ‘Gaia’s Spell’ had been left outside in my back garden for almost 2 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 bogland 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 4.30pm (It was  2pm). The van we hired was too small, and there was only myself, Elbie and my husband to manhandle the boat across the lawn and into the back…… (its fair to say there was a lot of swearing)
The whole way to the woods every rattle and thump stopped our hearts as the back doors were only held together with rope. The tip of the boat was overhanging by about a half a meter, but we had no choice but to carry on as  it was a race against time to reach the location before sun down.
Once we arrived at the foot of the wood, the kind land owners Alexandra and Alex turned up to help us with the epic boat drag down the hill and through the trees to the underbelly of their bogland, where the boat would be left. I wont go into the comedy that ensued, but the photos below will give you an idea. Basically it was night by the time we had made it ,and the disheveled little galleon was laid to rest in its new home…….

Like most things I attempt in the Wonderland series, almost every new picture is an unknown and a challenge for me. When I had the original idea of leaving the boat somewhere in the woods to overgrow, I had no idea where or how I would be able do it. I knew I couldn’t leave it just anywhere unprotected, and it was only by a fleeting chance that I discovered a friends sister owned some woodland. It was my only option, unlike other locations in the series I obviously choose them for their aesthetics, but in this case I was entering into things blind.  When we left the boat in February the entire area was dead and barren, it was a complete gamble, I had absolutely no idea how the landscape would look by the summer. It would basically be impossible to move the boat ever again, as we would have to pull it from the sinking mud  and drag it up a steep hill, so I had no choice but to say my goodbyes to our galleon, and return over the coming months to chart natures progress

Thankfully, as you can see from the picture below, the transformation was extraordinary and far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined . Over the years  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 to feed the internet. Work hard, plan and 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 finally had a hot summer. I cant express how nerve wracking it is for me trying to plan big outdoor shoots in this country as 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. So to face a situation that would involve exposed constant lighting, a generator, a decorated galleon and a model in a 9ft silk dress 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 July 17th.
In the two weeks that led up to the shoot I spent most of my time visiting the boat on my own. It was a time I really valued and felt so precious to me. I would leave in the early morning around 6.30am, 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 its 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 this side of me because It is so private, but it’s where I feel better, I can breathe and my demons leave me alone.
During those days I charted the sun, where it 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 step ladder and started work on decorating the boat. I made new distressed sails , and collected two car loads of ivy to weave around its disheveled form.. I sprayed bleach onto the sails to fade their colour, and used spray paint in white and brown, to create ‘real-life photoshop’ adding highlights and low lights to the fabrics and the boat edges. It was a real luxury of time that I have never experienced before, and was invaluable for the 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, In fact I am always more influenced by historical painting, 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 home made 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 possible 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 with spotlights. It was a ridiculous idea… my first ever attempt 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…. (gulp)

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 got to the foot of the woods and spent hours carrying all the equipment down to the bogland. The mud was a serious issue, people were getting stuck up to their knees, and there was a genuine threat of going waist deep in 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, Whilst 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 4 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 for the picture.
Finally  I am so thankful to say I was lent a full rig of amazing Lupolux constant lighting by my dear friend Miss Aniela for the shoot. They were fantastic, and powerful enough to light the set from quite a distance (as this would be a very wide shot). The constant lighting helped me visualise the scene far better, and allowed us to try out various effects such as textured drapes using lace over the lamps. This helped to mimic a similar dappled light pattern to the natural one formed by the surrounding trees.

Finally at 5pm everything was ready, the late afternoon light was softening and the insects were out in full force searching for blood (hence our bizarre headscarf fashions for protection). To top off the pressure my father had also come along to witness the chaos, it was the first shoot he has ever seen me do, and will probably be last considering it took about 18 hours from start to finish =S !!  So I had no choice but to bite my lip and pray I would get the picture I had been dreaming of for well over a year. We lit the powerful smoke bombs and Adrian my assistant began to zig zag through the scene filling it with a mix of yellow and white smoke. Richard our film maker (FX Media) managed to capture the most epic crane shots panning 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, pools of golden light clung to the trunks of the trees in the distance, and Marianna transformed into Gaia’s ghost…. twisting and pulling at the vines that wrapped her pale body. It was the most surreal and extraordinary sight to behold, the branches appeared to ravage her tiny frame, and the distressed knotted hair extensions gave a ghostly glow around her shoulders, as they were caught in the lights……..

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 9pm when I finally called it a day. We released the last of the smoke bombs in one epic finale which Richard filmed with a 9ft 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 the scene through, 6 months for the boat to bed down in the landscape, 2 weeks of prep on location and an 18 hour day for the shoot. I had barely eaten all day, and was shaking with adrenaline at the close. 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. It was definitely my physical limit, but was also (as so many of the Wonderland shoots are) one of the most extraordinary days of my life.
I cannot explain what it is like to do things like this for real. the sense of achievement on the day is overwhelming. It is not about back slapping and taking an ‘awesome picture’ (I still had no idea if I had actually taken a decent photograph) , for me it is about living ‘a life less ordinary’ . We had built something incredible that day, out of sheer blood sweat and tears. We were muddy, tired, and wired, but had experienced the most bizarre and beautiful thing. Each person had enriched the scene with their own efforts, worked together and had be rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that you don’t often get in everyday life. We had made our own little movie set, minus the Hollywood budget, and for that I am so damn proud…..

To end ….. just as we had started cutting the vines down and began to release Marianna from her 4 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’m so very 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 will treasure them always. It has been 5 years since we lost mum, and both our lives 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’ve ever been….  So dad if you’re reading this (at 3am 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

ModelMarianna Toka
Hair and Make-upElbie van Eeden
Film and behind the scenes photosFX 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