Wonderland – ‘The Secret Locked in the Roots of a Kingdom’
‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’ (Left) 200 x 133 cm
‘The Pure Blood Of A Blossom’ (Right) 200 x 137cm
It’s late, I should have gone home hours ago but the thrashing rain at the dark mouth of the window, and the roar of the wind that rips through the empty streets below has kept me here later than planned. This blanket I’m wrapped in, and the soft lights of the studio are far more appealing than the broken umbrella that waits awkwardly by the door, so I guess I’ll stay and write a little longer. In a way this will be a different kind of diary entry compared to the last two, simply because these new pictures feel so much lighter for my heart. Somehow it always feels like coming home whenever I photograph Katie, my muse and heroine of our story. For almost 5 years I have projected my emotions on to her, and created a world around this timeless gift of a girl. I feel I know every hair on her head, crease in her skin, and have stared into her eyes more over these last few weeks, than probably any other person she knows. Without Katie this series would have been nothing, and I am so grateful to have been on this remarkable journey with her. As I look around my studio, her image radiates back at me glowing from a lake filled with lilies at sunset, in another she sits upon a giant cake dripping in liquid yellows and pinks, whilst high up on my shelf she walks through waist deep ferns, wearing tattered wings just after the dawn. All are real memories, captured and framed, like fragments of the most fantastical dream – a dream we all lived for real, and one I never want to wake up from. They are postcards from the most extraordinary moments of my life, treasures I will cherish always, and tonight my company for now…….
Behind the scenes film created by Richard Wakefield of FX Media
So, to return to the story, during the last scene “She’ll Wait For You In The Shadows Of Summer’, Wonderland was changing. Nature had begun to shift and rise embracing her inhabitants with outstretched arms of ivy, and suffocating cloak of fauna. She has always been a silent part of every picture, an unspoken guardian leading each character along their paths of wild flowers, snow and golden leaves. She is all things, a shape-shifting backdrop of seasons and skies, life and death, and if I am honest throughout all of this, she has become the metaphor for my mother. The landscape is my comfort; it is what soothes me when I need her. From the very first shoot we often joked my mother was part of the team, I would say ‘she does the weather’, I put my trust in her, whatever she gave us, we would deal with it. This energy I feel in the woodlands is deep and indescribable, but above all it is home to me………. It is love………….
This emotion was something I always wanted to bring to the forefront of the story, and address in Katie’s last days. From now on the scenes are purely about this bond, and the relationship between the two. ‘The Secret Locked In The Roots of Kingdom’, is the moment in which nature reveals herself as Katie’s guardian. A secret is whispered between the flowers of a hidden place that waits deep in the woods for her to find. As the tale is told, their roots and vines entwine her form, overwhelming her frame with a coat of protective petals for the journey ahead. The flowers will guide her final path, their knowledge forming tendrils that pierce her mouth as ‘The Pure Blood Of A Blossom’ seeps into her heart………
Close up cropped sections of ‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’
‘The Pure Blood Of A Blossom’
Close up eye detail
(33 years later) My photograph beside the original illustrations by Errol Le Cain
As I have said many times before, the photographs are always completely intuitive for me, and something that just seems to flow from dreams and memories like a tap I am unable to switch off. In particular this image was one of those, in that it had been clear in my head for almost two years and yet I had never really stopped to think about where it had come from. It was only this week, as I was preparing this entry that I honestly had quite a shock. Throughout the entire process of producing the pictures and editing them, I had feverishly been playing the soundtrack to the film ‘Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer’, thinking about the language of flowers, secrets, and the darker undertones of the stories my mother read to me. I never wish to be seen as someone who produces ‘pretty’ images; my work will always have a melancholy or darker edge to it than it may at first appear. I feel beauty and decay are intrinsic, and this is probably why I am so fascinated with nature. The sense of a journey through seasons has always been at the heart of Wonderland, and this is a direct link to one of my favourite stories from my childhood ‘The Snow Queen’ specifically the edition illustrated by Errol Le Cain from 1981. Throughout the tale the little girl Gerda is guided by nature to find her missing friend Kaye (kidnapped by the queen). She listens to the voices of the wind, the water and most importantly the flowers, who use their roots to speak to their cousins in distant parts of the kingdom. Gerda’s relationship with the earth had always been on my mind, and how the roses that grew around her window in the book were a symbol of home. So when I dug out my original copy this week, I suddenly found myself a little lost for words. As I placed my finished picture beside the illustration of Gerda and her flowers, a shiver ran through me…… the colours matched, the purples, green and corals, the silhouette of the witch’s hat, the shape of her profile, even the exaggerated eye drawn in soft mauve. The way the green earth studded with peach roses surrounded the characters took my breath away, it was as if it had been planned, but it hadn’t, at least not consciously. So now I simply can’t stop looking at the two together as a pair, it’s hard to explain the fondness I feel, but it is as if a gap in time has momentarily closed. Vivid memories of my mother turning the pages as she read to me, her voice, her warmth, it fills me with happiness and heartbreak all at once. I am moved that 33 years later they bizarrely work beside each other, it is an unnerving mix of emotion that makes we wish I could run to her like a child and show her what I have made.
Making The Costume
Adding vintage silk flowers to the base of the wig
Katie’s coat of flowers and wig being made in my studio (unfinished)
Katie’s costume for this scene (and the pictures that follow) is probably the most beautifully made and refined of all the outfits in the series. I absolutely love every part of it and now have the wig and coat on display in my studio (which makes me smile every morning when I arrive). I have never made a wig before, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and just made it up as I went along. I used a LOT of glue, a lot of extremely cheap hair extensions, gardening wire and just stitched and squished the shape to life. The coat started life as a humble £9 duvet, which I then quilted and covered using antique curtains. All the flowers took a long time to source as they are from endless places, many were old vintage shops as I was specifically after typical English garden flowers. It was an expensive and difficult piece to make, but in the end I have no regrets as it was a dream come true once I had finished, and I now take great delight in owning such an ridiculously eccentric flower display!
The day of the shoot was nothing like the huge production of my previous entry, but even so it was still very stressful in a different kind of way. The biggest problem with working with plants is the obvious fact that they simply don’t last long before they start to wilt. The hollyhocks were especially fragile with only a window of around 8 hours of use after being cut .To add to my problems Elbie was unable to come a day early as planned to help gather the ivy from the woods, and then to my utter dismay my car broke down !
In the end I was faced with 24 hours to find two specific types of ivy, one that grew in trails, and another more unusual pale cream species that grows together like a blanket over stonewalls. Car-less, I spent the day in a blind panic searching my local area by bike and on foot, until to my great embarrassment with scratched arms and muddy clothes, I was forced to drag sack loads of ivy from my local wood back through the streets to my home. I worked non-stop into the evening, spending a further 3 hours cutting and sizing leaves from the trees in my garden to create the backdrop and base of the picture. By sundown I was shattered, I hauled my bounty to the studio and began building the set using an old screen and chicken wire frame to hang the ivy from. As midnight approached I was only half ready and vaguely hysterical, I went home and slept for a few hours and then set out again at 3 am to cut the flowers. Hollyhocks are a flower I had wanted to use for many years, they grow to extraordinary heights like great spears of colour with strange bulbous pods that knot at the stem. If you are lucky they can be found wild, so I cut bundles from the roadside in my village, as well as a few utterly odd flower’s I later discovered to be called ‘Bears Breeches’ (which are now my favourite flower)!
By 5am I dragged myself and the flowers back to the studio, placed them in pots of water and fell asleep for a handful of hours before Katie, Richard and Elbie arrived.
Despite my best efforts by the morning the leaves I had cut the night before were already beginning to curl and the hollyhocks were starting to droop in the July heat. It took a further 5 hours to prepare Katie and finish the set, simply because almost every part of the foliage and costume were connected with wire or woven together. It was incredibly static, Katie was only able to sit in one pose and not move for the entire shoot. All the curves you see in the pale ivy that echo the shape of the hair are real and not manipulated in Photoshop. The wig was impossible to support naturally and so had to be wired to the ceiling beam above the set, and then threaded into the leaves.
(Film stills below from time lapse by FX Media)
However, exhausted as I was, when everything was in position I couldn’t help but hop from one foot to the other, it was such a beautiful, beautiful sight, even more magical than I had first imagined it in my head. Elbie was squealing and Richard couldn’t stop grinning as he filmed the final wide shot of Katie in full character, she just looked so extraordinary I had to keep covering my gaping mouth in delight. If I’m honest I feel its one of my best ever portraits, and I’m very proud of it. It took an entire month to edit as the final piece it is actually 2 meters high. Thanks to my new D800E every single microscopic frayed petal edge, glue strand, stray hair and broken leaf is visible at that scale, (especially when spot lit in a gallery) so the retouching was a whole new level of refinement for me as an artist, and took a great deal of patience. Anyway to end, there will also be plenty more of this costume to come, so the coat will also have its full photographic moment in the pictures that follow. It has been a monumental amount of work to create this character, but now it’s all finally over I’m so glad I pushed through it to create something I now love so very, very much……
** Update ! since posting this entry ‘The Secret Locked In The Roots Of A Kingdom’ has been selected by Italian Vogue as their photo of the day
And I also had the amazing news that last week Wonderland was published in ‘Stern’ Germany’s biggest selling weekly magazine (almost 1 million readers). It was a huge honour to be their main photo story, the magazine has been running since the 1940’s and has enormous coverage. I don’t usually write about press in these entries anymore, but this was quite a special moment for the series, I’m really thrilled.