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The Wonderland Diaries

Gammelyn’s Daughter, Euphaeidae & While Nightingales Wept

By 11th March 2012April 21st, 202310 Comments

‘Gammelyn’s Daughter’
‘Gammelyn’s Daughter, a Waking Dream’
‘Euphaeidae’ (gossamer wing)
‘While Nightingale’s Wept’

Gammelyn’s Daughter was such a precious shoot for me, and one that I have found myself reflecting on a great deal. Unlike The White Queen, these pictures were completely unplanned, but sometimes things just happen, and I’m a huge believer in following your gut instinct when the occasion occurs.
It began back in August 2011 after I had spent 2 solid days location scouting by car, bike, and on foot. I was in the process of searching for a place to shoot the ‘The Queen’s Armada’ and was beginning to feel a little desperate. After hours of exploring, I was sunburnt, wired and had spent far too much time running around forests and fishing lakes on my own like a madwoman.  It was a hot Sunday afternoon and my husband Matt offered to keep me company on my final search of the day. I had dragged him through endless undergrowth for hours, and just as we decided it was time to give up and head home, we passed a small car park at the foor of a wood, and decided to have one last look. We headed through the trees following a path to the crest of a hill, where the sky opened up and there beneath us, the ground fell away to a vast valley brimming knee deep in soft purple-pink heather. It took my breath away, I have never seen wild heather in bloom, and certainly never expected in my wildest dreams to discover such a huge area of it. I couldn’t speak it was so magnificent, the whole landscape was purple, even the trunks of the trees appeared to be stained a matching hue, and between my toes the earth was a soft delicate grey sand. It was extraordinary and I was uncontrollable scrabbling for my phone to call Elbie and Katie, no matter what happened we had to shoot in this place before the flowers lost their colour!

So many factors made this shoot feel like it was meant to be, that it was hard to ignore all the coincidences. Unbelievably I had already designed a dress for Wonderland in a faded ghostly pink that happened to match the heather exactly. It was sewn from meters of extremely delicate sheer silk chiffon, perfect for movement, drape and I knew would flutter beautifully in the summer sun. Over the days that followed I prepared as much as I possibly could, unsure of how long the flowers would last. We set a shoot date for in 6 days time and every morning I visited the location at dawn to scout the area and take notes. These mornings were so precious to me; my pulse was racing as I was constantly met with the same incredible sunrise. The light was spectacular and the whole forest glowed with gentle warm colour and was heavy with the sweet smell of pine. After spending some time sitting in the heather I felt determined not to create a picture like my previous fields of flowers, this had to have a deeper, darker feel. The idea of an eternal dream, an endless sleep and beautiful floral death began to fill my head. The lightness of the dress fabric and the way it fell into hundreds of folds reminded me of how crypt statues are typically carved. The way the form of the body is never lost, yet the fabric becomes the main aesthetic of the craftsmanship. This then led me further into thinking of religious iconography, and the depiction of saints – something that had already affected some of the earlier scenes in the series. I wanted my character to appear royal, exquisite, yet distant and unreachable. Drifting through an endless sleep, her body cold and unapproachable in the way crypt statues are to be respected and not touched. I needed to achieve something haunting that made you question who she was, and why she was there..

researching the carved fabric of statues

The longer I spent at the location, the more I began to look further than just the flowers, the grey sand began to feel important and so did the insects that surrounded me. I came across dragonflies by the lake at the edge of the valley, which then led me towards creating the ‘Euphaeidae’ picture (The Latin name for ‘gossamer wing’). Again by pure chance I had already started making some wings a few months before, and had planned to shoot a far darker character with them. I loved the wings because they weren’t ‘pretty’ they reminded me of a leafs skeleton, and their shape was irregular, organic and wild. I decided to embed them into lumps of plaster of paris, and then hand painted them with tinted shades of latex to give a gnarled flesh and bone appearance. I wanted to stay as far away from contrived fairy wings as much as physically possible, it was absolutely not what this picture was about.

Working on the ‘bone’ parts of the wings

Finally, I had one more idea in my head, which was based on another of my childhood stories entitled ‘Gammelyn the Dressmaker’. It was inspired by an illustration in the book where Gammelyn escapes the Royal palace prison by flying away on a cloak made from butterfly wings.  The dress I had designed had so much fabric in it, that I knew the movement would be incredible, and the idea of recreating flight was something I have always wanted to attempt.

‘Gammelyn The Dressmaker’ book illustration that inspired me

The night before the shoot I felt confident and sure of how I wanted each scene would look. I was prepared and excited; the sunrise had been perfect all week and I only needed good light for the first scene. However, the following morning (once again) my expectations were crushed. After days of picture perfect light, we arrived at the location to the murky grey drizzle of a very uneventful dawn. We quietly dragged everything to the spot I had planned for the first picture, to be met with dull dark wet heather, covered in spider webs. My heart sank, so much had been based on the sunlight that I genuinely did not know what to do. Everyone huddled together with the equipment, whist I frantically marched about desperate for inspiration on how to turn things around. It is times like this when I feel you can either be defeated by nature or let it guide you, and with hindsight the way the weather changed that morning became the one thing that probably made the images better than my original plans. I looked around me and the only interesting features were the chandelier droplets of water on the spider webs, I tried to pick them up but they instantly shattered and disappeared. So instead I searched for the best cluster to shoot Katie against. It was only once I’d found a spot and settled her beside them, that I sat back and took in the bigger picture. Without realizing I had positioned her in the heart of a deep V created by the distant trees. The landscape began and ended with her profile, as her pale skin glowed against a spectrum of tonal purple, blues and greens. The sun broke through the clouds, and slowly the shadow of the wings veins crept across her back, as though they were embedding themselves into her flesh. The others began to notice and Elbie let out a gasp. It changed everything; the wings became a part of her, the framing of the trees, the cold light, I honestly think in all the years I have shot Katie, she has never looked more beautiful. She looked so fresh, ethereal but most importantly entirely believable. Once I had the shot even though I had finished, I remember hesitating for a few brief moments to look at her a little longer. Sometimes I think Katie has no idea how captivating she can be, she truly was my vision, my little dragonfly brought to life….

After the struggle of the initial picture, it may sound silly but I felt like the day seemed less about me and my ideas, and more about following our instincts, it was as though nature was helping us. I accepted my plans would change, but also appreciated things might be better for it. So we moved on to the ‘flying’ scene, which was hilarious to create and a huge relief to have some fun. I had hired a leaf blower from a local DIY store for our ‘wind’ and my goodness it was effective! I took the first shots from the top of a stepladder almost crying with laughter, whilst the others screamed with glee throwing the material of the dress into the path of the wind, pulling on secret strings we had sewn into the dress, to guide its direction. The whole scene was absolutely hysterical and the results were amazing. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure if the picture would be right for Wonderland, but it was a brilliant release for everyone and I think made the rest of the day far more relaxed

Finally, we moved on to the full frame aerial shot of Katie lying in the heather. Despite how simple it looks this one actually took over 2 hours to set up, but was worth every minute.  Elbie and I have talked about this picture a lot since the shoot and we both feel we learnt a great deal from creating it. From Elbie’s perspective it was one of the few times she had finished her make-up on location and the results were really noticeable. Unlike most of our shoots, there wasn’t the luxury of having hours to work on the hair and make-up before we set off. Instead Elbie finished the job surrounded by the flowers in the mid morning sun, and the difference was huge. She was able to absorb the colour level around her, and could match exact shades to the flowers and the grey soil. She said to me afterwards that she had felt the same feeling of nature guiding her hand, it’s strange but we both felt so similar about how the day was progressing

Once we had laid Katie down in the flowers, we collected buckets of the grey sand from the surrounding area and sieved it from a height over the fabric of the dress. I had originally planned to use water for this, but in a last minute decision I wanted to try the sand first. The effect was beautiful, it lightly weighed the folds into defined creases, just like the clothes of the statues that had inspired me. We then took piles of hair extensions and soaked them in a mix of water and sand and embedded them around Katie’s own hair. They were absolutely filthy, but it blended and bound her to the land, like she had been left there for years.

Elbie and I then spent a long time spraying her hair and skin with subtle shades of white, pink and purple so she looked like a living painting. I paid specific attention to Katie’s feet, as I wanted them exposed, to bring attention back to the religious undertones of the pose. The drape of the fabric, the soft greys and swirls of the hair worked so beautifully together. It felt like Wonderland was growing up, it was less about harsh colours, more about respecting the surroundings and using them to affect the image and work in harmony with it. The afternoon was warm, slow and silent, everything felt like a dream. It was the first shoot in a long time where I was calm and relaxed and it felt so good.

Eventually after endless trips to the top of my stepladder and back down to rearrange Katie’s hair, dress, and the little tin galleon in her hands everything was ready. When I finally looked through the lens it was quite an emotional picture of me, and probably one of the most beautiful images I think I have ever created. Katie had genuinely fallen asleep which only added to the authenticity of what I was trying to achieve. It looked better than I had dared to imagine, and somehow delivered that slight uncertainty I had been searching for.

At last I took the close up portrait of Katie that later became known as ‘A waking dream’.  It wasn’t planned but ironically has since become one of my all time favourites. I didn’t notice any of the details until I got home and saw the picture clearly on my laptop. The way the flowers framed her one vacant eye, and cut across her lip, and the contrast of her pale painted hands, against the metal of the ship. The extraordinary blue of her eyes, they seemed to just slice through the frame, it felt so intimate like she truly was waking from a spell, yet somehow maintained a distant uncomfortable edge. You felt you were lying there next to her as she opened her eyes for the first time, it felt intensely private, which is something I now really love.

Once we pulled Katie from the flowers it was the end of the afternoon. It had been an incredibly long but rewarding day and we slowly packed up carefully checking nothing was left in the undergrowth. We could have left straight away but I decided to have one last attempt at the flying scene after looking back at the initial shots. I knew everyone was exhausted but we had nothing to lose, and for once I felt so confident, that I wanted to have a second attempt while there was still time. It turned out to be well worth the last push as the picture ended up being far more powerful. We positioned Katie on a stool, fresh from her sleep in the flowers, and this time I shot her from below with her back to the distant dark trees behind. The thick of the woods created a completely blacked out background that made Katie and the dress appear ghostly and strange, as she threw her body into each dramatic pose twisting and twirling in the path of the wind like she was running from danger. It was mesmerising to witness and with a final whoop I called it a day. We staggered back to the car weighed down with bags, covered in sand, but bursting with happiness at what we’d accomplished.




Author Kirsty

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Christine Stahr says:

    I just discovered you and I am currently obsessed! Your work is inspirational, genuine, and stands out. Congrats! XO

  • Kris Webster says:

    I have to admit, I started reading your diary entries because I was curious about how the wings were attached…they looks so stable! I found your site through a friend that posted a year-old news story about your photography. By the time I found this post, I was completely intrigued by your work, and how intricate it is.
    I’m also surprised to find I’m actually glad you didn’t post “step-by-step” instructions. I love photography, and theatre, and have been wanting to do a (much smaller scale) project like this with some of my friends, but I couldn’t imagine copying what you do. The work, the locations, and the vision. I think anyone that tries to copy would just get a pale imitation, and wouldn’t get the heart that is in this project. I can’t wait until Wonderland is available for purchase, and neither can my husband. Although his reasoning is that maybe I’ll stop showing him your website every day. It’s only been a week, and I’m driving him crazy. 😉

  • Ojo Olalekan says:

    I love this with passion

  • Christine says:

    This is the first time encountering your work, and I am just BLOWN AWAY!! I have been a visual artist for a long time but never truly attempted photography. Finally taking a class for it, and trying to figure out what kind of photography I would like to create in the future. I could NEVER do what you do (wouldn’t even try!), but you have inspired me greatly! This photoshoot is so wonderful, and everything flows so well together. Your concepts and execution of ideas are simply amazing. I look forward to all the amazing photographs in the future! Thank you for sharing the behind-the-scenes, it was a really great read! Your whole team did an excellent job, I can tell it was an amazing experience 🙂

  • AK says:

    Found you on flickr. This shoot was really pretty :3 So ahead of it’s time

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