A bowerbird gracefully lands three feet from the front of my lens, like the 500 or so birds before her (or him, I’m no ornithologist). She has come for the smorgasbord of delights I’ve spread out in the guise of capturing them on camera.
Hopefully, she’ll ignore the photographic paraphernalia surrounding her and in the exact moment that I’m ready, strike the pose I’ve been looking to incorporate into my latest body of work.
This is the dance we’ve been playing for sometime now, weeks in fact.
Step 1 / Bird lands on table.
Step 2 / I desperately trigger the camera from inside my house some 40 feet away.
Step 3 / The bird; food in beak, decides not to wait around for the second 2000 w/s strobe flash.
So… how did you gain access to a 400 year old baroque castle? I’m frequently asked this in reference to the series (A Frozen Tale) I shot last year (2013) in Skokloster Slott, one of Europe’s finest examples of baroque architecture. And much like the birds above, hundreds of failures culminated in the gaining of access to the location which would ultimately set the stage for this series.
It’s rare to see the evolutionary failures today, we’re fed a constant feed of content through social media, a story carefully curated to display the success of the individual. Of course it needs to be curated to create headlines, buzz and click-bait, but what’s missing from it is the sense that the success is the sum of our failures.
With this constant barrage, we can sometimes incorrectly assume that these individuals are constantly given all the breaks, handed the keys to the castle if you will. However, what’s more likely the case, was that you never saw the 499 rejections, the failed attempts, the heartbreak, and the …
If you’ve never experienced unrelenting failure… then watch this video for a glimpse. Just quit before you see the P&G logo, and go buy Ludovico Einaudi’s album on itunes, it makes for great retouching music.
Originally when I was asked to write this guest blog post, I had just finished a commissioned artwork for a rather large charitable organization. This artwork, which my team and I took months to produce for little recourse is for a cause I fervently believe in. I had hoped to de-construct this project in its stages, to lay bare what it took to create what I think is one of my best works to date.
However as with lots of projects involving many cogs (re: people), delays often push back launch dates and with them, extend the silence I must hold.
In its place, I thought I’d de-construct the pivotal chapters to how I claimed the keys to the castle and in turn the commission for the charitable organization.
We all need to draw inspiration from somewhere to get us started. It was the early to mid nineties and while studying art-history at Australia’s National Art School (NAS) I was struck by the pre-raphaelite brotherhood, a group of painters from the mid 19th century. Their genre was depicting the romantic form in narrative and symbolic pieces. Perhaps it was the emotionally charged teenager in me or my love for the theatrics that drew me in, who knows, I was hooked.
I was majoring in photography & sculpture, and progressively spent more and more endless nights hunched over the enlarger, inhaling the crisp smell of developer & fixer, it became an endless world of trial and error, and error, and error. At times the other classes that NAS forced me to take seemed trivial and meaningless, I had shunned the archaic forms of drawing and painting, after all if “Botticelli was alive today, he’d be working for Vogue” — Peter Ustinov. But to graduate I would require passes across the board. Today drawing, illustraion & painting are crucial to my image making process.
Frustratingly… for the faculty that was, Photoshop was starting insert itself into the domain of traditional arts photography, threatening the status quo of those who fought so hard to establish photography as a validated medium (in fine-art).
They rejected the practice from many of the institutions.
Literally for over a century manipulating images in the darkroom was completely acceptable, want to dodge and burn for contrast, no problem! Want to composite the head of a president onto the body of another, sure, splice some negatives together, but add the ability to do it without inhaling noxious chemistry, that be witchcraft!
I wanted to see what was possible in Photoshop and soon realised that unless I had very very deep pockets I was going to have learn the craft. Having recently graduated and only just coming to grips with the $6,000 I spent on printing and framing for my exhibition earlier that year, I needed an avenue which would grant me the opportunity to learn while just scraping by financially. Fortunately I was granted two scholarships, one for my post-graduate masters in fine-art, the other a traveling scholarship in association with my masters. Remember this was pre dot-com boom 1.0, so there was no online learning, no YouTube tutorials. Like my darkroom escapades 3 years earlier this was going to be trial and a whole lot of error. I needed to produce a series for my masters, one that encompassed the emerging technology coupled with my love for the romantic.
I set off on my grand tour, like so many before me seeking inspiration through the arts, architecture & culture of Europe. The traveling scholarship was only partial funding and ended up being a very tiny component of the expenses I incurred on the trip. Its real benefit was to give me the confidence to back myself, to understand that if you don’t back yourself (in life), can you expect someone else to? I returned to Australia with a wealth of background imagery, to be exact: 100 rolls of 120 negative film. I had borrowed the Uni’s Bronica 6×6 and now, upon my return had the mammoth task of scanning, cleaning and documenting 1200 background plates.
The biggest gift the experience bestowed on me was the concept for my masters. For the next three years I compiled a list of the famous, infamous, powerful & obscure women of the past two millennia. They were all interesting in some way, and the list was excruciatingly long. From hundreds of stories I whittled them down to a manageable twelve. They would become the regal twelve, my regal twelve. These twelve women would reside somewhere in the 1200 plates shot prior, and they would all be composite images. I had set the framework which would push my skills way beyond my comfort zone.
I would say that the success of the regal twelve was equal parts luck and relentless hard work. At the time the major fashion designers like Cristian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen & John Galliano were in a renaissance, re-interpreting the romantic past and in doing so setting the fashions of the time. The fact that my worked aligned with this renaissance was fairly coincidental, the exhausting work in creating the opportunity to take advantage of that luck was not.
After successfully exhibiting at numerous institutions in Australia, the work toured internationally, with each exhibition another would germinate, the work self propagating into new found regions. It was not perpetual motion, it required constant attendance and lots of persuasion on my part, but it was a different kind of work.
Years later, I received a letter from the Royal Armoury of Stockholm requesting the usage of my Christina of Sweden in their exhibition Bilder av Kristina. It was to be quite the regal affair with an opening from the King’s sister and artifacts flown in from the Vatican library. The letter extended the invitation to the royal opening and with my exhibition fee roughly equating to the cost of a return airfare to Stockholm, I thought it would be rude of me not to attend.
Of course, I had now become seasoned in the art of identifying opportunities where they weren’t quite as apparent. This would be the closest I have come to a royal bloodline, and it would be silly not to request the opportunity to photograph a princess. I had read somewhere before that Annie Leibovitz had repeatedly requested an audience with the Queen (of England), and Annie Leibovitz was rejected multiple times. (She obviously got there in the end).
I asked, and although I wasn’t denied, I wasn’t granted either.
I needed an angle, If I had a publication I’d get the royalty, and if I had royalty I’d get a publication. I contacted multiple outlets from fashion to news. I tried so many angles, from the interesting succession laws Sweden had passed granting the eldest child regardless of sex the line to the throne, through to my presence as an Australian in the exhibition. Nothing was biting, just a lot of rejection.
20,000 miles is a long way just to attend an exhibition opening. So if I wasn’t going to get an audience with royalty perhaps I could ask for something else. Perhaps a theatrical shoot amongst the amazing artifacts of the royal armoury, perhaps a carriage, or a horse in barding. Most of these requests, as always, were declined but if I never asked they would never have thought to offer Skokloster Slott.
I hit up Google images for everything pertaining to Skokloster, like the anticipation of a perfectly cooked medium-rare eye fillet, I was salivating at the visual feast that adorned my screen. I had to have it. Of course, later I would find out that it came with certain caveats understandable of a 400 year old castle, and a quid-pro-quo deal requiring an exhibition of my work without fee, but here was an opportunity I could work with, one that I could build a series around.
It isn’t cheap putting together a series, shot on location, where said location is literally on the other side of the planet. My partner/producer and I put together a quick budget and it was by no means a persuasive argument for the affirmative. Nevertheless the mantra of investing in oneself is powerful. Whether it’s education, equipment or the time & space you need to be creative, once you’re committed there’s no turning back.
I won’t talk about the specific production details from A Frozen Tale as they’ve been discussed on various blogs enough. All you need to know for this story is that; We, for the first time ever had handed over the production of the behind-the-scenes footage to a friend of ours who wanted to join in on the experience. We needed as much help as we could muster, with around 40 cast and crew volunteering time and services to make something special, my video producer (re: husband) was too busy with general logistics to pick up the 5D MKII.
The other piece of information you should probably know is that late the evening before the shoot, during our recce of the castle, I ear-marked some globes sitting up against a map as a possible location. I had pre-visualized nearly all the shots of the series based on what I could find online, but this simple wall, with the light filtering in onto the antique globes was simply gorgeous. My gut told me to use it, to incorporate it at all costs. Two evenings later with the crew exhausted, the batteries all but depleted and my body screaming for sleep, I carried the 80 megapixel Phase One medium format up the ten flights of stairs to the attic library and shot the only image that didn’t have subject in situ.
We landed in Australia only 120 hours after we had departed. Along with other commissions and obligations I decided to launch the work 4-6 months later. This would provide me with plenty of time to procure the additional photography I needed. You see one of the caveats of a 400 year old castle is that you’re not allowed animals next to a priceless Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting. Similar to the native wild birds I’m photographing today, I would spend hours each day in Sydney’s centennial park, canvassing dog walkers that suited my concept sketches.
The plan was to release the work in the fourth quarter of 2013, along with the behind-the-scenes video and an online workshop covering the complete post-production process. The deadline wasn’t randomly assigned, I failed to mention earlier in story that right when I was climbing those stairs to the attic, I was also 7 weeks pregnant. This whole project needed to be wrapped by December, ready for me to sign-off on 3 months maternity leave.
I love deadlines, I’m not sure why… It’s most likely the obsessive compulsive drilled into me during one of my summers as a chef tucked away in a smokey 104º F (40ºC) kitchen on the small island of Skiathos (Greece). Like cooking, photographic production requires specific ingredients, they need to be sourced, prepped, cooked, presented and consumed. It’s not formulaic, it’s a framework. Good chefs will continue to experiment with their recipes, they will refine their craft, they will do this within their framework, and a deadline just adds to the excitement.
I had knocked over the post-production of the work in a couple months around my day to day work. I had planned to do this so I could spend the majority of my remaining time recording the workshop, something I had not tried before. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to share my knowledge, I’ve lectured photomedia at the College of Fine Art and spoken at large conferences, it was that with anything new, expect the trial-run to contain a whole lot of error.
We had days remaining on the clock, and while I had completed all the artworks and recorded 17 instructional videos we didn’t have any behind-the-scenes footage from our shoot 6 months earlier. Unfortunately the relationship with our friend the video producer had diverged through differences of opinion and while we would have loved to share the experience with the world we respected his wishes not to release his footage.
Despite this, I still needed a video, something to say thank-you to all those who helped us on our journey.
The idea behind The Cabinets of Curiosity, the final artwork for the series had been bubbling away in my mind since that day I saw the wall of globes. It was going to be a tough pitch to my partner that we should produce this artwork so soon after the birth of our daughter, but we needed a video and I desperately wanted to use that plate. 17 days later, on the last Sunday before Christmas we shot the final character for A Frozen Tale, and with it the 4 minute video that would launch the series.
I’m often asked how I know when I’ve finished an artwork (or body of work for that matter). This will no-doubt sound contrived, but the truthful answer is that I usually tear up. It’s probably the exhaustion, or the sheer delight that I’m finished, who knows. The Cabinets of Curiosity is a self portrait, not literally (I’m not a 19 year old model), but figuratively. It relates to me as the explorer, always looking for new opportunities in which to partake.
How does this entwine with the story I wanted to tell, the one about the commissioned work for that charitable organisation? A Frozen Tale was picked up and seen by the consulting curator to the organisation. It encompassed the spirit of what they wanted to communicate, the belief that we all can make a difference. The curator was litterally 1 in at least 3.2 million impressions (at last count).
It’s the 499 birds before the 1 that works.
Alexia Sinclair is an Arist, Photographer & Story Teller. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. You can view the complete collection from her series at AlexiaSinclair.com.