A working holiday for the soul at Chateau Challain

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‘I’m so glad my dad’s here’ says Matthew, raising his glass at a table as big as a ship deck. From the far other end his dad Gary aptly winks, ‘well I’m so glad my son’s here.’ For back on the day Matthew had said his final goodbye to his mum Diane, Gary’s wife of nearly 50 years, he had said to Gary: come to France with us.

Both Gary and I have been through something similar, us with baby Evan, him with Diane: taking care of someone whose life, terminally fated, gradually reaches a sad but relieving closure. The wearying time spent building up to the conclusion forms an anticipatory skin of healing; making a strangely superhuman determination – directly in the face of death – where you just want peace for your loved one. Afterwards, a new lease of life emerges, which relies on you looking positively forward, not wistfully back.

Now, round a big table with 11 of our photographer friends from round the world, we toasted: ‘To Diane and Evan!’ in what was, for me, the happiest moment of a fairytale shoot in the most extraordinary chateau. This was a new chapter of the Miss Aniela Fashion Shoot Experience entitled ‘French Fairytale’, at the Chateau de Challain in the Western Loire of France. We had the entire palatial place as our photography playground for a whole week.

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(All images credited at end of post.)

I would gaze at the beautiful numerous cribs in bedrooms of the Chateau, that were in place for the owner’s several grandchildren, dreaming that one day I might come back with my own babe in arms. Sitting in the courtyard on the first day, I told everyone that this was the exact date we received our sad news about Evan last year. And then I announced that we are now happily 10 weeks expecting again!

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Matt and I had come to the Chateau back in July to check it was just right for one of our shoot events, and oh of course to test food, wine and beds. A month prior to that, we’d viewed a derelict Chateau in the south of France that wasn’t quite right as we’d hoped, so instead we set the budget for a place oozing full caboodle of authentic regal allure. ‘A place I’ve spent two years looking for’, in Matt’s words. The American owners have kept Chateau Challain in as much of its former glory as possible whilst making it fit for many a wedding that goes on here; an entertainment venue with historic charm intact. And we’d also checked the driving route, to ensure it would be easy enough for two laden vehicles going 8 hours from Kent to Nantes via the Eurotunnel; me driving our new smooth 7-seater VW, and the other a rented Land Cruiser driven by our loyal assistants Tim and Johnathan, which pulled along a huge trailer full of equipment, makeup and dresses (and did *not* get stuck in a tunnel in Rouen and have to reverse out…)

We had looked forward to this for weeks. It felt like a gathering of a photography family, with faces old and new, hailing from South Africa, Australia, USA, Poland, Germany, Holland, UK, Canada, and Puerto Rico. All crew and participants, totalling nearly 30, were able to sleep over in the Chateau & accompanying Gatehouse. Amongst the special guests were, in addition to Matt’s dad of course, Robert from Nikon Professional Services and photographer artist wunderkind, who is also a good friend, Kirsty Mitchell.

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As usual it was a production of epic proportion to put together, but we knew there would also be more opportunity to relax than on our gruelling Iceland expeditions. We were blessed with lovely weather which meant our photographers could merrily roam the extensive grounds in search of the perfect shot with their model. The structure was different than our usual events: we had 3 photographers for each of 4 models, shooting a model for 2-3 hours and then shooting a second model after lunch. This gave more time to relax, direct, and just literally think what to do with all the visual opportunity the Chateau afforded in abundance.

We chose a slightly different route with styling on this event. Rather than sourcing everything from designers as the norm, Matt and I decided to take the plunge on commissioning 10 dresses of our own – all inspired by high fashion, some of them more rough diamonds than others but all oozing theatrical potential we increasingly crave and want to pull the reins on. We also decided to put more focus on hair – specifically, wigs – calling in one of the UK’s top creative hairstylists Anne Veck to sort out the ladies’ bootiful barnets each day. She diligently worked on a set of hair pieces in advance especially for this shoot. Working with Anne was great; being so professional, experienced and yet receptive to our desires; also a fun character on board the shoot’s ship (and with her being of French origin, Anne’s language skills came in unexpected handy too.) Stylist Minna Attala put together the looks each day.

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Amongst my favourite dresses from our commissioned collection was a voluminous silken rose dress that I requested Kim wear the first day. It was thanks to my shooting pal Ian that she ended up in a sunlit spot in the foyer the first morning, with four motley stuffed friends including a half-giraffe I was drawn to like a moth to light. Pictured below is Grace Gray who worked on the models’ makeup together with Elbie van Eeden.

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Above – my own finished image Crimson Queen. We had the model Kim, from New York, travel over to Nantes to join our shoot and I am so glad we did, and not just because we love redheads… she has flavoured my favourite images from the shoot with her distinct, profound look that is quizzical, almost mournful, and doesn’t stiffen on sight of a camera. She also appears in Elegant Elegy further below.

My favourite room in the Chateau, for me, was ‘The Taxidermy Room’… I was more drawn to it than any other room in the place, and knew it was where I wanted to shoot model Kim wearing the one-off hand-customised dress that Kirsty Mitchell had spent 3 days in the dungeon diligently transforming. With her having joined us on our road trip for wine and frolics, this was an unexpected collaboration, and a rare opportunity under the seductive grasp of a creative camaraderie. My session took place alongside Ian Mears and Greg Sikorski, with visiting guest Bernard Yeoh snapping some uber-cool panoramic BTS.

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A blast of haze, flash of Broncolor strobes, a warm couple of Lupolux HMIs and this deathly scene was born, below. It reminded me of a warped Nativity… it seemed to suggest a premonition of history, what all of this world will come to through humanity’s exploitation of nature, with the beautiful American redhead’s expression of biblical emotion as if the world was on her shoulders. A strange beauty in the scene makes an atmospheric image of this dystopia, hence my chosen title Elegant Elegy:

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My final image became a new Surreal Fashion piece for my series, stitched just as painstakingly as the dress itself, being the scene that most stuck out in my head through this luxurious week. This shoot had production value of my dreams, yet the tone of nightmares… a postmortem museum put forward by the force of alive creativity.

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We also had selected pieces from the National Theatre to add a period spin. Below, these theatre costumes made a complete four-model appearance during our Vanity Fair-inspired’ group model shot in the dining room. I was a little nervous as I have less experience shooting groups as I do single models, but I looked at some examples from magazines, and saw that a good group shot avoids repetition in poses and eye contact. I tried to develop a shape between the models whilst mixing up their poses with some careful placement, perseverance – and tweaking of the cushions on set by hawk-eyed Kirsty Mitchell. I’ll blog more about the technical set-up of this shot, as well as other shots, later on our FSE blog.

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On this adventure I loved the shooting, the dresses, Matthew going round with the hazer to pump instant production value into everyone’s shots. I loved seeing everyone’s first reactions to the place and run round giggling like schoolgirls. It was a pleasure to see everyone at work: our participating creatives Ivonne, Isaac, Keith and Caroline, Greg, Tracy, Ian, Jeiran, Sam, Ingrid and Breanne. Even guest Kirsty Mitchell, after the heftiness of finishing her prolific, production-heavy Wonderland series, enjoyed some lighter shoots round the place and also in unexpectedly customising the dress for us. It seemed to prick some new creative juices from under her skin and it was genuinely nice to see her inspired by this.

I loved how just being present in this wieldy place soothed and inspired the soul, but also that once the week of social energy was over, I was happy to drive 400 miles back to my cosier modest dwellings at the end of it. I enjoyed seeing others unleash their creativity, and also the opportunities to push my own boundaries, taking the ‘fashion’ and high production out of the equation. For example, going to the lake to shoot Grace in a boat, Lady of Shalot-inspired, in the late morning mist, in an anti-strobe manner, in a way more akin to my earliest whimsy as a photographer (below).

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I also shot some more in the Taxidermy Room, with the same model, Kim – but naked, lit by just a couple of CTO-gelled Lupolux lights, her red hair teased into an Aslan mane of wildness (those images are yet to be shared anywhere!) It was truly a week of both stern exertion and curious experimentation, a working holiday for the soul.

Lunch every day was served in the village restaurant, a 3-course sequence of worryingly food-coma-inducing French culinary varieties all served up single-handedly by a woman who just about managed to satisfy all the various dietary requirements.  After the day of shooting was done, an evening of wining and dining would begin, some choosing to cosy up in the atmospheric kitchen cellar and others venturing out to the outdoor fire pits. Mid-week we treated everyone to a spit-roast suckling pig followed by my live editing under the tree-hung chandeliers, and a grand dinner for the final night in the palatial dining room, followed by much drunken dancing and horn-blowing to round off a busy week in paradise!

I will now round off this long post with a slew of images taken by a variety of people (all credited further down). A video will come soon too. We’re already planning the styling for our hopeful return to the Chateau next year, late summer or early autumn, which will have one main difference: a new little girl in our arms.

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Image credits, from top of blog post:

Matthew holding wine behind his dad – Ivonne Carlo

Breanne pointing camera at the Chateau – Jeiran Otmishi

High angle view of people in courtyard – Sam Breach

Group shot outside Chateau – Miss Aniela

Minna in sunglasses with all the dresses – Grace Gray

All 3 Crimson Queen images including Grace applying makeup – Miss Aniela

Close up of Kim in taxidermy room – Johnathan Clover for Miss Aniela BTS

Wide shot of me shooting in Taxidermy Room with strobe behind – Bernard Yeoh

Elegant Elegy, ‘Vanity Fair-style’ group shot, Grace in the lake and indoors group shot – Miss Aniela

The buffalo and gelled light pointing at Kim – Johnathan Clover for Miss Aniela BTS

Matthew’s dad Gary with all the models, followed by the group of photographers, close-up of big-haired Amy, and shot of bridge and stream – all by Ivonne Carlo

Panoramic of shooting Ida in pink dress – Bernard Yeoh

Shooting Kim in green dress with Chateau behind – Jeiran Otmishi

Monochrome round the table – Ivonne Carlo

Ida in pink dress and with horse – Johnathan Clover for Miss Aniela BTS

Grace with giraffe – Elbie van Eeden

Painterly portrait of Chateau and lake – Ivonne Carlo

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