Review of 2014… the wild year of the zebra!

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From ice caves to stuffed buffaloes… (view larger on flickr)

Writing a year review is like emptying a huge drawer – endlessly pulling out more stuff you knew was there, and attempting to tidy it back together in an organised fashion!

It has been a wild 2014, epitomised by the zebra in the D810 campaign we shot for Nikon in April. In my philosophical blogging I’ve invoked that same, exotic image of the zebra – the wild animal of life itself – that followed the loss of our baby son last December. This unleashed a year we didn’t expect to be so action-packed. Now we celebrate Christmas with presents not under a tree, but under the 7-foot tentacle that also featured in the year’s adventures.

The montage above shows the highlights. In reflecting on my work this year, there are 2 main things that have grown: production value, and planning. Better planning has happened because we have had to explain and storyboard a shoot for a client of some kind – a commission, or a workshop audience. It also happened because our attention has been pulled increasingly to lighting and lots of other fun effects: haze, water studios, Icelandic landmarks; stuffed animals, live animals, a truckload new models and more crazy dresses.

If I compare my work to the self-portraiture I was typically producing when emerging 2006-2010, the biggest difference now is the ingredients. I feel blessed to share my life with someone who is on the same page with me, in a vibrant book of life we read together. Barring clichés, Matthew and I both agree that really our central goal going forward in photography is just to keep the passion alive at all. It seems we’re bored easily, relatively insatiable and not into doing things by halves. Only by striving to learn continuously, and being increasingly selective about projects and refining quality over quantity do we feel a continued fulfilment on this road.

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Swan Lake, above, has to be our overall 2014 favourite for both of us, shot during our 3-day workshop for Creative Live (blog post here, info page here). Being aired live, it needed more military methodology than ever in planning and execution; honing composition, stationing lighting, and checking each image on the tethered laptop is the way I wish I could always work. As a result, the final image reaps the reward of pristine quality, but marries together with my typical Photoshop craziness – something I was concerned would clash. And then there’s the location, the factor we most insisted was important for showing ‘what we do’. This place is the handpainted ballroom in The Ruins private dining club in Seattle, a direct inspiration for the trinity of artistic interpretation: Leonid Gurevich’s styling, Matthew’s technical set-up and my end result.

In fact this has been a stellar year for locations. I have always been a location-driven photographer, but this year I notice even more fanaticism for that element, often more so than even the dress or model. My favourite images are those I feel really showcase the place in which they are shot and I love them precisely because of that. We have shot in a surfeit of super-cool places this year including Greystone Court in New York, Aynhoe Park in England, Chateau Challain in France, Hindiyan’s House in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; and twice on expeditions in the outdoor landscape of Iceland. For example, below in the White Witch Awakening commission for Nikon, an image which reached the billboards of Hong Kong, I also achieved my own personal mission to encapsulate the essence of of an eccentric location in one single scene that I didn’t feel had been quite done before. A live zebra brought into Aynhoe Park, to make the craziest house in England even crazier.

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In another 2014 piece crammed with taxidermy, Elegant Elegy (below) also uses the location as its vital inspiration. This was shot during our French Fairytale week at Chateau Challain in France (blog.) In terms of the whole location, this Taxidermy Room was the room I was drawn to the most, so I’m struck by the eccentric thought that this image alone to me feels it’s worth all the work we put it into the multi-thousand-pound week at Challain. I also love that this image is a collaboration with another artist, Kirsty Mitchell who hand-transformed the dress; and also that I indulged in something that had already proved to be a little risque – all those dead animals. I actually steeled myself for negative comments, but my own curious happiness with the image was all that mattered to me. Rather than glamourising the animal ‘trophies’ I felt as though the woman is forlorn and despairing of the inert creatures, in earnest to somehow be their guardian or protector. For the first time ever, it was like Surreal Fashion was merging with the dystopia in my Ecology series.

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Commissioning our own dresses is a direction we will be going into much more in 2015, certainly judging by the amount of dyed fabric samples currently hanging from our washing line, ‘maturing’ in the December cold like cured meat. Even our unborn baby is not escaping her dad’s creative whims; a baby cardigan got given a dunking to turn it from apparently ‘garish’ to ‘couture’!

More highlights of this year include having two of my Surreal Fashion pieces selected to hang in the Saatchi Gallery for their first ‘Saatchi Art’ show Continental Shift; exhibiting over the summer at Castle Fine Art’s flagship gallery in London; and speaking at Photokina, the world’s largest photo tradeshow where I presented and exhibited my work for Nikon. I have sold countless edition prints through the year mostly from Surreal Fashion, and we ended the year with an early Christmas of three new sponsors: Manfrotto, G-Tech and a gleaming Broncolor ambassadorship.

But it feels robotic to simply list 2014’s ‘successes’ in the style of a CV. Etched on my soul are favourite moments that mostly relate to people, places and epiphanies, sticking out in my head as vibrant as any photograph. What I recall most about Photokina was sharing the daily backstage camaraderie with the crew and not feeling alone with the daily speaking responsibility amongst the company of 4 other photographers; Lucas Gilman, Marcel Lämmerhirt, Ray Demski and Corey Rich. In the same way, the personalities of the people and camaraderie of creativity is what I remember most fondly about Creative Live in Seattle, and our trips to Iceland, New York and France.

Even the London apartment we stayed in whilst shooting for Lowe Lintus in the summer is indelibly imprinted on my memory for reasons not strictly straightforward. It was just a place to stay, but the apartment – full of art, books and trappings of a new sweet babylife – all mixed up together in one expressive living space, made me hungry for all that which I already love. It was like a mirror held up to my own desires… we were there living our dream taking pictures as trusted pros, with our team of friends helping us, and adding to the joy I had just discovered I was pregnant myself, a secret harboured like a delicate chrysalis sheltered and concealed in my hopeful cupped hands.

Also this year, like any year, I am shaped by negative experiences with people we encounter through our work, but I take lessons from those experiences just as useful. Through observation of an array of life characters I have learnt that to some extent, wealth is more a state of mind than a physical possession. Affluence alone means little, and whether someone has a lot of money or not, it is all about what they do with it.

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Girl in a Golden Geyser (Bulgaria)

Goals for 2015?

I am not such a fan of setting ‘goals’ than I am of looking at where you already are, and what you have done in the year just gone. That gives you the real proof in the pudding of where you are going.

In Matthew’s words, ‘we like a lot of drama in our images’ (a line he says in the video of our D810 shoot, and which I’ve frequently, mockingly imitated for the exhaustion that lends his tone an unintended tinge of pomposity)… And so, I want us to continue experimenting with ways to heighten the magic in both pre- and and post-production. A couple of fat books I got for Christmas: Tim Walker’s Pictures and Kristian Schuller’s Tales for Oskar (Matthew scored well there) are feeding the imagination…

I am so excited for the new person coming into our lives next spring, like the most divine piece of creativity you could imagine. Having a baby will change our lives, and I’m not interested in trying to prove my life can be 100% as productive as before. It won’t be. Rather than slowing down the cogs of life, the cogs are transforming in shape and colour, spending my working time like a purse of gold coins of which there will be less to splurge. I chose a life that blends duty with pleasure so that the adventure of livelihood and family can be one. That compound comes with some compromise but also the ability to grant myself a rich sum of self-employed ‘maternity leave’ so I can concentrate on nothing else but my baby in the time leading up to and following birth. Projects planned for the late summer/autumn will put us back in the saddle of our creative life with baby’s ear held close to my beating heart. And we’ll just see where life goes from there.

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Freeze Frame (from a cold, unnerving expedition in Iceland!)

2015 will obligate me to take the opportunities that mean the most to me, a process I have already started in 2014, where even the money offered for unappealing things didn’t tempt me as much as sitting watching birds through the window. In fact, this gradual shedding process of refinement has been the most liberating I’ve ever known, kicking over the signposts that don’t speak to my soul’s direction, to fix a clear focus like never before upon my dreams and goals.

During our orchard walks and talks lately I’ve harangued Matthew about the many strange paradoxes that I keep finding in life… for example, the irony that that more relaxed/chilled you are (not lazy, but rather, on a positive vibration), the more successful you can be. Or the paradox that once you come to terms with ‘who you are’ – your personality, even your limitations – you gain a clearer confidence than ever about achieving your highest potential. The ultimate paradox, of life and death, lies in the popular quote you may have heard from Steve Jobs: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

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(From ‘Opulent Elegance’ in New York – watch video)

Finally, punctuating this year has been my tumblr blog, which I write on now. How utterly refreshing it has been to wipe the slate clean from my last blog and just write afresh on this one! This taught me never to let anything technical hamper one’s need to be expressive, to get as pure a space as possible to unleash yourself. It was baby Evan himself that breathed life into this blog, and this has reminded me how writing is a form of art as much as photography… igniting a spark of inspiration for other things I may like to do in the future outside of photography. One of my greatest pleasures is adorning life in beautiful pictures and language. It is healing, it really just keeps me going.

Thank you for reading my blog this year, and I leave you with a formal portrait of us, and a reference list of my 2014 posts below. Happy new year… x

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Summary of all 2014 posts:

Last year’s review: Review of 2013: the art of love over fear

Evan/life/loss-related posts… from when I lost Evan, reflections, journey of becoming pregnant again. In chrono order:

My letter to Evan and to the world.

‘We are enough because we are love’

What little Evan, a whizzing yellow stunt plane and several grand mansions taught me

If you hear hoofbeats in Kentucky…think horses, not zebras

Don’t wait till you die to meet your soul

Seven months; seven stars made brighter by the darkness of adversity

Pull yourself together

The first strokes of a rainbow

The rainbow on the horizon

The rainbow is a she

Happy Birthday to my son Evan, and a request to all

Photography related posts… but still flavoured with the rare spice that Evan brought into my life. In chrono order:

The art of mother & child [looking at 3 artists]

Outpouring live to the world [Creative Live]

Clear skies, calm seas & Icelandic adventures [our first trip to iceland in April]

A Dream and an Awakening: shooting the surreal for real with new Nikon D810 [don’t miss the BTS reel, my favourite video of this year]

Seafaring Surreal Fashion on show [Castle Fine Art]

Finding solace & joy in Surreal Fashion

What are you worth? [thoughts on success in photography]

A working holiday for the soul at Chateau Challain [France trip]

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