Kirsty Mitchell’s Wonderland will be exhibited at the Mead Carney gallery in London until May 23 and published as a book at Christmas.
By Kirsty Mitchell- There is nothing as comforting as a childhood bedtime story but with my mother it was a little different. She didn’t always wait until bedtime.
The moment I came through the door after school she would call me over to where she was sitting with a pile of books and say: “Look at what I’ve found! This is amazing.”
Then she would start reading aloud. I would put down my bag and sit and listen to her, slowly falling under the spell of the story.
She used to collect beautifully illustrated old editions of unusual tales from European folklore. Often the tales were dark and mysterious – not your typical “happily ever after” stories. Books such as Moonlight and Fairyland, eerily illustrated by Brighton artist Pauline Martin and The Kingdom Under the Sea illustrated by the Polish draughtsman Jan Pienkowski fascinated me and lodged firmly in my mind.
It wasn’t just me who heard my mother read aloud. She was an English teacher for more than 30 years, adored by everyone. Kids would fight to be in her class. Her gift to me – and to the generations of children she taught – was the joy and beauty of story-telling. That was her legacy.
Seven years ago, in 2008, my mum died in France to where she had only recently retired. She had called me to say she was seeing double, then the doctors found a brain tumour. After that she declined terrifyingly quickly. There wasn’t even time to bring her home for treatment.
Her funeral was tiny. There were just 15 people there, mostly family and a few friends.
If it had been in the UK she would have had all those generations of children whose lives she had touched. It would have been a wonderful celebration of an inspiring person. Instead it was a dreadful, quiet, shocked goodbye in a small village in France.
Returning to England, I struggled greatly. We had been incredibly close. I felt like a kite cut from its string.
To blot out the memory of her days in hospital, I found myself thinking back to the time when she used to read to me – that brilliant, warm connection – and started to trace copies of those childhood books.
When they arrived, they always seemed so much smaller than I remember but the illustrations were as vivid as ever. When a favourite edition of The Snow Queen, illustrated by Errol Le Cain, arrived in the post it struck me that the illustrations were works of art in their own right. Looking at the pages was like a going through a portal back to being with her.
That was where it all began.
I wanted to do something to celebrate what she had most cared about – telling a story through words and art.
At the time I was working as a fashion designer, but photography was my hobby. I wanted to try to capture the essence of some of the stories we had shared. I’d describe my pieces as hybrids of memories, book illustrations and dreams set in real locations. The series came to be called “Wonderland”.
I would find myself waking up with a “vision”: a completely finished, perfect idea in my head. I’ve never struggled to invent scenes or stories. The difficult part is recreating that first inspiration as faithfully as I possibly can.
In the early days, it was cathartic and life-changing to block out my grief and go to the woods and create a beautiful, magic world miles away from anyone.
Because mum died in another country and was cremated, there was no gravestone to visit. There wasn’t even the house where I’d grown up in Kent because my parents had sold it when they moved to France. There was nowhere I could go and feel close to her.
But in the woodlands and hills, on a shoot, often it would feel like she was there with us.
The English weather has no respect for gorgeous costumes. There are photographs where it was meant to be sunny, but it had chucked with rain all day.
Whatever the weather, I never cancel a shoot. It’ll be pounding with rain and I’ll look at the sky and joke: ‘Thanks a lot Mum!’
And then you get home and look at the picture and it’s perfect.
When I first started sharing the photos online, it was a real battle to convince people they were real. Everyone thought they’d been faked with a computer. They all cried: ‘Photoshop!’
They didn’t think anyone could be stupid enough to spend 5 months on each photograph as I often do.
Sometimes it takes longer even than that.
I once stumbled on the most jaw-dropping location – a bluebell wood. But of course bluebells disappear in two weeks. We waited an entire year to go back.
At first I could only really afford to devote a month to each photograph. I was still working in fashion and only had time for photography in the evenings and at weekend. But as I became more and more immersed in the project, I realised that this was what I wanted to do. I never felt the same rush of adrenaline and excitement sitting at my desk as I felt in the woods.
I can’t quite believe it looking back, but I walked away from my highly-paid fashion design job in 2011 in the middle of the recession. I’d worked for major labels and now here I was selling my clothes on eBay to pay for paint and props.
My photographs – all 74 of them in the Wonderland series – have all been put together on a shoestring. I’ll traipse around looking for props and bargain with people. I make the costumes, the wigs, everything.
I’ve taught myself how to make icicles from resin and set up a scene among a thousand wild rhododendrons.
I am obsessive, perfectionist, even to the point of insanity.
You want people to fall into the image, to utterly believe it.
Some critics have said my models are “weird” or “strange” or complained that they’re not conventionally pretty. I’m not interested in that.
As the series became more successful – we now have more than 300,000 fans on Facebook and the photographs have been exhibited in Milan, Amsterdam, London and South Korea – I was approached by major modelling agencies from Paris. But I always felt that if someone looked at one of my photographs and said “that’s a nice, pretty picture of a girl with flowers,” I would feel I had failed.
And these aren’t fashion shoots. The girls have to be prepared to go through hell and high water.
I always sit them down and say: “Are you prepared for this? For standing for five hours on a block, with your hair wired to a tree, weighed down with an enormous dress, with nothing to eat and no loo break?”
Then they get through it and say they want to do more.
The most difficult shoot I have ever done was for a photograph called The Queen’s Armada. One of my great childhood heroines was Elizabeth I and I wanted to create an image that drew on imagery from Elizabethan England and from The Kingdom Under the Sea.
I wanted to shoot on water and so we had to build a hidden, under-water platform for the model to stand on. Every single part of her elaborate costume and ruff were hand-made, including the dress, which was assembled from 240 Chinese wooden fans.
But it was the Armada of boats that proved most daunting.
The eight boats were made from laser-cut steel. It took five months to perfect the prototype and twenty-four hours to program the machines in the workshop.
The machinists all knew my mum had been the inspiration for the project and one of the men operating the machinery told me that he too had just lost his mother. As the steel-cutting machines whirred, a tiny cut-out of a mermaid fell from the ship. He picked it up and handed it to me.
It was perhaps the most poignant moment of that exhausting, wonderful shoot. I was 33 at the time, yet here was a tangible piece of a memory of my mum from when I was perhaps just six-years-old, sitting and listening to her read one of her magical, transporting stories.