Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Portrait of a Blogger Pt 2

David's blog 'The Nyanzi Report' is a superb lesson in how light, composition, an acute eye and a meticulous attention to detail yields fabulous results. His photos are as immediately charming as he is - something he demonstrated by showing me around the nearest shops once I finished snapping.

I spent another day behind the camera today – the sound of its shutter is now less than a faint echo as I scroll through the resulting photos. But they will be for another week... For now I am casting the reel of my thoughts back to the summer, when I started my blogger portrait series, the first part of which can be seen here.

The aim was to capture something of the fashion and style bloggers I pointed my Canon 5D at – and I’m assuming that only they could tell you if I succeeded. The likelihood is that I have a lot more work to complete before I could ever produce a portrait that reflects the absolute character of the sitter, but I guess it’s a goal. For now I just wish to celebrate the work of these bloggers I admire.
However, Lucy made a pertinent point when we were strolling through sunny Hyde Park with her cousin and Carrie. She asked me to explain my aims for the project, which I did. She was interested in the notion that my perception of appearance and what constituted a great shot was very different to her own. I could end up choosing to feature a photo she would never consider airing in the light of the internet. I found this fascinating – that it was up to me to pick out whatever characteristics and details I wanted to with my camera.

Carrie of  'Wish Wish Wish' makes me think of a British Bardot - her classic style and looks set off with a side ordering of whimsy. She is as (if not more so) lovely and engaging in 'real life' as she appears on her beautiful blog.

As self-style bloggers, no matter how objective we try to be, we are still depicting some kind of projection of ourselves. You might delete one photo because you can see skin blemishes, or you don’t like the bags under your eyes. Maybe it just doesn’t have the right atmosphere. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t choose to showcase images where I appear tired or miserable. However, this means that the resulting posts will always subjective – a view of ourselves that we are happy to present to others. I guess it is an active manifestation of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – and as a blogger, you must, for a moment or two, be your own beholder. The photos I choose to post of myself on my blog might be accurate reflections of me, or total daydreams of characters I wish to embody.

Cameras, as I have said in the past, have the most magnificent ability to both conceal and uncover. I discovered this when hiding all signs of my scoliosis for several months. Critics sometimes refer to photographers whose lens no-one can escape as an ‘all-seeing eye’ – as though the camera holds within in it the strange power to uncover the true self of the subject (and thus why some people might be wary of having their photo taken). And of course this is true for the most talented photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson once talked of the way he “craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph” and “preserve life in the act of living” (both quotes taken from the excellent ‘Photographers on Photography’ set of essays edited by Nathan Lyons – from a favourite bookshop in Hay on Wye). I can agree that the appeal of both photography and writing for me is the chance to grasp at something and stick it down, in either a photo or word document. And yet, the moment it is seen by someone else it is open to a completely different set of judgments - our taste being just another way we assert our own individuality.

Jazmine from Jazzabelle's Diary has both an amazing sense of style (we share a penchant for car boot sales and charity shops) and endless legs. These photos were aptly taken at the V&A - one of her favourite places in London - after we had enjoyed a coffee in the incredibly picturesque cafe there.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


I can tell you what I was doing exactly a year ago: to the day, to the hour, to the minute. I was lying in intensive care, dazed and more than a little confused, after having metal rods screwed into either side of my spine and 2/3rds of my vertebrae fused in place. I have scoliosis to thank for that. Three hundred and sixty five days later, here I am - with memories that will never fade or pale like the scar on my back. I feel good... Better than that, I feel grateful.

To commemorate the occasion, I thought it apt to accessorize my scar with a vintage skirt, vintage gloves, a silk scarf top and plenty of strings of faux pearls. I also realised it would be the perfect time to put up one of the three pieces I submitted for the Vogue Talent Contest that I won; an 800 word 'memory' of intensive care.
The other photos throughout are ones I took of friends for my GCSE art project last year, in which I focused on the contrast between straight and twisted - culminating in two Frida Kahlo-inspired plaster casts of backs with raised spines - one perfectly vertical and one in the full, curving throes of scoliosis. As you can probably tell, I am now fascinated with images of backs. The second set of black and white photos are of my fabulous friend Flo (aka the photographer), who will be shortly posting her own work on her tumblr here.

This is the article - it was the first piece I wrote of the three.

'I wake in Intensive Care. The bleeps are a cooing flock of birds – reassuring me that they are watching from the shadows. My body is bound down. I am Gulliver; attached to wires and tubes, like an autumn tree with new vines.
It is three in the morning. I know because I ask the nurse who is filling in a chart at the end of my bed. I’m wide awake and I want to talk. I tell her my plans for A’levels and later, University. She listens and speaks in a soft, warm voice. I don’t feel pain, just faint nausea. We discuss women’s rights – I think I’m surprised to be having this conversation less than nine hours after surgery. I think I may be talking quite fast. She checks my temperature and melts away.
Funny how one day a word can enter ones vocabulary and cause so much change. It’s like flicking to an unknown page in a dictionary, running a finger down the words and choosing an entry at random. Congratulations, that word - scoliosis - is now yours to keep, nurture and deal with! The swerve of the ‘S’ matched my spine, the vertebrae of its soft letter shapes standing out on the page.
Scoliosis: a curvature of the spine comes from the Greek ‘skolios’, meaning twisted. It is often, but not exclusively, diagnosed in teenagers like me, sometimes after a growth spurt. Mostly it is idiopathic, meaning simply that there is no known cause. No explanation. No reason. It just is.
This word began intruding into my life right at the beginning of 2010. And in autumn of the same year, I am here, lying in a darkened room filled with humming machinery. My helter skelter spine has been turned into a drop slide, with scaffolding ; fused into place using titanium rods and screws. I may not have fallen down a rabbit hole, but the sudden height gain is disorientating - two and a half inches in four hours.
During my pre-op pep-talk, the orthopaedic nurse told me the first night would pass in a groggy fog of sleep. Instead I am reclining on a fluffy cloud of morphine that blurs the edges of the pinched lights and dulls the pain to a faint and far-away ache on the earth below. My back feels heavy and stiff, like a blackboard with a new bold line running down the centre, chalked in flesh. Lying in bed, my legs being nudged up and down by a pump, images from the last twenty four hours whir and flash like Polaroids.

Click! I wheel my heavy suitcase, loaded up with books and silky pyjamas, along a hospital corridor.
Click! In a silent waiting room, I leaf through a Vogue. I read about the Ballet Russes, admire Tim Walker’s photography and wish I could be somewhere with my camera instead of here. I see a young boy with a back twisted like a tree, like mine, and wonder what private struggles his family are experiencing.
Click! A sympathetic radiographer asks me to lean to one side and I emulate the pose of the model in the magazine I was reading. The machine flashes sullenly. I wonder how those invisible x-ray particles can be speeding towards me. I imagine the contraption shooting out stardust, defining the silvery trail of my spine.
Click! I sit in a bland hospital room, full of white furniture and the smell of desperate hope. Minutes drag past like slugs.
Click! A well cut tweed jacket and smiling eyes – my anaesthetist introduces himself, shakes my hand, tells me the next time I see him he’ll be wearing scrubs.
Click! I’m wearing a hospital robe and scratchy paper pants. I lie down on the bed, my chariot, which will bear me to surgery.
Click! The anaesthetist, in pale green, still smiling; picks up a syringe. “This will just feel like a pinch.” I squeeze mum’s hand and stare at the clock above my head. It shivers, wobbles and disintegrates as black shutters crash down, and the film runs out.
In the morning, Irish and Afro-Caribbean accents mingle into a murmur. They are interspersed with a rhythm of beeps. My feathered wings of morphine are slowly drooping in the light of day, until they are replaced with a clipped leaden pair that weigh my back down and fill it with wrenching ache . These wings will not fly; like a fallen angel they have no use but to remind me of the pain to come.
My eighteen hours of flat back rest are over. I am ready to be transported to a ward. As a porter manoeuvres my bed into the lift, he looks down and exclaims “Blimey! You’re a tall one!” I am now.'

  'Backbone' implies strength and solidarity - it's a word we use to describe those who are unwilling to budge in the face of adversity. That's why I was so overwhelmed when my friend Esme designed and made me the brooch that appears in my header, and I was thrilled with the attention it received at London Fashion Week, being featured on Altamira, Vanessa Jackson, Fashionistable and Stockholm Street Style among others.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sleep walking

Our family affliction is insomnia. This comes from my dad’s side of the family tree though, so my mum really does sleep easy. However the other three of us are affected by anything from stormy nights to the looming full moon. My favourite phrase when I was younger was, “I can’t sleep!”

The one thing that has passed us by though is sleep-walking (and its subconscious cousin: sleep-talking). The very idea appeared quite extraordinary to my six year old self. There were the stories from childhood friends – a granddad who went downstairs, still fully asleep, to put on his galoshes “because there was a flood”; other people’s brothers who woke the house, shouting at 3am in the morning at "the nightmare-monster attacking me", and the sensationalist tales from newspapers, with people being found on motorways in their pyjamas as the red sky of dawn approached. All this behaviour being involuntary and uncontrollable sounds odd to we humans – so used we are to being in command of every action.
Of course, the intrinsic link to dreams makes it all the more fascinating. Dreams can be serene or scary, or to borrow Evelyn Waugh’s title, 'Beautiful and Damned'. But no matter what happens – whether we miss trains (my recurring theme), find ourselves inexplicably back at school with exams that have not been prepared for, or with marshmallows glued all over a favourite pair of shoes (yes, that was a recent dream – try analysing that) – we can always wake up again.

The idea of dreamy sleepwalking inspired these photos, and aptly my peaceful slumber was interrupted with an alarm at 6am so that it could be completed. While away on holiday in the early summer, mum and I rose at the hour known only to dog-walkers, commuters and parents of small children - to make our way down to the beautiful beach with a sixties two piece nightgown (from a charity shop) in hand. The nature of the outfit only complemented the theme, especially as I felt like a carefree Betty Draper wearing it. (The nylon blue 70s robe featured a while ago was also paraded the same morning). By the time we arrived at the sandy shore it was already warm – the only time we saw sun in the five days we were there. The wooden posts that poke up from the water are like attentive soldiers, ever-stationary as barnacles creep across the surface and the waves eat splinters. The same waves crashed over the back of my legs as I waded in.

Immersing dresses in water is perhaps a recurring theme on this blog – as a long time ago I featured both a silk river dress, and an Ophelia inspired shoot where I submersed myself completely. I wasn’t willing to be that devoted to the photos this time though, not least because post-surgery I get quite extreme itching radiating out across my back after swimming in very cold river or sea water.
I find this intensely frustrating, because it means that each time I want to go swimming outside, I have to carefully weigh up the pros and cons in the style of a complex maths equation. Is it worth the discomfort, or should I play it safe? During our stunning holiday to Spain several months ago, I went with the former. The consequences were always worth it to go snorkelling in the clear water, with a whole micro-system of multicoloured seaweed and shoals of fish like iron filings beneath my nose. Magical.
The cold Welsh sea before 7am though? No! Even though 'wild' swimming is to immerse oneself in the outside entirely, there are limits.
Standing in the water I watched the shapes made by the frothy layers of fabric and lace; snake-like. The sea crashed and seethed as gulls circled. By the time we walked back, photos finished, the sun had once again disappeared behind a cloud and coffee beckoned.

Back home a few days later, I pulled out my book on the Pre-Raphaelites to have another quick look at the famous Ophelia painting – which is both dreamy and sinister. It was painted by John Everett Millais in 1852, who asked his model Elizabeth Sidell to recline in a bath for the duration of its creation. I wanted to recreate that idea at some point, with a bathtub and armfuls of wild flowers, but I think that plenty have trod that path before me.
One of the things the painting does reflect though is the restless nature of water. It’s both a killer and a lifesaver. It’s quite understandable why the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales could think that water was 'the principle of all things in existence' (blame my ‘History of philosophy’ podcasts). We drink it, swim in it, boat on it, our body is 50% to 70% made up of it, and we sometimes drown in it. But statistically, that last one’s unlikely!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Something Old, Something New

My paternal grandma was married in the United States in the late 1950s. I don’t know the details but I do know the dress. It was white (surprise, surprise), with a fitted bodice, cascading skirt and a dramatic train, all constructed from yards and yards of delicate lace. Her husband matched in a white dinner jacket. The wedding photos are jubilant; their faces joyful.

The usual destination for a dress such as hers is the back of the wardrobe –perhaps protected by dust covers – or folded carefully in a tissue-lined trunk. The intricate embroidery or tulle layers might be rediscovered on special occasions, anniversaries perhaps, and one day might be tried on for size by a daughter. Sometimes, as with so many family heirlooms, the precious fabric might be lost or ruined.
However, none of these options apply to my grandma. I must start by explaining that she was a Czech refugee. Her family fled the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1948 with little more than the clothes they were wearing. This brutal change of scene, coupled with their experience of WWII, meant that my grandma (or my ‘Babi’ as I call her) was never wasteful. Every scrap of fabric had its home, all leftover food its use.
Therefore after the wedding celebrations she was practical in her decision about the dress. It was purposefully put together to be taken apart again. The long lace train and other components of the dress were given to a seamstress, who cut and re-stitched it into useful items of clothing: a full length skirt, a pencil skirt, a sleeveless top and an A-line evening coat. They were still special garments of course, but vastly more useful than a gown only suited to formal balls.
Those four items of clothing were given to me when I last saw my ‘Babi’. The long tailored skirt was tried on for size. I realized that the material encircling me had eventually led to me being born. If my grandma hadn’t married and had two boys, one of whom was my father, then I wouldn’t be standing in my bedroom in a full length lace skirt...

Sadly I never knew my grandfather because he died before they had been married a decade, leaving my ‘Babi’ to bring up those two young sons on her own. She had lost the great love of her life (and it would take her until the age of sixty to find love like that again). She moved to London, taking her clothes and memories with her.
Death is not finite. It cannot be fitted neatly into one of many boxes and stored away in the spare room under a pile of coat hangers. Just because more than forty years have passed, it does not mean that the memory of my grandfather has diminished for those who knew him. Instead, her home has come to represent a jumble of times – different lives laid out, one on top of the other, like layers of tissue paper. When my family visit London, to fill the place with noise and the smell of cooking, there are still small reminders. If I go into my dad’s old room and lie down then I can see his scribbled teenage writing on the underside of a shelf. A wedding album sits among other family photos, and it represents the best of times.

My grandma has gradually given me many clothes that I consider heirlooms: a red satin evening coat, a couture cocktail dress she bought in an NY thrift store for $20 in the fifties, a seventies blue nylon hooded robe. Each piece arrives with a story attached.
The threads that are seamed throughout these garments are like family, stitched together. In seeing and wearing my grandma’s skirt, I am embracing the good and testing times that marriage and life in general brought her – for anyone, these are dresses to have and to hold (and to hold on to).

In the first look I added a yellow crocheted top bought from a charity in shop in Bristol (I love all the St Peter's Hospice ones there!), alongside a white silk sash and shoes from ebay.
For the second I styled it with the the same silk sash (in my hair) and a green sixties fringed top from a vintage market. The clutch bag is my mum's and the belt was second hand. The necklace in both shots was for my birthday.

Finally, I was extremely happy to be asked to be Motif Mag's covergirl for their latest issue. Do take a look at this free, quarterly, online magazine.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Portrait of a blogger (series)

Nadia of FrouFrouu fills her posts with timeless shades that wouldn't look out of place in a 1940s forest, farm or film - rich purples, muted olives, soft browns and blacks. Her photos resemble newly discovered heirlooms... If only we could all stumble across images of someone so striking in our attic!

One of my favourite places to visit in London is the National Portrait Gallery. Alongside the V&A, it is somewhere that sums up what I love about our capital city – culture. Last time I swung through the revolving doors, it was to see the BP portrait prize with one of my best friends. We went from one painting to another, discussing the techniques and our reactions. There were some portraits we unanimously decided were brilliant and others that one or the other of us hated.
However, I don’t usually visit the NPG for the paintings (brilliant as they are); it’s the photos that entice me. I can think of no other place that has left me so inspired after an exhibition. The work of Hoppe, Ida Kar and Irving Penn all made me feel so stirred that I wanted to pick up my camera then and there. Anyone who thinks photography does not qualify as art should see Penn’s masterful portraits of cultural figures such as Truman Capote and Louise Bourgeois. These are not just snaps, but deeply insightful observations into the characters of his subjects.
As Penn himself said, “Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to know”. The skill lies in that accurate portrayal – not a photo that seeks to glorify the sitter or make them look pretty.
I am sure (in fact I am positive) that this is a talent that takes many years to develop and perfect. There is so much I wish to improve about my own photography, but the only way to move forward and to learn is through practice and pedantic evaluation. That is why I have been setting myself varying portraiture tasks.

Dvora of Fashionistable has long been one of my favourite street style photographers, not only for her perfect use of colour, composition and framing, but also for being interested in drawing out the characters behind the shots. You can see her excellent photos of me at LFW here. She also shoots for I was honoured that a photographer I admire so much agreed to be photographed.

I am also intrigued by the implicit divide between portraiture and fashion photography. The former is about truth, while the latter is about fantasy and escapism. I think they require separate disciplines – and some current photographers, such as Tim Walker, have mastered both - as has my ‘honorary uncle’ Clive Boursnell. His photos of Bill Gibb’s dresses are on a different continent altogether to his sensitive reflections of the working lives at Covent Garden.

The photos of my own that I occasionally post on my blog are of friends, styled by me and shot in a fanciful location – maybe a stately garden or the hills surrounding where I live. I like to create narratives and make up characters to accompany these images. I rarely feature portraiture as it does not chime so much with ideas of ‘style’ and ‘fashion’. However, here is where that changes.

Lucy of Snippets of Shiny Thoughts makes me think of colour, colour and more colour. Both her personality and clothing choices are immensely vibrant, and she has the prettiest (and most infectious) smile you will ever see. Her great sense of humour extends into her blog too. The second image was more than a little impromptu, due to Lucy accidentally toppling in the Serpentine as our photo-session neared its end.
There was a particular NPG exhibition that turned sparks into a bonfire – Ida Kar. She was best known as a ‘bohemian photographer’ who was prolific during the 50s and 60s. The majority of her subjects were artists and writers.
The book released alongside the exhibition is now spread open in front of me. How could I not be stirred by her use of light, of framing? Of her ability to ensnare the characters and work of her subjects?
I was struck by Kar’s specialisation in the creative fields, and wondered if I could start a project that was similar. If I had my way I would be asking the great writers of our generation if I could take their photos – Owen Sheers, Carol Ann Duffy and Andrea Levy to name a few. But for now I wanted something more immediate, more relatable. Thus: bloggers.

Daniela of Couture and Crumpets is an afficionado of clothes, designers and words. Extremely knowledgeable about the world of fashion, she writes brilliantly for her blog and also 1883 magazine, and is always a delight to meet up with.

The term fashion/style blogger is now a canopy that houses beneath it those who specialise in street style, those who post their own outfits, those who write about collections and more.
My aim when I hatched my initial idea was to ask a selection of bloggers I admired if I could take their photo, with a mix of those who worked behind the camera, and those who posed in front. I had met nearly all the bloggers at the previous London Fashion Week in February. Once I had a rough list of willing participants, I packed my camera and bought train tickets. Over the course of the summer holidays I took photos of many bloggers (more in this series to be featured in upcoming posts), and I hope to expand on the number in the coming months too.
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