Free Fairy Tale listening: Courses, podcasts and talks.

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If you’re like me, the tasks of hanging out clothes, driving, shopping, etc are made bearable through the act of listening – either music, or audiobooks and podcasts. Podcasts are what I listen to most, but I also use iTunes U a lot for their free audio of lectures and talks. I promise not to turn The Bone Lantern into a listicle blog (three in a row – oops) but I would like to make a list of the fairy tale related listening I do, for my own pleasure, and hopefully yours. Lets start with my favourite;

Podcasts.

Disney Story Origins podcast takes a look at the relationship between the Disney movie version of a fairy tale (so far he has covered Frozen, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan and Aladdin) and the lineage of the story behind it. The podcast episodes can seem pretty few and far between, but that’s because he takes a lot of time to research and produce the content. Topics often stretch over several episodes, and it’s always a fascinating look into how stories change over time. Unlike many comparative theorists in the genre, he doesn’t hold up Disney as the evil destroyer of ‘true and pure’ stories; instead he recognises their place in the evolution of fairy tales. A great listen. The feed link above also has an extensive bibliography list for each podcast. See? Good research. You can follow the podcast on Twitter too: @DSOpodcast.

Amy and Sophie discuss fairy tales at Tabled Fables. They aren’t currently releasing new episodes, but there’s a back catalogue of podcasts still available. Each episode looks at a specific fairy tale, and they chat happily about its origins and and significance, often drawing in interviews with experts and other interesting folk. They still post fairy tales snippets on Tumbler, and you can follow them on Twitter: @tabledfables

Not specifically about fairy tales, or currently releasing new episodes, but my children have loved listening to Kara Shallenberg read old stories and tales since they were little. In fact, I went in to say goodnight to my 11 year daughter last night, and she was listening to Kara read In the Nursery of my Book House via Librivox. Kara has volunteered her time for many years, recording books and stories in the public domain, for both adult and children listeners. As well as her podcast, she has a huge library of free audiobooks on Librivox, a wonderful online service that provides many thousands of hours listening. It’s the audio version of Project Gutenberg, and if you haven’t discovered it yet, go now. I’ll wait.

The wonderful Kara also tweets @kayray

Online Courses and Lectures.

Ever felt the urge to go back and take a class, without actually having to turn up to lectures, endure other fidgeting students, and line up for sad sandwiches at the lunch hall? Online courses are the next big thing in education, and a lot of them are free, provided you don’t want the actual piece of paper at the end. There are some many fascinating lectures on everything you could imagine. I’ve subscribed to courses in physics, psychology, creative writing… you name it, but right now I’ll stick to those relevant to fairy tales.

La Trobe University’s History of Children’s Literature and Genres of Children’s Literature are fabulous. Australian lecturer David Beagley discusses many aspects of Children’s Literature in both of these subjects, and he’s lovely to listen to. The history subject comprises 29 individual lectures, many of them covering aspects of fairy tales, myth and folk tales. These are real lectures – you’ll hear students coughing, shuffling and asking questions – it’s just like being in the lecture hall! But on your couch.

Faerie and Fantasy is a complete undergrad semester long class on Fairy Tale and Fantasy by Professor Corey Olsen at Washington College. Focus on weeks 6-9 for specifically fairy tale related topics. He covers Andrew Lang and The Book of Wonder, and several of the better known tales within. Again, real lectures, given to real fidgeting students. Love it. You can follow Corey Olsen @tolkienprof

Introduction to Pre-Modern Japanese Literature and Culture is a series of 27 lectures focussing on, as is obvious from the title, pre-modern Japanese Literature. This includes many old tales, and the cultural context from which they came.

Invitation to World Literature includes lectures on Gilgamesh, The Thousand and One Nights, The Bhagavad Vita. I haven’t listen to this one yet, but I have it bookmarked. It looks like a great overview of some of histories most referred-to texts.

Discussions and Interviews 

Kate Forsyth has been a monthly guest on ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters program, discussing fairy tales with Natasha Mitchell, as part of their ‘Once upon a time: fairy tales reimagined‘ series. See also episodes on Rapunzel and The Little Mermaid. Kate Forsyth tweets @KateForsyth

Listen to an interview with Phillip Pullman about his recent translation of some of Grimms’ Fairy Tales on NPR.

While you’re at NPR, you can also listen to a short piece about Jack Zipes’ translation of the first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.  He talks to Weekend Edition’s Rachael Martin.

Well, I hope that gets you through a few loads of washing and a trip to the supermarket at the very least! Happy Listening.

Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales

I wrote recently about women fairy tale illustrators, so now it’s time for some writers. The writers I have listed here are pre-Golden Age, and mostly wrote in France during the 1600s. I’ll write at a later date on Golden Age and contemporary writers, but there are already plenty of writers I’m brushing over here. French writers appear heavily in the canon, as fairy tales were very much in vogue in 17th Century France.

200px-D'AulnoyMarie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy (1650/1651–4 January 1705), AKA the more easily pronouncable Countess d’Aulnoy, was the first writer to define the term ‘fairy tales’ or rather, ‘contes de fées’. Many of her works were of a style that we define as the classical fairy tale – whimsical and tied up neatly at the end with a marriage or proper morals. They were also very French (oddly enough), and very linked to her aristocratic background, with titles like The Bee and the Orange Tree, Princess Belle-Etoille and The White Doe. She held a salon in Paris, and was linked to a good numbers of rumours and scandals involving adultery, treason and espionage. I like her very much.

220px-Liselotte_von_der_pfalzCharlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1654–1724) seems to the just the kind of woman you want at your party. No stranger to scandals (do you see a pattern forming here?), she was a maid of honour at the court of Louis XIV, until he banished her to a convent for writing ‘satirical verses’ and being embroiled in various mischiefs and a rumoured affair. It is here that she wrote many contes de fées, including her most famous story ‘Persinete’, based on an older Neapolitan story, and later rewritten as ‘Rapunzel’ by the Brothers Grimm.

Author Kate Forsyth’s wonderful book Bitter Greens is based on the time Charlotte-Rose spent in the convent. It’s a brilliant read. Kate has also written about Charlotte-Rose on her blog.

2855b2b50fd3152c15ce6e3b08231c46Henriette-Julie de Murat (1670-1716), not pictured. More controversy! What a surprise! In addition to fairy tales, Henriette wrote some scandalous faux memoirs, which had her exiled to the French provincial town of Loches for several years. She also wrote in France in the late 17th Century, and some of the fairy tales attributed to her are Bearskin and Starlight.

Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon (1664-1734) was a refreshingly scandal free writer of fairy tales, and niece of the more famous fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, though she published her first tale a year before he did. She was a protégé of Madeleine de Scudéry, and inherited Madeleine’s salon after her death.

Like the three aforementioned writers, she was instrumental in the enormous popularity of fairy tales in 17th Century France.

Jeanne-Marie_Leprince_de_BeaumontJeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) wrote the best known version of Beauty and the Beast, though the earliest known version was written by fellow French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Marie’s childhood was beset by poverty and the death of her mother at the age of 11, though she claims not to have mourned her. Those looking for more scandal will find it this time in her first husband. He spent her large dowry on his debts, then bought a hotel with the rest. He used the hotel as one would expect of an unwelcome patron, by throwing wild parties and inviting all sorts of disreputable characters. Consequently he contracted a disease typical of such a lifestyle, and Jeanne-Marie was able to obtain an annulment. Not long after, she moved to London, where she wrote her many fairy tales, remarried and had a large family. Her works were very moralistic, more so than many of her scandalous French counterparts, and she also wrote schoolbooks and other moral stories and poems.

Wild-349While not technically a known fairy tale writer, it would be remiss of me not to mention Dortchen Wild. She was a neighbour of the Grimm brothers in Cassel, Germany in the early 19th Century. They met in 1805, when she was 12. Napoleon invaded Cassel in 1806, and this is the same year that the brothers began collecting fairy tales. Dortchen struck up a friendship with the brothers, much to the disapproval of her autocratic father. They met in secret, and Dortchen told the brothers many of the fairy tales included in their collection. Dortchen had several siblings, but all eventually moved away, leaving her to care for her ailing parents. She and Wilhem Grimm had fallen in love, but could not marry, even after her father’s death. The brothers were destitute, and it was only many years later, after the overthrow of Napoleon, and the eventual success of the Grimms’ stories, that they were finally able to marry. Dortchen and the Grimm brothers lived together for the rest of their lives.

Kate Forsyth has also written about the life of Dortchen Wild in The Wild Girl, in fact it is she who introduced me to her. Read more about Kate’s exploration of Dortchen’s life here.

Interview with Kate Forsyth

Hello folks. Just a quick note to point you to the blog of the wonderful Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, The Impossible Quest series, and much more. She interviewed me recently, about my artwork, process and inspiration, and posted that and some of my work a few days ago. Kate is an incredible and prolific writer, working with fairy tales and historical fiction, so it was a great privilege to talk to her about my own small place in the fairy tale genre.

If you scroll right to the bottom of her post, you’ll find my most recent work, which I recently teased here on this blog here.

So, head on over, and say hi to the lovely Kate while you’re there.

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Women Illustrators from the Golden Age of Fairy Tales

Yesterday on Twitter, I shared a few of the Golden Age’s female illustrators and thought I’d go into a bit more depth here. There is a difference between the ‘Golden Age’ of fairy tales, and the one of illustration, but the artists I share here cover both. They were illustrating fairy tales at the time when both fairy tales and illustration was at their peak, around the first two decades of the 20th Century.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

12618351_1198685337_e279793bc0560b5207Ida was an Australian Illustrator, and she often included local flora and fauna in her fairy tale illustrations. She worked predominantly with pen & ink, and watercolour. Her use of silhouettes, and the detail within them, is breathtaking. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, and worked and lived there all of her life. You can read more about her life here, and do make sure you view a google image search of her works here.

I had a couple of her books as a child, and loved her work. I still do. The illustration shown is taken from her 1921 book The Enchanted Woods, which she collaborated on with her husband Grenbry, and you can see here how she often imbues her work with a gentle humour – a koala with a top hat and walking stick – of course!

Virginia Frances Sterrett

Old_French_Fairy_Tales_(Virginia_Sterrett,_1920)Poor Virginia only lived a short 31 years, after contracting tuberculosis at 19, around the same time as she received her first commission. Her ability to work declined over the 12 years she had left, and her last collection of works, based around the Arabian nights, took several years. She’s one of my favourite fairy tale illustrators.

Dark but full of light, delicate but with an incredible strength of line, her work always catches me deep in the chest. Go, bask in her genius here.

 Florence Harrison

tumblr_n83tdaOdRN1rtdn1mo5_500There’s very little on Wikipedia on Florence, and her true identity has been disputed, but this website dedicated to her and a collection of her works looks like it may clear things up, and is a fascinating read into one woman’s love for Florence’s work.

Florence was an Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite artist. She illustrated the writings of Christina Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson, as well as poetry and fairy tales. She also wrote poetry and short stories herself.

In the illustration pictured here, you can feel the chill wind and lonely melancholy of Rapunzel in her tower.

Frances MacDonald (MacNair)

Frances was a Scottish artist, whose every claim for fame seems to have been overshadowed or thwarted by others. Not only was she the younger (and lesser known) sister of Margaret MacDonald, who in turn was overshadowed by her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but her husband also destroyed many works after her death. Makes you want to scream doesn’t it? Anyway, she certainly wasn’t a shrinking violet in her lifetime (she was a founding member of the Glasgow School), and she deserves to be better known. View more of her works here.

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Anne Anderson

anne_anderson_little_mermaid_foamAnne Anderson was a Scottish Illustrator, and by the sound of it, had a nice, normal prolific life. No TB (though she did only live to 56 now that I look again), no obvious overshadowing by others, and no disappearing into obscurity. She married fellow illustration Alan Wright, and they collaborated on many projects, on which she is believed to have been the driving force.

Her work, mostly in watercolour, is much like her life appears to have been (though of course who are we to assume?): beautifully executed, probably conventional for her time, but really quite lovely.

That was by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. Do you have a favourite illustrator that I missed?

Review: Marina Warner’s ‘Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale’

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Imagine the history of fairy tale as a map, like the Carte du Tendre, the ‘Map of Tenderness’, drawn by Parisian romancers to chart the peaks and sloughs of the heart’s affections… (Loc 50)

So begins the prologue to Marina Warner‘s new book on fairy tales Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. At 226 pages it is a much slimmer follow up to her 1996 book From the Beast to the Blonde, but no less enlightening or engaging. Warner weaves her dialogue beautifully, sometimes slipping into a metaphorical narrative much like fairy tales themselves. This could come across as strained or twee in clumsier hands, but Warner is a confident and self-possessed writer. The great history of storytelling comes to flourishing life under her deft touch. In chapter three, Voices on the Page, while discussing the essence of fairy tales, she writes:

Think of it as a plant genus, like roses or fungi or grasses, which seed and root and flower here and there, changing species and colour and size and shape where they spring. Or think of it as a tune, which can migrate from a voice to a symphony to a penny whistle, for a fairy tale does not exist in a fixed form or medium. The stories’ interest isn’t exhausted by repetition, reformulation, or retelling, but their pleasure gains from the endless permutations performed on the original. (Loc 606)

I have a confession to make. Often, while reading academic writing, my mind tends to wander; my eyes skip over the words. I can get to the end of a piece of writing and hardly be able to tell you anything I just read. I may make something up. Not so in this case. Warner’s language is clear and poetic. She leads you along an open forest path with sure footing and a bright torch. We see fairy tales as they are; not a dusty collection of old and irrelevant stories, but stories that travel, adapt and take on new meanings. She reminds us, on every page, why fairy tales are still relevant and important today. They have never existed in solitude, and Warner leads you through their connections to psychology, feminism, fantasy and the supernatural. She evaluates their history, their meaning, and the way they have woven (and been woven into) our very lives.

The chapters in Once Upon a Time are divided into themes. They range from the factual ‘Voices on the Page’ which introduces many of the tellers, writers and translators of fairy tales, to the barely constrained rally cry of ‘In the Dock: Don’t Bet on the Prince” which details the post-war feminist subversion of the fairy tale. Interestingly, the title references Jack Zipes’ book of feminist fairy tales Don’t Bet on the Prince. Here she celebrates, among others, the feminist works of theoreticist Ruth Bottigheimer, poet Anne Sexton and all-round-fairy-tale-feminist-superstar Angela Carter. One thing that makes this work so engaging is Warner’s refusal to stay neutral. In her dissent from fusty academic writing, she gives us sentences like “Aroused by Freud’s question, ‘What do women want?’, which lies at the centre of conjectures made by (mostly male) analysts, [feminists] seized hold of fairy tales and shook them till the stories choked, spat out the poison, and sat up ready for a different day… Fairy Tales were denounced as a blunt tool of patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, physchoanalysts bent on curbing girls’ energies and desires.” (Loc 1522)  I heard a whoop in there, didn’t you?

The ideas in this book run deep. If you’re after light bedtime reading, this is no Disney-esque romp. Like tales of old, Warner’s book does far more that skim from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’. There is darkness with the light, and deliberation and passion in her words. While Warner’s writing isn’t hard to read, you’ll still need to put the book down every now and then, to take a walk or stare out the window, to allow the information to sink in. The path she leads us on is clear, but the forest is dense. Your head will fill quickly with new ideas and information. But don’t see this as obstacle. You will finish this book wiser about, and more in awe of, fairy tales, human nature and the many threads that tie our world together.

Thank you to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for the advance reading copy of this book.

Fairy Tales and Narrative Structure

As you all know, I’m working on a project about the lost strong girls of fairy tales. The project involves searching out old tales with strong female protagonists, and illustrating them with my artwork. Another aspect of the project, and a part I’ve only just begun working on, is the rewriting of some of the tales. I tossed up whether to leave them as they were, or re-write, for a long time. I like the idea of keeping them as they are, in their own culture context. Unfortunately the cultural context is all over the place. Some were recorded in the 1700s, some early last century. All were originally taken from the oral tradition, removed from their true context anyway, as a story told in the moment; to a group of listeners, a child caught wandering to close to the woods, around the dying embers of a fire. The storyteller was the holder of these stories, a role vastly different to the author. A storyteller brings stories into everyday life, an author sweeps you away from it. Many of the stories were rewritten several times over several generations, to fit the fashion and morals of the time. Some stories I’ve found are on webpages that look like they haven’t been updated since 1998; without references, and with no mention of whether the story is taken directly from an old (and out of copyright) collection, or written in 1998 by the owner of the website, and therefore very much in copyright.

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All of this has lead me to a point where I feel, I think, that I’d like to start afresh; to take the framework of the stories and weave my own narrative between the bones. One, because it feels like it will be a more cohesive book; two, because I want children to enjoy reading them (some of the stories are pretty hard to wade through, or written for a vastly different era); and three, because it’s fun! Really fun.

It has also got me thinking about things like narrative structure, all that cultural context (as above), and the difference it writing between eras. When I write fiction, I usually write short stories. That’s the genre I’m most comfortable in, so to me it’s important to frame my ‘new’ fairy tales within the appropriate constructs of short story. Not in all cases, but often, fairy tales go something like “Intro to characters, moral supposition, this happened, then this happened, then this, the bad people die, the good ones get married and/or untold riches, moral conclusion, everyone live happily ever after”. That, you cannot get away with in a contemporary short story. Readers want to know what characters are feeling, and why they are feeling it; they need to be shown and not told, and they don’t want to see everything laid out in black and white. The best short story, to me anyway, is made up of a whole lot of shades of grey. But not, ahem, fifty.

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I feel I’m going to have a whole lot more to say about all of the above, but for now I’m still grasping for ideas, writing, and thinking about writing, and frankly, having a lovely time.

A Tender Beginning: or, why I’m not showing you my new artworks (yet)

After talking and blogging and social media-ing about fairy tales and art for a while, I’m getting back into creating new work. I have a couple exhibitions coming up and a book project waiting for me to get back on board, which means I often begin my day like this:

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Not shown: strong black coffee, slice of vegemite toast, existential angst. It’s rare for a photographer to start with a blank canvas. Though, this isn’t technically the beginning of the process for me. I have already photographed the many separate elements and created the silhouettes I need. But it is the beginning of the final artwork. I’ve spoken before about how I create the silhouettes. They are all sitting in the background waiting to be added. If you look closely, you can see some of the file tabs already open behind that blank page.

I’m not sure if I even feel like a photographer at this point. The creation of the final image is a tentative process of layering, pushing and moulding the work into life. Something like painting, sculpting and kindergarten cut-and-pasting all in one.

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

I usually begin with the silhouettes against a white background, so I can see where they are fitting together, and to make sure I’m not leaving stray bits and pieces when I’m erasing the elements I don’t need. Sometimes, if the background is integral to where the silhouettes are placed, I’ll have it in place, and toggle it on and off when needed. Often, if the background is there simply for atmosphere, I won’t even know what image I’ll use until everything else is in place. Whenever a new layer is pasted in, I alter its blending mode if needed. ‘Multiply’ is wonderful for placing silhouettes with residual tonal detail, as it settles them into the images in a softer way than a direct overlay. They are then scaled and flipped if necessary with the Transform function. (Apologies to those who have no idea what I’m talking about – I’ll be brief I promise). The ‘Liquify’ tool is my friend if slight adjustments are needed to the shape of a silhouette – longer hair, fabric not flowing smoothly, a tree branch not quite reaching the right way. All those layers start to add up, especially when trying alternatives of the same elements and adding multiple adjustment layers. It’s not unusual for the image file to gather 50+ layers and start tipping 3GB in size.

When everything is in place, then begins the long process of standing back, squinting, head tilting and stepping back in to move something three pixels to the left, or dodge and burn parts of the background, or resize a leaf fourteen times, a pixel at a time, before it looks right. The process of tweaking takes at least as long as putting the image together, usually longer. It’s a process of highlighting the important bits, balancing out the composition and making that frankenstein of an image look like a cohesive whole.

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The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The final piece feels raw and still made up of its separate pieces. It is not yet the sum of its parts; a fragile thing, part newborn baby, part freakish conglomeration of arms and legs and liver and lungs, stitched with careful threads. I look at it and see the separate parts that make it; can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point I try to walk away and let it settle for a day, but usually I can’t help peeking in; a nervous new mother checking on a peacefully sleeping baby. I want to show everyone, to see if they see it like I do, but I feel protective of it too. It needs time to grow into itself, to heal from its stitches and become whole. In reality it’s sitting here on the hard drive, a collection of code, but in my mind it’s coming to life. It was a thing that didn’t exist, and now it does. It belongs in the world, but not yet ready to face it.

~~~

I’d love to hear your feelings about the creative process, knowing when something is ‘finished’, and letting go.

Hedgespoken

I tried to work out yesterday how long I’ve been following Rima Staines at The Hermitage. A few years? As long as ten? I really couldn’t tell you. I feel like her work has seeped its way into my being; like it’s been there forever.

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Rima’s work feels both contemporary and a very real part of the myth and story of her heritage; as if it has been in our collective conscious for the whole history of storytelling. Her work is about storytelling, and myth, and history, but it has the magic of speaking not as an observer of all that, but from within. Which is why I was so exciting when she announced her new project Hedgespoken.

Rima and her equally incredible partner Tom plan to convert an old Bedford truck into a travelling, off-grid theatre, and home for the two of them. It’s the kind of thing many of us dream of doing. It’s a ‘one day’ thing. But Rima and Tom are doing it now. An artist and a storyteller, both a little of each other, will roam the countryside telling stories; bringing some of their magic to all they touch.

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I’ll let them describe a little bit more themselves.

With its drop-down stage, fancy awning and proscenium arch, Hedgespoken will serve as a stage wherever it goes. Whether it’s Tom and Rima telling tales and making mischief with handmade puppet shows, or it’s other actors, musicians or sword-swallowers using the stage-space as part of the Hedgespoken travelling show, our aim is to spread a little old magic by doing what we love. Hedgespoken has the wherewithal to act as a mini-theatre, a cabaret stage or acoustic music venue, anywhere. Perhaps your village green, or that disused urban space, wayside or park – Hedgespoken arrives, makes magic, plants seeds of imagination, and then leaves, in the tradition of wandering bards, travelling storytellers and itinerant puppet theatres and circuses that are so much part of our heritage.

Don’t you wish they’d roll into your town? Tomorrow, at the latest, thank you. I’m writing from afar, and it will be a very long time, if ever, before I see the fruition of their labour in the flesh, but it doesn’t make me any less excited for their project. I have made a donation, for which there are incredibly generous rewards, and I hope you will too. It’s an investment in a dream – one they are living for real, and one I will be living vicariously, all the way down their winding road.

~~~

You can follow Rima, Tom and Hedgespoken on Twitter, donate to Hedgespoken on Indigogo and visit Rima’s website and blog to see more of her work.

Magical Shadows: The technique behind my silhouettes

I recently had a studio session with my daughters and one of their friends to create some new silhouettes for future artworks, and thought I share the process with you. As I mentioned earlier, my works are completely photographic, and made up of many layers, which means photographing every element individually. The figures are the most fun. The kids love the chance to leap around and ham it up in from the camera, while I beg them to stay within the realms of the backdrop, or yell ‘Argh, I just cut off your foot!’ when I miss-frame an airborne child.

The studio set up is thus: white backdrop, kept as (ahem) wrinkle free as possible to avoid shadows that can make it harder to isolate the figure later. I light the backdrop with one or two studio flash units, and hook up the camera with either a long lead or slave. The slave is simply a wireless trigger for the flash units. The subject is then given strict direction on where they need to be when the camera is fired – in front of the lights, so no light falls on them (unlit subject + brightly lit background = silhouette!), but still on the white sheet, and between ‘here’ and ‘here’ to keep the backdrop behind them. We usually begin with some ‘crazy’ shots to get them settled into being photographed, then I direct the images I know I need. I shoot a lot of frames, and also leave a lot to chance. The surprises are often the most exciting.

One of the characters I needed for a future image is the Baba Yaga, witch of the forest. Here’s my eldest daughter Mari with my cardigan over her head. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be allowed to dress her up, but I’m enjoying it while I can. Note the lit background and (almost) totally unlit figure.

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I import the image into Photoshop, select the figure and tidy up the outline with the ‘refine edge’ tool. I then create a new black layer and use the selection to copy and paste the silhouette into a new image file. Sometimes, if I want to keep a little bit of tonal detail, like light glowing through a dress or a glint of golden hair, I’ll select the image and darken most of it down to black, keeping the details I need. In this case, the Baba Yaga is all silhouette.

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Then begins the search for a background. I have a stockpile of background images that I shoot whenever we go on holiday, or out for a walk with the camera. Or, often just around the back yard. Most are close-ups with a shallow depth of field. This gives me a few details, but leaves most of the image as a soft backdrop for the detailed silhouettes I lay over the top.

The image below is not a final artwork, but a test for how the silhouette works over a background. I often make small sample images to gather elements before compiling a final piece.

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I love the magic you can weave in photography by removing detail and context in an image. Suddenly my daughters can fly, fall through space like Alice in Wonderland, and be whoever they want to be. Though of course, they can already do that…

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Those Tiny Slippers

Did you know that the earliest known version of the Cinderella story was recorded in AD 850-60, in China? The story was already well known in the oral tradition, as Marina Warner points out in her book From the Beast to the Blonde [1], and may have been around much, much earlier.

The story centres around Yeh-hsien, a girl who finds herself in servitude to her scheming and envious aunt/stepmother. She is helped by the bones of a fish that was possessed by the spirit of her dead mother, visits a gathering in fine robes, and slips away, leaving behind a single tiny golden slipper. (Sounding familiar?) The king wants to find whoever owns the slipper, the smallest he has ever seen, and… well you know the story. It’s Cinderella, no doubt about it, but a good millennium earlier than the versions we know as the ‘real’ Cinderella. What struck me, and you may have had the same thought too, was how the obsession with the tiny slipper suddenly gains significance when you factor in the cultural context of foot binding.

Foot binding has a long tradition in China, and had horrendous consequences for the girls it was inflicted on. Bones are broken, toes bent under… (Look it up if you dare, but a google image search isn’t for the faint of heart.) The ideal length for a ‘lotus foot’, named for the shape of the bound foot, was 8 centimetres. That’s 3 inches. Women who had their feet bound to dainty points could barely walk, and consequently their freedom was severely restricted. The smaller the foot, the more desirable it was, in part because any wife so crippled by her delicate lotus feet wouldn’t be wandering far.

So, while the tiny glass slipper in contemporary Cinderella stories signifies her delicate beauty in a relatively innocent way, tying it back into its earlier cultural context suddenly brings a much darker significance to the tale. Cinderella wouldn’t have been dancing until midnight on those tiny feet.

1. Page 202, From The Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner, 1994