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SPOTLIGHT: Lorena Carrington & her exquisite fairy tale photography

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tonight I am talking about Respinning the Magic of Fairy Tales at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, and so it seemed a perfect occasion to celebrate the exquisite fairy tale art of photographer Lorena Carrington. Her words are so full of the beauty and mystery of fairy tales, and the hidden power of women. I am buying myself one as a present to myself for finishing my doctorate on fairy tales!

Please welcome Lorena!

Have you always been interested in fairy tales?

I grew up in a library of several thousand books on classical studies, myths & folk tales, and theological theory. I was read The Arabian Nights, Grimm, Anderson and many world tales at a young age, and at bedtime my mother would snuggle in and tell me stories that she made up, sometimes spanning several nights. These stories usually contained (probably by request) variants on dragons, apples that gave three wishes, and girls who went on exciting adventures.

I was drawn back to fairy tales on having my own children, Mari (11) and Rosa (9), and now read them for myself more than I do to them.

What first drew you to re-creating these old tales through a photographic medium?

My interest was first sparked in 2009 when I was part of an exhibition based on the Willow Pattern story; the English-created Chinese ‘myth’ to go with the now infamous crockery design. Layering the willow pattern design onto the landscape was the beginning of my silhouette work. It wasn’t a great leapt to get from the blue of the willow pattern, to the black silhouettes of fairy tales illustrations. A couple years later, I was part of another exhibition themed around the concept of ‘journeys’. Many fairy tales are based on the journey, and every tale is a journey into another world, so I used that exhibition to focus my developing interest in exploring fairy tales through photography. I haven’t looked back.

I’ve always been a photographic artist, but my technique has polarised over the past fifteen years or so. As a student, I was dedicated to the medium as a pure form. I used a large format camera, created my own developers from their base chemicals, and the term ‘over my dead body’ was my response to digital photography. Now, it’s all I use. 

Can you explain your creative process?

The process starts with a lot of reading, which is lovely. My works are sometimes inspired by the feel of a certain story, or by an imagined tale that makes its way into my head, but lately most of my works have been illustrations for specific fairy tales.

In some ways, my process is like painting or drawing, or even theatre. I begin with a blank page, and arrange the figures and landscape like actors and scenery on a stage. The figures perform the narrative, and the natural forms elaborate emotions and generate the ambience. 

Once I decide on the part of a story I’m representing, I usually begin with a sketch (if I’m organised) or at least a firm idea in my mind of what I want the final artwork to look like. With that image comes a list. For example, I might need a background image reminiscent of the sky, two walking figures, foreground landscape details, overhanging trees, some extra plant life, enough twigs (all photographed separately) to build a house, smoke for the chimney… I then head out into the wild to photograph, and also bring objects back into the studio. If I need silhouettes (almost always I do) I will backlight the subjects to get them as close to black as possible. This is the collection stage. I then sort through them in Adobe Bridge, and enhance their contrast to make a strong silhouette. I then save the images as separate files.

To create the artwork, I open up a blank image file in Photoshop, and start layering elements together. If the background image is integral to the composition, I will drop it in first, but there have been times when I’ve arranged all the silhouettes, and only then searched through my image collection for a background. I have a folder of ‘useful background images’ that I collect for this purpose. 

At this point I stand back from the screen with a cup of tea or glass of wine, ducking back in to adjust the position of a leaf by several pixels, or lighten and darken parts of the background. This part of the process seems to take the longest. A lot of my life is taken up with moving something five pixels that way, then three back, but I’m convinced it does matter. 

Once I’m relatively happy with an image, I save a flattened version (the originals can be made of more than 50 layers and be a few GB in size), and get an 8x10 inch test print done. I can then compare the screen version to the print, and make any further tonal adjustments necessary. 

What tales have you re-worked and why? 

My main project at the moment is an anthology of fairy tales about strong girls and women in pre-golden age fairy tales. So many stories of adventurous and independent women were lost to history; some as far back as when Anderson, Perrault, Grimm(s) et al were collecting tales, but particularly in the Victorian era when fairy tales were in their golden age. Victorian times meant Victorian values, and good girls were certainly not brought up for adventure and independence! 

I think it’s so important for children (girls and boys) to understand that we have traditional stories that were far more balanced than the rescued princess stories we have been lumped with. There is a lot of wonderful contemporary literature that addresses the gender imbalance in fairy tales now, but at the moment my interest lies in traditional stories of strong girls that have been passed down within their own cultural context. 

The story I’m working on right now is 'The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh'. It was reported to be an old Scottish tale in the 1912 book in which it was published, but I’m in the process of hunting for other versions for verification, as there seem to be strong elements of Celtic and Cornish mythology tied up within it. The story centres around a single mother, whose child is stolen by the fairies. She uses her own resources, and the magic held within a mother’s love, to rescue her son. It’s one of my favourites.

What (or who) inspires you, in your life and in your work? 

When I began working with fairy tales, I was very much inspired by golden age illustrators, particularly their use of silhouettes layered against rich colours; Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielson and Edmund Dulac. Jan Pienkowski too, was a slightly more recent inspiration. As I’ve delved deeper into the genre I’ve found many more fabulous artists, including many women illustrators. I recently collated a few into a post on my blog

I’m inspired by the fairy tales themselves, naturally, and also by the wonderful community of contemporary re-tellers and re-imaginers of fairy tales. Kate Forsyth (hello!), Danielle Wood (another incredible Australian writer), Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman… I could go on. It’s a fabulous genre, with so much to explore.

And of course I’ve been very much been inspired by my two daughters, who are my biggest fans, and most honest critics. 

Is your work for sale? If so, how much?

Yes, absolutely it is for sale! Where to start… Actually, I just wrote a long and tortured spiel about pricing, and deleted it. As with many artists, I think talking money is the hardest part. If anyone reads this and would like to purchase work, here’s a list of straight up artworks. For these and anything else, do please get in touch. All prices are in Australian dollars, and don’t include postage.

Limited Edition 20x16” (60x40cm) unframed print: $250
Limited Edition 20x16” (60x40cm) framed print: $500* 
Artist Proof 10x8” (25x20cm) unframed print: $95
Artist Proof 10x8” (25x20cm) framed print: $120
Postcards $2 each, or six for $10. 

*For overseas purchases, I would recommend an unframed print, and getting it framed yourself. The freight alone would be more than the cost of the frame!

I am also happy to print to a requested size, and take commissions, so feel free to get in touch to discuss options.

Email me at for any queries, or just to say hello. It always makes my day. If you would like some ways find me on the internet, my website is at I blog at Oh, and please do connect on Twitter - I’m @lorena_c, and tweet about fairy tales, art, literature… all and sundry.

Thanks Kate, for the wonderful thought provoking questions, and for profiling my work on your fabulous blog. I feel very lucky to have met you online, and hope to catch up in real life one day!

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