As a member of the Photoshop team, I am lucky to experience incredible digital photography on a daily basis that involves thousands of post-production intricacies. What struck me about Kirsty Mitchell, based in Surrey, England, was the amount of detail in each of her photographs, most of which is created during months of pre-production. At first glance, you might think her stunning images are the result of heavy Photoshop editing, but in reality her final product stems from a sublime mixture of artistic vision, intricate set and costume design, old school work ethic and an unwavering dedication to tell a very emotional personal story from the heart.
I was able to catch up with Kirsty after she spent the past eight months working tirelessly to finish her fine art series, Wonderland. After nearly four-and-a-half years creating almost 70 images, she has come up for air to delight her fans with the remaining ten works of art in the series. She recently shared her second image in the remaining ten of the series, She’ll Wait for You in the Shadows of Summer.
Film courtesy of Richard Wakefield FX Media
Kirsty compares creating Wonderland to the production of a movie; a movie, as she describes, where every single image is a new concept, location and season.
What makes Wonderland so magical is that it’s real. Most fantasy worlds today are created digitally; often with intricate costumes and locations perfected, or even ‘constructed’ in post-production, often thanks to Photoshop ‘magic’. But those in Wonderland are created outside of the frame, with labor-intensive handcrafting. The amount of time and work Kirsty spends preparing for each photo shoot borders on madness, leaving no doubt of the intense dedication she brings to her art.
Kirsty’s artistic background plays an important role in her end creations. “Color is really, really important to me. I’m probably the fussiest person when it comes to my prints.”
Each costume and prop is handmade, and each set is actually as beautiful as it looks in her photographs. Kirsty uses very little artificial light during her shoots and only selects naturally beautiful locations to provide the perfect backdrop.
Kirsty explains, “The ability to make something without having a huge budget is also an enormous part of what I do. Everyone immediately assumes that the series costs thousands to create, and that there’s this huge team behind it. But actually, everything is made by me. It’s all kind of smoke and mirrors to pull off something that looks far higher budget than it is.”
The Wonderland Story
Kirsty’s Wonderland is a celebration of her late mother’s life. An English teacher who surrounded her home with beautiful literature and artwork, her mother was “absolutely adored by every child that she taught.” When she passed away, Kirsty felt that her funeral did not appropriately celebrate her life. Kirsty walked away knowing that she had to do something to commemorate the wonder her mother instilled in others.
She wanted to create a storybook without words to illustrate the time she had with her mother and also help people relate to their own childhood stories. The characters Kirsty dreamed up were not a recreation of any particular story, but a mix of two main things: beautiful tales her mother had told and the emotions Kirsty had at that time.
“It’s fashion, it’s emotion, it’s deeply, deeply personal, but it’s also kind of decorative and ornamental. So it’s all stuff I’ve been loving and training in for all these years, but it’s just come together as this one sort of explosion.”
The distinct method Kirsty used to create Wonderland wasn’t planned, but rather developed as she discovered more about her creative process.
Her formal training is in fine art and art history, and she’s worked as a professional fashion designer – but her photography skills are completely self-taught. “The history of art is something that massively affects my work because I studied an enormous amount of painting and art movements. Looking at composition and balance in paintings and photographs was drilled into me at a very early age.”
Her background working as a fashion designer with those as notable as Alexander McQueen led Kirsty to design and create costumes for each photograph in Wonderland. Her process allows her to blur the lines between fashion and art. For example, the dress in the White Queen photos, including The Twilight Covenant and The Promise Of Home was made of 240 wooden fans that were hand painted and built upon the model on set.
- Though everything in her images is real, Kirsty does retouch each photo in Photoshop to make it flawless. She wants to create a character and a world people can believe in – that’s crystal, sharp and beautiful.
A few years ago, Kirsty hit a point in her life when she knew she needed to walk away from her lucrative fashion career to fully focus on the completion of Wonderland. Kirsty admits that this was a difficult decision, and one that she didn’t take lightly. She shared that losing her mother was the catalyst for change. “When your worst fear is taken away from you, your idea of what there is to be scared of readjusts. The idea of leaving my job and leading a creative life no longer felt scary. I thought, ‘It’s not the end of the world; the end of the world has already happened.’”
When Kirsty first considered leaving her job, she had already developed a significant following online. She met with a curator who, to her surprise, advised her to stay with her job until she had further developed into an artist. “[That meeting] was like a truck hitting me.” The curator encouraged her to stop trying to be an artist for other people, including those who were following her on social media. “He said, ‘What would your best be? Your best would be if you stopped, stepped away and spent 10 months on making pictures.’”
“He was right. I stepped away from the internet for ten months.” During that time, she created one of her most famous images to date, “The Queen’s Armada.” After those ten months passed and she returned with new photos to share, everything changed. Galleries and press became more interested in her work, and she was finally able to leave her job and become a full-time artist.
Kirsty says, “If you find something you’re so passionate about, in the end, you find a way.”
Creating Wonderland has been extremely cathartic for Kirsty, enabling her to grieve the loss of her mother in a way she couldn’t have otherwise. She says there are whole phases of the project that over the years represent where she was mentally, playing out like a personal diary.
After Kirsty finishes Wonderland, she wants to change her photography style, applying what she’s learned on this long journey. She wants to learn new and different skills, and dedicate even more time and production to her artistry.
Kirsty tells us that while she may never do a project as extensive as Wonderland again, she will continue to produce photos that people can escape to.
Many thanks to Kirsty for taking time out of her incredibly busy schedule to share her experience with us. We’re looking forward to seeing the rest of Wonderland and the worlds she will create for us to lose ourselves in. I have no doubt we will see many great things from this extraordinary artist in the future.