Photographer Lottie Davies explains her famous Memories and Nightmares series to us and tells us why, despite the acclaim and being awarded this year’s Young Masters Prize, she’ll never become complacent.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE PHOTOGRAPHY?
When I was about 14, my father bought a little darkroom kit advertised in the local paper, so I learnt how to process and print in the attic next to the hot water tank – and it kind of went from there. While I was at university, I was involved in a lot of student theatre productions, stage managing, costume-making and directing, and as I was the only person who knew how to use the union darkroom I ended up being the one who did all the publicity shots. I spent as much time doing theatre and photography as studying my actual degree; I’d turn up to lectures at ten having already been to Perth Rep and back with a pile of bustle dresses in the boot of my Fiesta.
EXPLAIN YOUR MEMORIES AND NIGHTMARES SERIES TO US – HOW DID IT COME ABOUT?
I wanted to try a new direction with my work – previously I had been concentrating on commissioned (mostly food) work alongside journalistic projects and I was becoming frustrated that those stories weren’t ‘getting out’ in the way I had hoped. So I thought I’d try something very different, telling ‘internal stories’ that people have experienced instead. I realised that my own earliest memory (of going to see my mother when my brother had just been born, see The Day My Brother Was Born) was very clear, and almost suspended, as if I could look around the scene in a 360 degree turn. I wanted to try and recreate my memory of the scene, in a way that would create in the viewer a similar feeling that I experience in re-living it. Interestingly, people often describe these memories in the present tense, such as; ‘I am running towards a house, my father is in the doorway waving to me…’ So I asked all my friends by email if they would write an account of very first thing they remember, and began to collect stories. One friend said that her earliest memory was boring, but she was going to send me a nightmare instead (which resulted in Quints) – and I then included recollections of nightmares in the project as well, because they have a similar quality; stories which exist only as internal memory experiences and can only be shared by a (necessarily limited) description.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE EACH SUBJECT AND SCENE?
I allowed my imagination to dictate which stories would become pieces – if, when I read the story, an image came into my head which resonated in some way, and I felt it was possible to create, then it made it into the ‘yes’ list. Some stories particularly moved me and I felt then I had a responsibility to the authors and the stories themselves. Two particularly, What is the Future? and The Man Who Ran Away were sent to me by complete strangers who entrusted me with very personal experiences.
In terms of how the images resulted from the memories, again I allowed myself to appropriate and reinterpret the stories, and include some of my own references and recollections. Each story has its own period, context and visual cues and hopefully can stand independently of the series as well as part of a group. Some are intentionally incredibly dark, others blithely happy, but essentially they are all about childhood in one way or another, mine and other people’s.
YOUR WORK HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS ‘BRILLIANTLY IMAGINATIVE’ AND MANY OF YOUR IMAGES HAVE A DREAMLIKE QUALITY TO THEM -WHERE DOES THIS IMAGINATION COME FROM, HAVE YOU ALWAYS HAD AN ACTIVE IMAGINATION?
That was a particularly lovely compliment and thank you for mentioning it. I’m not sure, you’d probably have to ask my family! My parents didn’t really approve of television (along with the fact that my brother took a tv set apart aged three and it wasn’t replaced), so I read constantly as a child, and filled my head with imaginary places and people. I can’t remember not being able to read, and even now I’m unable to see a word without reading it over and over, maybe it’s a kind of synaesthesia? Words, stories and ‘making things’ have always been a big part of my life. I suppose I enjoy things happening inside my head.
YOU’VE BEEN NOMINATED FOR, AND WON, NUMEROUS AWARDS. DO YOU EVER BECOME COMPLACENT?
Good Lord, I hope not! I don’t think there’s much place for complacency today.
YOU’RE NOMINATED FOR THE YOUNG MASTERS PRIZE, WHICH PAYS HOMAGE TO ‘THE SKILL AND TRADITION OF THE PAST’. HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOU TO REFERENCE THE PAST AND TRADITIONAL STYLES OF ART?
We are saturated with imagery on a daily basis and I think that there is a collective understanding of images, be they paintings, cinema, advertising or Facebook updates. We can’t help but consume images within that cultural context. I’ve become aware that Memories and Nightmares is particularly English in its references, and I suppose that is because I am. My own nostalgic musings include watercolours of Venice, Rupert the Bear, the National Gallery, 60s films, the smell of Old Spice, the sound of lawnmowers in the summer… and masses of other things I have absorbed. So I use those in my work in the hope that others share the same connections with those things. The idea is to tap into a subconscious recognition of images and the associations we have with them. In Lou’s Story, for instance, I have very obviously used Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, as I have a feeling that most people know that painting, whether they realise they do or not. So when they see Lou’s Story they may have a small sense of recognition, as if maybe they’ve seen it before. And in turn, then, the hope is that they will feel a recognition or connection with the story which inspired it.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NEXT?
I’ve recently started work on a new project called Love Stories which aims to do a similar thing to Memories and Nightmares in that I’m collecting stories which I am imagining and reinterpreting, but taking the idea further. It’s in the very early stages but I am hoping to include web-based elements and a wider public collaboration with the work – lots of ideas, hoping I can pin them all down to something concrete.