[P]hotographic artist Ellie Davies is a little obsessed (in the best way possible) with forests. A London College of Communication graduate, Davies uses the wilderness in order to stage meticulously planned portraits, which often involve inserting man-made objects into the landscape, playing with the audience’s assumptions about what does and doesn’t belong in nature. It’s all a bit Philip Lorca di Corcia, but set in the New Forest instead of New York.
We spoke to Ellie about the processes behind her work…
Where does each piece start?
My ideas start with walking, note-making, sketches and diagrams. The images are an exploration of how I experience the woods: how it feels to enter this quiet, alternate space, so far removed from urban life. I often sit down in the woods, on the leaf-litter or under the trees and just watch and listen before starting to shoot. It’s not until you sit quietly that you really begin to see and to feel. On quiet days you can even hear the leaves falling!
My images also explore the different cultural perceptions of the forest, and how this plays into our experience of these spaces. These constructs come to us through media, history, fairytales, myth, psychology, conservation, and so on, and range from framing the forest as a benign leisure facility all the way through to a place of danger, unknown horrors and as a metaphor for the unconscious mind. I encourage the viewer to make their own interpretation of what is going on and to consider how they have arrived at their conclusion.
What's the process?
The process starts with a great deal of sketching, note-making and lists. I draw up detailed diagrams about the concept, the materials, the type of woodland, the atmosphere and intention for the new series. I go into the woods with everything I need to make the piece, and I find a place that reflects what I am looking for in the image. The weather is also an important element in creating the right feel for the work; I often shoot in rain or at twilight.
Each piece is made within a day, and I remove all trace when I leave, with the exception of the Dwellings series. In this body of work I built large scale ‘dens’ or shelters which involved a very physical process of constructing a frame and then weaving it with materials gathered from the surrounding area. I then left each Dwelling for a period of time before returning weeks later to photograph it. The effect of time was an important element of the project. I wanted to find out how my relationship to these built structures altered during my absence.
I grew up in the New Forest in the South of England. The woods were a huge part of my childhood, playing with my twin sister, making dens, learning to forage for wild foods and mushrooms and walking with my parents. I went to university and then moved to London, where I have lived for the last 15 years. I missed these ancient spaces and the wild places of my youth, and I wanted to find a way to rekindle this important relationship in my life. I love being able to return there for my work, finding new ways to explore the woods making interventions within the forest.
What is the relationship between your gaze and the existing landscape?
I use the woods like a studio space. They provide a scene, or a backdrop into which I carry out small interventions which lead the viewer inside. The process of making, constructing or inscribing within the forest space allows me to mediate my own relationship to the woods – looking at the balance between how our ideas of landscape are constructed by the culture we live in, and by our own experiences of these natural spaces. We enter the forest laden with cultural reference points from fairytales, history, myth and folklore. Our ideas about the forest are overlaid with received knowledge, especially for those living in urban spaces where we are so far removed from the natural world. My work allows me to find my own place within this process, to make even fleetingly, a space of my own and a way to exist within it.
To what degree do you 'arrange' your portraits?
Most of my work involves making some sort of intervention, or ‘arrangement’ within the forest space. I plan the concept carefully before beginning the work, and I usually have a very clear idea of what I will be making. I use sketches and diagrams, annotated with information about my intention for the work, what time of day I will shoot, materials to be used, and the type of woodland/trees I will be working with. I use a small photographic kit. Central to my work is the way the woods make me feel, how it feels to be there alone. For this reason I don’t usually have an assistant, and I carry everything I need in a big backpack. I love the freedom this gives me.
Where is your favourite forest in the UK?
The New Forest. It was established during Henry VIII’s reign as his personal hunting ground and huge areas of managed ancient woodland still exist alongside Forestry Commission tree farming. The forest also supplied most of the Oak used to build the Armada fleet, but the vast swathes of felling were not replanted and now bog and heathland cover large areas, protected by its National Park status. This provides an amazing and diverse landscape with all sorts of interesting places to work.
What are you thinking about as you shoot?
I think this is different for every piece of work depending on what I’m making. There are all sorts of technical decisions required to compose and bring together all the elements in a way that expresses my intentions, but most importantly I am looking for a way to capture an atmosphere and a sensation, the way it feels to be in the woods at that moment. This is not something I can contrive through intention, it happens more tenuously. As with all photography there is usually just one frame that captures this moment, and I can always feel it when it happens. More often than not the first frame is ‘the one’, but it’s hard to walk away at this point. I usually end up shooting many different versions before later realising I should have trusted my instincts!
Is there much post production involved?
I often get asked this question. I use very little post production. I make small changes in Photoshop such as adjustments to colour castes, contrast, saturation and a bit of tidying up, but it’s very important to me that everything in the images is made in the forest. My new series Stars, 2014 takes a new approach because I have been using large star-scapes taken by the Hubble Telescope and interposed them in the forest spaces.
Which would be your 'dream' forest to shoot?
I would love to shoot in the forests of Oregon, Japan, Russia or Norway. However, I am lucky to find that my dream forest is the one I already work with. My familiarity with The New Forest is important to my work. It has been my home, part of my history and heritage and so it is also part of me.