Interview with Isabeau van Halm for Dutch contemporary Photography Magazine New Dawn.
When did you start taking photographs? Who inspired you?
My dad and his best friend were fanatical amateur photographers, and they were both very influential in igniting my interest in photography from an early age. We had a small darkroom in the house throughout my childhood and I particularly loved experimenting with Polaroid 665, a medium format Polaroid that has a negative and a positive sheet inside it. You shoot the frame, rip open the sheets and dip the negative in a bucket of fix before hanging it on a line to dry. I loved the messy and unpredictable nature of this process and the magic of those instant images, but best of all was the ability to print from the big negative, taking the process to its final printed conclusion and having control from camera to print. Polaroid withdrew 665 film about 10 years ago and sadly closed not long afterwards but I still have about 20 packs saved in the fridge.
My mum’s side of the family were all painters and sculptors and so I always wanted to be an artist. My Grandmother was a great inspiration. She painted huge abstract canvases using a long paintbrush attached to an even longer bamboo handle. This allowed her to paint standing about 4 feet back from the canvas. This sounds very eccentric but the work she made was truly beautiful and I loved watching her work in her studio, filled with the smell of turpentine, tiny pots of pigment paint and lined with huge canvases in various stages of completion.
Where did you grow up and how did this influence your work?
I grew up in the New Forest, an ancient forest in the South of England. It was originally seized by Henry VIII and established as his personal deer hunting forest, and it is now a National Park.
I spent a huge amount of my childhood playing in the forest with my twin sister, building dens and making dams in the forest streams, learning to forage wild mushrooms and plants, cycling and walking with our parents. The forest was a very important part of my life and I wanted to find a way to bring it back into my adult life. I live in London and it is so easy to become caught up in an urban environment, loosing your connection with the wild places and finding them alien when you return. This is the crux of my work, it allows me a way to re-immerse myself in the woods, to play and create, and to rebuild my relationship with the woods.
Can you tell something about your project “Stars, 2014”?
The Stars, 2014 series combines vast star-scapes taken by the Hubble Space Telescope with forest landscapes. The series considers the fragile nature of our relationship with the natural world by interposing images of the intangible and unknown universe with these ancient forests. It creates a new experience of the woodland, one which draws the viewer into a mystery at the heart of the forest, and offers the potential for discovery and exploration.
By what is your work influenced?
My work is most heavily influenced by the forest itself, and by landscape painting.
There is a certain darkness in your photographs, do you have a dark side yourself?
I think my photographs hold dark and light, mystery, narrative and intrigue. Some people find my work very dark and others find it joyful and uplifting. I think it says more about the viewer themselves. The images explore the different cultural perceptions of the forest, and how this plays into our experience of these spaces. These contructs 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. My images explore these layers of meaning, encouraging the viewer to make their own interpretation of what is going on.
My work is also about trying to capture how it feels to stand in the woods. When you step inside a dense woodland, the wind drops and the air cools and you experience a heightened sense of awareness. Sometimes the forest feels welcoming, but sometimes to be alone in the woods feels unnerving and uncomfortable. This is the darkness in my work.
For your work you’re often alone in the woods; do you ever get scared? What’s your attraction to these woods?
I don’t usually get scared in the woods when I am alone. I sit for a while, and become familiar with the area, I listen and observe. I feel that sense of heightened awareness I mentioned earlier, and this is an important part of beginning to create a relationship between myself and the woodland space. I enjoy this quiet and contemplative time. It would be impossible to work with other people around because this has to be a personal and concentrated process, and the slight tension and sensory awareness of being alone creates this. On rare occasions I have experienced an odd atmosphere or uncomfortable feeling in the woods and I always leave the area straight away. My instincts are telling me something and I always listen.
How would you describe your work?
I make landscape photography fused with various ‘made’ objects that I create within a woodland setting. These are photographed and the resulting image becomes the final piece. These interventions range from pathways weaving through the woods made from craft materials, bracken, flour, and coloured leaves and paper, to large scale forest ‘Dwellings’ built from materials gathered from the forest floor. Each ‘made’ object has a very short life, and is not the artwork but a means to creating a photographic image. I use my work to explore my relationship with the natural world, how it is layered with cultural meaning and mythmaking that masks, obscures or overlays my experience of the forest. I try to find my own way to exist in the landscape but gaining a more personal level of interaction, inscribing something of myself within these forest spaces.
How do you come up with a new project?
My ideas come through walking, and making lists, sketches and diagrams, and through talking things through with my husband. He is a great supporter but is also very honest with me, which is vital. Sometimes I prefer to work more freely and I just find a location that I want to work in, and see what happens.
My shoots usually need quite a lot of planning though, so it can be a long process from the initial idea until the time I come to shoot the final project. But when I find an idea I love I just can’t wait to get into the forest and start making the work.
What are you working on now and what will be your future project?
I’m still making the Stars series. I started this series in the spring of 2014, and worked on it until the autumn. I enjoyed making work in the greener summer woodland in contrast to my usual wintery scenes, so I have been waiting for Spring 2015 when I will add new images to the series.
Following that I have some ideas under my hat, that I will be experimenting with and testing over the coming months before I’m ready to begin the new project later in the year. Possible ideas include more smoke and maybe some fire…..