Artophilia  •  289521   •  7 October 2015

Filling the emptiness. Kirsty Mitchell photography

Every end is a beginning. Kirsty Mitchell, after the death of her mother, started to create 1 a new, fairy world. The void she felt after the loss was filled with hours of work on photography which included a lot of details, creating a kind of horror vacui. Photography became the answer to her pain, to the profound experience, and an escape to another world.

Gaia The Birth of an End

“(…) I would like to live there” 2 – wrote Roland Barthes about a picture by Charles Clifford, Alhambra (Granada), 1854-1856. It was slightly more complicated for Kirsty Mitchell, as her world is created by herself: it does not really exist, according to the popular meaning of the word “reality”. It is very temporary, and it exists only in the photo 3.

Mitchell works as if in a renaissance workshop, where each picture is carefully built from a number of pieces of a magical scenery, only to exist for a split of a second when she presses the shutter button, and it becomes a background for extraordinary figures. And who are the figures she presents in her works? These are not portraits of people (rather portraits of the “passing time” 4), as their individuality disappears under the makeup 5 and spectacular costumes.



To Mitchell people are like canvas, which she uses to create her imaginary world. She finds the best place, in her view, which becomes a stage, and it’s rather a movie scene rather than a theatre stage. It’s a distinctly feminine photography: the author and the subjects are women, and it registers a previously designed scene, often one that refers to fine arts. Frequently there is one dominating colour, as it can be seen in The Storyteller, and it brings together the costume, makeup and flowers. The photographed women often have white eyelashes; is it a symbol of innocence, another reference to memories of childhood?

The Storyteller

The Storyteller

Mitchell studied fine arts, photography, and the history of art, which gave her very strong foundations, both practical and theoretical, to build her photographs. At the age of 19 Mitchell specialised in “Performance Costume” at the London College of Art, and this can be seen in her works as a very strong influence.

She then spent 3 years at Ravensbourne Collage of Art, where she achieved a First Class Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in “Fashion Design and Textiles”6. It wasn’t however the end of her education. At that time she interned with the best people in the industry: Alexander Mc Queen and Hussein Chalayan. She worked as a senior fashion designer in charge of fabrics for Kalen Millen, and she visited India and China.

Turning point

In 2008 Mitchell lost her beloved mother, a wonderful woman, inspiring English teacher, with a great gift of storytelling.

“Throughout her life she was a teacher of English, and she spent years inspiring pupils and me with literature and with her charming stories. She used to read to me every day, and she instilled in me the faith in beauty and the astonishment, which became the roots of my work” Kirsty Mitchell.

After her mother’s funeral Mitchell needed something more to commemorate Maureen. She returned to her childhood books, which she used to read with her mother, and which now became an inspiration and helped her overcome the depression to act. Photography became the best mean of expression for telling her own story, as she used and completed her entire knowledge.

She abandoned fashion and dully devoted herself to photography. In 2009 she started a series of photos entitled Wonderland, which made her popular and attracted media attention. The list of magazines that were thrilled with her works is long: Italian Vogue, Polish Harper’s Bazaar, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Germany’s Spiegel Online, The Telegraph, and the renowned Stern magazine.


The Ghost Swift

The popularity brought several exhibitions in London, South Korea, Milan, Amsterdam. She also participated in an annual PhotoVogue exhibitions (where 25 photographers are chosen from 55,000) in 2012 and 2013.

The secret of her workshop

Time is very important in her work methods, it is the factor that decides about the unique character of her works. Preparations may take even five months 7 and the process of taking photos also needs the right moment:

“We were making something that took hours and hours to create, and had to get everybody in position in time for the sun at the right moment. It was quite heart-stopping because if we missed the window, all that hard work would have been for nothing, and all the flowers would have simply died. We couldn’t do it again the next day. They say never work with children and animals. Well, I think you can add ‘fresh flowers’ to that list!”8

Gammelyns Daughter a Waking Dream

Gammelyns Daughter a Waking Dream

The photos where she attempts to capture the beauty of fresh flowers show Mitchell’s struggle with passing, her return to dreams, uncovering childhood memories, expressed by flowers enfolding women and books (depicted probably because her mother read a lot to her daughter, to pupils, and herself). It is not only a metamorphosis of the model, but also of the photographer, which is evidenced by Mitchell’s statement in context of The Last Dance of the Flowers:

“Throughout the series I have always used trails in my work to demonstrate journey and movement through a static image (…) At night I dreamt of the flowers coming to life in this last maternal gesture of protection. Inside my own body I could feel my spirits rise with her, a sense of completion on the horizon for both of us (…) I am so close now, just 4 pictures away from the end of the series. In the mornings I can feel a change in me, I walk to the studio in a different way, I look up again, I feel lighter, I breathe slower… I whisper to myself with each step ‘almost there… almost there… almost there’ …”9

Is it really the end of her career in fashion, or just a change of materials? People are her new material, like canvas, fabric which she carefully and profusely decorates, and flowers are the matter of costumes she creates. She has not fully given up design, but rather took it to the surface of photography. It seems that in her works expression through makeup has reached the highest level. Design and childhood interweave in her silent stories, which should offer catharsis to their author, and move the imagination of the audience. The decorativeness of her works and their juicy colours suggest the desire to return to one’s childhood, and indicate a persistent search of beauty. Splendour and the desire to escape reign in her photography, making the photos and the stories behind them unforgettable.

The Journey Home

The Journey Home

Written by: Klara Sadkowska

Translated by: Paulina Dzwonnik
Paulina Dzwonnik logo

THE WONDERLAND BOOK from Kirsty Mitchell Photography on Vimeo.


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  2. R. Barthes,Światło obrazu, Warszawa 2008.
  3. It’s real in 100%, Mitchell makes costume and wig; without photoshop., date of access (28.08.15 r.)
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  5. Making sometimes in 5 hours, date of access (28.08.15 r.)
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