Creating DreamWorld, Part II – guest post by Sarah Allegra
To call DreamWorld my obsession would be doing it a great disservice. Almost all my creative energy went toward it. It quickly grew from the core cast of characters who came to me into a deep, lush, endless world of possibilities. DreamWorld became the vast land we visit in our sleep.
Some of the people and creatures who reside there have roles to play in your sleep. There is the Dream Purveyor, something between a classic gypsy and fairy,^ from whom you can buy particular kinds of dreams. Also, the Sentinel, an angelic being who watches over you while you dream.# We have a Queen (the first character who came to me that restless night long ago) and a King. There are dryads, magical animals (so many animals!) and even a few dark characters who reign over nightmares.
More than its individual parts, DreamWorld is a place. It has its own customs, rules, traditions and races. It’s lousy with magic, and there’s a strong theme of the sentient creatures living in harmony with nature. Nature herself plays an important role, bringing beauty, awe and a sense of grounding its other-worldliness a little bit in reality.
One of the things that is very important to me as I slowly work through the series is to put as much effort as the photos need into it. Sometimes it’s quite simple; take your model out to a pretty part of nature, pose her a little and you’re done. Most of the photographs are not like that though. Almost all of them require huge amounts of work beforehand, sometimes months of work. Every detail is hand-made by myself, both because I’m working with an extremely frugal ME-hampered budget and because I have such a specific design in mind. I’m the only one who can bring it to life. And I won’t lie, it’s incredibly rewarding when months and months of effort pay off by giving you the exact photo you wanted.
It really takes a certain kind of model to work with me. Because of that, I try and stick with my regular models as often as possible, but occasionally a new one slips in. Generally someone new enters either because I need a very specific look, or I’ve come across someone I feel I absolutely must photograph, usually through a model/photographer networking site called Model Mayhem.
There’s a lot of trust required of the models. Often, the things I give them to wear and do will end up looking drastically different in the finished photo. Plus there’s that whole photographers-being-obsessed-with-good-light thing, which means if you’re shooting outside (which I almost always am for DreamWorld) you have three choices. A) sunrise, B) sunset, or best of all, but hardest to predict, C) a cloudy day.§ Nothing ruins the magical mood I’m trying to set up like harsh, nasty twelve o’clock noon light. Because I’m also contending with physical pain most days, and because my pain meds prevent me from driving anywhere or even being in a car ±, this means sunrise is easier for me than sunset. If I go for sunset, I have to wait until the shoot is all over and done to take any pills, and that can make for a VERY LONG day.
When you consider how my models have to trust me, bearing inhumanely early call times, being out in the cold while flimsily clad, if not outright nude, gracefully holding very uncomfortable poses, often hiking long ways to get to our location, and rarely getting paid¤ it takes a special breed. They have to be as passionate about the final product as I am, as well as believe that I’ll be able to pull it off and make the craziness worth it. They have to be actresses as well as models; sitting there and just looking pretty is never enough. There’s always something to convey, a character to inhabit, a story to tell. While there are a few exceptions, modeling is much harder than most people realize.¥
I usually start each shoot by going over each concept with the model beforehand. On average, I photograph about 3-4 different concepts at each shoot. I explain each idea in great detail before the shoot, usually in an email as we’re nailing down a date and time. Sometimes I include music, videos or quotes from literature to help get my concept across. For me, this is one of the trickiest parts; I never feel like I’ve conveyed the story adequately, but again, my models are wonderful. The ones I’ve worked longest with are familiar with what I usually want out of them which helps a great deal. We develop a bit of a shorthand; if I tell them to ‘look ethereal,’ they know what that very vague-sounding request means.
It’s truly a bonding experience, and the models I work with frequently become dear friends as well. There are a few I consider my go-to girls, and I am deeply grateful for them. My work would not be the same without their talents in front of the lens.
While I often use compositing## in my images to bend reality, I try to make as much authentic as possible. Take my photo ‘The Court Of The Dryad Queen’ for example.
This is one of the longest costumes I’ve ever spent time on, but every single thing she’s wearing was hand-made and exactly how you see here. For her crown, I gathered sticks and branches from around my yard, used light wire to hold them in place, spray-painted it, decorated it with pine cones and lace leaves. The central ‘crowniest’ part of her headdress was a little decorative pot I got at Ikea for about $2, also spray painted. Her dress was constructed from many yards of muslin, about half of which I already had, and tea-dyed to become gradually darker at the bottom.^^ The cuffs and collar were made from hundreds of individual leaf shapes I cut out of lace, stiffened, hot-glued in place and painted. The dark green underskirt was just two yards of fabric I’d bought for some project which I’ve now forgotten, but it made the perfect finishing touch to her outfit.
For those interested, you can read a much more in-depth account of creating the costume at my blog, with plenty of behind-the-scenes photos.
Having thoroughly ground my fantasy in reality with all the work that went into the costume, now the fantasy came in. I spent months stalking the birds at the feeder in my yard, building up a store of images to pull from for this photo. All the animals, songbirds, squirrels and crows, were added in Photoshop and carefully blended in to make them look like they really had been there. I also had ended up with a background a bit more distracting than I wanted; it was competing with the crown for attention. I ended up having to replace the entire sky (not an easy task in this case) and add in the large branch above her head for all the animals to rest on it, which was from a photo I took of a completely different tree months before. A little sweetening of the colors and tweaking the light and shadows and it was done!
Months of preparation, weeks of editing… it’s a great deal of work, but I absolutely love it. Many people ask about how I edit photos, and I finally made a short video of the process. It isn’t so detailed as a step-by-step instructional manual, but it helps give people an idea of what goes into some of the wilder edits I do. If you’d like to get a glimpse behind the curtain, you can here!
Especially as the ME seems to be slowly gaining ground in my body, DreamWorld is more than my escape. It lifts my spirits in a way that goes beyond simply being distracting, or wistfulness, or making pretty things… it actually helps heal my soul to bring it to life. It feels like my true home.
And who knows, if I spend enough time there making the impossible possible, maybe, just maybe, a little magic will rub of into my real life.
Sarah Allegra is a fine art photographer and self portrait artists in Los Angeles. Read her own blog if you don’t mind occasional artistic nudity: http://sarahallegra.wordpress.com/
^Fairy: see Spindle’s End. That’s the kind I mean here; ones who can perform bits of magic, sell charms and are mostly benevolent.
#Played by actor Paul Telfer, who looks exactly like the kind of person you’d want watching over your sleep. He has to be at least 8′ 15″, broad-shouldered, square-jawed and muscular like your typical Marvel superhero. Actually, he probably looks quite a lot like I imagine Watermelon Shoulders. That may just be my conditioning projecting his image onto the character though; the hellgoddess may disagree with me.
±If I get in a car on the meds, I do what I imagine is probably a very good imitation of Darkness or Chaos geysering. No one wants to see that.
§The sun and I are not friends. I would be so, so happy to live somewhere like Seattle, Portland or England where it’s cloudy more than sunny. I would LOVE that. I know most people come to California for the sunshine, but to me the sun’s rays are just nasty, abrasive deviants who live to ruin an otherwise great photograph.
¤Believe me, I would love to be able to pay them. On the occasions when I’m getting paid for what we’re shooting, they do too. One of the things I look forward to once I’m at a place of actually making money from my art is being able to financially reward these wonderful girls who have stuck with me this whole time.
¥I’d like to publicly thank Sandy Moore, Dedeker Winston, Aly Darling and Katie Johnson for their years of helping me bring my visions to life. These girls are not just astonishing models, but truly wonderful human beings as well.
##Merging two or more* photos together in Photoshop to form one finished piece.
*In my case it’s usually more like several hundred than like two
^^ After such intense tea-dying, the dress SMELLED for days. I had to email the model, a very easy-going girl I work with often named Dedeker Winston, and warn her that while her dress would be beautiful, it was stinky. I couldn’t even bring it inside the house the first day, it had to rest in one of our porch chairs. After that it could live in the bathroom until it aired out a little more.
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