Fuzzy weather drama photo courtesy of our neighbor’s iPhone. Fortunately it wasn’t as close as it looks.
Prairie weather is never boring. We call it the Sky Show.
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.
I suppose the thing I’m always drawn to with art is telling stories. I’ve been creating and telling tales for as long as I can remember. My first real story was dictated to my grandmother at her typewriter when I was five, which I lavishly illustrated by hand. The story was called Mommy’s Adventure, and guess what, it was about an adventure my mom went on.
The drive to tell stories manifested in various ways through my life, but it was always there in one form or another. Writing stories, poetry, drawing, painting, jewelry-making, sculpting, singing, song-writing… I’ve tried almost anything at one point or another.*
Most of you probably don’t know that like our hellgoddess, I have ME** too. I am also fortunate enough to be on the extremely mild end of the spectrum. It’s somewhere between a chore, quite difficult and occasionally impossible for me to leave the house depending on how spiteful the ME is feeling that day, but most of the time I can leave the house. That is not true for a roughly half of us.
While looking back, I can see the path of the ME being laid in my teenage years, it broke out dramatically about five and half years ago. Up until then I’d had most of my artistic energy going towards learning watercolor painting. But after the ME really kicked in, I was slowly drained of the energy to create, and would find myself with forearm tendons seemingly on fire if I tried to paint anyway.
At the same time though, being suddenly struck by what seemed a completely inexorable, malevolent disease with no end in sight (nor even a diagnosis for years) I found that my need to create, to express what I was going through, was greater than ever. Painting wasn’t going to be my solution, so I turned to another visual medium: photography.
My then-boyfriend-now-husband is a talented photographer himself, so I sat him down and made him teach me the basics of how cameras work. I’d enjoyed taking snapshots my whole life, but I’d only taken one beginner’s black and white (film) photography class in college, which I’d hated. The emphasis was strongly placed on developing the film. To me, the darkroom was full of nauseating smells and a myriad of devices and steps all designed to ruin my film if at all possible. As soon as the class was over, I quickly forgot everything I’d ever learned.
After my husband helped me remember about shutter speeds, f-stops and ISO, I just started taking photos and learned through lots of trial and error. Especially error. I used myself as my own model, since the photos were such personal expressions of what I was experiencing, and I also didn’t have an end-goal for the photos. They were just therapy. Being on both sides of the lens while figuring it out was a steep learning curve, but I’m glad for it. Not only am I always available to myself if I want to shoot something, but I think it gives me a deeper appreciation for the entire process of bringing a photo to life than if I’d always stayed behind the lens.
Eventually I learned that there was a whole world of self portrait artists being on both sides of the lens at once. Their work encouraged and inspired me. Things kept going wrong in my body. Doctors shrugged at me. I was feeling the urge to create more and more, and it became even more cathartic. I could create images that expressed my deepest fears and frustrations about my illness, and I could equally create an alternate world full of beauty and wonder. It was exactly what I needed, and I taught myself along the way whatever I needed to know.
I have never been a good sleeper, but ME does nothing to help that. I distinctly remember one night, about a year and a half ago, when I was lying in bed not sleeping, feeling so frustrated, I wanted to cry. I was wishing there was a person you could pay to ensure a good night’s sleep, and my imagination snatched that kernel of idea up and began building upon it at an almost alarming rate. What if such a person did exist? What would he or she be like? What would they look like? What gives them the power to present you with sleep? What kind of world do they live in? After that I didn’t sleep because my brain was too full of ideas, but at least my mood had lifted. I didn’t realize it then, but I had just given birth to what would become DreamWorld.
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/
*Including knitting and crocheting. I like both, but I always fall out of the habit of it and have to re-learn it again each time I pick it up. Many a friend received gifts of baby booties and a bonnet from me at their baby shower. I do have some especially nice cream-and-metallic-gold filmy yarn leftover from another project that would look so lovely if I worked it into… something. Hmm.
**Except that I’m in The United States so they refuse to acknowledge the medical name ‘myalgic encephalomyelitis,’ and instead will only admit to you having ‘fibromyalgia’ or, most condescendingly, ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.’ There’s a big movement over here to officially change our name from either fibro or CFS to ME. The exact details of how our doctors (supposedly) distinguish between fibro and CFS are lengthy and complicated* enough to warrant their own blog.
* And stupid. Don’t get me started on the whole doctor thing. But as patronising brush-offs go, ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’ takes some kind of prize. A large bouquet of deadly nightshade or thereabouts. –ed.
I should note as we continue our photographic tour of the spring blooms at Biltmore that in all of these gardens, each season brings new delights (I admit that the delights of the winter season are best experienced inside Biltmore House rather than outside, but it’s every bit as breathtaking – the Candlelight Christmas tours are not to be missed). Spring is my favorite time of year to visit, but that’s mostly because the part of my brain that processes color atrophies over the winter and by April I’m usually desperate to see something blooming.* This also explains why spring is pretty much the only season my own garden has much in the way of color…**
If the azaleas had been in bloom, the Azalea Garden probably would have had the most color for our spring visit, but that honor fell to the Walled Garden this time. The Walled Garden is an English-style garden which covers about four acres and comprises a rose garden***, peony garden, and butterfly garden in addition to dozens of seasonal annual beds, culminating in an expansive conservatory.
The gardeners plant roughly 90,000 tulip bulbs for the spring display in the manicured central beds of the Walled Garden.## In summer, these are replaced by dahlias, zinnias, and globe amaranth, while in autumn masses of chrysanthemums are on display. I can’t even imagine doing this kind of massive all-change three times a year###, but I certainly appreciate the results.
I have it on good authority that these are Darwin Hybrid Tulips, but I can’t categorize them any more specifically, sadly (all you gardening buffs – please be gentle with me). The massed beds of tulips, daffodils, and pansies are showcased on either side of the 236 foot arbor that forms the spine of the garden, and the plantings continue inside the arbor itself. Tulips line the arbor floor and openings like picture frames run along its length, creating the lovely effect of a hall lined with flower prints.
Not all the beds are devoted to mass plantings – occasionally pops of color among the mulched side beds catch the eye. I love finding these little reminders of spring against the backdrop of brown, cheerily popping up and demanding attention.
Woobie, of course, preferred to spend the majority of her time frolicking in the soft lawn grasses, but we managed to get her to pose for a quick pic among the flowers before we called it a day.
I’d like to say that this has inspired me to get my own garden in order, but we’ll see. I did go out and grab some hostas and ferns for the hitherto neglected shady side of the yard today, though…†
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* It’s also probably due to the fact that an unfortunate side effect of summer’s arrival is, you know, heat, and I much prefer strolling through gardens without the risk of heatstroke and third degree burns. There’s a reason I live in the mountains (and nowhere beats the mountains for autumn color, so of course I never feel the pressing need to head elsewhere during the fall).
** Remember those oddities of my gardening habits that I mentioned in the footnote in Part 1? I get so excited to see plants with blooms in the gardening centers in spring that I go into a frenzy of purchasing, buying more than any sane person with a full-time job would ever have time to plant. As a result, I get completely burned out on doing anything in the yard by about the end of May, and I boycott all the garden centers during summer. Since most garden centers wisely sell plants based on what’s blooming at any given time, this of course means that my yard is a riot of gorgeous color in spring (irises the size of my head are one of my favorites) and the only things blooming mid-summer are there by accident since I’m never in a garden center when they’re actually selling summer-blooming plants.
*** The rose garden contains over 2,300 roses representing 250 varieties, none of which are in bloom this early. ^
^ You will of course go back at a more propitious time. –ed.
# If there are any rabid orchid aficionados out there, I did take some gorgeous pics inside the Conservatory, but since I have no idea what any of the varieties are I didn’t post any. If there’s someone out there desperate for orchid pics perhaps Robin would approve a guest post collaboration – my pics and someone else’s intelligent orchid discourse.
## 90,000. This boggles my mind.
### Let’s be honest. I can’t imagine doing this once a year. Plants have to be hardy to make it in my garden – I won’t even plant bulbs that I have to dig up for overwintering, so I’m surely not going to dig up stuff for aesthetic reasons.^
^ Yes, the plants in my garden are sturdy, independent souls. The delicate ones don’t last long. On the upside, I can give anyone in a similar climate good advice on what plants can survive truly staggering amounts of neglect.
† Doing final edits on this about a month later (our visit was in April), and I felt I should ‘fess up and admit that the hostas and ferns are still hanging out in their pots weeks later waiting for me to get around to popping them in the ground.^
^ Apparently all of the synonyms for “slack” apply to my gardening habits – careless, derelict, neglectful, remiss, lax…
My husband and I (and our dog, of course) recently spent a weekend in Asheville, NC, to enjoy a mini-vacation celebrating both the fact that tax season was over (you’d think this would only affect me, since my husband’s job has nothing to do with accounting, but since he has to live with me during tax season he’s just as glad to see the rear end of it as I am) and the fact that in some parts of the state spring has actually started to manifest with no take-backs.
Here in the mountains, spring is a tease* – we’ll have balmy temps for a week (maybe two), and all the plants feel the soil warming and suddenly pop out of the earth.** Spring, fickle mistress that she is, then invariably heads south for a few more weeks, at which point the temps drop back to 18° F (roughly -8° C), everything green is instantly blighted and we all fall into a deep depression. It’s at this point that all of us in the mountains head in droves to lower elevations to remind ourselves that there is hope.
So following this tradition, we headed to Asheville, where we endured miserable cold and rain for the first two days of our vacation, desperately checking the weather forecast every hour or so to make sure the promised sunshine and warmth were still on for the weekend and hoping the single pair of long pants and jacket each of us brought “just in case” would last until the weather broke.*** Sunday the long-awaited sunshine finally arrived and we drove over to Biltmore Estate to have a picnic among the glorious spring blooms.
For those unacquainted with it, Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned residence in the United States, a 250-room chateau built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s in the French Renaissance style. The grounds and gardens – originally totaling 125,000 acres but reduced now to approximately 8,000 – were designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s famed Central Park. Olmsted turned the over-farmed, over-logged, nutrient-depleted expanse of misused land purchased by Vanderbilt into a marvel of landscape architecture considered to be his most successful project.
Still today, a team of over five dozen full-time arborists, gardeners, foresters, and assorted horticulturalists work to further and maintain the vision he had for the property, which included extensive conservation work to reforest the property and turn the estate into a sustainable, functional, and self-sufficient model of beauty and utility.
It’s pretty incredible to read about the history of the house and grounds, as well as the strides still being made on the estate in the area of conservation and sustainability, but that’s not really what was on our minds as we settled in for our picnic. It was 70° (about 21° C), we were sitting in the (slightly damp) grass in the shade of a huge tree, and this was our view as we drank wine from the estate’s winery and nibbled on grapes and cheeses:
Technically we were in the Azalea Garden, a 20-acre# area containing one of the largest collections of native azaleas in the world, but none of the azaleas save one were blooming while we were there. I managed to sneak up on the one and snap a pic, but I couldn’t tell if it was just over-eager and burst happily into bloom a week too early or if it was a late-comer to the party and blossomed after the others had turned in. It’s possible a late frost caught a lot of the azaleas – some looked as though they were past their peak while others looked as though they were just forming buds, so it was hard to tell, but our timing was obviously off in one direction or the other.
We didn’t really want to hike down through any more of the Azalea Garden after eating, so we walked up toward the house to check out some of the other gardens that were bursting with spring color. On the way, we passed this random Staircase to Nowhere charmingly tucked into a shaded hillside and I had to take a pic (one of my most fervent desires for our home landscaping## is to someday be able to incorporate stonework).
The Italian Garden, the most formal garden on the estate, isn’t too exciting this early in the year as none of the water plants are out, so we strolled through the Shrub Garden. This area, also known as the Ramble since its meandering paths take visitors through four acres of native and exotic plants, connects the formal Italian Garden with the English-style Walled Garden and was designed to showcase a succession of color throughout the year. I have a particular fondness for spring-flowering trees and the Shrub Garden delivered these in spades – we saw absolute riots of blooms high and low, much to the delight of my winter-shriveled heart.
We also saw this, which wins the prize for best visual of the trip (they were delighted to pose for a picture, but I’ve cropped out the man’s face since I’m sure he didn’t anticipate being plastered on the internet for international readers to enjoy):
* * *
* This will be important later, when it comes time to understand certain oddities of my gardening habits.
** It’s literally possible to watch things grow – we’re talking an inch-and-a-half of new growth in a day.
*** The original forecast had been for warm temperatures and sunshine the whole time we were in Asheville, then the lovely weatherpersons suddenly announced the unexpected arrival of a cold front as we were driving down.^
^ In other words, right when it actually hit. Was this really not something anyone could see coming in advance? Really?
# Some sources say 15-acre, but our official Biltmore Guide says 20-acre so that’s what I’m going with.
## Perhaps an overly lofty word for the state of affairs currently surrounding our house.