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A Frozen Tale

2013 began with an exciting email I received from The Royal Armoury (of Stockholm) inviting me to exhibit work in a exhibition they were curating. Christina of Sweden (from my series The Regal Twelve) would exhibit alongside a collection of artefacts en-route from the Vatican Library.

Next, an invitation from the palace arrived in the mail, formally inviting me to attend the opening of the exhibition, It also notified me that it would opened by the King’s sister (making it a truly aristocratic affair).

Let's just say, it doesn't take much to spark my imagination with fantasy...

What if I could photograph a Swedish Princess or produce a shoot in a palace? I couldn't imagine they would say yes, but then again it never hurts to ask! … I spoke with the team at livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury) and they invited me to do a photo shoot in one of their most famous castles, Skokloster Slott. Heart racing, I clumsily googled the castle in my haste and excitement.

What followed whet my appetite for an epic Swedish adventure and immediately a story of castle life began to grow in my imagination.

Skokloster Slott is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in all of Europe. Described as a cabinet of curiosities inside a cabinet of curiosities, nothing could truly prepare me for the magnificence of each room and it’s collection. This 350 year old castle sits upon a frozen lake, and has ice running through it’s core (at least it did when I was there)!

Stuffed full of priceless collections of art, weapons and books, all completely preserved (from the sub-zero temperatures) Skokloster Slott is now a museum and exceptional example of life in the 17th Century. I started to think about artworks in a series that could be themed to each room.

I learnt early on that I had to sketch my thoughts and ideas or I become a complete insomniac. So I began the project as I do all of my projects… I had a theme and I could see a few examples of the rooms from the castle, so I began to study fashions and famous historical figures who had visited the building. I put together mood boards and planned shots. I put out social media calls for volunteers, searching for assistants and models of all shapes and sizes, all willing to lend a hand for what would become an epic swedish adventure.

I studied paintings of the period and got swept up in the works of Vermeer and his study of the middle class and common person and this is something I really focused on in the series. But I’m never too far away from the grandeur of regal themes and several famous aristocrats and historical figures who had visited the castle also became anchors for a central theme within the series.

When I’m building a series, I’m working on many themes simultaneously, and always linking these themes back together into a series. But I’m also thinking a lot about the style and feel of the series and how I can logistically bring this to life. What really moved me most about paintings of this period was the atmosphere and this was going to become a big part of my approach to building this series. Before the advent of electricity, buildings were filled with soot and smoke from open fireplaces and ovens and rooms were lit with candles and the sun that poured through the giant windows. This was the atmosphere I planned to add to my series.

Once things start to fall into place, I had a location, I had models and assistants, I had costuming and themes, I bring everything together into schedules, draw lighting diagrams and additional mood board treatments for my makeup team to follow. I began to ask for permission to have animals and smoke machines on location and this is where things became even more challenging.

Lighting the Cabinets of Curiosity
Lighting the Cabinets of Curiosity

The first obstacle was that I was not allowed to have anything but lighting, and people in the building. We couldn’t touch a thing, couldn’t sit on a thing, and it’s really hard for a model to interact with an environment in they’re not able to touch anything. So I needed to organise chairs and books that were not antique for the models to interact with, and replace them in post production at a later date. When you look at The Armoury, you would naturally assume that the model is sitting on that chair, next to a dog, with a blue sash dropping to the ground. Not so, these are all elements that were restricted and required to be added afterwards.

My next obstacle was that I could not bring in the atmospheric components that I so desperately wanted to shoot in camera. I always prefer to shoot as much as possible in camera. But this is not a high budget film and this castle is not my property and rules must be obeyed. In The Feast, the water pouring from the jug into the tulips, the geese, the butterflies, all shot afterwards and added in post.

It’s much much easier to have everything on set, shot in camera and then grade an image in post production. But these were unfortunately elements I would need to shoot and add afterwards. Of course, this is something that needs to be planned for in the actual location shoot. I would need props as stand-ins for my models because they can’t sit in mid-air, and my models, who are all really only volunteers and fans of my work, who live on the other side of the planet and I’d never met, well they’d need to role-play the interactions with the elements that weren’t really there.

Another challenge was the discovery that the planned lighting (generators running from mains power) we’d organised in Stockholm was useless because there was no power in the castle… part of it’s preservation. This I discovered once we’d landed in Sweden and driven out through the woodlands to the frozen castle, arriving just as the sun set. We stepped into the icy Aladdin’s cave only to see darkness and be handed flashlights. Through the darkness we stumbled with little beams of light picking up small areas of various rooms. How on earth was I going to do twelve shoots here starting at 5am the next morning, when I couldn’t even do a recce? This rambling old building had so many rooms and even hidden rooms, within rooms, locked from the public and hidden by the dark night sky, and all I could do was hope that I could think fast enough on my feet to capture everything I wanted before flying back to Sydney.

We spent the next two days running from one incredible room to the next, I’ve never worked so fast. The story-boards and schedule went right out the window and I just had to think on my feet at every moment. I’d race through dozens of rooms, pick a spot, quickly speak to James about my lighting, and everyone would pack up the lights, race up and down stairs to the next location, and get set up before the incredible sun we were chasing had disappeared. I’d prep the next model and try to create an atmosphere that set the tone for the scene to unfold. There were so many magical moments and everyone involved was incredible.

Quite incredibly, we’d all made it through two enormously challenging and tiring days and we were on our final shoot. The scene was the library and this is something I’d planned from the very beginning. I’d read about a famous Italian diplomat who had visited the castle and written a controversial book about it’s inhabitants and famous visitors. I had hand made paper with Italian script printed on each page that I sourced from the period and stained each page to act as a central prop that would appear in each artwork. In this final library scene, my Italian would stand in the centre of the room, the assistants would throw the paper up in the air, to represent the anarchy he’d left behind when he wrote about Skokloster Slott. The crew threw the paper in the air like confetti to celebrate the final frame of the shoot… and it was then, from the corner of my eye, I spotted the room

The Cabinets of Curiosity - Location Shot
The Cabinets of Curiosity - Location Shot

The room was another library apartment, with a focus on The Age of Discovery. Any gentleman of the period would own a collection that would include maps and globes of exotic lands and the castle’s creator, count Carl Custaf Wrangel, was like a continental Prince who’d peacock his possessions for all the aristocrats to see. The room was extraordinary and I had to have it in my series.

My challenges had become too great to shoot a model on location… the laptop we were tethered to was flat, my card has 3 frames left, the sun was disappearing, my models had gone home, my crew were beginning to look mutinous to say the least… this would need to be a composite image. So, I set up my tripod and shot several long exposures with natural light filtering in through the window. Gleefully rubbing my hands together, I began to imagine the magic I could produce in this adventurous room.

Returning to Australia, I busied myself with sourcing and photographing all of the additional elements for the series, including the atmospheric smoky light to grade the series like the 17th century paintings I’d been inspired by when beginning the project. When I’d eventually completed all of the artworks we’d shot on location, it was now time to start planning my final artwork. Using the background plate I’d shot at the castle in Sweden, I sketched out the new costume to match the tonal palette of the room, and planned my studio shoot in Sydney. The style of the costuming and hair are indicative of the flamboyant 18th century styling found in much of my work, rather than the more conservative 17th century styling seen in the rest of the series.

Sketching / Pre-vis
Sketching / Pre-vis

The artworks that were shot on location are subtle and delicate in approach, and their stories are contained within the castle. In contrast, my aim with this final artwork was to produce a sensational image to serve as the hero image for the series. One that would capture the imagination of viewers and encourage them to look through the telescope also and come on an adventure to frosted foreign lands.

The Cabinets of Curiosity explores the theme of adventure and discovery. In many ways, the invented character in this work symbolises my own exploration of the castle set on the frozen Swedish lake.

The Cabinets of Curiosity by Alexia Sinclair
The Cabinets of Curiosity by Alexia Sinclair