Amelia’s Magazine | Memories and Nightmares: an interview with photographer Lottie Davis

Lottie Davies blue bedroom
Lottie Davies, The Blue Bedroom.

Lottie Davies is currently preparing for a major solo show at the LA Noble Gallery in Whitechapel. The evocatively titled Memories and Nightmares features a series of extraordinary staged photographs prompted by shared stories. I asked Lottie some questions.

How long have you been working on Memories and Nightmares as a theme in your work, and why has this subject matter gripped you so deeply?
I began working on the project back in 2008.  I had become interested in everyday life stories – when investigating the situation on the Thai-Burma border, for instance, I found myself collecting life-stories from the people I met, and setting those stories next to portraits of them. Collecting what I call ‘internal stories’ came from that. Everyone has internal stories, either memories or dreams, or nightmares; ‘events’ which can be (and often are) replayed in the mind and take on the texture of a personal myth, a story which is retold, repeated and becomes a part of our life story. However banal those stories may seem, they are what we use to tell others about ourselves and our lives – we are, in some ways, the total of our stories. So, I wanted to illustrate, share, illuminate those internal memory stories and I began with the first thing I can remember myself, going to see my mother in hospital the day that my brother was born. (the piece with that title is what came from that story). After that I began to collect memory stories from friends, family and eventually strangers, and it is those which have inspired this series.

Lottie Davies - the day my brother was born
Lottie Davies, The Day My Brother Was Born.

There is something curiously static about first memories, they are often described in the present tense, and as if the protagonist can view it from 360 degrees – such as ‘I am running along a corridor, my father is behind me and I can see a rocking horse through a doorway‘. They are ‘flashbulb’ moments, which for whatever reason, impressed themselves on our childhood selves. I find them endlessly fascinating.

Lottie Davies Viola as Twins.
Lottie Davies, Viola as Twins.

When did you first start to create such elaborate sets, and what were the biggest difficulties when you set out to make the first ones?
Actually I think it goes back to my time at university, where I spent a lot of time involved in student theatre – I directed a Sartre play which had seven scene changes. I loved changing the space, although I did use all the furniture from my flat at the time, so there were no chairs when I got home. I also did a lot of costume design and backstage work, and this was when I realised that working with actors is just revelatory. Photographically speaking, I learnt the tools of the trade by assisting advertising photographers so I was well used to finding locations, propping, styling and so on.

Lottie Davies, the red-devil
Lottie Davies, The Red Devil.

Once I have decided on which story I am going to work on, I search for the right location – I much prefer real places, which have scuff marks and the evidence of having been lived in, so I visit as many as I need to before settling on the right one. Then I add or remove elements to create the scene – furniture, wallpaper, new props, etc. Costume usually comes after that, once I’ve cast all the characters.

The biggest difficulties tend to be that I am often very certain about how I want the image to look, and finding a place which feels right can be difficult, especially when I am after a particular period.  When I do find the right place, I often find myself jammed right into a corner to get the right angle, or wishing that a pillar wasn’t there, or that a window could just be a foot longer. But those are the joys and frustrations of working on location, which is absolutely my favourite place to be.

Lottie Davies the frozen-lake
Lottie Davies, The Frozen Lake

Bold colours are a prominent feature of your photography – how do you recreate these jewel like tones?
I like to create as much of it as possible in the set itself, by finding just the right shade of red fabric, or green dress. I am a huge believer in getting it in camera. I shoot on large format Kodak film, which has a richness and texture which I love, and I then scan the negatives and work on very large digital files. There is a small amount of colour work of course, but I keep it to a minimum since I usually don’t need to do very much.

Lottie Davies lou's story
Lottie Davies, Lou’s Story.

How do you cast the models that make your tableaux work and have you ever had any horror stories when dealing with small children and babies?
I work with actors as often as I can, I find them just amazing to work with – they are trained to interpret and represent human interactions in the most authentic way, and the expressions of the characters in the pieces are of paramount importance to me. I often talk over the characters with them in advance of the shoot, and treat it a little like an improvised film scene. I find models and actors from all over the place – via the internet, model agencies, acting agencies, and of course people I already know. I have worked with children often, and I enjoy it, but generally I approach the shoot a little differently with them – we’ll make up a game to make it fun, and have lots of breaks (and quite a lot of chocolate). Babies are a different kettle of fish of course because they’re not susceptible to bribery, but I’ve always found with a bit of patience and going at the baby’s speed it works out. They quite often pee though – both Marla in Quints and Arlo in What is the future? peed mid-shoot!

Lottie Davies - The Man Who Ran Away
Lottie Davies, The Man Who Ran Away.

What is happening in The Man Who Ran Away? Who is he? Why did he run?
I’m glad you asked about that one, it’s one of my favourite stories. You can read the full stories for each one on my website by the way, just click the ‘caption’ button underneath each image. The Man Who Ran Away was inspired by a lady who sent me her earliest memory. She grew up in Bristol in the 50s, her mother was a single mum, and after school, while her mother was at work, she would play in the fields nearby with a friend. One day they were playing and they noticed a man pushing a bicycle, who wanted to talk to them. Our protagonist said ‘I can’t talk to strangers‘ and ran straight home. That’s the end of the memory story itself, but what I found so moving about it was that ever since then, she has conflated the idea of her father (who her mother called ‘the man who ran away’) who she never met, with this man, this stranger who she didn’t talk to. It seemed to express so much about her loss and confusion, and desperate desire for her father to come back and find her.

Lottie Davies, Quints
Lottie Davies, Quints.

Who are the quints? And why are there five of them?
The quints are the product of the wild nightmare imagination of my friend Carolyne, who sent me her nightmare story in lieu of a first memory, right at the beginning of my collecting. She said her first memory was boring, so she would send me a nightmare instead – not what I asked for, I thought, but actually it led to half of the project being nightmares instead. You could read her full story on the website, but in short, she dreamt she was pregnant with quintuplets, which in the dream-world led to huge worries – would her husband have to leave his job, would they be able to find a car large enough for them all (she has two children already), what would their life be like? It was so extreme, and so boldly illustrative of the bizarre nature of our dream narratives that I couldn’t resist making a piece with it!

Can you tell us any other stories about the photographs that will be on show
at LA Noble?

Each one has its own story of course, and they will be there to read next to each of the images – it’s hard to choose a favourite, but perhaps one of the simplest, and yet touching, for me is Sarah-Jayne’s memory of watching her father pick out ties in the morning, through a crack in the door. That little description brought to life so many feelings of being a child watching the adult world. Being part of it, and yet not entirely understanding it. I think a lot of this work is about that, the time before we grow up and start to negotiate our way in the world.

Do you have any tips for younger photographers when it comes to pursuing your vision?
Well, it’s a tough road to follow, let there be no mistake about that. But, there is always space for new beauty, new creativity and new ideas. Believe in what you make – if you don’t, no-one else will.

What will you be working on next?
Actually I am working on a project called Love Stories, which is in a similar vein to Memories and Nightmares in that I’m collecting stories to interpret and inspire me. This time though I am asking couples to each tell me, independently, how they remember the first time they met their partner. So many things come from those first meetings, I’m intrigued by the fact that they can often be very everyday, sometimes extraordinary, but invariably change the course of people’s lives, and lead to new lives coming into being. I have a small website for it: Love Stories Project and you can see the first piece on my website here.

Memories and Nightmares begins on Friday 5th April: full listing information here. See more Memories and Nightmares on Lottie Davies’ website.

Categories ,interview, ,LA Noble Gallery, ,Lottie Davies, ,Lou’s Story, ,Love Stories Project, ,Memories and Nightmares, ,photography, ,Quints, ,The Blue Bedroom, ,The Day My Brother Was Born, ,The Frozen Lake, ,The Man Who Ran Away, ,The Red Devil

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