Editor’s note: A short while ago, we were introduced to the remarkable work of London-based fashion, celebrity and editorial photographer Rebecca Litchfield. It’s fair to say we were immediately drawn into her moody imagery. Rebecca’s been a working pro for just over six years, but her list of clients and accolades gives her the credentials of a seasoned, visual storyteller. She was chosen as Professional Photographer of the Year 2009 by Professional Photography Magazine and as a semi-finalist for the 2010 Hasselblad Masters Awards.
Her current editorial project will take her to a variety of countries in search of abandoned places and cultural memory, and will culminate in a book at the end of 2013. You can see her work, read her blog and experience her Day of the Dead Abandoned Photography site. Recently, Rebecca returned from Chernobyl in Central Ukraine – the first stop of her project’s journey – and tells us a bit about that experience and her work.
Your images of abandoned places are so haunting and intriguing. What is it about the past that entices you to document the current state of these places?
I have always found considerable aesthetic beauty in things decayed, the objects that remain, but may soon disappear forever. They tell a story of a long and interesting past like artifacts in a museum. Some people travel to the ruins of Rome, the crumbling Colosseum, others to Peru to see the enchanting ruins of the Machu Picchu. These majestic and culturally important places are slowly crumbling with time and one day will disappear from humanity in their entirety. But I see no difference between these iconic world sites, which attract tourism, and the abandoned places known to so few, we must not let these hidden histories disappear.
Hidden from the master narrative of history, these places are imbued with a wealth of meaning and wonder, a history of their own, which I strongly believe deserves to be recorded for posterity too. I believe it is absolutely vital to sensitively preserve this of a once-rich time before it is gone forever.
Whilst some may look at the decay in these places as simply reflecting the destruction, I perceive them as museums; the buildings and extant objects as beautiful exhibits of what once existed. Moreover, they are hauntingly beautiful memorials to the ordinary people who once lived and worked there, but whose existence, whose stories are ephemeral risk of being extinguished forever if they are not somehow recorded. It is reality that these places will cease to exist very soon, and as their memories begin to fade, these places will be forgotten. It is essential to record these pasts so that the narratives of history will furnish, as full and true a record as possible, chronicling history from above and below, no matter which ideologies shaped them.
My fashion photography has always been very conceptual with a dark nature running throughout and now I feel my exploration of such abandonment full of ideas and cultural memory compliments my style of photography greatly.
The aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster has been photographed often in the last 25 years. What do you hope your images convey about it now?
I have been struck by the extent of urban abandonment in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in the former Eastern Bloc. I have had a deep fascination for the former USSR and its history for a long time, but I have recently become particularly drawn to the many ghost towns that used to be thriving communities behind the Iron Curtain but now lay derelict, uninhabited, broken shells of what they once were. My aim with this book is to attempt to capture something of their essence in my photography, to preserve and tend to the memories they still hold before they too are lost as time rolls inexorably on. We must not let these hidden histories disappear.
Chernobyl has been photographed a lot, but each year the power plant changes, now with the new sarcophagus being built and the nearby town of Pripyat evolves as nature claims it back. The most poignant thing is that nature is slowly taking back what it once had and the landscape is slowly changing. The buildings deteriorating more and more each year and vegetation slowly covering it. Maybe in another 25 years the buildings will be just crumbing ruins.
It’s very hard to put into words such an overwhelming experience as the one I had in my three days of being in the zone, I’ve never had such a huge mixture of emotions, it has opened my mind to the fragility of humanity and how the things humans create can cause so much damage to the world and the life that lives in it and I hope that people viewing the photos will get a feeling of this while seeing the details that touched me on my journey.
I guess the most amazing thing I have learnt is that nature will return and claim it all back, that humans may only last a small fraction of the time the Earth will exist as a disaster caused by man or nature could easily wipe us out and yet nature will still claim back the Earth. It has also taught me to cherish life, when you feel bad things are happening, you only have to think of those that have given their lives in such tragedies or live with the pain caused by them. It has made me see how lucky I am, there is great tragedy all over the world unseen by many and I hope that through the pictures I have taken and will share that other may realise that life is fragile and we must cherish what we have and never take it for granted.
I have captured Chernobyl and Pripyat in what I feel is a slightly more artistic representation then a lot of the documentary shots that exist already, I aimed to capture the atmosphere and tragedy of the decaying town, to produce a series of beautiful images that would grab the attention of people to look more closely, then when realising what they are of, make them think more about the tragedy that had happened in Chernobyl.
How do you use High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging to create a mood or a particular point of view?
I use HDR as part of the processing of my images; I take a series of 7 exposures while the camera is mounted on a tripod to capture the whole range of lights and darks of the image. This is impossible to do in a single exposure. I then combine all of these exposures into one image using software called Photomatix.
You can adjust the gamma, strength, luminosity, white, blacks, detail, saturation, temperature etc. to create a tone mapped image. I find that the image produced is very untrue to what the original scene is, it almost looks unreal and un natural so what I will then do is us this on a layer over the most correctly exposed photo of the seven taken and use it on an opacity just enough to bring out the lights and darks, I will select areas where I will remove the HDR completely where it looks un natural and only use it where the image was too dark or too light to begin with.
The resulting image means no area will be too dark and no areas blown out with highlights. I think HDR is wonderful to use in this way if you use it subtly, when photographing in Chernobyl, I felt the need to document it more in a documentary way, I wanted the final images to look beautiful, but not unreal, I wanted to capture it in a sensitive way that was true to how I viewed it so using HDR subtly was the key.
Does your fashion photography inform the work you’re doing for this project?
Over the last year, primarily to complement my fashion work, I have begun photographing abandoned buildings. What had originated as a hobby and a chance to location scout for future fashion shoots has become much more serious and important to me. Indeed, my deepening passion for this kind of photography, which is categorized as ‘urban exploration’, has inspired me to start exploring the medium further in order to develop my range as a photographer. I believe my photographs sensitively capture something of societies and cultural that have been abandoned or lost to the modern day
With so much academic and intellectual discussion of the concept of cultural memory prevalent at the moment, I believe that my exploration of this theme in my work is both timely and important.
I would have to say that my exploring began as a way of location scouting for my fashion work and I have now got a large library of amazing locations for me to shoot fashion editorials, but more importantly it has also helped me look more widely at how I produce a fashion image. Moving forward I will be shooting more on location then in the studio as I did previously, I hope that with fashion shoots in the future I will convey the atmosphere I find in these places within my images. Over the next few years I am excited to be combining the two to create a series of beautifully atmospheric conceptual fashion shoots within abandoned buildings. Working on the book will aid my development as a fashion photographer, as capturing a mood and atmosphere as well as the surrounding location is very important and something I want to establish in my fashion photography.