Our newest interview is with UK-based photographer Clare Marie Bailey who specialises in analogue self-portraiture. Working predominantly with instant and 35mm films, Clare creates cinematic tableaux in which she is both photographer and star of the show.
Tell us a bit about yourself and who or what got you first interested in photography.
I guess my interest began when a teacher set up a darkroom after school and I went along with a friend and enjoyed the process that went on in there. I also had a deep interest in the environment in which I was growing up – all these great characters living around me in my hometown on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. Many of these characters really intrigued me; they seemed either wildly eccentric or magical and I wanted to get a record of them. I had an awareness of their uniqueness which drove my desire to document them. Although I didn’t have many skills, I am so pleased that I captured them on an old film camera I’d been given by my father. One woman was a real vision and would simply glide by in a long fur coat, 1930s hair and lipstick. A few years ago, I got to know another man quite well; his name was Cyril and we had quite a few adventures together. He had this naturally flamboyant style and drove an old Morris Minor at 20 miles per hour, often decked out with fresh flower garlands. His flat was like a 1940s film set and he would tell me amazing, fantastical tales. This interest in photographing outsider characters led me to discover the work of Diane Arbus and this further cemented my interest in photography.
For a while, I dipped in and out of photography but really it was a few years ago when I was given a little point-and-shoot camera that I began a serious commitment to it. I found I was up all night at times setting up scenarios in my house and I found I really enjoyed it and that I had this compulsion to create. I then bought a digital SLR but, at that time, I wasn’t getting results that worked for me. I was also reading about Lomography which led me to revisit film and in it I found the warmth I was longing for and became committed to it.
In the same period, Impossible Project took over the old Polaroid factory and began remaking instant film. I loved the work of artists such as Stephanie Schneider and instant film appealed to me. When I began working with it, I immediately loved its beauty and, at times, its random quality; so began my journey with Impossible Project, now Polaroid Originals. I’m really attracted to photography that is experimental in nature and, aesthetically, I like grain, light leaks and certain imperfections that might not be to everyone’s taste. I felt I needed to revisit the darkroom and really deepen my skills but, due to living in a rural area, I had to drive two hours to use a darkroom. But I loved the darkroom, so I was determined and I’m glad I made that commitment. It was in this period that I realised that photography was not just something I wanted to do, but something I am compelled to do.
Who or what are your main sources of inspiration? Your images have a real 60’s cinematic vibe to them – is cinema a big influence in your work?
Yes, cinema is a huge and enduring influence on my work without a doubt. I love cinemas as spaces and make great use of the ones locally. If I’m in a city, I will always check out what is on in all the arthouse cinemas. I love leaving the day-to-day behind and stepping in to the shared darkness ready to enter another world and be transported off elsewhere with all my emotions. I gather a lot of inspiration from cinema; I once watched four films in a day pretty much back to back, but I think that was possibly overkill! I really love those old cinemas that still have the deep thick red curtains, they’re beautiful places.
My love of films goes back to childhood; my grandmother lived around the corner, she was Italian and we watched a lot of TV and films together. Through the eyes and perspective of a child, many of them were quite captivating and, without knowing what was necessarily happening, I was struck by a lot of the imagery. My father watched world cinema too and, through him, I discovered directors such as Kieslowski and David Lynch – I’m a really big fan of his work. I’m also a fan of Antonioni, Argento, Chabrol and Kenneth Anger to name a few, and I also love stuff like Hammer films too.
With my work, usually I will have either just watched a film, or will re-watch a film for inspiration and print off the characters or scenes that inspire me ahead of a shoot. I sketch out the scenes I want to create and work from there, thinking about locations and outfits. It’s a part I really enjoy. Then I’ll work towards matching the images and visions I can see and hold in my head onto film. Sometimes they don’t quite work out, or move in a slightly different direction. It might not always be obvious to a viewer that the idea for an image came from a particular film. I once made a series called ‘Secretary on the Run’ which are influenced by Zabriskie Point and Psycho although it might not be apparent to the viewer.
I’m really interested in and love the aesthetic of the 1960s and the women of that period. So much was happening in that time and there was the whole counterculture movement which I’m interested in. There was a great exhibition a couple of years ago in the V&A in London about the whole revolution of the 1960s and, for me, it was a real joy. It was engaging to all senses from start to finish, it was a great insight into that period and quite poignant considering where we are at today. I think I’m really influenced in particular by the 1960s, Californian, desert-dreaming type of a vibe. I’m a big daydreamer, I get a lot of ideas that way.
I’m also a Columbo fan and think the episodes are incredible, they are like set heaven. I didn’t know that some well-known directors like Spielberg cut their teeth on Columbo, but the styles, sets and again the women are fabulous. Quincy is another show, more from the early 1970s, that I like. Both Columbo and Quincy are heroes of mine.
Other influences are Spaghetti Westerns, Victoriana and the artist Aubrey Beardsley. In fact I got so fascinated with Beardsley I got a necklace with the letter A and B that I wear as a sort of talisman. There are some great portraits of him in existence and he died young yet left such a legacy. Of course, his work saw a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s counterculture movement in the form of the psychedelic posters and graphics that were influenced by his art nouveau style.
Music too has always been a love of mine and I often find one song can set off a whole series of images racing through my mind. I’ve been listening to a lot dream pop and I love moody atmospheric bands like Tropic of Cancer and HTRK – I think they are great for getting me into a certain mood. But I also love epic music at times, especially film scores like Goblin’s score for Argento’s Suspiria and Ennio Morricone’s theme for Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
My other influences are the island I live on as it’s quite enchanting with its light, open spaces and seascapes and I’m aware I’ve an abundance of natural sets or ones I can reinvent as ‘other’ places. I also visit the arid parts of South Eastern Spain frequently.
I would have to say clothes have played a big role; I’ve been a big fan of vintage fashion and shops and the gems you come across like the pulp/sci-fi book covers of the 1960s /1970s. I love anything supernatural and really enjoy the occult inspired covers of Dennis Wheatley. Check out Pulp Librarian on Twitter, he showcases some of the best book covers from this period.
As a child I attended the Catholic Church with my mother and grandmother and, again, all the theatre and rituals, elaborate gowns, candles etc had an effect and my interest in magic and magical beliefs comes from there and is also reflected in my work.
I’m also a fan of Cindy Sherman, Stephanie Schneider, Hana Hayley, Marianna Rothen, Hannah Starkey and Polaroid artist Julia Beyer. They have set the bar really high and are huge talents.
I have a lot of admiration for photographers who explore self-portraiture – primarily because it is such an personal and introspective style. What attracted you to this genre?
It’s funny because I didn’t initially start out thinking about self-portraiture, it is something that happened quite naturally. Initially I was thinking more about using other people, but I learned quickly that I was the most reliable person I knew and also, if I had an idea at two in the morning and was full of enthusiasm, I could get up and get out shooting and it would be ok. I was always available, reliable and ready to go.
When I began using myself as a subject, I realised something happened; I was getting something out of it and I enjoyed the whole process. I really loved the idea of creating a parallel world for myself where I could co-exist as different characters. I became fascinated with the idea that once these imagined worlds had been created on film, I would continue to co-exist in them, in tandem to the ‘real’ world. I’ve got a thing about doubles and the idea that each person has an exact double somewhere else in the world – and then imagine if you saw them, what would that be like? It was Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique, which is such a beautiful film that influenced and triggered that obsession within me and I like creating these ‘other’ worlds with my ‘double’.
I’m also fascinated with the whole concept and idea of reinvention. I saw this great exhibition called Glam and it was about the Glam Rock period in the 1970s. There were some amazing photographs of people in bedsits dressed like rock stars. It was an austere time but, within it, people were reinventing and re-imagining themselves, it’s a really interesting concept to me. I like that you can step out of your day-to-day and into another existence entirely and become someone else, another character and persona.
Some of my work at times does use other people, but mostly it’s myself and I’ve always been a bit of a lone-wolf so maybe another reason this genre appeals to me. Working alone or with small and intimate numbers really appeals.
Your work is predominantly, if not entirely, analogue in nature; what is it about this method of capture that you prefer (particularly given the precarious nature of taking a self-portrait on a timer!)?
Maybe there is something old fashioned in me, but I love analogue and everything that goes along with it from the old cameras, the film stocks and of course the results it can achieve. I enjoy the whole process of working with film: from selecting a specific film, loading the film into the cameras, the smell of film, and even waiting for the results. I use a lot of instant Polaroid film, which to me at times isn’t very instant as I shield it immediately and keep it covered for at least a few hours to give it the best chance of saturation. I find it quite magical. If I’m using 35mm, and developing film myself and printing in the darkroom, I feel like an Alchemist. I love the whole process of the darkroom and I find it really therapeutic. I like how analogue lends itself to experimentation and can give a random and mercurial quality that I find real beauty in.
Film can also be costly and, with limited shots, I find I have to really think through what I am going to do and plan well. I always find this time of slowing down to contemplate and consider a bonus and gift and I have been in situations when I’m thinking hard about my last couple of shots, but I think it pushes you creatively. Then for me it’s that enveloping warmth you can get with analogue, it’s like a great warm hug.
It’s funny you mention self-timers, I still enjoy setting up a scene and running in and out as the timer counts down. I use a few things to allow me to focus on in place of myself then fling them out of the shot last minute. Of course, there are plenty of shots that have gone quite wrong that you don’t get to see.
Do you have any funny stories from your adventures in self-portraiture that you can share with us? Also, any advice that you can give to new photographers considering self-portraiture?
Oh yes, quite a few! I was in Sicily once and I decided to do some pictures around some old temples. I got to the site early and decided that I’d work against the crowds and try and be as discrete as possible and not get in anyone’s way. I was all dressed up in a golden cape and in the middle of a shot, suddenly I had all these people in front of me. Initially I thought, oh no, they’re all going to be annoyed with me as I’m in their way, but when I started to move I realised that they all had their phones out and were signalling me to stay where I was, it was quite amusing. They seemed to be more interested in me and my cape than the temples themselves. At another part of the same site, when I was all dressed up as a character, a family came up and asked if I was an actress and I said no, but they decided to take photos anyway and so I live on in someone’s photo album. They thought I was an American, they seemed quite intrigued.
Another one was closer to home. I was in Portmerion, which is this beautiful Italianate village outside Porthmadog where they filmed the Prisoner. I was again in character with wig and heavy make-up, and I bumped into two nuns I knew from my school days who were on a day out. To my horror they actually recognised me, I remember thinking ‘oh my lord what must they be thinking?’ I didn’t know what quite to say so I just laughed and said I was taking some pictures, they seemed quite amused and said ‘oh good for you’. It was quite a moment.
I would say to anyone to persevere and keep working towards meeting those visions in your head. If you’re not happy with what you are getting on film ask yourself, what it is you want more or less of, and keep going until your pictures start to give you more of what you want. Things won’t always go to plan, you will cut your head off in shots, or things won’t turn out as you envisaged, but keep going. I’m aware there are still lots of skills and techniques for me to learn and I have many images that haven’t worked, but I just keep going and learn what I can. It’s about not giving up and giving in to the self-doubt that we can all go through. Being dyslexic, I’ve learned mostly by doing, which for me has been the most rewarding.
The biggest thing is learning to overcome the feeling of self-consciousness if you are alone shooting and people suddenly appear. I find that by keeping focused on what I’m doing people simply pass by, and a lot is all in your head. I mean once, I was out on the dunes when an older man appeared. I was all dressed up and he didn’t bat an eyelid and we held a full conversation about the area and some rare seagrass that grew on the side. It was quite surreal.
What is next? Do you have any big projects on the horizon that you can give us a glimpse in to?
I’m working on some film shorts at the minute as companion pieces to my still work. I like the idea of bringing my characters to life in moving image and so I’m doing some little shorts with soundtracks. I’ve a couple of solo exhibitions coming up this year (and next) in Wales and I want to show both still and moving image. I’m hoping to get some film shorts completed very soon and up online. I’ve also been collaborating with a couple of musicians Jim Knight and Osian Rhys.
A new series of images is being planned and I’d really like to shoot out in California if I can. I would like to get out there later in the year if that is possible. I’m also really thrilled to be a part of the 12:12 project for 2019. The 12:12 project brings together an international group of great Polaroid artists to shoot throughout the year. I was delighted to be asked by founder Penny Felts, a photographer from Nashville, to be a group member for 2019. I hope I don’t let them down!
Who was the last photographer whose work made you stop you in your tracks and say ‘Wow!’?
Wow! One tough question as so many to limit to one. In the instant community I’ve been really enjoying the work of Lela Gruen, Ben Innocent’s recent work, Stefan Merz and the work Ray Liu does with light trails to name a few. I’ve also been really enjoying the work of photographers Julia Romer and Louis Dazy.
The photographer Henri Prestes is someone whose work I came across quite recently and I was instantly smitten and did literally stop in my tracks. The dense moods and atmospheres he conveys in his work are quite something – they are literally dripping in it, and each image is highly cinematic and quite epic. His work really spoke and communicated to me.
You can see more of Clare’s work at:
All images copyright Clare Marie Bailey.