Lara Gilks - online exhibition

Offbeat Fairytales

Lara Gilks

Online exhibition

Interview by Mary-Jane Duffy for PhotoForum, August 2019

Lara Gilks is a Wellington photographer. She came to photography about ten years ago when she was given her first camera and hasn’t looked back. This year her work will be included in exhibitions in Paris, the US and Hungary. Her photographs tell epic stories—stories of children trapped under ice, brides turned into horses, melancholic bears on a lake shore, lost boys, and enchanted trees. I asked her about her ideas and influences and how she achieved these beautiful images.

MJD: When I look at your work I get this sense of narrative and mythology. What’s the story you’re telling?

LG: I’m not sure about a recurring story in my work but definitely a recurring process. I put incongruous elements into beautiful landscapes. That produces a tension. But I also like to be playful. I’m using children as models with masks and other props, so there has to be a playful aspect and theatre in order to work with them. And of course, people will experience the images in their own way influenced by their own stories.

MJD: I’m in love with one of your images, The Horse Bride. As you know, I got married six months ago in Queenstown and this image encapsulates all my feelings of strangeness and wonder at the experience.

LG: That’s great. I want that tension in the images—the sense of being out of place and absurd yet somehow normal.

MJD: I love the fact that inside that wedding dress is your son. It adds another layer of ideas. He is the enchanted prince trapped in the body of a mare about to be married… or so my imagination goes. But even without knowing it’s your son, there’s a sense that this bride is part of a big story. She’s on the shores of a lake. Is she jilted? Is she apprehensive? Or is she just taking a moment?

LG: That’s what I like to try and achieve… Horses are so strong and sensual. I love their profiles. When you put someone in a horse mask, these qualities are present. And this image does have layers as you say – the child, the landscape, the thoughtful horse, the wedding dress. It is intended to challenge and provoke exactly the questions you have asked.

MJD: The way he touches his hand to the nose making a perfect ‘o’ shape like a portal through which you can see across the lake…

LG: Lots of that stuff happens by accident. I set the shoot up and then the magic happens. I carry around a bag of props whenever I go anywhere. Whenever someone is game enough to play with them, I will grab the opportunity to shoot them. This particular shot was taken down in the Marlborough Sounds.

MJD: In a wedding dress, this horse also has magnificent metaphorical qualities—the bride who needs breaking in, who will be saddled, who will be ridden—or not.

LG: Yes there are many layers of metaphor in that image. I like how pensive the horse is, with a sense of trepidation which I imagine many people experience in a wedding dress.

MJD: This series Masked, reminds me so much of the Florian Habicht film Woodenhead, described as an offbeat fairytale.

LG:. I don’t know it, but the fairytale idea works—except they tend to have happy endings. I’m not sure that my stories necessarily have happy endings—that is one of the questions that the images pose.

MJD: Yes, they’re more like the Brothers Grimm stories where the characters learn lessons or come to dark endings. What about the props? What props would you take on holiday besides the masks?

LG: Arms, legs and heads of mannequins, black and white dresses. I have a set of wonderful angel wings I sourced off from Latvia.

MJD: Mannequins like Atget, the French photographer?

LG: More like Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

MJD: Yes, you introduced me to Meatyard and when I look at his work I can see the references especially in your My Backyard Theatre series. Your work differs in its use of animal masks where he uses grotesque human ones. The animal masks give your work that other-worldliness whereas his images seem to be about the strangeness and isolation of human people.

What about the Beneath the ice series? The aesthetic and vibe of these images is all romance and tragedy. What was the influence for this series? How did they come about?

LG: We spent a lot of time in Central Otago when I was growing up and visited Diamond Lake near Wanaka which freezes over in winter. As a child I was fearful of falling under the ice and the danger of the ice has stayed with me. But also at the time I made these, I was feeling so trapped and hemmed in by the demands of motherhood, I almost suffocated. Maybe this series was my therapy.

MJD: The shape of the work and the flowers make these images feel very Victorian. And the zing of the colour in incredible. Did you enhance them after you’d taken the photos?

LG: I try to minimise post production. These images are all composed in-camera.

MJD: How?

LG: All the images are shot in our bathroom, my makeshift studio. It has great light. I shot them with the model soaking in a hot bath under a sheet of perspex. Condensation formed on the perspex and perhaps that’s what gives it the feel of a painting. Plastic flowers and food colour provide the colour. And my sons are the models again. They’re growing up so it’s harder to get them to do this. But the series is finished now—there won’t be anymore Beneath the ice photos.

MJD: The way you have channeled the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic is uncanny. Was that a conscious thing?

LG: I like the idea of dark beauty. I think that’s what I’m always trying to achieve.

More of Lara’s work can be seen on her website

Mary-Jane Duffy is a freelance art writer and poet. She manages programmes at Te Auaha, NZ Institute of Creativity, and moonlights as a tour guide for ArtExplore on weekends.

Slideshow captions for mobile devices

Lara Gilks, Horse Bride, from the series Masked, 2018

Lara Gilks, Lucy in Wings, from the series Masked, 2018

Lara Gilks, Untitled, from the series Masked, 2018

Lara Gilks, Long legs, from the series My Backyard theatre, 2018

Lara Gilks, Boy with two heads, from the series My Backyard theatre, 2018

Lara Gilks, Lion gives flowers, from the series My Backyard Theatre, 2017

Lara Gilks, Adorn, from the series Beneath the Ice, 2017

Lara Gilks, Hushed, from the series Beneath the Ice, 2018

Lara Gilks, Surface, from the series Beneath the Ice, 2018

Lara Gilks,, Untitled, from the series Beneath the Ice, 2018

Lara Gilks, Untitled 1, from the series Devoid, 2019

Lara Gilks, Untitled 2, from the series Devoid, 2019

Lara Gilks, Untitled 1, from the series New Order

Lara Gilks, Untitled 2, from the series, New Order

Lara Gilks, Untitled 3, from the series New Order