Photo: Karen Melvin in Hexham, North East

Karen Melvin


I use photography to explore ideas around fairy tales, mythology and the environment. i develop my ideas experimentally, often making sketches in advance of subsequent set-ups. I work in series and bodies of work over a long enough time to let me thoroughly explore my subject and its representation and my relationship to it. I have returned to woodland, the garden, and the northern (and contrastingly the deep southern US) landscape as subject and background in various guises from my early documentation of hill farmers to the representation of ancient woodland and how it relates to the psychology and setting of fairy tales and mythology. I used the story of Rapunzel to look at both ecological struggles and domestic conflicts of protection and freedom. I photographed four friends in ancient woodlands along with woodland floral carpets and trees, installing the images across the wall in a non-linear way. In Constellation I moved to represent the night sky in a still life setting resonating with both mythology and domestic narrative. In Down South and Sisters I look at my family roots in the USA and my relationship with my sister and how the sub tropical environment affects my looking. The body of work Paper Dolls is a series of large format photographic still lives incorporating portraiture and self-portraiture. Paper dolls were part of my childhood play of fantasy and social exploration and I have extended this idea of paper cutouts into still life construction. The change of scale and juxtaposition of figures and objects creates an imaginary space, causing a collision of different realms. This throws light on domestic social dynamics between parent and child, male and female, youth and age. In retrospect I realise that this work has coincided with looking after my grandchildren, the fantasy of childhood becoming mingled with an awareness of innocence and fragility seen from a new perspective. Process and techniques Our relationships with each other and with the environment and with our own inner journey inform my work with an increasing focus on my own imaginative process. In the Paper Dolls series, I begin the image making process by collaborating with friends and family members to make the figures for my subsequent constructions. I might use old clothes, costumes, or improvisation, as appropriate. The figures are then selected, processed in the darkroom and cut out. I place these homemade dolls in relationship with other objects in the studio, house or garden, making a tactile playground full of associations. This staging is not merely theatrical but seeks to draw attention to the layers of photographic reality and to undercut our preconceptions. Importantly, the physical handling of the paper dolls and connected objects, the tactile sense of nature, and the flood of associations give me those moments of recognition that tell me what I want, with an emotional force connected to the talisman-like power of the image. I photograph this new situation on 4x5 large format colour film, which I then scan and balance digitally to print on archival 24x30 water-colour ink jet paper. This scale brings the doll/figures to their actual size and reveals the full range of detail present. Influences Using hand made cut out paper figures, in the manner of the Frances and Elsie Wrights photographs of the Cottingley Fairies, has become a way for me to address historical pictorial conventions and photography's relation to time and memory. This allows me to connect the shifting past of memory with a more physical process in the here and now, to connect the private domain of everyday incidents to the more public space of the collective mythology of fairy tales. Roll play, bodywork and the disruption of stereotypes as developed by Jo Spence and Rosie Martin into Photo therapy has deeply influenced my reading of family snapshots, advertising and our surrounding media. I have collaborated with actress/ director Carolina Casson using improvisation and yoga techniques as a support for work in front of the camera and have integrated all these into my own practice. My finished prints both in silver emulsion and in my current cotton rag pigment digital prints rely on tonal and colour balance with a quality of light permeating the image. I am very indebted to Thomas Joshua Cooper for his insights into my process and to John Blakemore for his teaching, help and example in exquisite printmaking and thinking about the expression of the image. Career path I studied Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (BA Hons), lectured in photography at Newcastle Polytechnic and most recently at Cleveland College of Art and Design for fifteen years, was three times adviser on photography for Northern Arts and was a founding member and arts adviser for the environmental project, Ladycross Nature and Art. I was photographer in residence for the Middlesbrough 2000 Millennium Festival working with community groups, using environmental and dramatised portraiture. I received a Northern Arts award and an A4E Lottery grant in 1996 for the project Fairy Tale, Myth and the Landscape, resulting in exhibition and performance, The Seal Woman, and a Visual Arts 1996 grant for The Four Winds Stone Circle, a collaborative environmental art project. With Frocks in the Cupboard; Life is a Series of.I created a series of portraits and stories of women in dresses with a transformative significance.

Location Hexham, North East
Activities Practice-based research, Workshops, Private commissions
Artforms / type of project Digital, Drawing, Painting, Photography

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