For portrait photographer Carolyn Mendelsohn, placing her subjects in the landscape creates a personal connection. Amy Davies finds out more
Using a landscape as a backdrop for a portrait is a fantastic way to evoke a sense of scale, especially when said landscape is sprawling and it’s hard to convey just how big it is. It’s also a good way to bring in an element of the sitter’s personality, allowing for a different type of creativity when compared to indoor and studio portraits.
Carolyn Mendelsohn: Hardy and Free portrait project
You can also create a sense of story, especially if you take several portraits and use them together in a vignette. Carolyn Mendelsohn’s latest project – Hardy and Free – a commission for the Brontë Parsonage museum in Howarth, does exactly that. It also goes one step further by introducing audio clips that are played in conjunction with the portraits at the exhibition.
Located in Howarth, Yorkshire, the Brontë Parsonage museum is where the famous literary sisters spent most of their lives. Today, it is home to the Brontë society, and also runs a contemporary arts programme. This year’s project, Hardy and Free – the name of which is taken from an Emily Brontë quote – explores the sisters’ connection with the landscape. When the museum put out a call for a photographer to create stories using photographic portraits and audio, Carolyn – who lives just a few miles away in Saltaire – felt that she would be perfect for the job.
She tells me, ‘I thought I could absolutely do this. My work is all about story and I’m also fascinated by the life of the Brontës; and, the idea of creating something that is hardy and free – I knew I could approach it in that exact way.’
There are some interesting practical challenges to consider when hosting an exhibition at the Parsonage. For a start, as a heritage building, there are certain conditions to bear in mind. ‘They wanted the work to be shown in the servants’ room. It’s a tiny room, where nothing can be attached to the walls. I thought I’d suggest that I can do an immersive projection, with audio. As an artist, as much as a photographer, it really kind of called to me.’
The project took place over a short span of time. After receiving the commission in November, all the portrait shoots took place in the winter, with the exhibition hanging at the start of May. It was entirely up to Carolyn who she included in the portraits. ‘I wanted women with a connection to Yorkshire,’ she explains, ‘but who also had a relationship with the landscape in some way. Women who were diverse in terms of age and experience, but also the landscapes that they responded to were diverse as well – whether it be an urban landscape or a rural landscape. They also need to have a story.’
Carolyn asked the women themselves to choose the landscapes they would be photographed in, aiming to make each shoot as responsive as possible. ‘I wanted to be taken on a journey. In the call-outs I did, I basically said, “Can you take me to a place where you feel hardy and free.” The place would be secret, or that is special to them, or somewhere they venture to gather their thoughts, a place where you want to free yourself from the worries of life. Anything really.’
By giving this level of freedom over to the subjects, Carolyn says she also had to let go of any worries she might have had about an end product and just trust the process. ‘I didn’t want to plan it as such, apart from where it was going to be. It also all took place during the greyest, coldest part of the year and at times I did think – why are we doing it at this time of year – but actually it has meant that the photos are all really atmospheric.
What was also special for me was that I was taken to places that aren’t far from me, but that I had never been to before – so it was kind of like going on all of these adventures as well. There’s an element of being creatively playful when you’re on location. As far as I was concerned, the process was a complete joy for me. I get commissioned to do work, and it can be quite stressful because you have to produce something to fulfil a client’s requirements. With this, I just thought, no, let’s be playful. And people really like it as well. Each of the people in the 12 different stories, they all loved this experience and that was such a great thing.’
Some of the stories from these adventures are fantastic. There are the wild swimmers, who age from 35 to 78 and go swimming naked in the moonlight. Extremely hardy and free. Carolyn had no idea whether her pictures of the group would even turn out – ‘In a lot of ways, I don’t mind if it doesn’t actually work, I just want to experiment and experience something.’
The resulting image, created using a slow shutter speed and placing the camera on a tripod, is as ethereal as you might expect from a naked midnight swim in the Yorkshire countryside.
Then there’s theatre director Evie Manning, who took Carolyn to what she called ‘Spareland’ in Bradford. A tiny strip of land between houses in the city centre, it’s an overgrown space full of brambles – the perfect place for a child to play and create their own worlds, free from the disturbance of adults.
‘It’s how it formed her as a grown-up really,’ says Carolyn. ‘She would create theatre and plays and get other people involved with this land.’
Another example is Lucy Elkiss, an ultra-runner who took Carolyn to Top Withens, near to Howarth. ‘For her, it’s really significant. It’s where she went on the first date with her partner, and I recorded her interview actually on location.
Inspired by the Brontës
Another aspect of the exhibition is that I wanted to have a cabinet filled with items from each person photographed – similar to other cabinets they have in the museum with belongings of the Brontës. Lucy creates these beautiful journals which she paints and writes in. She’s loaned me the one which has a poem she wrote on that first meeting with her partner, so it’s quite poignant – there’s a lot of levels to the exhibition.’
The whole project is very clearly based around the idea of meaningfulness. And it’s something she’d advise anybody seeking to photograph people in the landscape to think about. One of the only recces she carried out for a shoot was the story of Jo Foster, a farmer and horse trainer. Her meaningful landscape was the view she could see from her bedroom window after an accident in which she broke her back and was confined to that room. ‘She would stare at this view out the window,’ explains Carolyn. ‘It was a hugely painful and dark period for her.
I said okay, well, let’s go to the view you were looking at. Off we drove. It was about 20 minutes to the top of this moor – it’s really bleak. It was one of those days where it’s rain, and sun, and dark clouds. We got out onto this moor and she just exclaimed “This is what I missed” – as the rain was on her face, and the wind on her cheek. So for that, I said – should we do the picture looking at the landscape, or do we do it actually in the landscape. It was that emotional connection that was just really powerful – and it was such a privilege for me to be part of that as well.’
At this point, I notice the language that Carolyn is using is very Wuthering Heights-esque. Something she says wasn’t intentional, but perhaps is inevitable when you’re shooting on the moors at the bleakest point of the year.
Carolyn rose to prominence with her project Being Inbetween, which won numerous awards and was published as a book in 2020. For that project, pre-teen girls were photographed in a studio and interviewed about their hopes and aspirations. From this, you might assume that heading outdoors might be an uncomfortable departure.
Hardy and Free
‘People always think I’m used to the studio, but my starting point was always out on location – I’ve always loved natural light. I remember thinking, maybe I can bring some lights with me, perhaps it might be a bit dark. But then I realised, I was going to have to walk for miles with these things and so I thought I should just use my camera and find the light. The one thing I know I can do is that – I’m always finding the light. Even if it’s not strictly there, I look for where it might be reflected and put the person there.’
I hypothesise that portrait-sitters will also feel more comfortable – and therefore behave more naturally – outside of the artifice and strangeness of a studio space. ‘I think that’s true,’ Carolyn says. ‘I’m always looking to co-produce a portrait with somebody. Even in a studio I want them to get to that point where they’re really relaxed.
When someone is actually taking you to a special place, you kind of break down a lot of barriers through the walking, talking, doing the odd test shot, they start to get used to me with my camera. Eventually they don’t really notice that much. I will guide them a little bit – I might say can you just turn your head, or can you sit there.
Something I really love doing – which you can see in some of the projected films – is to ask them how they’re feeling. That’s me – I’m a feeling person. I’d say, “Okay I want you to shut your eyes and tell me what you’re feeling right now – slow down and really be in the moment.” There’s so much beauty in that – there’s this meditativeness in some of the audio where they’re doing that.’
What kit does Carolyn Mendelsohn use?
An ambassador for Nikon, Carolyn primarily used the Nikon Z 9 for this project, but also had the Z 7II with her sometimes. She mainly used the Z 50mm f/1.2 lens as well as a Z 24-70mm f/2.8. Interestingly, for portrait photography at least, she also used a 14-24mm f/2.8 lens – not something you’d commonly associate with the genre. It was this that she used for the portrait of the wild swimmers, after seeking advice from the Nikon School.
‘I’d not used the lens before, but it was great. I told Nikon School that I was doing something a bit bonkers – a pitch-black portrait – there might be some moonlight, but there’s probably going to be cloud cover… they advised me about focus peaking, and enabling features which help you better see the camera in the dark – such as illuminated buttons… I still didn’t know whether I’d get it, but it didn’t really matter – it didn’t have to be technically perfect.
‘What I love, with all of them, I could just respond differently, so even though you look at the work and go that is Carolyn’s work, the treatment for each image is very different. It’s not like Being Inbetween, where there’s a very specific way I worked with that portrait series. With this, you can see it’s my work, but you can also see oh that’s interesting, they’re surrounded by greenery, or you can only see a bit of their face, or this person is on top of a moorland, or is just a little figure.’
It’s clear from our chat that the delight that Hardy and Free has brought to Carolyn has taken it far beyond the original commission. She’s entered it into prestigious competitions, and confesses that she might continue with it too. ‘I kind of feel, I had such joy making it – I want to keep asking people to take me on adventures, because I think that’s a big essence of who I am.’
‘Hardy and Free: Carolyn Mendelsohn’ runs at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Howarth until 1 January 2024. It is free with entry to the museum (£12 standard). See bronte.org.uk
Carolyn Mendelsohn is an artist and portrait photographer based in the UK. She is recognised internationally for her work, including Being Inbetween, and is the founder of Through Our Lens, a workshop and mentoring programme. She has been published, exhibited and awarded numerous times. She is a Nikon Europe Ambassador and Ambassador for the Royal Photographic Society. See carolynmendelsohn.com for more information.
Carolyn is also our expert guest judge in the Portraits round of Amateur Photographer of the Year 2023. Submit your portraits now before 11:59pm BST 26th June 2023.
Featured image: Nyarai Urbanek, horticulturalist and entrepreneur, Bradford allotment Image credit: Carolyn Mendelsohn