Fine art photographer Alexia Sinclair was given the keys to a frozen castle left untouched since the 17th century. “When you’re given such an incredible opportunity, you have to create something equally incredible yourself,” she says. “Otherwise it’s just a failure.” Keep reading and learn how she pulled it off.
It all started with an email from the Royal Palace in Stockholm. The Royal Armory was preparing an exhibition on Queen Christina and wanted to feature the portrait Alexia had done of the flamboyant queen as part of the portrait series The Regal Twelve. Alexia was also invited to the opening ceremony in Stockholm.
Never one to let an opportunity pass, and with a well-documented fascination for kings and queens, Alexia asked the Royal Palace if she could photograph a real-life princess while in Sweden. The reply she got was: “No. But we do have a castle you may use.”
A couple of months later, Alexia arrived at Skokloster Castle – a 17th century Baroque masterpiece situated just outside Stockholm. She had done weeks and weeks of research and planning. She had rallied people from all over Scandinavia willing to travel to Skokloster to style, model and assist. She was now ready to start her brand new portrait series, which was eventually named A Frozen Tale.
“I like to produce narrative pieces so I started by researching those important historical figures who had visited the castle over its lifetime,” she says, “I also studied 17th century paintings to get a feeling for the period and this is what I got truly swept up in. Painters like Johannes Vermeer did so much exploration of middle-class life, showing ordinary people doing ordinary things. Ultimately, the series explores two different worlds within the same castle walls: the famous ruling class visitors and the people in the shadows, the middle and working class running the castle.”
The amazing thing about Skokloster Castle is that it is preserved in almost exactly the same condition as it was when it was built 350 years ago (the tools that were used the build the castle are still lying around!). This was obviously a tremendous source of inspiration for Alexia in her quest to capture everyday castle life. But it also brought about certain challenges. For instance, there was no electricity or heating. In fact, some parts of the castle freeze during the winter – which it was when Alexia and her team were there. Hence the title: A Frozen Tale.
It goes without saying that the exotic location had a huge impact on the shoot. The lack of electricity meant that Alexia needed battery-powered flashes, the extreme cold meant she needed reliable equipment that would operate continuously in cold weather, and the flawlessly preserved environment meant she had to work under extreme restrictions.
“The smoke, the leaves, the dog, the goose, the water, basically anything that isn’t a person in these images had to be composited in later. I wasn’t even allowed to bring a bottle of drinking water, and I was pregnant at the time! I had to hide some almonds in my pocket so that I wasn’t ravenous by the end of the shoot!”
The lighting was another challenge. Alexia had decided to shoot each room when the sun was shining through the windows. This meant that the team had to chase after the sun, as it moved around the castle and hit it from different angles. Time was of the greatest essence, and there was very little time to set the lights for each shot.
“I always try to capture balanced light in camera before moving into postproduction,” says Alexia. “The Pro-B4 battery packs were used to fill in the harsh shadows cast by the sun. Doing so gives me complete control of the treatment I apply in postproduction because I’m capturing a full tonal range filled with detail.”
The two Pro-B4 battery packs she brought along were equipped with RFi softboxes in different sizes and shapes to light the various sets in exactly the right way. Once everything was in place, the image was shot on a PhaseOne 645DF with a Phase One IQ180 digital back.
“There’s detail and then there’s mind blowing intricate detail,” she says. “The later is what excites me as an image maker. I love the ability to weave layers of subtle symbolism into an image and then watch the penny drop. You can only create that imagery with the dynamic range and resolution of a phase.”
“I light everything as best I can, shoot as sharply as I can and begin in post with the best files I’m capable of shooting,” she concludes.
As mentioned before, not all things could be shot on-location. The goose, the pouring water, the sunlight shining though the smoke, all this had to be shot in Alexia’s studio in Sydney.
“In those days, the castle was heated with stoves and open fire places and, as a result, filled with smoke. But we couldn’t fill this priceless piece of history with smoke! So what we did was that we filled our studio in Sydney with smoke and flashed through it with our Pro-8. So the light beams you see coming from the windows are actually the light beam from the Pro-8.”
The model looking through the spying glass in the series hero image was also shot in Alexia’s studio. The reason for this is simply that Alexia did not notice this spectacular location until the very last minute.
“I spotted this extraordinary room on our way out of the castle,” she says. “Without the time or resources to shoot another character on-location, I shot a background plate of this room to produce a composite artwork later. Titled The Cabinets of Curiosity, this particular image celebrates The Age of Discovery. Forming the hero image for the collection, the frosted fantasy figure embodies the series title, peering through a telescope out to the frozen lake beyond as snow flakes drift into the castle.”
Considering how much time Alexia spends in postproduction, you might ask why she even bothers going though all this trouble? Why go to a frozen castle in Sweden? Why not just shoot everything in the studio and fake it?
“I don’t believe anything you do in Photoshop can ever look as real as something you actually light and photograph in real life,” she says. “This might come as a surprise to some, but I actually add as little as possible in postproduction. Anything I can shoot in camera I do. The things I do add are the things I believe I can’t capture in real life. It might be something that only exists in my imagination, or it might simply be a goose I’m not allowed to bring indoors.”
This way of thinking also explains Alexia’s choice of lighting. While there are many lighting tools and solutions to choose from, she is utterly convinced that it is vital to do everything as perfect as possible right from the start.
“Consistent light from Profoto is crucial to my speedy post-production pipeline,” she says. “I don’t want to spend hours color matching assets because of cheap light. It’s far cheaper and inspiring to use the best gear and get it right in camera.”
Learn more about Alexia Sinclair and her Frozen Tale at her website.
Learn more about the Pro-B4 and other Pro packs here.