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DANIELLE TUNSTALL: THE BEAUTY IN HORROR - INTERVIEW BY MEL

 
Let me introduce Danielle Tunstall, not only is she an incredible self taught photographer but she creates such extraordinary digital slices of artwork. To call her simply a portrait photographer would be doing her a disservice. What she constructs are pieces of astonishing, dramatic and often disturbing images. They are meant to challenge, they are horrifying, yet beautiful and they are designed to provoke a strong reaction. She is becoming particularly well known amongst the photography magazine press, and is in great demand for her work. I was really keen to know more about not only how she creates such original masterpieces but more about the person behind them.

Danielle was recently interviewed for the TV program ‘The Culture Show’ for her participation in a photography assignment with Tim Andrews, who is suffering from Parkinsons disease. Tim wanted to turn himself into an art project to underline the plight of sufferers. Danielle’s selected portrait was highlighted and raved about in the Guardian newspaper. Read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2011/feb/12/photography-parkinsons-disease

It's taken me over three weeks to pin this fabulous creative entity down to an interview, due to her work load. Its Friday afternoon, partaking in a mountain of photo edits, cheese and crackers lunch and a brew. I divert myself from the pc to ring Danielle and the interview commences. A lovely, chirpy voice, apologises for keeping me waiting so long, this woman is seriously busy. Let’s go to it.

MEL: When and how did you first get into photography?

DANIELLE: I got a camera for my 30th birthday and at the same time I got the internet and I basically only got it to photograph the kids and stuff like that. I got the internet and started going on different sites, like poker sites, e bay. I’d never been on the internet before and I found a photography competition. So, I thought I’ve got a nice camera I’ll enter this competition, I’m good at taking photos. I entered and came last out of over 300 hundred people [laughs]. So, I’m really competitive [laughs] really I was just gutted, couldn’t believe it.

MEL: What was the photograph?

DANIELLE: It was a competition to photography circles and I photographed looking up at the towers with the mobile phones on. It was an awful photo but at the time I thought it was really good though, it was really creative and just a good photo, but obviously it was rubbish and I came last.

MEL: What camera did you have then?

DANIELLE: I had a Sony Alpha, it wasn’t a compact one, but I did get one just before that. I asked my boyfriend for a camera, so he got me one, I said I didn’t mean one like that sort of camera I meant a proper camera [Mel: grown up camera?]

Yea, so he got me the Sony Alpha ‘cos I thought I could get cheap lens for it like old Minolta lenses, so then I started entering competitions. The next time I won this amazing canvas because I’d gone away and practised. So, with the photos I had took with the Sony I got spotted by a company in America and I sold one picture and it paid for my new camera, which is my Cannon and a new sofa, just from one photograph. The photo was of Andy (my boyfriend) covered in mud, its called Snarling Man. I did that for another competition, I had to photograph textures and bond it. I did something different and covered him in mud and everything. I won the competition and won a £500 colour monkey and from the outtakes the one photo got spotted and bought for like $1,600 by Ayzenberg for PS3 cover. So, I couldn’t believe it and the time of taking the photos I was worried about buying the mud, it was like mud pack and I bought three packets and it was £3.00. I was like I can afford £3.00, the amount of money I made from that I couldn’t believe it.

MEL: I bet some of your photoshoots get pretty messy don’t they?

DANIELLE: Yea, they get really messy, you should see my backdrop its absolutely trashed.

MEL: Can you remember the first photo you took?

DANIELLE: I can remember a photo I took when I was little. I was never really into photography but it was quite weird looking back at it, and I haven’t got the photo now. I made my Brother put tights over his head, like a bank robber and put a gun in his hand, its quite weird and I was only little, he must of only been about four. I wish I could find this photos cos it pretty much portrays how my life’s ended up all these years later. I just can’t believe I made him do that when he was little and I remember I’d spray painted his wall and I recall sitting him in front of it. That was just with a throwaway camera.

MEL: Is your profession a full time photographer now, is it how you make a living?

DANIELLE: Now it is, but I’m also a Mum full time. Well, sort of yes. I work at night, but I don’t earn a proper living because I can only work at night.

MEL: Can you remember the first photo you took when you could finally feel proud of something you had achieved, because very often you take loads of photos before you finally realised – I’m getting somewhere now.

DANIELLE: I can remember the defining photo that made me do horror photography. Before, when I first got my camera I was photographing everything and anything. I’d take my camera out with me and take three hundred photos of just random stuff. I was in the bathroom with the kids and the light was hitting my Daughters face and I thought hang on let me run and get my camera. I took a photo of her face and her eyes looks so intense, I told her to open her eyes wide. I remember putting it on the computer and I put spiders walking up her face, and I uploaded it onto the internet and it was like the biggest impact I’d had from my photos and it really isn’t very good now looking back at it. The original photo is but the spiders bit aren’t very good. But that’s what started the whole horror photography thing. I got a huge reaction out of it, and I enjoy doing it.

 

MEL: This is a bit of a photography buff question but what photographic equipment do you use? What props do you use, have you got a sort of studio?

DANIELLE: I use a Canon 500D and a Sigma lens, I don’t know it is I’m so un-technical. [laughs]. I don’t know anything technical I can’t even work the telly, it’s a miracle I can do photos.

No studio, I shoot in the garden. My chest of drawers where my clothes used to be has been taken over by gas masks, guns, machetes and strange wigs.

MEL: Do you use studios at all, cos they do look like are done in a studio setting.

DANIELLE: No, I’ve never been in a studio. They are all done outside in the freezing cold. My models all get freezing and I prefer it for guys if I’m taking their photos that they don’t wear clothes. I just think its distracting and it gives them a sort of age to the photo, you can tell what year a top if from, so I prefer them to wear no top so they freeze.

MEL: Who are the photographers that you most aspire to, or someone’s work you greatly admire?

DANIELLE: I don’t know other photographers; since I got into this I’ve just been so busy doing my photos. Just life inspires me.

MEL: You must spent hours dreaming of all kinds of different themes and styles, where do all your ideas begin?

DANI ELLE: Experiences! When I see a models face it gives me new ideas and I’ve only just realised this recently ‘cos before when I used to get asked this I used to just say experiences I’ve been through or life, how people treat each other, things like that. But I’m realised that now when I see a new face it gives me new ideas.

MEL: What different themes have you worked on?

DANIELLE: I do occasionally, very occasionally very nice photos. [laughs]. I had a phase, when I was on anti depressants and they made my photos change and go nice. So I stopped taking them because of that! They made my photos go all soppy and over the top nice, normally its themes of despair, being scared, horror, can’t think of other words to describe it.

MEL: What’s the process on your photographs, after you’ve taken them?

DANIELLE: Hours!! Do you mean like the processing afterwards. I put them all onto the computer. I go through them and pick the best.

MEL: Do you shoot in RAW format?

DANIELLE: Yes, I shoot in RAW. I normally do 300 per shoot, but I normally only take 6 from the shoot, as I don’t want loads the same. I am a perfectionist, so I want them to be perfect. Purely because I just don’t wanna clutter my work up with tons the same.

MEL: I bet you get people saying “have you got any more”.

DANI ELLE: Yea, because they say, you took loads and I’ve only got six photos from it.

MEL: Six quality images though!

DANIELLE: Yea, exactly and I can normally spent up to nine hours processing. So if I did that on all the photos I’d be there all year.

MEL: I presume you use photoshop?

DANIELLE: Yes, photoshop, that’s it. I tried to use Illustrator once but I just couldn’t do it.

MEL: So, how do you get actually get the effect of all the ink splashing? Have you ever done an online tutorial?

DANIELLE: With the paint brushes, all self taught. I’ve never done an online tutorial, I can’t follow them. I am totally non-technical, its so weird, its like when your breathing, you can’t explain to someone how your breathing you just do, it’s the same with me and Photoshop. I just turn it on, I used to paint before I did this and to me its just like I turn it on and its easier than painting.

MEL: So, you just kind of click buttons and press things until it looks right?

DANIELLE: Yea, until it looks right and if it goes wrong I go back, working late. So, like the photo, the splatter pictures you see, normally the final thing you see is around 30 layers, but there could be up to 100 layers but the rest have been deleted.

MEL: Do you do HDR processing as well, because some of them look this way?

DANIELLE: I don’t do HDR, but its done on my computer and I cheat afterwards. [laughs]

MEL: Well, they are really good!

DANIELLE: Thank you. It’s at night I get the time to do stuff. I’m always answering e-mails and stuff plus my processing, ‘cos really I am actually like an artist, and I’m addicted to photoshop. So, every night……two hours for the past two years, well its actually four hours not two!

MEL: Who has been the most inspiring subject to date?

DANIELLE: Paige Rohanna Walker. I met her in McDonalds, I didn’t want to go in but the kids wanted some chips. Just as we were about to leave just opposite us there was this girl.

She was absolutely stunning, skinhead and just so beautiful. [Mel: oh the girl with the headphones on?]. Yea, and I’m quite nervous and shy and so we left. We were in Smiths getting some stuff for school for the New Year. I told my Daughter Estelle, I need to go back to McDonalds and see if that girl is still there. So, we went back in, I said I’m a photographer, wrote my number down with my web site address. I didn’t have any business cards at that time, so I said I’ve left my business cards at home. I said please contact me ‘cos I’d love to take your photo, and yea she did. She has been my most inspiring model, I could just keep photographing her and get so many ideas from each shoot, just from her face.

MEL: Was Paige pleased with the photos?

DANIELLE: Oh she loved them, it brought tears to her eyes when she saw them. It changed the way of me taking photos, because it wasn’t just about me taking photos it was about how it affects the person I’m taking the photo of.

 

MEL: So I guess that was the turning point?

DANIELLE: Yea, which also makes it difficult when I’m doing horror photography, cos all my photos are grim [laughs].

MEL: How do you get the best from your subjects, ‘cos obviously they are presumably not all models and just regular people?

DANIELLE: Yea, I’ve only ever worked with one model and that was Collette Von Tora, she is brilliant. Normally I have to make them relax first, I usually take some mug shots, like front shot and side on the shoot anyway, but that’s the way I shoot. I like everything to be asymmetrical. If you look through my photos its quite strange – the face on shots. I try and get people to move now, suddenly started thinking I’ve got to stop shooting people from the front or side view. It’s just what I do I suppose. So, I sometimes try to get them to move.

MEL: Are they are pretty chilled out and relaxed with you?

DANIELLE: Occasionally they are nervous. A couple of the Mum’s from the School I photographed and they were really nervous, but one of them she was just getting over cancer and she’d put on weight and getting over her illness. She offered to come round to do a vampire shoot, so she was expecting all these grim photos. She bought some different clothes and stuff, so I picked what I wanted and put her in a bustier corset top. She looked gorgeous, put a red flower in hair, originally we were doing the vampire shoot, but it ended up as another splatter painting. I did the vampire for the first two but never processed them. She absolutely loved it, put it on her wall; so for her that’s like getting over her illness and everything.

MEL: Yea, you did the other guy with Parkinsons Disease. He had an exhibition in London of all the photos and appeared on The Culture Show.

DANIELLE: Tim Andrews, yes. There was around 130 photographers like Rankin, and other guys, can’t remember their names but very famous. I can’t believe that my photo was picked out and its headlining in this exhibition with Rankin and they are like world famous, huge studios, tons of money, tons of equipment, and all I’ve got is like my camera. So, that’s gone pretty mad.

MEL: Where did you do the photo of Tim?

DANIELLE: In my garden. [laughs]. We talked about him shooting with Rankin and stuff. I spoke to him this morning and we’ve become really good friends from it. He’s not well at all, he’s really ill but its changed his life.

MEL: What would you look for in a potential model for your artwork?

DANIELLE: Something different, obviously beauty but not always in the conventional way. Real people, any face I like to photograph.

MEL: People probably expect you to be a larger than life character, a bit fierce.

DANIELLE: For people who know me then I am larger than life, and people would think with my pink hair I must be pretty standout -ish, but actually I’m quite shy.

MEL: Who chooses the theme for the shoots, yourself, or is it a collaboration between yourself and the model?

DANIELLE: Me, occasionally I will let the models have a say in what they want, but I am a control freak. They throw in ideas but then I always go with what I want.

MEL: So, do you tend to contact the people you want or do they contact you? I presume you get people e-mailing you?

DANIELLE: Yes, all the time I get models contacting me. Occasionally I’ll see a face and contact them. I saw this stunning girl from Birmingham, I contacted her but she is as lame as me for getting back to me with things, but she does want to come for a shoot. She is called Emprezz, absolutely gorgeous with a huge afro, stunning! So, I wanna photograph her.

MEL: My next question would be do you prefer studios or on location, but you’ve kind of answered that one, you do it in your garden [laughs].

DANIELLE: I’ve never been in a studio and none on location ‘cos I don’t like backgrounds as I find them distracting.

MEL: I’m guessing that if you go out people are watching you?

DANIELLE: Yea, as well and that’s probably why I started off with the white background in the garden ‘cos I get paranoid out. I’ve done a few photos out, one was just up the road, in front of someone’s house. It was a girl with a gas mask and she was pregnant.

MEL: I saw that, she was on the beach?

DANIELLE: She wasn’t really on the beach, that was taken from my holiday on the beach, she was actually stood up the road. So, yea I am actually phobia paranoid to take photos out in public. I mean like earlier I had my camera, as I’d gone to take the Children to see the Queen. There were two twins, they walk around everywhere, two old men, and they dress exactly the same, the same shopping bags, on the same side. I just wanted to stop, and say can I take your photo, there and then in the street. I just couldn’t do it and I had my camera with me and I was gutted. I should of, they probably wouldn’t of minded, the worst that could have happened was that they said no.

MEL: Do you get your neighbours, looking out of their windows wondering what you’re doing?

DANIELLE: Yea, I do, at the back they’ve got net curtains up. I think here is their Saturdays show. I bet they all sit there with a cup of tea and invite their mates around, and say what’s she gonna do this weekend.[laughs]

MEL: Who would you like to photograph, given a choice of anyone?

DANIELLE: I would love to photograph Bjork, somebody said that in a comment once, you could photograph Bjork quite well. Then I thought about that and thought yea I’d love to photograph her. I’d like to photograph Dizzy Rascal, and Dot Cotton from Eastenders. I just love her face and her face and fag in her hand. I think that would make a good photo.

MEL: What theme would you chose for her?

DANIELLE: Well just for her it would be a normal Dot Cotton portrait, with her fag in her hand and how she has her hair. She’s quite a character.

MEL: What sort of theme might you chose for Bjork?

DANIELLE: Probably space age, futuristic. I’ve seen her in a video as a cyborg, years ago, that was amazing.

MEL: What would you say is currently the photograph your most proud of?

DANIELLE: Probably the one of Tim Andrews and not ‘cos of the reaction but purely ‘cos of the reason it was done. The fact that he loves it, and we’ve become friends from it, and that I’m part of his journey from it.

MEL: The photos of yourself, are they self portraits?

DANIELLE: Yes, always. Some are done in the mirror, but the rest of done with the camera in front of me, on the tripod. The Geisha girl is me. I haven’t got that in my self portrait folder though, and the zombie girl is me. The only one I haven’t took is where I am dressed as a Nun with a gas mask on and Theo, my little boy is in my arms. He took that he had the shutter release in his hands and he was giving me a kiss when he took it.

MEL: Tell us about some of the places you’ve had your work published.

DANI ELLE: DUFF Magazine in Japan, FaceON magazine, DOZE Magazine, cover for Nth Word magazine, Digital SLR Photography (featured below) The Guardian, Face On Magazine. I’ve done loads of album covers, Alek Stark album cover, in the middle of doing something for the band Heart Of A Coward. I’ve just done a CD cover for a band called My Ocean. I did a classical album cover and that was with Andy with paint pouring all over his head. Also 3 book covers for James Roy Daley, one for Sean Moreland, Matt Hults and an amazing guy called Joey Colombo got me as a zombie tattooed on his arm.

MEL: Do you do anything else creative besides photography?

DANIELLE: I used to, I just don’t get time. My creativeness is being with the kids, painting, planting up different plants in the garden, cooking up different dinners. Theo’s just made a huge vat of vegetable soup. The way that I do things like that is creative. I just don’t get time anymore, but I used to do sculpture, that’s what I wanted to do and that’s the only reason I used to take pictures, purely to take photos of what I’d made. Like a painting or a sculpture.

MEL: We publish a book each year of all the interviews we have done over the year, so I’ve got a hard copy to keep to remind me of the stuff I did when I’m a wizened old pensioner. I sell them on line through self publishing, non profit making. Have you ever though about doing something like that? Any plans to bring out a book of your work?

DANIELLE: Yea, I’m meant to be doing something like that. People keep asking me for like a year and a half and I say yes, I’ve got it on the go. I actually haven’t started it, its gonna be just like my photos ‘cos I’m not good with words or writing. It probably won’t take me that long, but it was the cover that took me ages, I did actually do a shoot for the cover. I was going to call the ‘Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’ . So, there was going to be a nice picture of me and you turn the first page over and the title, ‘Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’. Everybody judges me when they see me or judges anyone when you see them. You then flip the page and it was going to be the same photo but really blurred all over and horrible. That was never going to go ahead ‘cos I could never do the nice picture. I will do one but going to think about it in a creative way. I thought the only way I could do ‘Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’ because books really are judged by their cover. I could only do it as my first book as it would only sell to people who know my work. So, maybe I’m gonna go with a book with no words, not even have a title, just pictures.

I’m rubbish with words, I remember when I was little I used to hide under the blanket with a torch and a book. I just loved books but only with pictures, I used to spend hours looking at Lice In Wonderland but I never read it, I love images.

MEL: How can people find you on the internet, are they able to book you for shoots?

DANIELLE: Yes, they can mail me for inquires here: mail@danielletunstall.com

And check out my website here: http://www.danielletunstall.com

MEL: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers as a parting shot?

DANIELLE: Please come and check out my facebook page also: http://www.facebook.com/#!/danielletunstall

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielle-tunstall

http://www.behance.net/danielletunstall 

Thanks for your time Danielle, its been great chatting with you. And a message to everyone reading this - please go and check out Danielle's Flick site for larger images and better resolution.

Interview by Mel 04/03//11
All images used © Danielle Tunstall