An interview with Film Photographer and Writer, Lea Elm

I’ve been a fan of Lea Elm’s work since the moment I read a short creative writing piece on her blog about a statue in the V&A. I became an even bigger fan when I discovered her film photography. Ever since I’ve been struck by the story and emotion that can be found in each frame.

Maybe it’s the quality of film photography in general, or maybe it’s the fact we’re seeing Lea’s world through Lea’s lens - but each and every frame comes across as being nothing less than honest. There’s storytelling and emotion in everything I’ve seen her create so far, and I can’t help but attach my own story to the images. Every time I scroll through this post and see the photos Lea’s so kindly shared with us, I can’t help but look at them and feel a sense of calmness, but also reflective. That’s the beauty, and mystery, within Lea’s work.

In today’s interview with Lea Elm we’re going to learn more about her work, including her inspirations for starting a new project, but also how the approach she takes when starting both written and photographic projects differ. You’ll also see a selection of photos Lea has kindly shared with us, which I’m sure you’ll love as much as I do.

Here’s the interview!

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I’m so excited to have you part of my new project Lea, especially since I’ve loved your work for so long. When I first read your blog, I remember coming across a short story about a statue in the V&A Gallery. Tell me how that came about and what inspired you?

The V&A is my absolute favourite museum, I have been there so many times I’ve lost count and almost every time I have passed the statue of Lady Winchelsea, which is standing in a long gallery that’s often used as a passage from one part of the museum to another. But it wasn’t until I bought a postcard of it that I suddenly started to wonder what it must be like to be in a museum, not as a visitor but as a work of art, as the thing that is being looked at. Looking at the still photo of the statue made me want to bring her to life and give her an inner life and thoughts of her own. 

Tell us a bit about your creative background. When did you first discover your love for writing and photography?

I’ve been writing stories since I learned how to spell and write in school and I remember asking my teacher in second grade if I could get an extra workbook to take home with me to write stories in. My interest in photography has always been there too but much more in the background and I didn’t fully realise I loved photography and that I wanted to take it up in a serious way until I went to London on my own for the first time with a friend when I was 16. There was one photo from that trip in particular that gave me this “punched-in-the-stomach” feeling and all my favourite photos since then have caused me to have the same reaction.

I’m a big fan of your film photography. What qualities does film have, that draws you in so much?

Film photography has so many qualities it’s hard to list them all. For me, it’s a much more tactile experience because you have to physically press buttons, turn wheels and load the film yourself, and because film is quite expensive each photo I take and spend a frame on are carefully considered, which makes each photo I choose to take so precious. A lot can go wrong at any stage of the process from loading the film to developing it and it gives it a sense of uncertainty and precariousness each time. And as most film lovers will tell you, there is just nothing that beats the grain of film.

Lea Elm photography - The Artisan Detour interview

When I first approached you with the theme of The Artisan Detour’s launch, you interpreted it as the new beginnings of a project. What do you love the most about starting a new project?

I love the excitement of getting that first spark of an idea that decides to takes hold in you and starts to grow into a bigger fire as your ideas grow. I’ve heard it being called “the germ”and I find it really fitting because I might get many ideas for lots of different projects but for some unexplainable reason there is one you just can’t shake and I love the possibility of what I might be able to do with that idea.

Since you’re a photographer and writer, and often create works using both mediums, how do the beginnings of both types of projects differ? Can you talk us through the process of starting each type of project?

They both start with that “germ” of an idea I have already mentioned. With writing I make sure to write down any initial sentences or words down as quickly as possible because I often find they don’t stick unless I get them written down. With writing I often write a paragraph or whole pages, as soon as the idea comes and then leave it to rest while I figure out how to build it from there. 

With photography I rarely write anything down and just let the idea grow in my head until I’m able to or feel ready to go out and photograph. With photography I’m often more preoccupied with the practical side of things, which film would be best to use to create the images I have in mind or if I want to go to a particular location, how do I get there and what kind of day would it be best for me to go. 

If you haven’t worked on a project for a while, what’s likely to inspire you to start one?

If I feel like writing but don’t know what to write about, I often look through one the books in my photo book collection until I find a photograph that catches my attention for some reason. That reason is usually what I’ll end up writing a story about, more than the actual image itself. I find it really helpful in kick-starting my inspiration. 

Inspiration for photos or photo projects I usually get from something I have read instead, often from essay collections or articles I read in B+W Photography Magazine, so there’s a kind of constant symbiosis or relationship between writing and photography for me. It’s all connected and I’ve found it really inspiring and useful to let the two art forms inspire and speak to each other.

When going into a project, do you have in mind its expected outcomes? 

Absolutely. After I work with the initial idea I usually know where I want to take it, how I think a story could end, the vision I have of the photographs I want to make or even what form they should take afterwards, if I want to make them into a photo book, a digital blog post or something else.

But lately I have felt a bit more uncertain about how I can go about working on some of my new ideas and I’m learning to embrace not knowing how a story might end but still make sure I write it anyway, even if a whole, finished story might never come out of it. I’m starting to feel a bit more okay with not knowing. 

Do you often find as you progress, a project guides itself, heading in unexpected directions? 

I’m quite perfectionistic and controlling, so I’ll try to lead a project as close to my original idea as possible but I have also realised with time that sometimes what you envisioned just isn’t possible or doesn’t really work the way you want it to, so I have to be open-minded and flexible and let the work shape itself. I have tried to force it in the past or stubbornly stuck with a particular way of doing things that wasn’t working and it always lead to a dead end for me.  

Do you have a project which you feel very proud of, and has become a favourite? Tell us a little about it.

I am proud about having written and finished three novels. None of them are very good, I think but the fact that I saw it through to the end makes me feel proud as starting can be easy enough but continuing past the halfway point when you lose that initial hit of inspiration can be quite a challenge. 

I’m also quite proud of a photo project I’m still working on with photographs from the first year I was shooting film. I’m currently trying to decide which ones to include in a photo book that I’m going to design and hand bind myself. I think when I’m done with it and have it in my hands that will be quite satisfying, as it’s something I have worked on for a long time, including saving up for a course where I learned how to make handmade, hand bound books.

Finally, talk us through your gear! What cameras do you have, and which is your favourite? What film do you love the most?

I don’t use it anymore as it broke last summer but I’m still absolutely in love with my dad’s old Ricoh KR5 35mm slr camera with a 50mm lens that he gave me when I wanted to start shooting film. It’s a very simple camera and its limitations suits me as I don’t get distracted by having too many options. At the moment though, I’m using a Pentax K1000 also with a 35mm, which I’m still getting used to. 

I’m still experimenting with B&W film, so I haven’t found a favourite yet but Kodak Ultramax 400 has become my signature colour film. With the combination with my 35mm slr, it’s like the film is able to replicate not what I have seen but what I felt about something when I looked at it. It’s very versatile too and looks good in a lot of different light conditions, so I can use it both indoors and outdoors, and on cloudy as well as sunny days. Hopefully I’ll find a B&W film soon that I connect with in the same way.

I hope you enjoyed getting to know Lea and finding out more about her work process. Be sure to head over to Lea’s blog to see more of her work. You can also follow Lea on Instagram and Twitter.


CREDITS:

Photography: © Lea Elm