Exhibition notes

These are the notes for the selection of photos on display at the Oxford Festival of the Arts hub until 6th July.

Oxford Blue – Garden photography
Unvarnished – The portrait project

“These two sets of photographs represent a point of transition in my life as a photographer – a move away from the nature/garden images I have spent the past few years taking, and into photographing people.

These ten photographs were all taken in the Oxford University Botanic Gardens over the past three years, and chosen from a body of about a thousand frames. While choosing these images, I became fascinated by how often I have taken the same picture. Visiting the same places and looking for the same sights every year at the same time, I have chased the same themes of light, colour and texture, and played with how the camera can create something new with these elements – the perfect bokeh effects, the colourful patterns created by narrow field of depth, the surprising detail overlooked until it jumps out from the finished photograph. What has attracted me particularly to the Botanic Gardens has been the variety of plants and in particular the way how they have been planted in layers – the herbaceous borders, the vegetable patches, the meadow of wildflowers, all bursting with colour and full of insects.

I made the decision to show my photographs during the bleakest, gloomiest months of the winter, and the botanic garden in my memory was the epitome of the perfect summer; thus it’s peculiar that I ended up selecting ten photographs that were all taken in the early autumn, in early September. Few of these are also photographs that I might not have chosen as my best or most interesting work at the time of their taking, but which have grown on me. These photos were all also chosen for their colour; a degree of post processing has been used to further accent the blues, purples and dark greens, and to create a purposefully artificial, slightly surreal atmosphere.

I grew up admiring the work of early women photographers: Lee Miller, Tina Modotti’s intricate, symbolistic still lives and her images of Mexican women, Julia Margaret Cameron’s hazy, dreamy fancy portraits. I especially found Cameron’s work inspiring – not just the tightly framed, highly staged and processed images themselves, but her obsessive method of stalking the streets for interesting-looking people she could use for her portraits.

The title Unvarnished was suggested to me by a friend, as a similar-meaning replacement of the words I didn’t want to use – bare, natural, naked. I found it reflective of the mental idea I had; I wanted to photograph my models in a way that would be visually pared down and natural, but have nonetheless a certain classical quality, a degree of artifice, to them. These six images are an exploration of how and if I could make my vision to work. They are almost snapshot-like – I worked quickly, each portrait session lasting about half an hour, the time of the day chosen for the best natural light, and the location (often in the middle of the cricket field) for the least amount of visual clutter. I selected these women as my models because I found them interestingly beautiful. What roles they have – as mothers and professionals – is less important for the photograph than who they are, or the emotion shown in the moment, which is why I wanted to pose each of my models with neutral clothing, minimal makeup, and without any personal jewellery or other accessories to distract the viewer. The result, I hope, is a series of images that have captured the serene beauty and core humanity of each woman.

Liisa Agren (b. 1976, in Oulu, Finland) got her first camera, a Soviet-import 1970s Lomo Smena Symbol (which she still has and still doesn’t know how to operate) from her grandfather, also a keen amateur photographer, and has been taking photos since she was a teenager. She shoots with a Pentax body and used a 1950s 50mm f/1.5 lens for the Botanic Garden photos.

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