The Fantastically Freakish Dream World of Helen Warner
With a background in theater, photographer Helen Warner has no shortage of dramatic inspiration behind her photography. Helen is a fine art photographer based out of Belfast, Ireland and holds a degree in cinema and modernism.
Her dark images strive to tell a story – from the theatrical costuming, to the intricate makeup and props, each piece of the narrative is carefully planned to create a “fantastically freakish” image. Helen’s work is reminiscent of the world that comes alive in our minds as we lay in peaceful slumber. As a fine art photographer, it is rare to find one who uses minimal Photoshop in her images. Instead Helen uses traditional stage trickery – smoke and mirrors (well, actually, powder, plastics, glass and whatever other props at her disposal) – to recreate “the opaque world of dreams.”
Helen answered a few questions for us about her work and her art in the interview below.
How did you get started in photography?
I’ve been interested in photography for a long time, and always had a camera on the go, even as a kid. The more creative stuff happened after doing some stills to storyboard a friend’s short film. I realized that I could create a loose narrative within one photograph. At the time, I really wanted to shoot a little film of my own, but my patience was a bit short lived. Instead, I started shooting the ideas I had for films as photographs and I quickly got hooked on the whole process.
How would you describe your style and how did you come about developing that style?
My style has been described as dark, surreal, emotive and extravagant! I like to work around themes that are quite sombre, the challenge is to keep the photographs aesthetically pleasing and not fall into cliche horror. It’s a bit of game between darkness and light, beauty and solemness. I think my style is naturally influenced by my taste in general, I tend to be attracted to darker imagery, whether in film/music or fashion. I suppose living in Ireland has also been a big influence, the moody weather, myths, and striking landscapes have come into play throughout my photos.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration is a bit of a fleeting thing, and seems to come in waves at random times. I like to keep up with other artists, musicians, fashion designers that inspire me, and the internet is full of people sharing great new work all the time. I also think that retreating a bit is essential, spending time alone and daydreaming is when I have the most ideas. Actually driving to locations and having a dander can also bring loads of inspiration.
How do you challenge yourself creatively?
I’m always reassessing my work, sometimes it’s easy to fall into a pattern of rehashing the same ‘comfortable’ shoots that I know will work. I think the trick is to push towards new and bigger things, to feel that sense of fear again! I try to seek out new locations, bigger props and confront the ideas that I shun away from because of the difficulties they present.
What has been your most favorite photo and why?
A real standout for me is a recent photograph called Niflheim (below). I hadn’t shot anything in such a long time, and I sort of had a bit of a revival at this amazing location on the west coast of Ireland. I found the location online and just headed out there with some materials and a friend, with no particular idea in mind. I felt a sense of excitement about the location, and on the day, the sea mist hit us when we arrived, there was no one about and everything seemed to happen easily and organically. I was so happy to feel exhilarated about a shoot again, a feeling I had lost along the way I guess. So that picture is a bit of a new starting block for me.
Do you have any difficult photo shoot experiences? What did you learn from it?
I did a shoot recently that proved to be the most stressful shoot ever. It involved two children and a giant water walker ball. I should of really tested the whole process of inflating the ball beforehand. It took longer than I expected to blow up the ball, and I thought that once inflated, the kids could jump in and we could shoot. However, by the time they got into it, the ball was flat and we had to leave them in there and re-inflate it. That issue paired with using a generator on a wet beach made it a bit of an edgy day! The ball was also covered in wet sand so we also had to wash it down with sea water…so yes, kids, electricity and water and smoke grenades is a bad combination! I quite like the ideas of my shoots being a bit makeshift, spur of the moment. I always spend a day prepping, but I definitely learned that some shoots require more preparation and forward thinking!
Can you describe some of the things you do in post processing?
I always try to get a final result that will not need to much work in editing. I shoot at the right time for me, to get the right light, and everything in my photos is always what happened on the day. I don’t go too far in editing, I’m no Photoshop pro, but recently I have been enjoying polishing up my photos using a free program called Gimp. I’m new to it, so I’m learning all the time, but I quite like the idea of ‘cleaning up’ a photo, adding some depth to it or fixing a few issues. I don’t think I’ll ever make people fly, but I’m having to go a bit further in editing. I have always slightly faded color, and darkened my photos though, to achieve a cold light.
What’s next for your photography?
At this point, I’m just planning to keep on shooting and pushing myself towards bigger ideas, with more people and new locations. I have a few ideas for some new series. I’m doing some work for a couple of designers and have a show starting in September at the Courtyard Gallery in Bristol that will run for a few months.
To step further into Helen Warner’s dream world, you can find her work here: