April 01, 2012 — Several years ago, award-winning Australian photographer Alexia Sinclair set out to create a series of extravagant, meticulously made images of historical queens, sometimes containing hundreds of separately shot elements. The labor of love took three years to complete and involved shooting stately architecture throughout Europe and even creating flamboyant period costumes. It was worth it. The project began a creative career that would span the fine-art and commercial worlds, and gave birth to a unique style that showcased Sinclair’s multi-faceted talent.
“They evolved as I went along to become super lavish, layered pieces,” says Sinclair of her series, “The Regal Twelve,” which she describes as “celebrating historical realities within the guise of contemporary fantasy, a kind of conversation between the past and present.” The images include a portrait of Elizabeth I on a giant chessboard, (left) Cleopatra entwined with a snake in a chamber filled with hieroglyphics, (next page) and Celtic queen Boudica with wild plaited hair.
Following the success of these fantastical images, Sinclair went on to create another fine-art series, this time of flamboyant kings surrounded by rich symbolism and ornate period architecture. Meanwhile, a host of recent commercial and editorial work has also tapped into Sinclair’s ability to create a seductive visual feast, including an ad where butterflies flutter out from a woman’s fingers for airline Qantas, a melodramatic portrait of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the New Zealand Opera and a fashion shoot with fairytale backdrops for Harper’s Bazaar featuring a selection of high fashion bags from Paris. The last project saw her lavish style newly applied to the fashion and commercial realm. Sourcing photographic elements and embellishing with her trademark illustrative approach, she created imaginative, fairytale backdrops. “I ran around taking stock of my dog and making him look like a wolf, and photographing dragonflies and castles,” Sinclair recalls.
The formation of her distinctive approach began when she traveled to Europe in 2004 with the idea of creating composite pieces from shots of historical buildings for her masters of fine art in photography. However, before she got the chance to begin, she became inspired by the royals, seeing in them a way of fusing her enthusiasm for history with a love of fashion photography and renaissance painting.
“The biggest challenge was the montaging of all the components,” Sinclair recalls. In addition to the models, who she shot in studio locations throughout Sydney and locations in Europe, she captured many images of animals and objects in order to pack the pieces with period detail and symbolism. “I didn’t use any stock at all so everything you see there, I shot,” she explains.
Many props were easy to find, like her parents’ chessboard, which Sinclair transformed into the backdrop for “Elizabeth I.” But others involved more effort and risk. For one image, she got in a cage with a circus lion and its tamer. Boudica’s rearing horse was shot on the farm of Australia’s No. 1 jouster—a contact Sinclair made when sourcing armour for many of her shoots.
Sinclair does all the post-production work herself, after having gained a great deal of skill by working as a retoucher—a job she initially took on in order to fund herself through college. But added to the purely photographic element, there is another key component to her work that distinguishes it from others: She digitally illustrates many elements of her images. “Elizabeth I’s hairdo is all illustration by me,” she says. “There’s no hair in it. It’s hundreds and hundreds of transparent layers in all different colors combined as I’m going along. Some of these images even have a thousand layers.”
She reflects that her multi-skilled approach, blurring the line between painting and photography, stems from her fine-art education. “At the National Art School [in Australia], where it all began for me, drawing was a core subject,” she explains. Although Sinclair resented this at the time, the skill strongly impacted the way she creates her imagery now, enabling her to, as she puts it, “bridge the gap between the raw image and the image in my imagination.”
Sinclair also sees her drawing skills as key to retouching photos. “Understanding how to breathe life into pixels is a direct result of studying how to draw from life,” she says. “Retouching skin has to do with shifting highlights and shadows. It’s just like drawing them with pencil and paper, although you’re using a screen, tablet and pen. These skills also helped me bring a believability to a scene I’m constructing from numerous locations, people and objects, often with different lighting, color balance and perspectives.”
A fine-art education inevitably supplied her with a varied range of influences. “My work looks painterly because I studied all the painters,” she says. But inspiration also comes from all elements of her life. She sees ballet, which she studied for over 10 years when she was growing up in the small Australian city of Newcastle, and uses it as the source of the large amount of role-play in her work. She even likens photography to cooking, which she learned to practice professionally in her parents’ restaurant. “The balancing of all these elements to make something beautiful is no different in producing a plate of food than it is in producing art. You have to get every element right,” she explains.
Over the years, many brands and magazines have taken a liking to Sinclair’s images and her reliable, easy-to-work-with demeanor. Canon elicited her to create an ad in which an array of fantastical scenes are fused as if bursting from a girl’s imagination; she created prodigal studio sets hosting a giant nest where she photographed the founders of fashion label Sass and Bide for Australian magazine In The Black.
Still, Sinclair admits it’s difficult to walk the line between the fine art and commercial industry, which don’t always see eye to eye. “The fine-art world does not appreciate you doing commercial work,” she says. “Many think that it involves a cheapening of your work. You hear statements such as ‘selling your soul’ or ‘prostituting yourself.’ ”
On the other hand, commercial clients believe fine artists are unable to produce at the speed needed for their fast-moving industry. “It’s taken several years to convince clients that I absolutely deliver before the deadline and to their budget. I’m not some airy-fairy artist,” she says. “These are two fields that have problems with each other and I just want to be a part of both. It’s tricky.”
But Sinclair sees huge advantages in spanning the two fields. Having spent three years producing her “highly devoted, obsessive” fine-art series, she appreciates the contrast of the fast-paced world of advertising and editorial photography. “It’s a really lonely pursuit and hugely costly,” she says of her fine-art projects. “I enjoy doing commercial jobs as I get to work with great groups of people and I learn a lot. I also have to keep on my toes with Photoshop’s evolution.”
She considers this one of the keys to producing good work; with the degree of postproduction her work involves, she cannot compromise when it comes to equipment. “You have to be really technical in post—there’s no blurring things,” she says. Sinclair always uses a Wacom tablet and pen, and insists on the need for a good screen that is calibrated. “I finally got myself an EIZO monitor and it horrifies me to look back at past projects because you really can see all the missing colors,” she says.
To shoot she uses a Hasselblad H Series body with a Phase One digital back. Opting to rent lights on a per-job basis, she prefers to use a Profoto softbox as her key light and then adds others from there. “Usually I have a standard three light setup,” she explains. “But occasionally I’ll need to sculpt the scene a little more and spare lights never go astray. Highlights through the hair are crucial in my work, so I’ll frequently devote more lights to getting the balance just right.”
In addition to the right kit, Sinclair believes it’s important to approach your photography career with a good attitude. “You have to be your own worst critic, especially since you’re your own boss,” she says. She advises young up-and-comers, “Don’t get disheartened. I constantly listen to people who think it’s a really glamorous industry—it’s not. You have to understand that it takes a lot of dedication and work. If you can’t deal with that, it’s not the industry for you, but if you can then it’s an amazing experience to be able to produce work from your heart.”
Ultimately, Sinclair’s enthusiasm for photography is extremely infectious. “All my shoots are really fun,” she says. “Although I’m really serious about the technical aspects of photography, I believe in making shoots lighthearted.” Though her images may be elaborate, complex and multi-layered, her personal approach is straightforward, simple and open: “Just be a nice person,” she says, “and be reliable.”
See more of Alexia Sinclair’s work at alexiasinclair.com.
Kate Stanworth is a British-born writer and photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She currently works as an editorial photo editor and writes on diverse aspects of art and culture in Argentina.