An interview with photographer Nicola Taylor
For a while now, I’ve wanted to share with you the work of one of my favourite photographers.
Living close to the North York Moors, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the wild beauty of the landscape. Like me, photographer Nicola Taylor grew up on the outskirts of the moors and was influenced by the effect a wild landscape can have on our creative consciousness. This led her to create a stunning collection of images known as Tales from the Moors Country.
Since discovering her shop on Etsy a few years ago, where she sells her images as prints, jewellery and calendars, among other things, I’ve been in awe of Nicola’s work. Each image has a dreamy, fairy tale feel that evokes something otherworldly.
Despite her obvious talent for photography, Nicola originally worked as a stockbroker in London, before deciding to make a change and pursue a more creative career path.
Now a successful photographer, her ethereal images have a gothic feel; she describes them as a ‘still and silent storybook’.
All of Nicola’s photographs are self-portraits, taken with a remote control. Each one is a labour of love, consisting of many images painstakingly stitched together in the computer to create a world that doesn’t exist in reality.
I think they’re beautiful.
Have you always been creative? What led you to choose a more corporate career path initially?
I was imaginative as a child, always making up games and stories but I think that is not necessarily something that is recognised and nurtured in the way that an obvious talent for drawing might be. I certainly did not consider myself to be a creative person and would never have believed that I could be a visual artist.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I “chose” a corporate career path. Originally I wanted to be an academic but a few things happened in my life that meant I had to work for a year before I could apply for PhD programmes. I got a job at a firm of stockbrokers and just never went back.
And, to begin with, I really enjoyed working as a stockbroker. I loved discovering how different industries work – what’s important to a mining company, or how a drug gets tested and brought to market. But, unfortunately, as time went on, I realised I was only learning a very superficial amount and my interest began to wane. It was also an extremely stressful lifestyle, and that was beginning to take its toll on my health and relationships with my friends and family.
Although I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, I was experiencing a complete lack of meaning in my life. Everything just seemed really pointless and trivial. I needed an outlet for my imagination.
Around this time I visited my cousin in Malaysia and her boyfriend had a really fancy new camera. I was really excited by the creative effects he could achieve with it and when I came back to the UK I took my first photography class.
How long did it take you to go from dreaming about becoming more creative to becoming a photographer and setting up your own business?
From when I took that first photography class to setting up my own business took about three and a half years. It took me two years to work up the courage to leave my job and I never imagined at that point that I would be able to be a professional photographer.
I just knew that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing and keep my sanity. I was burned out and exhausted and I knew I wouldn’t be able to figure out my next move while working such long hours. So I left with no real plan in mind. In hindsight I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it but it really seemed to me that there was nothing else I could do.
I was lucky that I had saved my money and so I was able to take some time to make the decision about what came next so I just experimented with a few different things to see if they made me happy. Looking back it seems so odd that I didn’t have any idea what would make me happy but when you’ve got so far away from who you really are, it can be really hard to find your way back. For me, it was like following a trail of breadcrumbs. I just concentrated on doing more of the stuff I liked and less of the stuff I didn’t and trusted it would lead me to where I needed to be.
Eventually it led me to the London College of Communication (LCC) and a one year photography programme. It was just the start, but it gave me the freedom to experiment in a highly creative environment. After the course, my family encouraged me to start selling prints of my work online and at local art fairs and that was when I set up my business.
Your images are self-portraits: was this a conscious decision or did you experiment with other styles of photography?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision at all. While I was at LCC I was experimenting a lot and I was really inspired by the very creative atmosphere. I didn’t always have access to models so I started using myself in my experiments. Gradually I realised that I was producing much better work when it was just me on my own.
I think that, coming from a non-creative background it was quite difficult for me to express my ideas to other people. Using myself as a model helped me to get around that and helped me to get clarity on what I was trying to achieve.
At that point, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was about performance but, later on, when I was producing work that was about my response to landscape of the North Yorkshire Moors, it felt really important for me to actually experience being in the image and it did take on an element of performance.
What are the biggest influences on your work? What is it about the North York Moors that you find so inspiring?
I take a lot of influence from literature and film. I consider myself a storyteller so I am always looking at how people tell stories and the intricacies of the stories they tell. It always changes but, at the moment I love Joseph Campbell, Tim Walker, Eugenio Recuenco, Kay Nielsen, Tim Burton, JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman and George RR Martin.
I’ve always believed that places hold a special kind of energy, related to things that happened there over the centuries. I’m fascinated by the way the landscape changes over time and it’s very visible in North Yorkshire. We react instinctively to these landforms that have been shaped by millennia and then we reshape them with the stories we tell about them. You can’t help but feel small when you think about that and I believe that is why we feel uncomfortable in these places that are very powerful and desolate. We can sense our smallness and that discomfort makes for interesting stories.
Can you tell us a little about the creative process behind your images? Do you have a story in mind when composing a picture?
I don’t often go out with a really fixed idea about what I’m going to shoot. I tend to have a big brainstorming session every month or so and then I keep the ideas until I find an appropriate location and set of conditions.
Shooting in an environment that changes as rapidly as the North Yorkshire Moors does means you have to be a bit adaptable. So sometimes I will set out to take one picture and I’ll have to change because of what’s happening around me. I actually really like that.
Often I’ll carry an idea around for quite a while before I find the right conditions to shoot it in. I’ve had a snow picture in mind for a couple of years but I’m still waiting for the right combination of conditions and location. As I develop as a photographer I often find ways around things that would have stumped me a couple of years ago and that’s always rewarding.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work as a photographer?
I get to tell stories every day and that’s an amazing privilege. It can be easy to think of it as frivolous but when you see the impact that your work can have on another person, you can’t help but take it seriously.
A lady contacted me because she wanted to buy one of my prints as a way to remember a child she had lost. When you hear something like that, it changes the way you think about what you’re doing.
Stories help us to cope with things that are too difficult or too big to be addressed directly – the things that completely shatter you one Tuesday morning. And there’s nothing at all frivolous about that.
On your blog, you recently posted an article listing all of the bizarre (and sometimes rude) things people have said to you about your work. Do people tend to grasp the story behind the images, or do they prefer to come up with their own interpretations?
The images are deliberately ambiguous because I want people to come up with their own stories. One of the most rewarding things about a favourite book or film or television show is when you can imagine all of the different possible endings. You are engaging with your own creativity and that is the experience I want to give to anyone who sees my work.
To anyone who tells me that they’re not creative, I say “have you ever imagined what’s going to happen next in a story? Have you ever fantasised about being a movie star, or a pop star, or James Bond?”
That’s being creative. That’s being human.
What advice would you give to someone dreaming about pursuing a creative career, but afraid of stepping outside the confines of their safe 9 to 5?
You don’t have to make as dramatic a change as I did to make a really big difference to your life. But you can’t consider something you don’t enjoy doing as “safe.”
It’s actually incredibly risky. You’re risking your one life, your one chance, for the prospect that something better is going to magically come along, without you having to do anything. I believe in fairy tales, but even I can’t believe in that one. You have to show up for your own story, and it’s much later than you think.
If you’d like to check out some more of Nicola Taylor’s amazing photography or learn about her journey as an artist, you can visit her website. It’s a real treasure trove of inspiration.
All images copyright Nicola Taylor.