The masterpiece series, Rococo, from Alexia Sinclair, builds on the success and strength of her two previous major bodies of work. Paul Clark gets an insight into her creative process.
Visual artist and photographer, Alexia Sinclair’s Rococo project was inspired by her fascination with the court of 18th century French King Louis XV, and his official mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise de Pompadour. Popularly known as Madame de Pompadour, the Marquise was a great lover of both flowers and porcelain. Sinclair says that Madame de Pompadour commissioned thousands of porcelain flowers, and those displayed in the palace were perfumed each day. “That is what sparked my imagination about the whole thing,” she says. “I imagined these servants going around dousing porcelain flowers in perfume and thought that was really kind of amazing.”
Rococo is a collection of scenes inspired by Sinclair’s interpretation of the beauty, high fashion, romance and even scandal of the period as it was played out in the palaces and gardens of French royalty. When the project began, Sinclair was ready for what she called “something with diverse layers of inspiration; an opportunity to bend rigid, aesthetic rules.”
Powerful and playful
Sinclair has depicted French royalty before, featuring Louis XIV, the legendary ‘Sun King’ in her portrait series, The Royal Dozen (2008-2010). Queens of France Marie Antoinette and Eleanor of Aquitaine appear in her award-winning series, The Regal Twelve (2004-2007). Both collections are spectacular in their dazzling use of imagery and historical sweep, and depict characters who were powerful, or tragic, or both.
For the Rococo series, tragedy at least is shelved, and sensuality rules. “I have worked for a lot of time with the formality of Baroque”, Sinclair says. “It was all about symmetry and very, very formal.” As an example, she cites her collection, A Frozen Tale, shot in Sweden’s magnificent Baroque castle, Skoklosters Slott. “With Rococo, it was nice to be really playful with asymmetrical shapes.”
There was a wide range of material from the French court available to Sinclair to work with to create Rococo. After Madame de Pompadour’s porcelain flowers, other influences such as the more rustic English garden crept into the Rococo style. The 12 photographs in the series capture this range of influences, from the elaborate fashion and hairstyles of the palace to the softness of the countryside. A love-letter motif also appears in some of the images, maintaining the playful theme of the collection.
And Sinclair clearly likes to play. She was the model for the portrait, Napoleon I, part of The Royal Dozen series, which was a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2011. Her work has had a serious side too, with the series, The Art of Saving a Life (2014) dedicated to the story of Edward Jenner and the development of the first smallpox vaccine in the 18th century. This work was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to be part of an international exhibition exhibiting work by more than 30 artists, including Annie Leibovitz, in Berlin in January 2015.
Artists, flowers and models
“Producing a collection like Rococo is a massive process,” says Sinclair. “I’m not provided with an extraordinary scene to photograph. I have to find all the components and stitch it together by hand. In that sense, it is very expensive and time-consuming.” For Rococo, months of preparation was required to make the costumes, source the props, find the models and, finally, create a four square metre bed of flowers and plants.
Sinclair grew many of the flowers for the shoot, and bought more from flower markets. The blooms had to suit the colour palette that Sinclair had chosen, and they had to be acquired immediately before the shoot. “Although I try to control as much as I can, I can’t force a flower to turn blue, or stay alive,” she says.
Amazingly, Rococo was shot in just two days. There were nine separate shoots in all to make up the collection of 12 images and the pace, Sinclair says, was “fast and furious.” She explains that the self-funded nature of the project made it essential to work quickly. Sinclair only had one assistant during the shoots, though her husband and producer, James Hill also lent a hand during the shoots, and shot the video that promotes the collection.
The Rococo video, full of swirling costumes, mist and loving details of plants and flowers, was shot separately from the photo shoot over a three day period. The video is all part of Sinclair’s strategy to engage with her market. “We were producing a little fantasy piece to enable people to get their toes a bit wet with Rococo, to see my vision of what Rococo is,” Sinclair says.
Shot in Sinclair’s home, a space with a seven metre ceiling, that allowed the camera to be positioned above the floor where the flowers and model were arranged, was required. Sinclair used a Phase One 645DF+ and 80 megapixel IQ280 digital back with an 80mm Schneider lens which was carefully attached to a boom from a mezzanine level, above the subjects, while Sinclair remained on the ground with her models to direct. “I invest a lot into my gear,” she says. “I also now print in-house because I was really struggling to get people to print perfectly and meet my expectations.”
Once the space was set up for the shoot, the model was positioned in the centre of the bed of flowers. “We built up the scene with flowers in tubs of water, and left a tiny sliver of space for the model to slip into,” Sinclair says. She practised with the models, without the background, before putting them into position, as it was difficult to move them once they were in position.
While the models offered to help set up, Sinclair could not afford to let them get too involved and spoil their appearance. “It’s pretty grungy work, especially with the roses. That means lots of thorns,” she explained. It would not do for the perfect skin of a model playing Madame de Pompadour to have gardening injuries.”
A marketing tale
Sinclair considers exhibitions an important marketing exercise, and Rococo was exhibited in the Black Eye Gallery, Sydney, earlier this year. “People want to see my work and it’s the perfect opportunity,” she says. “I adore print and that’s why I do exhibitions.” Some of Sinclair’s other collections have toured the world. The Baroque-themed classic, A Frozen Tale, has exhibited in Korea and in Queensland, as well as in Skoklosters Slott, where it was shot. The collection is also exhibited in Sweden’s Arlanda International Airport. The primary value of the exhibitions is promotion, and the maintenance of Sinclair’s reputation. “The airport will have 1.2 million people in foot traffic for the time that [A Frozen Tale] is up. That in itself creates opportunities; hopefully for print sales,” she says.
Print sales are the immediate focus for Rococo. The print run is strictly limited, in order to ensure the value of the works. “I limit my work because I want to show that I personally consider my work to be very valuable pieces,” says Sinclair. “For me to make a profit, I have to sell maybe three or four in an edition of eight before I start to see a return. If Rococo sells well, that money will go into the next project. I don’t think I’ll just take a holiday.”
A garden of future delights
In the immediate future, Sinclair is producing a series inspired and created for the latest addition in her life, her now 16 month-old daughter, Heidi. Having grown up immersed in a world of artistic delights, both ancient and modern, Sinclair wants to nurture a similar imagination in her daughter's world. While the body of work will feature Sinclair's well-known aesthetic, her schedule for development and release will follow a different way of production.
Sinclair’s bold aim is to produce and release new epic creations in as near real-time as possible, so fans of her work can log onto her website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and find in-depth analysis of the work she is creating and how. A monthly video episode of the release will cater to those intrigued about all the drama behind the scenes, while those looking for tips on her post production workflow will have access to paid content similar to her existing, successful online workshops.
These real time interactions are an important part of Sinclair’s business model. “The industry has changed a lot,” she says. “Some people are content to look at photographs online and may not purchase work. That’s why I do things like tutorials, talks and workshops. I have to cater for all levels of interest.”
Getting the work out there
The Internet is an important business enabler for Sinclair, and she has invested in giving her customers a hassle-free and secure experience. “There has been a massive shift in the way people buy art,” she says. “If I sell one artwork to someone, I will usually end up selling a few [to the same person], and they will often come back and buy a tutorial as well. It is because they have trusted me after that very first purchase.”
Sinclair has not ruled out producing a book, but there are logistic issues to overcome before the idea becomes attractive to her. “Although books are good for your reputation, they are expensive to produce and store. Also, you can’t add to the work in it; it’s done,” she says. “I would only do it if a really great company wanted to publish it for me.”
Sinclair is guarded about what her next collection of works might be. “I don’t really like to publicise,” she says. “I just like to say, ‘Bam! Look at this!’” Looking at the gorgeous colours and playful imagery of Rococo, it seems certain that Sinclair has another pleasant surprise up her sleeve.
ALL IMAGES © ALEXIA SINCLAIR