Alexia Sinclair: The Art of the Historical Present

© Alexia Sinclair ‘The Cabinets of Curiosity’ 2013 [detail] from ‘A Frozen Tale’

I take the historical facts or the legend as my starting point, and then reinterpret and modernise them to make them my own.

Introduction

Alexia Sinclair’s images are a beguiling synthesis of historical fact and contemporary fantasy. Many are portraits of real figures from days gone by, in which she draws on the details of the subject’s life as the narrative and symbolic raw material of her art. She reanimates the past with the energy of the present, using the new technologies of the camera and the computer, and the classic skills of the storyteller and artist to refract time in the lens of imagination, bringing the luminaries of history to vibrant new life.

Sir Peter Ustinov [1921–2004] – a man whose many talents included acting, writing, filmmaking, stage design, and directing operas – once quipped, “if Botticelli were alive today he’d be working for Vogue”. If one tried to imagine what it would be like to see the work of a great artist from history who could harness the technologies and tastes of our own age, the work of Alexia Sinclair might be an excellent indication. Her creative approach has the concern with character, detail and finesse of an earlier age delivered with all the colour, vitality and technological wizardry of the twenty-first century.

There is a form of rhetoric in the English language in which an episode from the past is recounted in the present tense, as though it were happening now. It is a way of lending immediacy to events which may otherwise seem remote. The linguistic form is called the ‘historical present’. This is what gives Alexia Sinclair’s work its distinctive quality; she has created a vivid visual language written in the historical present.

Alasdair Foster


© Alexia Sinclair ‘Peter Romanov’ 2010 from ‘The Royal Dozen’

Interview

You established your reputation both nationally and internationally with the series called ‘The Regal Twelve’. How did this series come about?

In 2004 I won a scholarship which allowed me to travel through Europe for five months photographing landscapes and architecture, in particular, the grand castles and chateaux of France. I began to imagine the kinds of people who had lived in these palaces and heard many fantastic tales of historical figures whose extraordinary lives fuelled my imagination.

Returning to Australia, I began piecing together the various backgrounds I’d photographed to develop a series about twelve female figures from history.

How did you select the twelve women to be portrayed?

My focus was on noble women who were in some way legendary. I tried to ensure a good mix. There were obvious choices like Elizabeth the First of England [1533–1603], as well as some more obscure characters such as Elizabeth Báthory [Hungarian countess 1560–1614; considered to be the most prolific female serial killer in history] who were more difficult to research. Historical facts often become mixed up with myth, the stories evolve into fantasy and legends are born. I was interested in women who were defiant, who wielded power in a man’s world, who led armies into battle and seduced nations; women who were intellectually challenging or sexually dominant; the influential and the brave.

The second series, ‘The Royal Dozen’, was in effect the male counterpart to ‘The Regal Twelve’. How did you find the shift from femininity to masculinity as the subject of the series?   

As with the previous series, I was interested in the way beauty can become a symbol of strength. The images celebrate historical figures who are still capable of fascinating people generations after their deaths: the Marquis de Sade [1740–1814] for his sexual prowess, Genghis Khan [c.1162–1227] for his empire building, Charles the Second [1630–1685] for being a celebrated dandy. However, there is a big shift in style from the first series to the second: this series feels more cinematic.

Why is that?

In ‘The Regal Twelve’ each figure sits within the scene like an actor in a historical play. That is because I started with the backgrounds I’d shot in Europe. As the series grew organically, these backgrounds became my stage. ‘The Royal Dozen’ was approached in a completely different way. I planned the entire series from the beginning, developing every character and setting before I started building or photographing anything. As a result, the male figures are more active. There is a lot of movement in each image: they are busier, livelier, louder… And, because my technical skills had developed even further, they are more complex in their construction.

Can you talk me through the process of creating an image?

I begin by researching a character, the historical period, the events of their life, the symbols associated with their stories. I’m not interested in simply recreating historical portraits. I think that’s a pointless exercise since such images already exist. Being too faithful to a period can end up looking like a costume party. I want to take the historical figure as a starting point and then add layers of meaning. The work should be my personal expression as an artist. My tastes are influenced by contemporary style and so I include references to present-day beauty and fashion. But it is important to me that I remain faithful to the figure I portray. I take the historical facts or the legend as my starting point, and then reinterpret and modernise them to make them my own.

Where do you find the various elements for your work?

Once I have the concept, I break down the image into its elements. I sketch the designs, source fabrics and hand-sew the costumes. I source props such as armour, jewellery, animals. Australia is a young country and we don’t have locations available for the style of work that I do, so I travel to international locations – Europe, China and so on – in which the historical figure lived to photograph a palace interior, exterior or landscape. When this is not possible, I piece together backgrounds using landscapes and architectural elements from my archive to create scenes reminiscent of the appropriate period. Now I prefer to photograph on location or to construct a set physically, rather than create a digital montage. Each approach involves its own particular challenges!

© Alexia Sinclair – shooting and postproduction for ‘Macbeth’ 2009 commissioned by New Zealand Opera (distilled to seven minutes)

What about the people in the photographs?

The people themselves I find in many places: through model agencies, via my website, if I see someone who looks interesting I will chase them down the street! Once I have my model, my costumes, props and my location, I do a studio shoot with the model in costume taking care that I use the correct elevation, depth of field and lighting to match the background.

Following this is a lengthy process in postproduction when I stitch all of these elements together. At this point I’ll often find I need other elements to complete the work. Like a painter, I build the image up in layers. Unlike a painter, when I need something I have to find the real thing to photograph, rather than simply adding it from my imagination. However, one element that is added from my imagination is the hair, which I create using graphics software.

How did the theatrical work come about?

As an artist producing staged work, it’s only natural that I get approached by a lot of theatrical companies to collaborate. The artworks in this collection involve campaign images that I have produced for companies such as New Zealand Opera and Queensland Ballet. In each case, I was asked to interpret their productions in my own way.

© Alexia Sinclair ‘The Feast’ 2013 from ‘A Frozen Tale’

‘A Frozen Tale’ is set in Sweden – a long way from Australia. What was the inspiration for that series?

I was invited to present my work in Sweden in an exhibition in at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, which was opened by the King’s sister, Princess Christina. This was too good an opportunity to miss and so I began a lengthy negotiation which finally resulted in an invitation to shoot a new series in the Skokloster Slott [a castle on Lake Mälaren in eastern Sweden]. It is considered the finest example of baroque architecture in all of Europe and houses the continent’s largest personal art collection, along with many tapestries, historical weapons and rare books.

During my research, I discovered that many famous people of the Baroque period had visited the castle and this inspired the characters for a new series: ‘A Frozen Tale’.

© Alexia Sinclair ‘The Armoury’ 2013 from ‘A Frozen Tale’

How was it working in a famous castle?

One big challenge was that there were so many restrictions: no smoke machines, no animals, no touching anything, we were not even allowed to sit on a chair. This made it extraordinarily hard to recreate the environment of a working castle from a period when open fireplaces created a smoky atmosphere and animals would wander through the building. Undeterred, when I returned to Australia I photographed animals, smoke, even leaves, which I added to the images in postproduction. 

‘A Frozen Tale’ was exhibited in Skokloster Slott during the summer of 2014, along with sculptures by the American artist Philip Haas [1954– ] and work by the celebrated Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo [1526–1593].

© Alexia Sinclair ‘The Countess’ Drawing Room’ 2013 from ‘A Frozen Tale’

Do you think that being a woman brings any particular qualities to the work as an artist?

I think that individual men and women can have qualities, attitudes or sensibilities that appear to be masculine or feminine, but that being one particular sex does not always drive an artist to produce work in a necessarily masculine or feminine way. I feel that my own work is a balance of the masculine and feminine. Superficially, my work may appear feminine, but it also has typically masculine aspects. It has a darker side and can be quite sexually charged, qualities that might be considered as masculine traits.

Why do you think the history of art and the history of photography appear to include so few women?

Traditionally women were not permitted to publish as artists and those that did, did so under a pseudonym. But there were a lot of women working in crafts that are considered as the lower end of the arts. Photography is a technical industry and men are considered to be more technically minded. I’ve never been a gear head and, although I understand my equipment thoroughly, I consider the camera to be one of many tools in my process, along with studio lights, computers and software, sewing machines, paint brushes, hammers and nails!

© Alexia Sinclair ‘The Library’ 2013 from ‘A Frozen Tale’

Is it difficult for women to become a photographer in Australia?

I think it’s probably no more difficult for women to become photographers in Australia than men, but I think that the kind of photographer they become is influenced by our attitudes towards the sexes. You’ll find a lot of women in the wedding and family portrait business.

One of the reasons that men give for not employing female assistants in the photography industry is that they can’t carry heavy gear. However, my own experience employing photographic assistants has been a mixed bag. Some women aren’t afraid to roll their sleeves up, get dirty and work hard while others just stand around and watch. Of course, I’ve experienced exactly the same mix with men!

What advice would you give a young photographer starting out?

Don’t go into photography thinking that it’s an easy career or a glamorous one. It takes decades to grow as a practitioner and just as long to be accepted as a serious artist. During that time, you need a second career in order to survive, because making art and taking photographs costs a lot of money!

Most importantly: educate yourself. If you think you’ve got it all figured out, shake things up a little. Get out of your comfort zone!

© Alexia Sinclair ‘Marie Antoinette’ 2005 from ‘The Regal Twelve’

Biographical Notes

Alexia Sinclair was born in Newcastle, NSW, in 1976. She has an advanced diploma of fine arts from the National Art School (Sydney, 1998); a bachelor of fine arts with honours (2004) and a master of fine art (2007) both from the University of Newcastle, NSW. A creative artist whose practice spans both fine art and commercial application, she has presented work in a dozen solo shows and as many group exhibitions in venues such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Australian Centre for Photography (Sydney), the National Portrait Gallery (Canberra), the National Portrait Gallery (London), and at photography festivals in China, France, Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Her commercial clients have included Art Paradiso Hotel (South Korea), Christie’s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Qantas Airlines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). She has been a finalist in a number of prestigious national and international competitions, winning the Harper’s Bazaar Fashion Photography Award in 2007. She lives and works in New South Wales.


This article was initially published in Chinese, in the January 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers.

An image by Alexia Sinclair featured on the cover of this issue.