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INTERVIEW

December 16, 2022

SOHO SMALL HOURS

IN CONVERSATION WITH LAINE MULLALLY

Photography by Laine Mullally
Interview by Karin Svadlenak Gomez

Laine Mullally is, one might say, a small town girl, having been born in rural Sweden, who has taken to exploring big city streets. She has lived and worked both in London and Stockholm and has travelled extensively. Her wandering streak is accompanied by a keen eye for storytelling - both in words and in her photography. It is well worth reading the amusing stories Laine often writes below her images, which tell imagined stories about her photographic subjects.

Having been drawn to the arts from a young age, thanks to hours spent with her artistic grandmother, Laine eventually transitioned from drawing to photography.

In her professional life, Laine is both a fashion model and a teacher, and her experience of being the photographer's subject has had an impact on how she approaches her candid portraiture, something she has become fascinated by more recently – she does not want to make her subjects feel in any way uncomfortable or to depict them in artificial poses the way fashion models often are. And so prefers to remain at a distance, even as she immerses herself in the emotions of the street life that she observes, and capture the beauty of everyday situations and emotions from a little further away.

As diverse as Laine’s photography is, it all has a recognisable aesthetic, a focus on lines and shapes and colours, sometimes a predilection for partial abstraction, and a clear sense of beauty, which is evident in her careful compositions. We have the pleasure of interviewing Laine for The Pictorial List, making new connections to her photography and here she shares with you her passion and inspiration.

“Ever since I lived in London during my modelling years when I was young I've loved wandering around in Soho at night; it's wonderfully vibrant and because of my familiarity with the area I knew it was the right setting for my project.

Night time photography in an area like that is an intense experience; the vibe is electric, filled with possibility and expectations, and any emotion, good or bad or anything in between, is amped up to eleven!

It was not about just snapping people out on the razzle dazzle though, it was about placing myself in the midst of moments rich in emotion, taking in the flow passing by, catching a sound, a motion, a look, a gesture, and capture what mid sentence, mid thought, mid laughter, mid stride, mid whatever looks like and feels like, the everyday - or rather everynight - beauty in that.”

THE PICTORIAL LIST: Welcome to The List Laine! Tell us a bit about yourself?

LAINE MULLALLY: I was born in a small town in the middle, rural part of Sweden, grew up partly there and partly in Stockholm and moved to London after graduating at the age of 18, then back to Stockholm where I've lived since then. Travelling has been a big part of my life, Europe, Africa, Asia and America, and I spend a lot of time in London where my husband is from, but Stockholm remains my home.

TPL: What was it that sparked your initial interest in photography?

LM: My grandmother was very artistic, somehow finding the time, while working full time and raising two children, for her various creative outlets, like painting, designing and making clothes and furnishings, and she was probably my first artistic inspiration. I early on had an interest in drawing, mostly portraits, I took art classes at school, and my dad had a Canon AE-1 that I started using when I was in my 20's. Sadly I no longer draw but transitioning into photography has felt a natural development. When I got my first DSLR a few years ago I mainly focused on architecture, then added abstract and ICM, then ventured into street photography and now it seems I have come full circle, having a renewed interest in portraits, albeit candid ones.

TPL: You are a woman of many talents. We happen to know that among other occupations, you are also a fashion model yourself. How do you think this experience of being the subject of photography has influenced you as a photographer?

LM: I have empathy for my subjects and I don't want to make them feel uncomfortable by taking their photo; that held me back from street photography for a long while but since venturing into this genre I've developed a code for my street photography, for example, I keep a distance (using my 85mm lens on my crop sensor camera I get pretty close from afar), I don't photograph people in vulnerable states or situations and if anybody would say or show that they don't want me to take their photo I would respect that and if they would ask me to delete their image I would instantly do so.

A while ago I did a project shooting mannequins, the aim being giving life and a context to that inanimate object, making them a subject, with emotions, dreams, fears and hopes, with a past and a future, not just this thing that you see in the moment, and that is connected to my modelling background.

Since I started taking street photos it has been on my mind as to what extent my modelling background influences my aesthetic; what I find beautiful, what draws me in, and recently I went to see an exhibition by a photographer, who, like me, also started out as a fashion model - and she ponders the very same question!

One thing we have in common is that we both tend to photograph women more often than men and neither of us have any clear answers as to why. I do think that for me it partly has to do with, like in my mannequin project, wanting to depict women as subjects, not objects, and to add to this I like writing accompanying stories to make the viewer/reader see the photo - and the subject - in a very different way than they would be culturally conditioned to do.

I have considered whether I'm not just conforming to the norm, in the sense of adopting the male gaze, detecting female beauty and depicting it, that being the aim of the photo, but, I don't feel that I am. Although, at times it may be interpreted that way; I recall an amusing example where I was photographing a woman standing quite close by and a young man standing behind me suddenly cried out "Legs, legs, I see legs!" and was, if not upset but certainly felt it necessary to question what I was doing! I explained to him that I had noticed this woman, all dressed up but wearing flat sandals, carrying her super high heels in her hand, and I liked the scene, I found this woman's strategy, of conforming to the norm of 'looking good' in excruciatingly uncomfortable heels yet ensuring a comfortable walk home interesting, but the young man just assumed that I was a 'leg woman'!

Another way my modelling background has influenced me is that I want to depict beauty that is not posed and edited, like in a fashion or beauty editorial, and not a perfected social media selfie, filters and all; I want to show the everyday beauty in everyday moments; people thinking, talking, laughing, daydreaming, reading, discussing, flirting, hurrying; multi facetted people, leading their everyday lives; this to me is real beauty and I would love for people to see themselves that way too.

TPL: Would you like to tell us a bit about your experience of posing for the camera? How do you feel when you are the subject? And how different is that from being ‘the’ photographer?

LM: As a model you of course learn about poses, (and let me tell you it HURTS, being all contorted, holding your pose, maybe in heels, maybe baking in the sun or freezing in the wind or snow for hours on end!) finding the light and interpreting the brief. I like to work out back stories for the character that wears the clothes and make-up that I'm wearing for the day so that I can have fun and also convey something real. At best you get to be a part of telling a story, creating images that engage and inspire; that's important as people consume so much media and the images they see affect them deeply.

The obvious difference between being the subject and the photographer is that as a model you're not in control, and as a photographer you are, but of course you try to establish a rapport with the photographer and when they're open to your input it becomes more of a collaborative process. You can also adopt poses and expressions between shots that you think will convey something meaningful to you and just maybe the photographer will go - 'Ooh, hold that!' - and maybe think it just 'happened', that it was their idea! ;-) Most of all, I always strive to find ways to be a subject in the photo, not a mere object; I'm a living, breathing, thinking, feeling woman, not a mannequin.

TPL: Although you often do some artistic compositions, you also seem quite interested in portraying people candidly, or at least they feature prominently in the series you have shared with us. How do you go about making the candid portraits you have shared?

LM: Yes, I do seem to have come full circle and just like when I would draw portraits I look for expressions and scenes that engage; like I mentioned earlier, I want to capture that everyday beauty.

People in motion in a city are constantly telling their own story; this fascinates me and I try to capture it. I'm predominantly a fisher, not a hunter, so I find locations that give the vibe I'm looking for and move around spots where the light and framing feel right and then I wait for subjects and scenes. For the portraits I shared with you I used an 85mm lens (which corresponds to 136mm on a full frame camera) so I do get quite up close and personal and when the moments I catch really pique my curiosity or move me then I know that I've got something.

Having said all this, I'm still not entirely comfortable with taking strangers' photos so I have started doing little exercises to feel more at ease, more confident in the process, like taking a deep breath, amping up my positivity and bounding up to strangers and striking up a conversation, maybe complimenting them on their outfits; this I've found makes me so much more comfortable with photographing people and I also get comfortable with the area, feel I can move around with ease and snap away with gay abandon! I've found that most people I approach are delighted to have their photo taken and also people I haven't approached approach me and ask me to photograph them. It may not be the kind of photography I'm after but it brings such a positive vibe, which really aids my photography process!

TPL: In general regarding your photography, where do you find your inspiration to create? When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both? Please describe your process.

LM: As I am interested in several genres of photography, just about everything I see inspires me to take photos and I usually don't know what I will photograph at any given time. I have a little point and shoot compact with me at all times but if I decide to go for a photo walk and bring my DSLR I generally pick a location as a starting point, see what the light is like and take it from there. Sometimes I use a sun position map app before I go to a location so that I know what light and shadow to expect.

I'm a slow starter that needs a bit of a warm up so I look around and see if anything instantly draws my attention, if not I might just take some shots of some pigeons or a reflection or random shots of people or just about anything. If there are a lot of people and I feel awkward about taking portraits I might start playing around with ICM shots and either I'll stick to that, let that guide what other locations I go to or I might start approaching people, like I described above, interact with them to start to get shots and find a flow, move onto candid portraits and scenes.

In general I let the images come to me, it doesn't work for me to go out with a mission, I'd most likely go home empty handed. If I'm in London I do mostly focus on candid portraits and street scenes though as there is such an abundance of subjects and scenes at any time of the day; at home in Stockholm I have to work harder, be prepared to switch genres several times during a photo walk so as not to go home empty handed. I also have a 'go to' place there if no other location has worked for me; a large square with a geometrical pattern and interesting lines and always people passing by and so I know that I can get shots of any genre there.

TPL: Some people say a picture is worth more than a thousand words, others prefer to have context to images, and yet others enjoy matching photos with made-up stories. We noticed that you often include amusing little stories as captions under your photos. How do these come to mind?

LM: I always wonder who my subjects are and what is really taking place before me and as I don't know, I make it up! I feel responsibility towards my subjects; even if they don't know that they're in a photo I would like them to feel good about it and so I like to make them heroes in my stories; also it is in a way a thank you of sorts for me capturing them without their knowledge or consent.

The stories are often silly, jokey in some way, at times surreal, sometimes a bit dark perhaps, but I don't wish a subject to be the brunt of a joke, unless the subject is me, in the modelling shots I post; it's amusing to challenge the stereotype of models as conceited.

Besides being silly with my stories I have an ulterior motive; most of the time we don't know what we see when we look at a random person or scene, but we may casually assume, even judge, or, maybe we just don't think anything at all, it's just a passing glance, and I like to play around with our preconceived notions and offer the viewer the opportunity to see something extraordinary, dramatic, heroic, unexpected. I look at the shot, set my mind to blank and go with the first thought or feeling I get and see where it goes. I also have a 'concept bank' where I jot down ideas, thoughts, themes and interesting words and phrases that may come of use in stories and I enjoy the process of reading up on any subjects that I use as part of the stories, delightfully nerdy!

TPL: Do you think a picture can ever tell its own story, without being contextualised? For that to be the case, what would the picture have to be like?

LM: Oh definitely, but maybe sometimes I can feel that mine may not stand on their own.. That self doubt aside, any picture can stand on its own merit; the photographer takes a photo, offers it to the viewer who then creates the context, could be the context the photographer had in mind or something completely different. I just have a different approach, I choose to contextualise with stories to take the viewer on a journey and expose them to the unexpected. I'm delighted that I often get that kind of feedback, that people say that they see the photo and think one thing and then read the story and think something completely different!

TPL: Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?

LM: Ooh, I love Vivian Maier's fascinating exploration of the everyday, Martin Parr's quirkiness and social commentary, Cindy Sherman's use of herself to explore identities and Elizaveta Porodina's exquisite, painterly, otherworldly tsunami of the senses. They don't necessarily inspire my photography in the sense of me striving to emulate their style, that's impossible, but I admire their work immensely. There are also a great many photographers on Instagram and Vero whose work I love.

TPL: Does gear matter? Is there any particular equipment you need or wish you had to help you achieve your photographic vision?

LM: Gear doesn't matter for the story telling aspect of photography; if you have the eye you see a scene, you compose and you capture it, but, I do feel a bit limited by my gear, I would love to be able to achieve better quality images technically. I have a little point and shoot compact, a Canon PowerShot g7 x Mark II, which I like as I can keep it with me at all times but I mostly use my Canon 200D and my favourite lens at the moment, the one I used for this series, is a 85mm Samyang f/1,4 and getting that lens has helped me develop my photography in a new direction, it being very suitable for candid portraits. I recently got a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens, to get the equivalent of 50mm on my crop sensor camera, and I'll see how that will suit me. I think I'll hold off on upgrading my camera though, until I'm more technically savvy with what I've got and also know more about what kinds of photography I want to be doing.

Also, when you don't have great gear or aren't very tech savvy or haven't chosen a particular genre or haven't established a very specific style it's quite liberating; there are no rules, no boundaries, no wrongs, no pressure, you just do whatever you feel like and that's quite a lovely place to be!

TPL: Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about? Are there areas of photography you feel like exploring? Tell us what rocks your photographic boat.

LM: I have no exciting news; I've just started taking candid portraits and I feel I want to keep exploring that for a while, alongside street and abstract, before starting any new projects.

One challenge I have is to calibrate my eye to the subtleness of Sweden and the Swedish; there are fewer people here, which for one thing makes it very tricky to blend in when you take street photographs as you really stick out, standing there with your camera; I just raise my camera and my potential subject instantly clocks me! It's also more homogeneous, the pace is slower and it's more quiet; even on a Friday night all you might come across is a man and his dog! Alright, I may exaggerate a little but I am so enamoured with London and its vibrancy and the diversity and flair of the people that I have a hard time adjusting to and getting fired up about my everyday back home and that's not OK. I recognise that it's me, not Stockholm, that is at fault here though, so I am working on it.

I hope for a very snowy winter as I would love to explore that, and really make good use of this long, dark, cold season! Snow is exotic to others but everyday (or at least it used to be) to me but an everyday that I find wonderful; the brightness it brings, the softness, how it muffles everything - and the scenes; a mother of three cursing as she digs out her car, four middle aged men in a spontaneous snowball fight, a gaggle of teenage boys in inappropriate shoes gingerly manoeuvring on the pavement, an old lady sticking her tongue out to catch snowflakes, I just love it and I hope to be able to capture it aplenty this winter!

TPL: “When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…

LM: Be out in nature, read, write, do weights at the gym, go to the ballet, a gallery, a concert, the cinema, have a curry, sit on the couch with my husband, open the balcony door and give a squirrel a hazelnut; you know, be an all rounded human being.”