Sunday, December 16, 2012

'Thoughts from Actual People' Vol. 4, December 2012 - Horror Photographer Danielle Tunstall

December is upon us, and so is yet another installment in my monthly interview series, Thoughts from Actual People.

The final month of 2012 has arrived, with all of the celebratory and cultural clutter that comes with it. A record breaking Black Friday is now in the past, and a cold stillness has settled in to the Northern hemisphere – a gradual draining of the color and life from the landscape that leaves only the core of things: leafless branches grasping for a grey, cloud-enshrouded sky, a silence amidst the skeletal trees that screams out for the now-absent cry of birds.

But what is this absence but a chance to reevaluate what we think we know about the surface of things? In Winter, we are forced to deal more than in any other time of the year with the underlying reality of things. Our ordinary context shifts.

Teardrops turn to icicles on your cheek, your very breath becomes a vaporous cloud. The war of hot and cold wind resolves into inches of snow that bury the land beneath it – revealing in a slightly more permanent way than rain ever could just how much water falls from the open sky onto our earth. In the Winter, what was once invisible is now clear, and the beauty of death is more apparent - and more lovely - than perhaps it could ever seem in the Springtime.

It is in just such an environment, and such a time, that we sit down with our fourth guest, the talented and celebrated self-styled ‘Horror Photographer,’ Ms. Danielle Tunstall.

Working primarily in the portrait form, Tunstall’s shocking, stark photography has been featured in magazines, book and album covers, and across the internet, garnering praise and eliciting visceral reactions from viewers around the globe. The raw, gritty, yet carefully managed and sculpted visual effects that transform her subjects into fantastic, phantasmagorical studies in human emotion make up a huge part of her work’s appeal, but her ability to direct her models into revealing sides of themselves – and humanity – that ordinarily remain shuttered off from the outside world informs her work with a unique, almost narrative power that sets her apart from other photographers, conceptual or otherwise.
It is with these thoughts in mind, not to mention concerns that I will blow this interview by asking ridiculous questions of someone who works in a medium about which the most perceptive thing I can honestly say is ‘I’m no artist, but I know what I like,’ that I sit down for a chat with the lovely and talented Ms. Danielle Tunstall. (That’s not sexist, because it’s true. Dan Klein, Anthony Rapino, and Eric Bailey weren’t exactly shabby stuff in the looks department, either.)

Me: Hello Danielle! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. The first question I wanted to ask is about your photographic ‘mission.’ Your website’s about section explains that you don’t do you work to shock or disgust, but to express a hidden beauty to things that oftentimes goes unexplored by most folks. I find that your photos are frequently like stories in a way, hoping to capture sides of people or parts of life that are usually overlooked. Do you often have specific emotional ideas in mind when you start a shoot, or do you play off the emotions that a certain model or shot will evoke for you and go from there?

Danielle:  I get inspired when I meet new models. Most of my inspiration comes from my misspent youth and how I see humans. And, yes, I like each one to be like part of a story. That’s why I often don't title my work. I like the viewer to be free with their imagination and get lost in my images - to enter another world even if just for a moment.

Me: As someone who has virtually no clue how you end up achieving the results you do, this question almost embarrasses me, but do you achieve the startling visual looks primarily with digital effects, makeup, or a combination of the two? How did you learn to do this, and would you say that you feel you’ve grown substantially in your ability to make such startling ‘otherworldly’ effects over time – or was this just something that always came naturally to you?

Danielle: I try get the most and best I can with set up and camera first. Then, due to lack of props, money, or physical possibilities, I do the rest in Photoshop. Even un-Photoshoped photos don’t tell the truth, they just capture a split second. To me Photoshop is an extension of my camera, and goes hand in hand with my work.

I'm self-taught. I've been doing it nearly 4 years. Due to kids, I do most of my work at night, so it’s just practice, practice, practice and hard work. I don’t, and never have been able to, follow tutorials.

Me: You focus primarily on portrait work – never shying away from using things like gasmasks or paint being splashed on the faces of your subject – but I notice that not all of the people sitting for your portraits are strictly, well, people. This lovely shot of a family includes their cute pooch, and I notice that the striking ‘Tunstall Look’ is almost conveyed more through the dog’s expression than those of his human parents.

In another shot, a passing cat is picked up by your human model. I think the mood of the cat is captured perfectly in its expression.

Do you like working with animals, and do you find their ability (or lack thereof) to take direction is anything like your work with humans? Do you perhaps admire their inability to mask their inner emotions?

Danielle: The first was a commissioned and paid for portrait. That’s why it's more normal than the rest. I wanted to try and capture a family portrait, in conventional way but with my style, and having the dog as an equal. The lady in this portrait was so inspired by the results she is now a photographer -photographing mainly pets. This is amazing news for me: how much the photo shoot changed her life.
My photos are the complete opposite to candid. They’re all completely set up and unreal. With animals and children, there is less control so you get the happy element of surprise. This photo was purely because the lovely little model (Bobbie Paige Bicknell) saw the cat run away from shoot, and grabbed it so this is probably one of my only candid portraits.

Me: You do a lot of great work for musicians and authors, sometimes doing photos commissioned for a specific purpose, other times letting the artists license pre-existing work. What would you say is the ratio or balance of specifically commissioned work to licensing existing photography? Do you have a preference – perhaps enjoying the challenge of making up something to specifications, or relishing the freedom of having a ‘blank slate?’ How much direction are you willing to take from people looking for a specific thing from a photo?

Danielle: My main income and work is from authors - and I have to say, I love working with them. They seem to be on same wave length as me, and respect my creative freedom and trust my judgment. Bands are hard to work with (lol!) because there are often 4 to 5 conflicting and creative minds to work with, but hip hop artists are awesome to work with: so chilled and laid back, and always happy with the results. So for me, I love to work with hip hop artists and authors. (Laughs)

Most of my business comes from: 40% from the US, 30% Germany, 25% in the UK, and 5% other!

Me: You’ve worked a bit with your daughter Estelle and your son Theo in your photos – both of them seem to love being in photos and have a knack for it. Your daughter particularly has a knack for the kind of work you do. Is it rewarding on levels I can’t even yet appreciate to get to work with your children like that, and was it tremendous fun realizing that they approved of your work and liked being a part of it. My wife says she is worried our future children will think we are silly and like things that we don’t enjoy – is it nice not to have that problem?

Danielle: I think no matter what we do, our kids will get to that age and think we’re stupid and embarrassing. I know they’re proud of what I do, and that makes me very happy. To be honest, if I didn't have kids I would even be doing this.

Theo loves that he's in a mag and a video. He's only four, so he’s only just understanding that it's not normal to be in those, or to have zombies and bands coming round every weekend. He can't wait to do more.

Estelle is outwardly embarrassed, but I think inside proud. Even when she's in mags - on the covers of them, or on books - she doesn't show her friends! But when she is older I think she will see how hard I worked to try get a better life for them, and appreciate all the photos. Estelle also is involved in the final pictures on Photoshop, as when I'm stuck and can’t decide, I click through versions and she decides which one will be used.

You don’t really grow up until you have kids yourself, or huge tragedy in your life.

Me: Your photography often involves a lot of props – everything from knives, guns, to pig heads. This will probably seem like a silly question to you, but is it hard managing/procuring those things when you need them? Is that an aspect to your work that fits in well with the rest of what you do, or do you find it to be an extra pain or burden? Do you often turn to such objects when you need extra inspiration? What is the strangest prop you’ve ever worked with, or the strangest story attached to a mundane prop.

Danielle: Props inspire me. I don’t think of the idea and then find the prop. Normally, I think of the prop and then comes the idea.

I'm Vegetarian, so the pig’s head was the worst prop yet. When I went to the butchers, I put it on back of Theo's push chair (he was only little) and the pig’s head was so heavy that the push chair fell back. The head was very upsetting to see, and I see humans the same as animals, so to me it was same as seeing a human head chopped off.

After the shoot, I had nightmares for two weeks that I was trapped in this small room with a pig. He was trying to get me, and I was sitting with a laptop. People kept sending me messages, but I couldn’t delete them fast enough! So yes, that shoot affected my brain, and was disgusting. I think though that it's better than letting the head go to waste, and I have the skull sat here with me now. (laughs)

Me: Okay, we’ll try to wrap this up with a few final questions. What would be your advice for people thinking of going into this field? What mistakes did you make early on or lessons that took longer to learn than others that you wish you could change?

Danielle: It doesn’t matter what equipment you have. I have no studio. I live on normal council estate and do all my shoots in the back garden. I started off with a very basic camera and a white sheet. Never upload high-res on the internet - always 750 pixels wide, maybe 900 pix if really needed. Always watermark, but not too big and distracting.

The most important thing is to be yourself and follow your heart, then your photos will turn out great with true passion. Don’t copy other artist’s work - it's upsetting for the artist and people will think your work lame. You need to find you own niche in photography, then you will produce the best photos and be able to make it a career. 

Me: And, finally: How can authors, musicians, or anybody looking to license or commission artwork get a hold of you to make arrangements? Likewise, can folks who just want some high quality prints of your amazing work find satisfaction?

Danielle: I upload daily onto my Facebook page, so all authors should check there regularly to get first dibs on an image. I also do all the font and design work. You can purchase my work on my website in the shop section, and you can follow me on twitter for my random and messy tweets. (Smiles)

Me: Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful replies! There was certainly nothing ‘horrific’ about our chat!


  1. Awesome work, Danielle! Love the zombie pics best. Recognized the cover art right away for Matt Hults's "Anything Can Be Dangerous".

  2. A big fan of Danielle Tunstall . . . Thanks for the article :)

  3. Very rare to find such a marvelous blog, I feel lucky reading this.