I’m delighted to share this interview with Nettie Edwards, an award-winning artist and photographer who uses her iPhone to combine these two passions. By experimenting with creative shooting and editing techniques, Nettie produces powerful and compelling pictures with a surreal and dreamlike quality. In this interview you’ll learn more about Nettie, and how she creates these beautiful and mysterious images with her iPhone.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in the City of Birmingham in England’s Midlands. I grew up just west of there in a heavily industrial area known as The Black Country.
For the last 25 years I’ve lived in the pretty English Cotswolds. I’m a professional artist, writer and educator.
Did you study art or photography, or are you self-taught?
My father was a professional photographer, but I wasn’t inspired to follow in his footsteps. He worked in the commercial and industrial sectors which seemed very dull to a child instinctively drawn to expressive arts.
My early ambition was to be an opera singer or actor, but I also loved painting and making things. So in the end I chose to go to art school and took a degree in Theatrical Design.
I had a very enjoyable and successful career in theatre and television for over 20 years. But towards the end of that time, I was looking for fresh challenges.
So I phased out my theatre work in favor of a creative practice that engaged with communities and their histories – in particular, English Gypsies and Travelers.
I have Romany heritage on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family, and I wanted to find out more about it.
I spent six years devising arts projects exclusively with Gypsy and Traveler families, documenting their lives and researching their family histories.
Photography and digital story-making became integral to the work which led on to a number of commissions, exhibitions and publications.
During this period, I taught myself to use creative computer programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator Painter and Final Cut.
A short time after leaving Theatre, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a debilitating condition that was to blight my life, on and off, for the next 14 years.
I experienced long periods of severe anxiety and depression during which I was afraid to leave my house. I lost every shred of personal and creative confidence, and I didn’t know who I was any more.
But a friend told me “you’re an artist, and one day you’ll wake up and you’ll do SOMETHING. You don’t know what it is yet – it may be something you’ve never done before and you may not understand WHY you’re doing it, but you’ll just do it because you HAVE TO!”
These words were like a prayer or a charm because that’s precisely what eventually happened. One day, I turned on my computer and made a digital collage.
I attempted something much more technically complex than I’d ever done before. To my amazement I went into autopilot and it just appeared to make itself.
This was the first of many collages that incorporated anonymous photographs and documents found on market stalls and in antiquarian bookshops – imaginary narratives inspired by my fascination for collecting fragments of other people’s lives.
Instinctively, I was unconsciously creating powerful visual metaphors for the abuse that had triggered my mental ill-health.
Through my art, I could unlock my pain and better articulate the nature of my trauma. Realizing this was a turning point for me.
How did your iPhone photography journey begin?
One day in November 2009 I bought an iPhone. That evening I discovered the App Store, and over the following two weeks I downloaded so many photo and art apps that my credit card company thought there had been illegal activity and put a block on the card!
With my background in design, I have a fascination for resolving creative technical challenges. So my initial impulse was the excitement of working out how, by moving photos through a series of apps, I could do with my phone what I’d previously been doing in Photoshop.
You have to understand that back then, this was new and uncharted territory! There weren’t many of us doing it, and it took a while for us to find each other on the social networks.
Apps were much more limited in their capabilities than they are now. There was no single app that did everything, such as Procreate or Leonardo.
There was no standard output ratio or photo resolution, so you had to think way outside the box, accepting that the collages would be quite tiny and probably not printable.
At this point, I was still suffering from PTSD, but the iPhone motivated me to get out of the house because I was so thrilled that I had this little magic camera and photo editing device in my pocket.
I wanted to take photographs of anything and everything, then mash them up together. It was such an exciting, special time, feeling that you were at the start of something that was going to be really important.
I was so sure of this that I gave up using my DSLR cameras and Photoshop, dedicating myself to working solely with my iPhone. Not long after that, I wrote the first published iPhone tutorial.
A little later, I ran the first ever iPhone photography workshops at Birmingham’s Fotofilia Studios. This was a big breakthrough because for some time I’d been offering them to various arts centers but nobody wanted to know.
The usual response was “it’s not inclusive enough.” I suspect that another factor was that many arts centers had invested in expensive computer suites and weren’t ready to accept that technology was about to move on.
What inspires you to take photos with the iPhone?
It’s a wonderful, portable, creative tool with infinite potential. It helped me to unlock my photographic voice and has become an integral part of my creative process and practice.
Your work is a mix of realistic photography with various effects applied to create compelling, and sometimes surreal, dreamlike images. How did you discover this style?
I don’t regard my photographic work as realistic because in my opinion, there’s no such thing as a realistic photograph.
A photograph is a document that records how someone chooses to interpret that which they perceive to be in front of them at a specific moment in time.
Once the photograph is viewed by someone other than the photographer, it attains mythological status. By this I mean it’s open to multiple interpretations and narratives.
In the early days of working with the iPhone, I was making digital collages, so shooting photographs was just the beginning of the image making process.
Then slowly, I began to strip things away. This began with making single images that were heavily processed.
The iPhone became a personal journal that recorded my wanderings through the maze of mental illness, so I used vintage and grunge effects to express mental and emotional states…
For simulated historical processes read: “melancholy, depression, inertia, loss, avoidance of the future.” For grunge read: “violation, abuse, anxiety, anger.”
For blur read “lack of clarity, imperfection of sight, memory, blunting of feeling, clouding of vision, blocking of inner and outer light.”
I was making photographs of what I saw inside myself – the torn and blasted landscape of mental illness.
Eventually, I reached a point where I challenged myself to strip away the layers even further, and explore the processing and manipulation of photographic images IN THE MOMENT.
At this point, I had no idea if I could do this, or even if I could create any kind of photographic images of worth (whatever that is!) – but I let my instincts guide me.
Now that I’ve recovered from my mental health problems, I’m working with different stimuli, so I hope there’s more joy and wonder evident in my work.
What I’m constantly attempting to find is the soul or spirit of something – to capture an atmosphere, a sense of the moment within a moment, the metaphysics of time and place, transcendence.
A lot of your images tend to evoke feelings of mystery and suspense. What draws you to this style of work?
If my work evokes this response from a viewer, I’m very happy – but I don’t try to deliberately lead them in a particular direction. I’m attempting to share certain feelings – sometimes difficult, uncomfortable ones.
I’m as interested in implying what’s not visible in a moment as I am in capturing the visible – the moment within the moment, a half remembered dream, scents and sounds… or silence.
I’m not a social photographer. I have to be completely alone when I’m working, so that I can connect emotionally with myself and the subject.
If there’s no emotional connection, I can’t produce the work. Sometimes, the moment I choose to walk away is the moment that I find the thing I’ve been searching for.
Do you have a favorite kind of subject to photograph, or do you like to experiment with new scenes and genres?
I’m quite obsessive and may return to a place many times to photograph something. Three years ago, I set myself a 365 challenge to visit a meadow that’s under threat of development, making one image a day.
At this point I didn’t consider myself to be a landscape photographer, so the plan was well out of my comfort zone.
A 365 project, particularly one where you’ve chosen to regularly photograph something specific, really pushes you to question your creative philosophies and processes.
I wanted to keep myself open to new possibilities, and deliberately steered myself away from documentary/storytelling because that would have felt too comfortable.
I didn’t keep up with the project, but I did it for long enough to explore and develop my photographic relationship with landscape and macro photography – subjects that have since became central to my work.
Since April 2014 I’ve been resident artist at Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire where I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to work site specifically, through the seasons.
However, I believe it’s important to regularly take a step back – to just BE somewhere, to let things come to me, rather than constantly seeking them out.
At the moment, I’m not taking photographs of anything. I’m reading and writing and waiting to see what will find me next.
What’s the process for creating your images? Do you have a clear vision of what you want the end result to look like before you take the photos, or do you get inspiration from pictures you’ve already taken and start your editing process from there?
I grew up with partially sighted parents who are both very visually aware. This taught me something important – that we see not just with our eyes but with our entire body and all our senses.
I spend more time absorbing things than shooting. Sometimes I’ll return to a subject many times before taking a single photograph, either because the light isn’t right or because I want to develop a relationship with it and get a deeper sense of it.
Other times, I’ll be deliriously energized by a wonderful chance discovery, becoming obsessed and spending hours working with it.
I use apps with particular in-shot filters – usually Hipstamatic. Additionally, I manipulate light and atmospheric conditions with things such as camera movement and an assortment of lenses.
These days, to add anything after the moment has gone feels counterintuitive and unauthentic. Each moment presents itself anew, inviting a new response. But I do have a visual vocabulary that I’m told is recognizably mine.
This is my current process, although I still occasionally do compositing or texturing work, and may return to more complex post-processing at some time in the future, depending on what I’m exploring.
I should add that for me, digital processing is only part of the decision-making process.
I’ve never felt completely comfortable with digital printing as a way to present my images because I want the materiality of my photographs to be an extension of the metaphors and ideas that are central to my creative practice.
So over the past two years, I’ve been exploring historical and alternative photographic processes – in particular Anthotypes which is a method of printing with plant matter.
This is the antithesis of working digitally, because to a large extent control is taken out of my hands. Anthotypes require long exposure times – days, weeks or months – and it’s impossible to know exactly what a finished print will look like.
On top of that, it’s difficult to fix Anthotypes, so essentially it’s an ephemeral process. Not only does this reflect issues explored in much of my work, but it strips away the idea that a photograph preserves a moment “forever.”
This is a very humbling, challenging thought to work with!
Let’s talk about photo apps. Are there any apps that you use for taking photos besides the native camera app?
I rarely use the native camera app, preferring to work with Hipstamatic, Lenka, Provoke or Cameramatic.
I don’t regard using these apps as an “easy fix.” You still have to learn how to make them work effectively and meaningfully for you.
What are your favorite apps for post-processing and creative editing?
Snapseed, Image Blender, Photocopier and Tiffen Photo FX.
Can you briefly explain what kind of shooting and editing techniques you use to create your images?
As I explained earlier, with single image photographs, I process in the moment with particular settings in Hipstamatic or Lenka, usually with an additional lens of some sort and camera movement to further manipulate the image.
After that, I may do quite minimal post-processing – maybe just some adjustment of levels, contrast or color saturation.
I like to take my time and get the composition just how I want it, as I shoot. So I don’t usually crop photographs afterwards, except to remove a preset frame from Hipstamatic if I think it’s extraneous.
I work in the moment with the emotions and responses I feel at that precise time. Once the energy of the moment has gone, I’ve either captured it to my satisfaction, or I haven’t.
My composite work is different. I usually have a subject or theme I want to explore, or I’ll take a memory on a journey by combining a number of photographs in one image.
I create my own textures for layering, and can often be found taking photos of rather unsavory looking bits of walls and pavements.
Do you use any iPhone photography accessories?
There’s an Olloclip Macro or Telephoto lens clipped to my phone almost all of the time. I also have a growing collection of other weird and wonderful lenses. And I never leave the house without my iWalk battery charger.
Can you briefly explain the story and editing behind your three favorite iPhone photos?
Rules of Engagement: Complicite (2011)
This is one of an ongoing self-portrait collage series about family psychologies and relationships. I created it several years ago with Brushes – one of the first collage/painting apps to be developed.
There are far more sophisticated compositing apps available now, and Brushes outputs at a very low resolution, but I still use it occasionally.
I took a photo of my face, and a pair of scissors, then combined these with found vintage photographs and textures, blending photo layers, extracting some areas, and drawing on others.
Grand Canal: Versailles, February Morning 2012
In February 2012, I visited the Palace of Versailles for the first time, instantly falling passionately in love with the spacial geometry of André Le Nôtre’s audacious Grand Canal.
I can’t describe the exhilaration I felt when I first set eyes on it. I wanted to grow wings and fly through the space!
That afternoon, I took a series of photographs with the Hipstamatic Dali set. I wasn’t happy with the results – they were far too tricksy and lacked atmosphere, but I could see how my brain had been instinctively responding to the space.
So the next morning, I got up at 4.30 a.m. and made a second journey to Versailles, arriving at the palace gates when it was still quite dark and mist was clinging to the water – just what I wanted!
This series of images marks the moment when my sensibilities as a spacial designer began to manifest themselves quite naturally in response to photography and landscape design. It was also the start of a long period of working in black and white.
Stripping away color enabled me to depict my personal vision of this magnificent garden’s structure and atmosphere. I’m often asked if those trees have been Photoshopped. They haven’t – I was just standing in the right place.
The Conversation (Paris 2013)
Despite my earlier work documenting the lives of Gypsies and Travelers, I only shoot Social/Street photography when something in particular catches my eye. I’m especially interested in the loneliness and isolation that’s often to be found in cities.
This photograph could be described as a “mise en abyme.” This French term is used to describe an image in which the representation of the whole work is embedded in a work, like a tunnel of reflecting mirrors.
One afternoon, in a Montmartre cafe, I became fascinated by the interactions between a couple sitting nearby.
Wishing to explore this further, but not wanting them to notice that I was doing so, I positioned myself next to a mirror and shot their reflections in that.
A multitude of other mirrors hanging on the cafe walls enabled me to play with the couple’s relationship and set the cafe scene within the larger context of a Parisian Street.
The image hasn’t been cropped in any way – I consciously chose to depict the man gesticulating out of the picture frame and to place the woman he’s talking to behind him.
She may or may not be more interested in what’s going on in the world outside, partially viewed through the mirrors on the cafe walls. That’s for the viewer to decide!
The photograph was shot using the Cameramatic app. I then adjusted the levels in certain areas with Snapseed, and added a subtle tobacco tint with Photocopier.
You’ve won several awards for your mobile photography. What is it about your work that you think catches people’s attention?
I really couldn’t say because I don’t strive to catch anyone’s attention. I make very personal, private, often quiet images.
So it does please me when people express strong emotional responses to my work. I hope they sense authenticity of vision and intent.
Many photographers are comfortable taking ordinary photos, but they don’t know how to transition into a more abstract or artistic style. What tips do you have for people who want to make that transition?
Willa Cather wrote, “artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness.”
I interpret this as finding one’s own creative truth. Stylistic devices are irrelevant – what’s important is authenticity. What should come first is the impulse. Everything else follows from that.
Concentrate on what YOU are truly fascinated by and what YOU wish to convey. If you’re clear about that and keep it in the forefront of your mind and heart, then the image will make itself.
Any applied filters and effects should serve to strengthen the things you’re attempting to communicate.
It’s very easy to recognize “faux” work where a filter has been added for effect, but in actuality it adds little or nothing to the content, meaning or atmosphere of an image.
Less can be much, much more. Mobile photography isn’t an “apping” contest!
Which iPhone photographers do you admire the most?
I’m still in touch with a lot of friends and colleagues from the early days of iPhoneography and Mobile Art. Our little phones have taken us in so many interesting and unexpected creative directions.
It’s thrilling to have watched everyone’s work progress and see what they’re up to now that taking photographs and making art with mobile devices has become so mainstream.
I also love and respect the Mobile Camera Club Paris team. They’re all talented Mobile Photographers in their own right who’ve invested a huge amount of time, energy and personal finance in promoting the work of fellow Mobile Artists.
You’ve exhibited your work in Europe and the US. Do you have any new exhibitions coming up?
I’ve just had my first solo exhibition of Mobile Photography at the Brentwood Road Gallery in Romford, East London.
Some of my photographs and collages are in the latest exhibition by the Mobile Camera Club, Paris, who regularly show my work.
Currently, one of my Anthotypes is included in an exhibition of alternative photographic processes, at Brewery Arts, Keswick, in the English Lake District.
From February to April next year, I’ll be working in Sweden, so I’ll be sharing work there.
Where can we see your iPhone photography?
You can see my photography on Instagram @lumilyon, and also on Flickr @lumilyon.
I share my work on my blog: lumilyon.wordpress.com
And my Anthotype work can be seen at hortuslucis.wordpress.com
Kate Wesson says
Thank you so much for sharing your story and photography with us Nettie.
Tornike Gochitashvili says
Thanks for this interview it gave me new ideas and inspired me a lot. )
Kate Wesson says
Glad to hear you’re feeling inspired 🙂
Rosa Perry says
Thank you Kate and thank you so much Nettie for sharing your story with us. I am filled with awe by your amazing photography work. Just simply stunning creative images. . . . . I have bookmarked this page so that I can return again and again and learn from your experience. I also suffer from PTSD and one day I hope to regain the courage and confidence that I lost. You are so inspiring. Thank you once again Nettie. ?
Peter Bryenton says
Good interview, thank you. I was especially appreciative of Nettie’s honesty about her recovery from her mental illness.
Kate Wesson says
Glad you enjoyed reading Nettie’s story, Peter. She’s a great inspiration isn’t she 🙂
Awesome and inspiring interview
Kate Wesson says
Glad you found Nettie’s story and photography so inspiring 🙂