Isabel Curdes - Artist, Dreamer, Wanderer, Explorer

Hi Isabel. Tell us about yourself.

I am an artist, a dreamer, a wanderer and explorer. I have found my home in the middle of Jutland (Denmark) in the country-side where I live with my "pack" - consisting of a very supportive boyfriend and our two dogs. I stay away from cities as much as possible and instead enjoy the quiet and space in nature.

For many years I worked as a finance manager in a large global company but 18 months ago I decided to follow my real dreams and so I started my own little "one-woman-company" where I want to sell my art and offer personalised mentoring for photographers/artists.

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Will you tell me about the prehistory of your art? Are there other media that you work in?

The prehistory of my art goes all the way back to my childhood when I loved to dream, to imagine things, to explore the fantastic realms beyond reality and when I enjoyed painting and creating. Unfortunately, creativity and imagination weren’t really valued in my family so I locked away that child deep inside of me until a few years ago when I had a serious burn-out. As part of the healing process I rediscovered the hidden child and I started to look for creative ways to visualize all the magic and beauty I suddenly saw again. I started to explore the possibilities of photography first as I had always liked to take photos, followed by writing my own poetry and currently continuing with painting as well as alternative photographic and printing processes and investigating possibilities to combine all these in different ways.

Will you share with us your journey to film?

Looking at my photography I soon realized that with my old digital Point-and-Shoot camera I could not create what I envisioned, so I tried a few different cameras and bought my first Hasselblad (V-System) in 2014. I knew from the moment I held it in my hands and looked through the viewfinder that it was my camera. I started to use it mainly with a digital back as I felt it was easier and quicker to learn with. I still use that combination when I shoot for customers or when I experiment with something new, but over the last 3 years film has stolen my heart and last winter I went on my first trip using only film. In a way, it closes another part of the loop back to the kid whose first cameras were film cameras.

It simply feels right. The whole process is like meditation for me. From the selection of the film, the time I give myself to find the right subject and decide on the settings before I press the shutter, to the manual development in my little darkroom and the excitement when I see the negatives for the first time, even the spot removal after scanning. I love how perfectly imperfect and unpredictable film can be and how it teaches me to embrace those imperfections and “accidents” as part of its unique beauty.

With film I could also try large format and explore the possibilities of using antique cameras with soft focus lenses to create a beautiful dreamy look that helps to emphasize the magical aspects in some of my current projects. 

The way in which you talk about using film and cameras to create the things you imagine speaks to me very much. Many people's photography explicitly tries to reproduce the world as they see it, but yours is a journey into yourself – your vision and your responding, emotional self. Could you tell me more about creating and rendering your dreams, and discovering your child self? 

I basically do what every child does...I go out to play and explore. I don’t plan my photography (apart from deciding intuitively which camera to take). I let it happen. I let the images find me, play with ideas and dreams and I'm open to the unexpected.

Using a quote of one of my favourite authors, Sir Terry Pratchett, “Open your eyes, and then open your eyes again.” Or another one probably most people know by Antoine de Saint-Exupery “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” For me this means trying to not just see the obvious like, “Oh, a tree” but to go beyond that. To find the troll instead, or feel what the tree is feeling, maybe discover its story, dance with it.

I look at things like a child who sees them for the first time, who finds beauty in unexpected places and sees magic and mystery everywhere, but I feel things with all the experience and the emotions of a grown-up, a much darker side of my soul. So you could say that my old soul looks through the eyes of my inner child and what “we” see and feel I then try to visualize using my camera to create another element of my dream-world which reflects and embraces both sides of me.

It's amazing how photography - the mechanics and physics and chemistry of light and glass and silver (among other things) - can be so magical! Tell me what photographic magic means for you. Does your painting look and feel very different to your photography?

For me photographic magic means that a real scene can be changed into something very different without using software like Photoshop but by using different cameras and film and playing with different techniques, but it will always be real in a way.

With regards to painting, I am only at the beginning of my journey, experimenting with Japanese/Chinese ink and watercolour techniques, both monochromatic like my photography but more abstract and minimal. The part that I find most exciting at the moment is exploring ways to combine painting and photography.

You've mentioned the Hasselblad V System camera which you work with. Can you tell us more about the technical elements of your art? Which lenses and emulsions do you prefer for your personal work? What other cameras do you have, and how are your vision and your workflow evolving?

It is extremely important for me that I can use my camera intuitively so that it is not in the way when I make pictures. This means I need full manual control over the focus and all exposure settings and flexibility with regards to exchanging parts like film backs as well as portability for longer walks. Based on this and lots of “playing” I have luckily found the camera systems that best suit me and my style, the cameras that just feel right when I hold them in my hands and look at the images in the viewfinder/on the ground-glass - the Hasselblad 2000 and Flexbody as well as the Arca Swiss 4x5 Field.

When I got my first Hasselblad more or less by chance, I simply knew that was my camera. Although it is quite big and heavy I can hold it in my hands for hours when walking around as it balances perfectly. I love the way it sounds when I press the shutter, like it is talking to
me, and how I have to wind it for the next exposure. It might sound strange but it is like I work together with a friend who understands what I want and the whole experience is really that of “us” creating something together, not of me taking a photo.

The 4x5 is a recent addition to get even more flexibility with regards to movements and the possibility to use some beautiful vintage lenses to create an even softer and dreamier look for my latest projects.

If you now think that I always carry around large bags of gear ... NO, quite the opposite.

When I go out to make pictures I usually only take one camera and one or two lenses. Even on my recent travels (e.g. flying to the UK), I went with only my Hasselblad and one lens. It is liberating for me because I can focus on the mysteries and beauty of the world around me and not be distracted by gear choices or heavy bags.

With regards to emulsions, I still experiment quite a bit, but so far I prefer Ilford’s Delta 100 and 400 for my B&W work due to their very fine grain and in the rare occasion I use colour film I just love Fujifilm’s Velvia as it changes the colours of a scene in a way that is magical in my eyes.

You shoot with vintage and antique lenses. Which ones do you own and which are your favourites? Do you have 'seasonal' gear or is your gear choice impulsive when you go out?

I also like to use “imperfect” tools like vintage lenses with their special renderings and I'm currently experimenting with simple lenses (some of them even scratched or chipped). All of them have a very unique beauty. Most of them have a softness that I love as it enhances the dreamlike qualities I look for. Each lens comes with its own mystery and story - who might have used them in the past, what might they have seen…

My favourite vintage lenses are from the pictorialist time like my Wollensak Verito, a Hermagis Eidoscope and a Kodak Portrait lens. They have a beautiful softness due to the fact that they are not corrected for certain types of aberrations, so technically imperfect based on modern standards but magical in my eyes. I currently experiment with the “famous” Aero Ektar, which was used for aerial reconnaissance missions in World War II as well as a 100 year old brass petzval lens.

Although I do a lot of research when I buy vintage lenses, the final decision on whether a lens is going to stay with me or not is always an intuitive one as I only keep gear I truly connect with. It is more important for me to have the “right” equipment and know it inside out than to have lots of equipment so whenever I go out to create, the decision which camera and lens to take is and can be impulsive and intuitive.

You have seen something you want to photograph. Your camera is in your hands. Now what?

I have never been a rapid shooter who takes hundreds or even thousands of photographs, but since using film I can only describe the way I actually make a photograph as some kind of meditative or spiritual dance.

When I go out I usually don’t know what I will find, or better, what will find me - I just walk like a child with all my senses and my soul wide open, ready to find adventures and magic. I should probably mention that I am what you nowadays call an “HSP” - a highly sensitive person - meaning I am extremely aware of everything around me. In a normal situation it can be terribly overwhelming, but it makes it very easy for me to see even the tiniest details, like flowers that are only a few millimetres tall or strange shapes, “faces” in trees, figures in the clouds, a small movement at the edge of my vision and much more.

It often feels like my pictures are calling to me, so when I stop, the first thing I do is to find what actually caught my senses and then to take my camera and see if there is a picture. I move around with the camera trying different compositions. This part of the dance is the crazy and wild one where I change position, getting up or down on my knees or even flat on the ground. It can take a while and usually from this point on, I will forget everything else around me. Only if I find a composition I really like will I then either fix my tripod, or if I don’t have that with me, just stop in the position. Next I decide which film I want to use (I usually carry at least 2 different films with me so that I have the choice between for example B&W or colour or different ISO) and metre the scene accordingly.

The final step in my “photographic dance” is the focussing, and when I use my bellows-cameras this includes any tilting/shifting. If I cannot find a focus I love, I will not make the picture. For me focussing is not about sharpness. I focus my pictures so that they feel right, and this makes focussing not a technical exercise but an emotional experience... a sensual part of the dance... a soft swaying of my whole body when I photograph handheld... until that exciting moment when I find my picture... then holding my breath and pressing the shutter button.

I usually only make one picture before I move on, unless the conditions are very windy and I cannot be sure I got the focus right, or when I want to experiment with different settings. This is my dance which can take quite a long time for a single picture but for me it is worth it. Every picture I make I first make for myself and I enjoy every minute of the process as much as the final picture.

You mention the concept of wabi-sabi in your blog. Would you tell me about wabi-sabi and what it means to you?

I came across the concept and ideas of "wabi-sabi" when I was healing from my burn-out and one of the most important learnings was to love things, people and especially myself because of their/my imperfections and not despite of them. There is so much beauty and magic in imperfection and transience, so many stories. The world around us is not perfect and neither are we - dreams, light, nature, our lives are all ephemeral and so the concept became an essential part of my work.

I feel that the use of “imperfect” materials like Japanese papers with their random structures and small inclusions as well as the slight imperfections I create myself when for example making my books by hand like little creases actually supports the vision I have for my work.

Thank you so much, Isabel.

Read and see more at Isabel's website and blog, where you can purchase her beautiful book Dreamwalking, which Isabel prints and makes by hand.