Chelsea Knight, the Southern California-based artist behind Sparkbearer Photography, has crafted a pure style at a prodigious age. Barely in her senior year at a private university, working on an English degree and minoring in photography, she has plans to pursue a career as a photographer. She uses traditional film and digital cameras to create her images, focusing on creative portraits. Chelsea’s work can be found online at sparkbearer.daportfolio.com.
Tell us a little about yourself as an artist. How did you get your start in photography?
As an artist, I’ve grown quite a bit these past few years. I used to draw when I was younger and I wrote poetry as well. I discovered photography when I was around fourteen. I used a throw-away camera first and discovered that my mother had a very simple digital camera. From then on I saved my money to purchase my own Canon. My dad gave me his old Canon F-1 film camera and, ever since, photography has grown into my primary artistic passion. I do still love writing, but photography was hiding there all along, I suppose. It always feels like playtime while still getting work done.
Which artists inspire you and contributed to the development of your style?
Oh, so many! I’ll list a few in no particular order: Julia Margaret Cameron, Brooke Shaden, Marie Hochhaus, Tim Walker, Małgorzata Maj, Alphonse Mucha, Jenessa Renae Parrish, Michael Hussar (his studio is in a city close by me and I’m dying to meet him!) . . . to name a few.
Your portfolio is disorienting. “Cognitive dissonance” is almost not a strong enough phrase. You pull off nature-glam portraits AND haunting/violent photographic vignettes, all while maintaining the same recognizable aesthetic of fascination with the human face, captured at an intimate proximity, expressed via cool, hazy pastels, often punctuated with spots or splashes of glossy, oversaturated color. Why is there so little distinction in style between the two tones?
You’ll always hear someone say, “I saw an image and just knew it was by you before I saw the name!” After a while you develop a style and pattern to your post-production process (and image taking style as well). Pale and pastel are what I feel looks the best. This is actually an issue for me! I’m so afraid to do head shots because it’s not in my comfort zone. I have to make the skin look alive and vibrant and real, nothing crazy, no outrageous edits. I try to keep all my images within the realm of what I think looks good and pleases me visually. Also, I like to shock people more and more these days. I do get slightly worried when they mention how violent or bloody an image is, but that’s the point! I want to surprise and shock people, make them comfortable with a nice sweet portrait of a pretty girl then shake them up with something ugly and terrifying. I want people to feel like I do when I see something beautiful; where is its counterpart, where is the ugly side to it? And people think I’m a sweet, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. I love it when they’re so shocked to see my work. They look at me confused and just don’t understand. I’ve even made some people wary, unfortunately.
Was the grotesque an element of your work from the start?
I want to say yes, but I was too afraid in the beginning to show it. Just in the past few years I’ve been okay with the blood and gore. I’m recovering from a four-year long eczema breakout. It was severe enough to make me quit my job and school. I nearly became a hermit. My skin changed and became ugly and something I wasn’t familiar with. I began to question what was beautiful and why we value beauty so much. I didn’t feel beautiful for a long time so I started to explore darker, uglier things. Besides . . . pretty, perfect portraits get so boring sometimes. And I’m quite attracted to sickly-pale, ill characters in movies. I couldn’t explain why, I guess it’s just what I gravitate towards. Strange things are what I connect to most. Strange feels normal and right for me, and my style.
Why do you create? And why create this sort of work?
I create because if I don’t, I can’t function. Every hour of everyday I’m thinking of images and movie scenes and story scenarios, little conversations between characters, specific moments, etc. It’s so persistent that I end up spending hours on it. I’m so busy browsing for inspiration or brain storming. I find photography is easier than writing sometimes, too. Instead of trying to craft together a paragraph to describe a scene, I can take a photograph. I can actually see it right there. I’m fascinated with bringing these things to life with a tangible, visible image. And photography is fairly new in history so I’m more excited to make a mark there, if I can. The history of the written word and all the genius authors we have overwhelms me. So I write poetry when I can and spend most of my time with photography. But I do envy those that can write something so perfect that its meaning is completely understood by millions of readers through time.
What has been your greatest challenge in achieving these photos? I have to say, I don’t envy you shooting underwater.
Shooting underwater is actually really fun! And easy, most of the time. My greatest challenge is really my own mind. Some days I have the greatest idea, and then in the execution stage . . . it falls apart. Other days I open a random image, experiment, and suddenly create a fantastic manipulation that I never expected. It all depends on how well I can grab and hold on to what my mind says, and make it come out just as I see it there. I suppose writers face the same issue, right? Writing something that makes sense, but conveys so much emotion at the same time.
Do you draw ideas from fiction? If so, which authors do you find inspiring?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of poetry in my university courses. Robert Frost inspires me not only with photography, but with my own poetry as well. My other favorite photo-inspiration poets have been Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, T.S. Eliot, Edwin Robinson, and many others. I’m also really fond of Diana Wynne Jones, and, of course, Tolkien. I’m really fantasy/fiction geared in my love of literature.
What’s your dream photography project?
I know some people cringe when I mention her, but it would be my ultimate dream to have a portrait session with Lady Gaga. Most of the time, she is my creative muse. Every day she lives her artistic vision and I couldn’t ask for more in a person that I would want to photograph. She isn’t afraid of the ugly, dark side of things, and I love that about her. Being famous doesn’t change her creative structure. She knows that if you betray your creativity, it will eventually leave you.
Besides a face to photograph, it would be wonderful to have my own darkroom with all the processing equipment and everything I need for toning and cyanotypes. I’d never leave it. I have so many project ideas involving traditional methods, but I have to wait until I graduate to start exploring those paths. So, for now, I remain hopeful that Gaga will eventually notice me, and in the meantime, I’ll make plans for my own future darkroom setup.