Interview with Anna Lilleengen: Longlisted Artist in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2014

Fine art photographer Anna Lilleengen was longlisted in last year’s Aesthetica Art Prize with her piece Sublime Forest. Based in Yorkshire and Sweden, Lilleengen uses a physical process and deteriorating camera to create sculptural pieces that explore transient states of being and materiality. We catch up with her a year on to find out where the prize has taken her after her work was published in the Aesthetica Art Prize Anthology. Developments include funding from Arts Council England and her first commissioned public art piece in Rothwell, near Leeds.

A: In your work you manipulate the physical processes of photography to create unique, sculptural images. Where did the inspiration behind this come from?
AL: My initial series, Tales from the Forest, was an exploration of impermanence and the transience of the physical. To this end, I was attracted to the very practical nature of traditional photographic processes. Hours in the darkroom making negatives and printing images became a way for me to witness time passing.

The series is in part an exploration of bereavement and the frailty of human life, so using a camera that is itself a monument to the passage of time (it is a full-plate bellows camera from the 1870s, with a brass lens 10 years older than this) enabled interesting processes to work on the images. Chemical left behind from the wet plate collodion photography of the original owners scrape onto the delicate negative surfaces I have placed into the camera, creating indentations and markings. It is a process that has a life of its own which I merely facilitate and it captures the quality of the exact time of exposure.

A: Who has inspired you?
AL: In this practice I was inspired by the initial greats of Victorian photography such as Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron, and really turned on by Sally Mann’s contemporary reflections on the effect of time and historical event on current perceptions of place in Deep South. Her work What Remains is a huge influence too and an ode to the transience of the physical body.

In terms of markings and surface, I see Mary Kelly’s work as being influential – for example in Post Partum Document she lifts the everyday markings and leftovers from her son’s initial six years of life into a reflection on how time can be measured in tiny physical increments. I have also found Helen Chadwick’s explorations of the physical and photographic, looking at the human body, to be absorbing.

A: What does flora imagery suggest to you and why do you use it in your work?
AL: Flora appears in Tales from the Forest both on a large-scale, as an elemental force which the psyche has the encounter and come to terms with, and in close-up, where its delicacy engenders a sense of wonder and grace. I suppose there is an element of idealisation of nature in my work. It both enables me to work in and through references to family history with Scandinavian forestry roots, botany, biology and the wider cultural legacy of the wild forest to the Western psyche.

The idealisation of flora takes on symbolic value in my series Metamorphosis I & II. Here I make repeated visual reference to the lotus flower, or waterlily, that has for millennia been used in Egyptian and Indian tradition to represent purity. There is an element of perfection in all ephemera from the natural world – a sense of Paradise Lost and then regained, maybe never lost? I am interested in the idea of ‘constant metamorphoses’ that the Fluxus artist Allan Kaprow talks about: there is no end destination, but constant re-inventions, a constant process.

A: How important is the space in which you artwork is shown to convey the message?
AL: I am pleased that my work has been shown in quite a wide variety of spaces now, as I have had 20+ exhibitions since completing my MA in Time and Image Based Media in 2012. I like having my work in heavily frequented public spaces, such as book-cafes, offices, libraries – where it can draw people in towards unexpected encounters in the everyday.

I also feel that it really rises to its purpose in dedicated exhibiting spaces where a more theatrical scene can be set. Some of the most effective exhibiting spaces have involved a dialogue between the work and its surroundings. My MA show was held at a very modern visitor centre for the Washburn Valley near Harrogate – opposite my work was a wall of glass through which a bluebell flowering forest mirrored my forest images. It’s a happy thought to think that perhaps after seeing the exhibition some of the viewers may have gone down the forest paths that led out from the centre, through the wood and experienced the wood in a different way, with the exhibition’s experience with them.

A: You recently received funding from the Arts Council England. What has this lead to?
AL: The Arts Council funding enabled the production of the series Metamorphosis Series I, which the venue Sunnybank Mills helped me to secure. I feel very fortunate to have received this support at this early stage in my career, and competitive times for arts funding. Without it, it would have been very difficult to produce and show this work. The resulting pieces – 1 metre squared C-prints – were shown unframed in order to increase the sense of transition and transformation which the work explores and to enhance a sense of participation of the viewer in the work.

Support from both the venue at the Arts Council England is both enabling and encouraging to an early career artist, acting as it does both as a springboard and as an endorsement of sorts. Once again, I feel a great amount of gratitude for both.

A: Have you got any current or upcoming projects?
AL: I am currently working with a Leeds Inspired grant to produce my first piece of public art in Rothwell near Leeds. With the working title, The Boar, the Dolphin and the Whale (Mythical Rothwell), this photographic project will explore the lost, mythic history of this settlement which stands in one of Leeds’ most overlooked post-industrial hinterlands. Each of the animals in the title has a strange connection with the town. In this project they become talismanic: starting points for diving off into the rich brew of history of this locality, some of which will be real, some imagined.

There will be an initial public consultation exercise taking place this Spring, in which local residents will be encouraged to provide a local oral history. I will explore sites with two vintage cameras that I use – my 1870s full-plate camera, for which I handmade my negatives and darkroom process the prints, and the 1930s Zeiss Ikon camera which I shot Metamorphosis with. These will be used to create an evocative and playful body of work which I hope will empower the local community with visual signposts of a colourful history.

I am also in the early research stages of a next series which will connect in with the themes of Tales of the Forest and Metamorphosis: Series I and II. As with the other two projects, and what seems to be my modus operandi, it will involve the learning the use of a new camera and techniques.

For more information on Anna Lilleengen’s work visit

The Aesthetica Art Prize is open for entries. To submit visit Deadline for submissions is 31 August 2015.

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1. Anna Lilleengen, Sublime Forest.