Inspirational Woman Wednesday: Elly Lucas

Elly Lucas' shots have been catching my attention a fair bit recently - OK, so her work features on the covers and inlays of most of my listening material of late so it's been hard to ignore, but I've been attracted to her style. I'm not a visual beast and I know very, very little about photography, but there's something about her shots which seem elegant and old-school without looking like they're trying too hard. Colours are muted and models are pale and interesting, locations are often wild or ageing. I was intrigued and I hoped that Elly wouldn't mind my visual ignorance when I asked her a few questions...

So, firstly, your photography – when did you start taking photos? Are you self-taught or did you study at an institution? What kind of photographers and photographs caught your eye when you were learning?

I suppose I first started taking photos with a more serious mind whilst studying GCSE art. I'd always quite enjoyed taking snaps prior to that, but it was the artistic focus that really sparked off an interest. I was always determined to create my own source material to work from but, as the course went on, it became apparent that there might perhaps have been a few more photos than actual physical artwork... After that, I started taking portraits of friends and local models and absorbed every magazine tutorial I could get my hands on. I guess I've just never stopped since then! I'm self-taught but endlessly inspired by the work of other photographers, especially those similar to my own age (e.g. Lara Jade, Joey L, Cat Lane, Kyle Thompson & Julia Trotti).

I know very little about photography, but your photography is certainly very striking and so obviously yours – whether it’s a fashion shot or a music promo, you can tell it’s captured by you. Is it a case of making a decision early on to emulate or find a particular style? Or is it the equipment you use, or your treatment of your shots afterwards?

Thank you very much! I think I'd say it's mostly down to the kit I use and the treatment given to the images in post-production. I'm always very keen to ensure that the styling is how I want it before photographing too, which I hope shows through.

I know that you’re a musician, too (more on that later), but you seem to have become folk’s first photographer. How did this happen? Were you a folk music fan prior to these commissions?

You know, I'm not really sure, but I'm delighted that it seems that way! I was definitely a folk fan prior to working on the scene, growing up on a musical diet of Wolfstone and Capercaillie (and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but we'll skate over that for now) before finding my own favourites later on. The lovely Lucy Ward was one of my early folk commissions and it's all spiralled on delightfully from there!

There was a time when folk musicians didn’t seem to take their album covers and promo shots very seriously. In fact, there was a time when folk music album covers were pretty awful full stop: awkward-looking people in awkward scenarios. Why do you think there’s been a change in recent years?

I think there's been a gentle but steady change in peoples' attitude towards music in all genres. More than ever, in an internet enabled world where musical competition is higher than it has ever been, you have to sell yourself as well as your music. Not only that, but in today's industry where physical media is at risk of becoming defunct, if you want someone to buy your CD then they're significantly more likely to if it actually looks good. I've previously been known to buy albums at stalls just because I like the artwork. Admittedly I am a magpie when it comes to aesthetics, but you get the idea!

Do the musicians who commission you usually have an idea in mind? Or do they come to you for artistic direction, too?

I get a bit of both. Some people have a rough idea of what they want, some people know almost exactly what they want but need some guidance on how to make it feasible, and some people just let me go totally AWOL. Happy days.

Do you have a favourite music promo shoot? An album cover you’re most proud of?

Ooh, difficult. I've been incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant range of people on a variety of bonkers shoots! I think my two favourite promo shoots would have to be the cake and party popper fuelled event that was Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray's tour promo (I got given jelly and everything!) and the powder paint/confetti/finger paint/streamers mess that constituted Cupola:Ward's session. I realise there's possibly a bit of a theme there... As for my favourite album cover, I was very pleased with how strikingly Blair Dunlop's Blight & Blossom image came out.

I must admit that I have no interest in fashion whatsoever. The idea of shopping horrifies me, and I always skip the fashion pages in a magazine or newspaper I’m reading. I’m guessing, however, that you are a fashion fan – not only are you always immaculately turned out, but you must regularly work with models, stylists, make-up artists. What excites you about fashion? Why am I wrong to lazily dismiss fashion?

You're far too kind. Immaculately turned out very definitely only applies to appearing in public, it's woolly jumpers and slippers all the way if I've got editing / admin to do! I guess I am fascinated by the fashion world, but I think that's down to being fascinated by all elements of aesthetics. So often people underestimate the importance of styling a photoshoot, of good hair and make-up (even if it's very subtle), of choosing outfits which work with your location, the props or the other subjects. The exciting part is watching your vision come together and working out how to tweak it to make the most instant visual impact. First impressions are important, particularly in the likes of printed media. What you shoot on the day is what you've got to work with (with a certain amount of leeway in the edit), so it's a good idea to know stylistically what you're doing and get it right!

On to your music… when did you start playing the fiddle? Did you take classical lessons and then discover other styles as you progressed? Or did they happen in hand in hand?

I started playing the fiddle when I was in Year 4 at primary school, so I would have been about eight years old. My Mum, who plays classically, used to play the Captain Pugwash theme tune to my sister and I. Henceforth I was absolutely determined that one day I'd be able to play it too. I was classically trained for five years but found myself totally disenchanted by the limitations of having play everything exactly as it was written, much preferring to learn tunes by ear off albums by the likes of Duncan Chisholm or Eileen Ivers. Thankfully my teacher at the time noticed this and handed me over to a fantastic local fiddle player, Sarah Matthews, who totally restored my love for the instrument and steered me towards the wonderful Folkworks Summer School. My adoration for the genre has continued to grow ever since!

Who are your violin heroes?

To name but a few: Nancy Kerr, Eliza Carthy, Jaime RT & Duncan Chisholm.

Have you always sung, too?

Always. I'm mildly concerned that my Dad still has a recording of me, aged two-ish, singing 'twinkle twinkle little bat' somewhere...

When and how did you meet David Gibb? Am I right in thinking you joined his band first, before the two of you became a duo?

I was part of David's touring band for about two and a bit years before we started doing the duo stuff. We met when I responded to a casting he put out for a fiddle player on (don't laugh) MySpace. You know, when it was actually still useful. Poor MySpace.

I know that David’s a songwriter – are you, too? How do you select and arrange the material you’ll work on?

I am, yes. We generally have quite different writing styles; David writes a killer pop song and I'm more a fan of arty alt lyrics – but every now and again we write something which suits both of us and that gets used for the duo. David's also very good at finding old rhymes and poems and putting them to music, and sometimes we'll sit down and adapt a story to make it our own.

Does your photography work nicely complement your music, or is there a bit of juggling to be done?

Generally, it works remarkably well. Chatting to the lovely people on the folk scene tends to result in useful contacts for both the photography and music, so that's always nice! The only time it becomes more problematic is during the time that it's simultaneously wedding and festival season, but there are ways round that (people don't usually get married on Friday / Sunday / Monday, thankfully!)

What does 2013 look like to you? What will you hope to achieve with both your photography and your music this year? Any new projects on the horizon?

This year I'm hoping to 1) Shoot more personal creative work with the aim of submitting to more magazines. 2) Continue to photograph lots of exciting musicians! 3) Actually remember to blog more often and 4) Release the second duo album with a big hurrah! (Theoretically in late August / early September.)

I've also been working on a project with the wonderful Jo Freya, entitled The Food & Folk Book, so hopefully we'll get a bit more done on that too. I might actually go on holiday this year as well. This feels like a pretty radical option.

 And two more general ones to finish off with…

If you could shoot any person (living or dead) or place anywhere in the world, with money no object, who or what would it be?

Argh, don't make me choose! Hmm, I'd really love to shoot some real 'characters', so that'd make my (photographic) hit-list something like: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Ian McKellen... There are plenty of impossibly beautiful people I'd love to photograph too, but listing them would take all day.

As for places, I'd love to explore New Zealand or the Amazon rainforest – the kind of places I dreamed about going to as a kid. I've always adored nature and the wild, so both of those options appeal to me hugely.

Who is your influential-woman-Wednesday? Who is your ultimate heroine?

I admire a lot of people, so there's no one particular individual I can pick out. I've grown up in a family of very strong women. My Grandma, for example, was a professor of chemistry; my Gran, a bit of an activist, spent endless hours helping at a refugee centre; my great Gran was a doctor in the war and my Mum – well – she probably deserves a medal.

On a star level, I've got a lot of time for Scarlett Johansson: another strong woman with brains, style and an apparently very level head. Oh, and did you see her avec catsuit and arse-kicking in Avengers Assemble? WHOA.

Introducing... Inspirational Woman Wednesday

Interviewing is one of my most favourite things in the world: getting to ask pertinent, nosy questions of people you might well admire (OK, totally adore...) and then writing it up afterwards is a pure joy. But I find myself wanting to ask questions of people I know very little about - perhaps they work in a field of which I know absolutely nothing - and this always makes me nervous, like the interviewee would laugh in my face for asking such desperately obvious questions.

So I thought in 2013, I'd set myself a bit of a task: to interview women who seem to have really exciting, fascinating lives or jobs or hobbies, and stick it up on my blog. The interviews needn't be life changing or asking the big questions to reveal all to the reader - I just want to ask people whatever comes in to my head just so I can learn a little more about them. So welcome to Inspirational Woman Wednesday, where I will sporadically put a question-and-answer type of interview (because I rarely do those) up on a Wednesday (just because of alliteration). It might be every Wednesday, it might be bi-monthly Wednesdays. It'll be whatever it will be.

Sadly, though, the first ever Inspirational Woman Wednesday is going to be a memorial, a tribute. I didn't think I'd be having to do that so early on. But I've just this week found out that my friend and correspondent died on Boxing Day. I always feared that I wouldn't find out if she had died because I didn't know her two nephews and she had no other family, and unfortunately, this was the case. As I didn't receive a Christmas card - most unusual for her - I tried to call. When the line went dead, I feared the worst and put her name into Google. An obituary came up both in the local newspaper and the organisation for which she was a trustee. I then spent the afternoon rereading the letters she'd sent me since I moved up here in 2003.

It's easy to call someone inspirational and legendary once they've died and you've had time to reflect on their past. But I found her inspirational when she was alive, too. I think I'd even told her that. I'd met her aged 17 when the war with Iraq had broken out. My sleepy old town where not a lot happened had even noticed it, and a pocket of people formed Banbury People for Peace. I was amazed, overjoyed, and went along to the first meeting. Liz was sat quietly in the corner, her short hair slicked back pragmatically. She was in her 70s then, but looked intensely older, the deep contours in her face insinuating a life time of travel and labour in the sun. We struck up a conversation and she knew who I was instantly - she'd been my family's health visitor when we were young - but she kept quiet as she didn't want to scare me off. It was only when I went home that my mum told me who she was.

After that, we saw each other semi-regularly at meetings and when I left for university, we kept in touch through letter writing, occasional phonecalls and visits. She even took me out for dinner once. She spoke in that very definite, old middle class way - much like Diana Athill - where lovely, posh old vowels clank together loudly and she said exactly what she felt. But she wasn't intimidating as a person, despite her fierce views, her knowledge and experience. In fact, she was eager to find out my political views whilst telling me hers - which were right on the money, as far as I was concerned. She was an ultimate defender of the people, as grand as that claim sounds. She'd gone to the controversial Dartington Hall, telling me tales of frequent nudity and her classmates were of note, like Lucian Freud, but she had then trained as a nurse before settling in Banbury as a health visitor.

Though I can't remember her skills as a health visitor, I can't imagine that she'd just turn up, write down her notes, recite her advice and leave. She would have shared experiences, made new parents feel at home and what they were doing was the right thing, signpost them to other professionals if needs be, a real lifeline to the nervous and sleep-deprived. I can also imagine her invincibly pragmatic, forthright.

Her caring and medical skills took her abroad, too, and she was a frequent, extensive traveller. I've got her typewritten notes from a time when she was in south Asia, she had a home in Spain that she aimed to share with families who couldn't afford holidays in the sun, she went backpacking round New Zealand and Africa when she was in her seventies and eighties. (No, not a typo - not the 1970s, 80s - when she was in her late seventies and early eighties!), she would regularly pepper her speech with 'when I was in China...', 'the weirdest fruit I ever encountered was in Jordan'... Oh, and when we're on the subject of amazing feats, she also went gliding and skydiving in her latter years, too, raising money for the scores of charities she supported. She was my only excited supporter when I decided to hitchhike to Morocco for charity - everyone else thought I'd be chopped into little pieces and left for the vultures. I should imagine the charities she supported will know her name well and will be saddened to learn of her death.

Then she was a governor at her local primary school. It wasn't because she had children and wanted to make sure the school was run well. She just wanted to be involved in providing the best for children and their families, she wanted to argue the ordinary person's corner. She probably did loads more things that I had no idea about, because she went about it discreetly. It wasn’t about her, it was about the doing. But she wasn't a saint, and she battled with depression. She was an extraordinary ordinary person herself.

I am unable to go to her funeral and I found out about her death two weeks after it happened. I hoped she had read the letter I had sent her in a Christmas card and I hope she won't mind me paying my respects this way. I think she will always be in my mind throughout my life, giving me courage to do the right thing even when it's more difficult or tiresome.