“The darkness doesn’t go away if you hide in the light”:
An Interview with Artist Lucy Purrington
Rich Phillips interviews Lucy Purrington, the South Wales-based art photographer, for Horrified...
The Valleys of South Wales aren’t the usual locations that spring to mind if you’re trying to conjure up ghostly images, horrifying visions, and mind-bending surreal landscapes to haunt the imagination and keep you awake at night. But that’s precisely what artist Lucy Purrington has achieved with her photography and videos, while exorcising some of her own monsters.
‘When I was a child, I always had a 35mm film camera in my hand but that was my father’s hobby, so I steered away from the medium as an art form in my teenage years and tried a bit of everything art-wise. However, I always had a disposable camera at every party, adventure, and night out, but I didn’t really think of it as art – this was pre-phone camera days.’
Growing up in The Valleys, Lucy was surrounded by the iconic scarred landscapes of post-industrial decay sandwiched between the mostly unspoiled mountains and forests that would later feature so heavily in her art projects. The now clichéd rows of terraced houses perched precariously on the sides of vertiginous mountainsides in some apparent magical act of levitation above the valley floor, where derelict mine workings and closed (or closing) chapels and pubs seemed to stand on every street corner, was an all-too-familiar sight. In the days before closed pubs were converted into flats, closed churches were turned into Wetherspoons, and closed mine workings were turned into tourist attractions, Lucy was having her mind opened to the supernatural.
‘Every Monday night, my Dad was out either playing darts or at Camera Club so me and my late mother would sit and watch X-files, The Outer Limits and Doctor Who together. I think that’s where my love for the supernatural began. Her sister, my Aunt, was really into Halloween and ghost stories, so I think they both nurtured my curiosity and made me feel comfortable in seeking out scares.
‘Saying that I doubt that they expected me to sneakily watch Aliens aged 9! I still have alien invasion nightmares – in fact, had one this week. It was about these tiny black worms being ejected from a small flying plastic device that would permeate into organic living matter. The aliens were attempting order to wipe out humanity by taking control over our consciousness to save the planet from pollution and global warming. It would be the death of individuality, but better than bombs and further destruction of the planet.’
You can sense Lucy is drawn to the darkness by just looking at some of her art. The sheeted revenants that haunt a lot of her landscapes harken back to a traditional idea of ghostly encounters in lonely, liminal places, but are brought screaming up to date with high-resolution image capture techniques and lighting that doesn’t shy away from showing these… things… in all their stark clarity.
‘I do feel drawn to the dark; all things spooky, gothic, dystopian, or anything that explores the other side of human nature. To overlook that is to deny the duality of human existence. We’re living in pretty dark times at the moment, and I find comfort in what others might think of as depressing. For me, it’s a release. The darkness doesn’t go away if you hide in the light.’
But it isn’t just the horror, the supernatural, the shocking, that Lucy aims to convey in her work.
‘My style is mainly digital portrait photography, in particular self-portraits that utilise influences of surrealism to create images that convey an emotional narrative. I explore themes of mental health through my surreal and creative self-portraits by using my own experiences as a source of inspiration. This practice allows me to attempt to externalise and transform my struggles with mental health into something tangible and relatable.
‘I mostly identify with music and music videos, theatre, and dance. It’s more accessible to me with my dyslexia than reading and my mind works visually so I find video art easier to connect to.’
Lucy describes being diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia aged nineteen as ‘…profoundly uplifting. The difficulties I had at school made absolute sense to me then.’ It’s very often the case that an individual with a Specific Learning Difference such as dyslexia will gravitate toward more practical or visual areas of work, often unconsciously. When she decided to apply to University to study Photography as a ‘mature’ student, she found her SpLD presented some particular challenges – ‘My tutors were incredibly supportive and spent extra time with me. I couldn’t have graduated without the additional help they gave me. My approach to written work had to change. I began every assignment weeks before my peers and started my dissertation research the year before it was supposed to begin!
‘Studying photographic art at university really opened my eyes to photography as a contemporary art medium. There was a big focus on studying conceptual photography, culture, representation, and meaning… I think that if I hadn’t studied photography, I would have slowed down and lost my way long ago.’
Being inspired by visual mediums started early for Lucy, some of which continues to resonate in her work – ‘I grew up in a house with loads of vinyl records and music videotapes. Both fascinated me; I loved looking through sleeve artwork and I think that has had a lasting impact on the style of my work. The ones that stick in my mind are David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, The Cure, Pink Floyd, Madness… I was a big fan of Storm (Thorgerson – influential designer behind many classic album covers) growing up and as an adult, I have books of his album artwork.’
Lucy cites other influences on her own style and approach to her art – ‘I draw inspiration from all sorts of sources; music, album artwork, music videos. My personal tastes in photography are more towards the documentary side and avant-garde feminist work. I love Barbara Kruger, David Lynch, Jeff Wall, Erwin Wurm, Cornelia Parker.
‘The Welsh landscape is a big part of my work and its influence has now evolved into almost being a character that is part of my photographs. My surroundings, as in the valley and mountains I grew up around, often feature in creating a narrative in my photography and I count myself extremely fortunate to have glorious beaches, forests, and mountains on my doorstep in Wales.’
Lucy has turned her talents not just to still photography but also the moving image, and much of her dark, surrealist, haunting imagery bleeds into this medium also. Music videos such as the promo work for the band Me Against Misery and their song ‘Devil at My Side’ leave a lingering disquiet in the viewer, long after the video has ended. Shades of Michael Hordern being haunted by a ghastly bed sheet in Jonathon Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and the eerily empty woods seen in Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of A Warning to the Curious abound in this work. The video Lucy created to accompany the song ‘Stones’ by Bel Blue has a folk horror vibe running through its’ monochrome veins. ‘I’ve made a few music videos and two performance video pieces. Both explore themes of trauma and memory; one very clearly embedded in this theme and the other evolved to speak about a post-industrial landscape that bears the scars of Welsh mining and the relationship man has with this.’
While ‘the darkness’ isn’t all that Lucy is about, it does feature to a greater or lesser extent in a lot of her pieces. Even her more ‘everyday’ photography, such as a series of photographs she has captured of discarded Covid-19 masks, and plastic litter caught in the branches of trees, reflect the kinds of post-apocalyptic imagery often used in horror cinema to elicit feelings of unease or disquiet in the viewer, even if they don’t instantly understand why. ‘I do very much enjoy psychological or supernatural horror films, particularly British or foreign cinema. I recently watched Midsommar and Hereditary and certain scenes and music from the films are stuck on a loop in my head. The score of both movies is superb and the visuals in Midsommar are genius… I read an article about how people with prolonged or continuous bouts of anxiety seek out controlled “scares” because that anxiety has become such a norm that measurable amounts are comforting.’
It isn’t only the final image that is important to Lucy in her own mental health management – ‘The process of creating, being outdoors and walking around the mountainside or Welsh beaches are a form of mindfulness. It’s a great excuse to get outdoors and spend time in nature.
‘My focus is usually on using photography as a tool to promote my wellbeing and talk about mental health. These are conversations that more people are having after the pandemic, which is a good thing. I hope that my work touches people and makes connections for people to feel encouraged to talk about their feelings and wellbeing. That is my dream project.’
As an artist who is willing to put herself in front of the lens almost as much as she is to spend time behind it, another aspect of Lucy’s personality comes across in her video production – ‘Humour is a connector and a disguise for someone who’s actually pretty anxious about being in front of the camera. I think living in such absurd times of dystopia, you need a sense of humour. As for irreverence, I think it’s healthy to question the doctrines that may prevent betterment or learning and throw out the rulebook if it means a fairer playing field for everyone.’
But if she weren’t creating her own art, she would find it hard to stop being creative ‘in one way or another; I love gardening, crafting, cooking, decorating my house. If I’m not actively “doing” myself, I’m usually enjoying other people’s art, be that music, theatre, cinema.’
‘Transformation’ by Olivier de Sagazan, and Cyprien Gaillard’s video piece titled ‘Nightlife’ she cites as being amongst some of her recent favourite work by other artists that have stayed with her since she first encountered them.
Lucy’s work can be viewed directly from her website, and you can keep up with her on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can buy prints of her art, including those featured in this article, from her online shop.