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Women in photography: Mimi Haddon on colour and fantastic costumes

Casey is an actor and comedian who Mimi enjoyed dressing up in crazy costumes. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon

Mimi Haddon exudes a warm California sunshine, both in person and in her work – from a small home studio in Santa Monica she plays with the colour spectrum, producing fantastical photographs.

Christian Ziegler’s

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She first got serious about photography during a post-university stay in Paris. "I set up a darkroom in the bathroom in my little apartment in Paris and I just fell completely in love with photography. I had studied Man Ray and I was kind of chasing his ghost – in the sense that I loved his mix of photography and surrealism. I spent hours and hours and hours in the darkroom; it was like my temple."

She also links her fascination with textiles, dyes and costume to the printing process. "I feel that there's something akin to darkroom work in textile transformation. It's alchemical."

A woman in an emerald-coloured velvet corset trimmed with tassels and beads holds a fern frond across her eyes.
For Mimi’s Cassia project, using a fast lens with a shallow depth of field resulted in images with a painterly effect. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon
A woman in a red-and-white retro-style swimsuit wears an oversized hat on the head, covering her eyes, and stands in front of a red-and-white patterned wall.
Mimi’s Cassia project is an ethereal and contemplative collection of intimate garden and poolside shots with the model, named Cassia, dressed in vintage-style swimwear. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon

Like so many photographers of her generation, she began working in black and white, and didn’t consider using colour until she came across Sarah Moon's work. "I remember seeing a really incredible exhibition of her photographs when I was in Paris, and I saw how she could use colour in a painterly way. I saw how I could make the leap from black and white to colour, and still retain artistic integrity.

“By its very nature, black and white immediately alters reality, by stripping away the colour. But when you're trying to realise your own vision of an alternative reality in colour photography, you have to make it your own in a way that black and white doesn't require."

There is a thread of transformation that runs through Mimi's work, particularly her practice of creating costumes and masks. "I really love the contrast of costume versus real life. I've been collaborating with a company in West Hollywood called Palace Costume, owned by a lovely woman named Melody – she's run her company for 50 years and built up a massive inventory that she rents out for movies, TV, advertising… I've been documenting her pieces with my Canon EOS 5D and Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and I'm hoping to put a book together."

A person dressed as a robot stands on the ground outside, with the sun low on the horizon.
American artist Man Ray's mix of photography and surrealism has inspired Mimi's work. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon
Wearing an ornate red and blue satin kimono and red headdress, a woman stands against a background of richly-coloured flowers.
Cassandra, the model for Mimi’s Queen project, did her own hair and make-up, and danced and acted for the shots. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon

"Discovering Palace Costume was such a pivotal moment for me – the first thing I rented was a gorgeous dance costume, and I photographed it on a model. It was life-changing. It was just a simple piece but it made me realise how powerful an item of clothing can be."

The first costume I rented was just a simple piece but it made me realise how powerful an item of clothing can be.

The first photo series Mimi made with this considered use of costume is called Cassia – after the model of the same name that Mimi was working with. It's a gentle and contemplative collection of intimate garden and poolside moments. "I started renting bathing suits and throwing them on Cassia, just photographing her in her mum's backyard, which was a lovely quiet experience."

For many of her photos, Mimi uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. "I've shot Canon since the dark ages of analog," she says. "I shot with an 85mm lens for many years, then I finally decided I wanted to open the images up, so for the past five years I’ve shot with 50mm lenses 90% of the time."

It was with the Cassia series that Mimi made her first foray into the painterly style she admired: "I was using a gorgeous fast lens with a really shallow depth of focus, which was giving me images just like paintings. I feel that was the first time I could speak more in colour."

A woman in a rainbow-coloured, stripy, retro-style swimsuit stands against a matching wall, holding a matching sun hat to her head.
The photographs of Cassia were shot in Cassia’s mother’s garden, which Mimi says was “a lovely, quiet spot”. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon
A model wears a vintage-style red-and-white swimsuit and a white swimming cap. She holds a black blindfold on her face.
For many of her shoots, Mimi borrowed clothes from Palace Costume in Hollywood, which rents their costumes to the film and TV industry. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D. © Mimi Haddon

Cassia ended up as a calendar, which convinced Melody at Palace Costume to allow Mimi to borrow and photograph costumes free of charge, enabling the series Palace Costume, which shows off a collection of rainbow-striped outfits, sequins, shiny boots and crazy bow-ties alongside plastic werewolf hands and wigs to be made.

That in turn led to Queen, a sumptuous and joyful set of character portraits in collaboration with an artist and model called Cassandra, many of them appropriately regal. "I had such a good experience doing the Cassia calendar that I thought, 'let's do another one', and I had the idea of doing a queen calendar.

“At the time I had been hiring Cassandra for Getty shoots and I saw how crazy creative she was. It was another amazing experience where I styled everything and put the concepts together, and it was just the two of us in my studio. Cassandra is a phenomenal artist; she brought these characters to life. She acted, she danced, she did the make-up and hair."

A model is dressed as a Japanese woman in an ornate red-and-white kimono and black headdress, standing before a richly patterned wall, the predominant colours of which are red, gold and black.
For her Queen project, Mimi‘s model was Cassandra, who Mimi dressed in sumptuous, ornately-decorated textiles. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon
A model is dressed like a matador with ornate satin clothing and hat, standing before a red and gold brocade background.
The photographs taken for Mimi’s Queen project were eventually put together in a calendar. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon

Mimi's latest project with an actor is Casey, a series of mostly off-the-wall images in which they created strange and wonderful scenarios together. "I was looking for a model for a Getty shoot and Casey came up on one of those model sites. He is an artist and an actor, but on top of that he's a crazy comedian – I can throw anything on him and he's game; he'll bring it to life. The only thing I have to worry about on the shoot is peeing my pants from laughing so hard! He'll just do a twitch or throw me a look and the shot's right there."

Recently, Mimi's work has taken a different direction – taking photography back to the essentials of colour and light itself. "I wanted to look at what the imagination can see beyond the human body, and human existence – I was looking for something of a higher nature.”

For her current work, she uses a Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8L USM lens, but "I am planning on going even wider, so will invest in a new lens soon."

A close-up of a mysterious, brightly-coloured object with circles and sharp edges casting shadows. The colours are mainly rich blue with red and yellow circles.
In Mimi’s colour studies she explores the interplay between light and colour. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon
Against a background a splashes of bright colour, a man, dressed in black, sits on a chair. He wears sunglasses and a handkerchief across his nose and mouth, and holds a light source.
Casey was happy to act up for Mimi’s photographs. She says of working with him: “He'll just do a twitch or throw me a look and the shot's right there." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Mimi Haddon

Taking textile courses at graduate school helped Mimi realise this artistic vision. "I was in my dye classes, looking at the colours of the dyes – when you first mix them, there is an explosion of water hitting the powder and it's literally like a miniature firework show happening at the bottom of your basin. I was blown away by it, and I thought 'I've got to figure out how to photograph that', and that's what inspired the series Colour Up Close.

"I only wanted to look at light – to shove everything aside and just look at what light does. I've started playing with prisms, seeing how light can bend. I feel that light is the subject, and other things come into play in a dance with that. That's the alchemy, that's the magic."

Autor Lottie Davies


Mimi Haddon’s kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Mimi Haddon

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