Photographer In Focus: Jo Stephen

If you go down to the woods today…

From her rural base in North Dorset, Jo Stephen has been creating quite a photographic stir. With her signature multiple exposure images, Jo’s work has been admired and published by almost every photography magazine and the Dorset ‘glossies’, as well as winning numerous awards and enjoying a successful solo exhibition.

Jo’s life, ethos and imagery are firmly rooted in nature. With a professional background in conservation – as well as glass blowing, charcoal making and a love of woodland crafts – Jo’s mission is to create beautiful art by immersing herself in her local landscape, rarely travelling further afield than Dorset.

A keen environmentalist, Jo is constantly researching and recording the local flora and fauna in her garden and local area, in order to create what are now her very distinctive, signature images.

It all started at a young age when Jo’s father was seconded abroad with his job. Spending 4 years in Virginia USA and her teenage years in New Delhi, the travel experience really coloured Jo’s sense of wonder and aspirations.

Returning to the UK at 16, Jo’s family set down roots in Dorset, which she adored and where she remains, having made a home with her own children.

‘My interest in photography began very early on; my Dad was always into gadgets and had a Polaroid camera. My time living abroad and particularly in India really coloured my future plans – and the simplicity of life, together with a strong ‘mend and make do’ approach has encouraged a lot of creativity and freedom in my life, often on a tiny budget. I think that also explains why I’m not always obsessed with having the latest kit – for me the whole process is about connecting with nature on a local level.

‘I love art, science and ecology – I studied conservation and worked in several environmental/conservation roles. I also diversified and spent time making charcoal in the woodland and also enjoyed time as a glass blower.
A lot of my process in photography is, in many ways, similar to the glass blowing techniques, using colour, texture and layers to create final pieces.

‘I always dreamt of going to art school but a slightly disastrous moment of accidentally pouring expensive chemicals down the sink got me banned from the dark room!

‘My overall mission, is to connect with nature. I strongly believe in the importance of studying and recording biodiversity. From taking macro pictures in the garden, to revisiting old trees and flowers – collecting this data (as well as making art) is so important. Citizen science informs policy and really does make a difference.

‘My interest in science and conservation continues and as part of my MSc dissertation I looked at the carbon footprint of nature and landscape photography.

‘I surveyed 605 photographers – looking at how far photographers travelled to take images. The second largest group had travelled over 5000 miles with the purpose of taking images. Using data on CO2 emissions I also looked at the carbon footprint involved. For me, this simply reinforced the importance of working in my local area.

‘I also looked at pro environmental behaviour as a consequence of taking part in nature photography and the positive effects on mental and physical wellbeing.

‘When I first started photography, I didn’t even realise ICM (intentional camera movement) was ‘a thing’! I was simply taking pictures to identify elements within nature.

‘However, I got quite ill while glass blowing so had to take some time out – and during this time I taught myself Photoshop. I had always taken pictures of nature but this was the point at which it turned my focus on this practice as my primary means of creative expression. Part of my healing also involved taking exercise in my local landscape. And so the journey began…

‘I don’t have a fancy camera – my current kit doesn’t have the function to do multiple exposures in camera, so I create my images in Photoshop afterwards. Most of my images are shot on a Sony A58 with Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro lens.

‘I experiment with home made filters, shooting through things including petals and old leaves and once I even filled an old lens with marbles to see if I could create a unique bokeh effect. I really wanted to find my own voice, without any rules and with total freedom.

‘One of the things I’m often asked is which other photographers have influenced my work – but for a long time I didn’t even look at other people’s images. Since, of course, I’ve found artists with similar interests or whose work I really admire, including Doug Chinnery, Chris Friel and Valda Bailey. I also love the illustrations by Arthur Rackham, often forest based, dark, mysterious and magical.’

‘When asked how I would describe my own work? Well, my work is rooted in myth and a sense of place, of fairy tales and gold. It’s a meditative place, something catches my eye and anything could happen.’

‘I’ll go and visit ‘old friends’, trees, flowers etc. I love watching the murmurations and capturing local textures, the reeds and trees. It’s all about light and often I shoot into the light with the lens wide open. It’s seasonal – reflecting what’s around me, locally. I don’t want any rules. Images to me are a language older than words and my art is a part of a very ‘deep green philosophy’.

‘Sometimes my work doesn’t involve a camera at all – I love experimenting with Cyanotype printing. This started because I wanted to print, but couldn’t afford to. I worked out that I could create a digital negative on over-head projector transparency and then produce a cyanotype print. I love the science and chemistry involved – I tend to use flowers from my garden, or items from home and results can be in just 10-15 minutes. Again anything can happen and I love the mystery, the element of surprise.

‘Influenced by my days of glass blowing, I often add hints of gold to my work, both on photographs and cyanotype prints.’

Jo has also been recognised in a number of high profile awards including International Garden Photographer of the Year and with the RHS…

‘I would say I have quite low self esteem and though I share a lot of my work on social media, it’s a way of engaging with others while remaining quite hidden!

‘I entered IGPOTY really just to see! I was quite overwhelmed when two images were awarded, from my very first entry.  I got a lot of exposure out of the awards and it really helped bolster confidence – I was utterly delighted.  People started to notice my work and I did a lot of editorial features for photography magazines an also my local Dorset Life magazine.  I also did a solo exhibition at the Kingcombe Centre in association with the Dorset Wildlife Trust, with another planned for this year, but sadly Covid has scuppered that for now.

‘In the future I’d love to start selling more prints and running small group workshops, but we’ll have to see what the new year brings.  In the meantime I’m off out to forage for textures in woods!’


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