Women in photography: Felicity McCabe on facing fears and making memories

A desert bush photographed near to Dubai, UAE, made an attractive photograph for photographer Felicity McCabe as the flat sky made it feel like a studio background.
Bringing the studio to nature – McCabe was attracted to the flat sky behind this desert bush close to Dubai, UAE, as “it felt exactly like when I shoot things in my studio against a flat background.” Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe

“When I shoot people, I shoot them like a still-life,” says Felicity McCabe. “I’m kind of half still-life, half portraiture, but I see the two styles of photography as being in a similar vein.” And so, from her studio in Bow Arts in east London, and from locations across the globe, she lays a still-life veil over the everyday and the extraordinary, and creates gloriously colourful graphic images.

Time, memory and a fascination with death have proven to be key themes in the artist’s work, which has seen her gain commissions from organisations including the Natural History Museum and Save the Children. Careful composition is seen throughout her body of work and there is an undercurrent of taking things out of context – “Reality? You see it every day,” says McCabe. “I’m interested in things that are a bit separate from it.”

Early influences

McCabe’s interest in photography began in the club scene in her teenage years. “What I realised recently is that in those clubs the lighting is very exciting. There’s colour and there’s drama, there’s shadow and dark spaces and very bright spaces. I think all of that has informed my work – I like things to be lit.”

McCabe has been shooting for herself for about five years now, after a decade learning her craft from the best in the business. Her work shows an attention to detail and a level of execution reminiscent of Nadav Kander, David Stewart and Robin Broadbent, whom she assisted among others."I'm probably one of the last old-school assistants who really assisted for a long time.”

Ioni Sullivan posed for Felicity McCabe for a studio portrait to accompany a story about women converting to Islam.
Ioni Sullivan photographed for a story about women converting to Islam. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe
Matthew, from Felicity McCabe’s series Two Spirit. The bald, heavily tattooed man with a striking grey beard poses and wraps his arms around himself in the studio wearing a lace veil over his eyes.
Matthew, from the series Two Spirit. McCabe gets subjects to pose with their back to camera, as she “doesn’t think you always need to see a face to make a portrait of a person.” Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe / Getty Images

“You get thrown into different experiences every week and everyone does things a little differently,” she says. “What I learned is that photography is a collaboration. You have to listen. It’s interesting to pay attention to everyone in the room – there’s some value in what everybody says. I may not like someone’s whole idea, but there’s a thread in there that I can take and use to make my idea stronger. Assisting taught me not be arrogant. If you make life hard for people, they’re not going to use you again.”

A lot of my work is about memory – my house is full of pictures of dead things.

Finding her own voice

After five years working with Kander, she took a leap, saying: “I had to work out what my own voice was. I wanted to tinker around and see what I liked.” Still-life emerged as a passion while she worked on a variety of projects exploring the nature of time and memory, beginning in 2012 with The Arrow. “I just got obsessed with this thing, the arrow of time – the idea that time marches forward and you have no control over it,” she says. “That’s always terrified me a little bit.

“A couple of years ago someone said to me ‘You’re just really scared of death, aren’t you?’ and I was realised that was it. A lot of my work is about memory and trying to hold on to things. Everything’s along that theme. My house is full of pictures of dead things.”

Two boys pose in a camp for internally displaced people in Somaliland, Somalia, east Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by droughts.
Two boys photographed for Save the Children in a camp for internally displaced people affected by droughts in Somaliland, east Africa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe
A spray-painted Calla Lily from Felicity McCabe’s Remain[s] series reimagines the lost vibrancy of fading cut flowers and leaves, and explores the fleeting nature of time.
A spray-painted Calla Lily from McCabe’s Remain[s] series reimagines the lost vibrancy of fading cut flowers and leaves, and explores the fleeting nature of time. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe

This theme is reflected in her two series Relic and Remain[s]. In 2016, her work caught the eye of the National History Museum, leading to her being asked to make a series of images for their summer exhibition Colour and Vision.

A year earlier, she tackled the harsh realities of life without ready access to water on assignment for Save the Children in Somalia, bringing her trademark style to the project. Rather than take a documentary approach, she used sets of flash lights and multiple cameras, including the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, to create a studio-like effect in her series of diptychs.

“I was dragging all this weird kit around, and I think the Somali people thought, ‘Who is this crazy woman?”, she says. “Some of the local women had walked for three days, carrying their children, to find a drop of water. We are so far removed from understanding how anyone can live like that. I wanted to show that it was happening now, and that it was happening to human beings, people like us.”

Making memories

McCabe has a desire to record with her camera, a need to hold on to things, which could perhaps be explained by a curious fact about her childhood. There are no family photographs of her as a newborn baby, and, as a result, she has no access to her own early life – it’s invisible. “There are no memories,” she says. “It’s as if I didn’t exist. All we have is the little tag from around my wrist.

A glass of cider and ice forms a still life shot, accessorised with the artist’s shadow as Felicity McCabe overlays the shape of her hand over the drink.
In her work, McCabe often uses her own shadow to bring still images to life and add a playful element, as seen in this shot of a glass of cider. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe
Sushi on a plate is arranged to represent the Japanese flag for a novel still-life shot by Felicity McCabe.
Still-life sushi in homage to the Japanese flag. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Felicity McCabe

“Relic is about keeping things which have an emotional value. Often they’re completely banal. How do we hold on to things, how do we hold on to our thoughts and our emotions? I have a massive fear of forgetting. So these images, they help me to remember.”

This desire to pin things down, make them permanent and remove the possibility of doubt is also reflected in McCabe’s latest project, Archive. In collaboration with Getty Images, this series again explores the mutability of memory. “When you remember, you actually only remember the memory, it’s a facsimile,” she asserts. “So each time, it’s like a photocopy – it changes just a little bit, like a Chinese whisper, and becomes something different. So your memory is faulty.”

Archive works with images from the Getty Images collection, such as those from vintage UK photojournalism magazine Picture Post – stripping them back and re-imagining them as a discrete memory or as the element of a moment. “I’ve distilled the information down, so it becomes a recreation of the space or a recreation of a detail,” McCabe says. “The images are quite graphic, a bit less photographic than the ones I've created before. But what’s the point in doing the same thing all the time?”

For McCabe, photography is a symbolic and practical act: “I’ve made a mark, so therefore I won’t forget that person or that moment, or that relationship I had with somebody. Some people have tattoos – we all have our ways of keeping hold of things.”

Archive is on show from 7 September 2017 at Great Eastern Wall Gallery, Great Eastern Street, London EC2A 3NT and online.

Check out the Canon EOS 5D Mark III product page for more information about the camera.

Written by Lottie Davies