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Still Lives: Natalie Russell

Photographer Stephanie de Leng's take on people in the city and the story behind the picture. This time: Portrait of a Childwall artist

Published on January 12th 2009.


Still Lives: Natalie Russell

NATALIE Russell is an artist, and one of her strongest creations is herself.
We both had entries in a rather fun exhibition called “People and Love”, and I think hers was lots of hearts depicted in a pop art kind of way. The venue was a magnificent, but somewhat lugubrious Victorian mansion, in an advanced state of disrepair, bordering Sefton Park. Its atmosphere was greatly enlivened by the varied offerings of emotive artwork on display and a mass of people buzzing around, clutching plastic cups of wine.

Into this setting Natalie flounced, her porcelain skin festooned by a mass of white-blonde hair and heavy 1950s make-up. This was completed by what can only be described as a Grease-meets cheerleader outfit - it glowed and spun refreshingly in the dark, Gothic manor. I immediately wanted to photograph her and we exchanged a flurry of emails, fixing a date (May), her dress (“exactly as you were at the exhibition”), and location (her house).

At exactly 11am May 1, 2008, I pulled up at her home, a tidy, semi-detached new-build in Childwall. No one seemed to be in. Just in case Natalie was busy with the Hoover or hair drier or doing anything else that might interfere with hearing a doorbell, I pushed it again, long and hard. Nothing. Damn. I turned around and was nearly knocked over by a breathless female arriving on a bicycle in a fluffy, pink dressing gown. She had run out of milk.

Natalie whirled around the house like a dervish, creating herself, including putting right her hair with torrents of hairspray. I learned that she is 26 (though she looks 16) and that she has a little girl, and her partner is a musician. Her parents live around the corner and have an attic crammed full of her “stuff”. In fact she uses it as her studio.

While toying with the idea of going there for the shoot instead, I looked around the house. It was truly spotless. Not a trace of dust. Not even on the mantelpiece where a lovely mug, made by Natalie herself, sat among a conglomeration of other personal knick-knacks and snapshots. Natalie’s partner is very handsome.

Elsewhere, Natalie’s artwork, (her paintings are of feminine, sexy, suggestive girls in various states of undress) was in ample evidence, including a large life-size canvas of a “babe” in the broom cupboard.

Finally, Natalie was ready to go and so was I. The light was perfect. She made us both a cup of tea, and sat on the sofa, cupping her handmade mug tightly. Snap. That was a very good image. I particularly liked the homage to the Clash, hanging behind her, and the baby seat tucked next to the sofa.

Natalie bit her lower lip nervously. I noticed a bead of sweat on her upper lip and whipped out my powder to mop it up.

Then a kitten scuttled into the room, and jumped first into the baby seat, and then, thinking better of it, onto her mistress’s lap. Snap. This was getting better by the minute. Encouraged, Natalie showed me her collection of guitars and left one beside her, the frets of which the cat proceeded to inspect. Snap. That was the shot.

I spent another 40 minutes or so framing Natalie in various locations of her home - she even carried her large broom cupboard “babe” outside and posed with it on the neatly trimmed lawn. In the end I had a fantastic range of portraits. “I was very nervous”, she later explained by email, “I did not know what to expect”.

And, to tell you the truth, neither did I.

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