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© Ute Reckhorn

© Ute Reckhorn

Carolyn Hampton Creates Surreal Fantasies

  • 6 min read


(photos above taken with Double Glass Optic)

Carolyn Hampton is a Southern California fine art photographer who creates surreal, dreamlike images based on childhood memories, rituals, nightmares, and fantasies. Influenced by fairytales, legends and myths, she enjoys telling visual stories, for which the viewer can fill in what happens next.

When & how did you first discover your passion for photography?

My parents gave me a Pentax MV1 (35mm film camera) when I was 10 years old and I instantly fell in love with creating images. No one in my family owned or even knew how to use a camera, so I was quickly appointed the official family photographer. When I was in my mid-20s, I went off on a five week adventure by myself to Sub-Saharan Africa, and shot approximately 50 rolls of film. I spent most of that time out in the brush amid the wildlife, in the most golden light, and I think that really ignited my passion for it. It wasn't until my daughter was born, however, that I started to take photography even more seriously, and consider creating images that were more artistic than realistic.

How did you first learn about Lensbaby? What was your first Lensbaby lens, and what lens or optic is currently your favorite?

I first learned about Lensbaby 7 years ago through a photographer friend. I purchased the Original Lensbaby lens and then the 2.0 when that was released. I still get out those original Lensbabies, especially when I am teaching workshops with children, because they are fun to use. Children enjoy the unpredictability of those early lenses, without getting frustrated, and love that they can bend the lens with their fingers. The Composer Pro with the Double Glass Optic is my current favorite, but I am trying to hone my skills with the Edge 80 optic. I am so impressed with the work I am seeing by other photographers with the Edge 80 so I plan to use it a lot more this summer.


(photo above left taken with Double Glass Optic, photo above right taken with non-Lensbaby lens)

Your images have a surreal edge to them and call to mind fairy tales and legends. How did you come to develop this style?

In late 2009, while doing a shoot with my daughter in an abandoned and allegedly haunted hospital -- an activity we chose simply for fun as well as the ghost hunting potential -- it suddenly dawned on me that I was recreating one of my childhood dreams. I am one of those people who can remember far back into early childhood, and who can vividly recall many recurring dreams and nightmares. A lot of my dreams take place in spaces that look abandoned, rather than in locations that seem familiar. So with my husband as an assistant, and my daughter as my model (really a stand-in for me as a child), we set about recreating my childhood dreams and memories in a number of abandoned locations, my parents' house, and our house. I am happy to say that we completed that series this year.

One of the series I am currently working on, "Constructed Fairytales", is about recreating stories from my own head that are inspired by the fairy tales, myths and legends I enjoyed as a child. When I was in elementary school, all the way through high school, I used to write short stories in my spare time and share them with friends and family, so I think many people expected me to become a writer. I eventually discovered that I prefer to tell visual stories. I don't know if I can explain how I developed my style, but I can say that I am continuously striving to recreate visions the way that I see them in my own head, and the closer I come to it, the more I feel as if I have succeeded. Some people have told me that my work reminds them of their own dreams, and that's why it resonates with them.

What is your favorite Lensbaby image?

I guess I would say "Let Them Fly Free" (a dream image) though I am also very fond of "Persephone", which was included in the Lensbaby "Be Seen in D.C." exhibition.


(both photos above, "Persephone" and "Let Them Fly Free", taken with Double Glass Optic)

Your daughter features prominently in much of your work. How does she feel about her participation? Is she an artist as well?

I think she was initially reluctant because of her age, but over time, she has warmed to the idea. We discuss each concept beforehand and she gives her own valuable input. Our work together has not only been a collaboration, but it is something that has deepened our mother-daughter bond. Experiencing many of my childhood thoughts and memories through a kind of reenactment, my daughter now has a greater understanding of who her mother is today. She has always approached our work together with kindness and warmth, and never seems disturbed by it, even when it may seem rather dark.

My daughter is definitely an artist -- I think she has an incredible eye and I almost always seek out her opinion during post-processing. She knows how to use a camera and is really good at it, but for the moment, she is captivated with theater arts and performing on stage. That probably does not come as a surprise to people who have seen my fairy tale series, since she is chameleon-like in her ability to portray different characters in each image.

You've achieved much success in the photography fine-art world, which is quite an accomplishment. Your work has been included in exhibits at Vermont Photography Workplace, LightBox Photographic, Center for Fine Art Photography, among others and you've been published in Diffusion Magazine, F-Stop Magazine, and more. Can you talk a bit about that journey?

Thank you! On a lark, right after completing two of my early dream images, "Silent Prayer" and "Uncaged Birds", I entered them in the Photo Spiva competition in Joplin, Missouri. After they were accepted, I flew out to Joplin to do a portfolio review with the juror, Dr. Anthony Bannon, director emeritus of Eastman House. His encouragement, guidance, and the friendship that we have developed over time has put me on this path. He insisted I attend the Palm Springs portfolio reviews a few months after that, and it was there that I met my gallerist, Daniel Miller, the director of the Duncan Miller Gallery.

Daniel has played a crucial role in shaping my fine art career and giving me such wise counsel and encouragement, in addition to being my good friend and making me laugh. I feel tremendously fortunate to be on his roster of artists -- a list that includes idols of mine, such as Elliott Erwitt and Isabel Munoz. I think it is important for all fine art photographers to try to get their work out there as much as possible. Along the way, I have made wonderful contacts who have given me such valuable feedback and advice, including the owners of the galleries and the editors of the magazines you mentioned above.


(photos above taken with non-Lensbaby lenses)

Speaking of exhibits, next month you'll have your first solo show, which will include several Lensbaby images, at Duncan Miller Gallery, who also represents your work. Can you tell us a bit about it?

It's very exciting! We will have 15 images from my Childhood Dreams and Memories series on the walls, including several Lensbaby images, and some will be quite large. I will also have an exhibition catalogue of the entire body of work, for which Tony Bannon kindly wrote the Introduction.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I have several stories in mind for my fairytale series, so I hope to work on that some more in the coming months, and ideally, incorporate the Edge 80 into that work. I have a full darkroom now and a wet plate camera, so I am working on a wet plate collodion series. In addition to those projects, I am experimenting with incorporating my images in mixed media art. Fortunately, I have a very kind and patient husband who tolerates toxic chemicals in the house, along with a family room filled with camera gear, props, canvases, acrylic paints and wardrobe!

To see more of Carolyn's work, visit her site here.