The Lady of the Lens

St Andrews University has turned out a good few famous names. A handful of poets, swathes of politicians, and the odd heir to the throne. But as of yet, it seems no big names in the art or fashion world have made it onto St Andrews’ prestigious Wikipedia alumni list. No Bruce Weber, no Anna Wintour, no Stella McCartney.

Perhaps it is exactly this that makes it all the more exciting when the student body throws up a talent that might just make it. Step forward Gillian Gamble, photographer and illustrator whose dreamy, fantastical works have already been featured on Italian Vogue’s website and who is now drowning in commissions, just as her Lady of Lady Braes drowns in flowers, weeds and water.

You’ve probably seen her photographs or illustrations posted up on a students’ blog or in one of St Andrews’ local publications. They are modern Pre-Raphaelite in style; fairytales with a whiff of the St Andrews about them, decked with Little Red Riding Hood cerises and Miss Dior Cherie pinks. Gamble’s photographs are miles from the sexy hipster shots that we’re used to seeing in art house magazines, all too reminiscent of the rawness of modern life. As Gillian puts it, “I love anything fantastical.” Her works are the stuff of Tim Walker’s dreams, littered with to her favourite sources of inspiration, “old Cecil Beaton travel books, Victorian children’s stories and modern illustrators like Oliver Jeffers.”

A recently graduated student of English at St Andrews, Gamble confesses she was “not that great at being a student,” distracted instead by “the real world” – marriage, illness and running a charity (more on that later) – but that “the University have been amazingly supportive. I am really moved just thinking about it.” It was at university that the self-confessed doodler began “just doing a bit of drawing and posting things to Facebook for fun.” Facebook proved to be the perfect springboard for her to find her feet creatively, and the combination of encouraging comments from online fans and the purchase of her first DSLR in September of last year gave her the push she needed to “be braver about putting art out there for critique.”

Though rather than critique, Gillian has been receiving an influx of approval from people that matter. Photographs from her Give All to Love series were recently selected by heavyweights at Italian Vogue to be featured on their website, perhaps for their striking palette and dream-like quality, reminiscent of the romance of Italy’s own Paolo Roversi. Or perhaps it’s because these images are the strongest examples of a labour of love that involves “working with a few others to create a costume, going trekking for a location and creating an imaginative image.” The images, rich in texture and colour, feature a dress crafted by Gamble and model, Rosie Gowans – a haze of purples in swathes of hand painted chiffon – and were shot in St Andrews. “Some of the best shots have come whilst wading in the Kinnessburn, walking the Lady Braes or climbing things. I come home a lot covered in mud or paint,” she says. “I am greatly inspired by nature. I love to be outside.”

Despite the glamour of the spell-binding gowns and allure of her immaculately made-up models, there’s an earthiness to her photographs that counterbalances all that fantasy. “I am particularly interested in reflecting on the experience of childhood and growing up,” she cites. “I suppose even the act of going out on an adventure to take photos relates to the exploration of childhood.” For all their saccharine shades and hazy blends, her photographs aren’t without edge. She confesses that her models often look “a little vulnerable,” a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that ultimately, “the biggest thing inspiring me is just a desire to find out what life is all about, and to colour it with some imagination.”

So what’s up next for the budding breakout art star? Coming up on her crazy-busy schedule includes an upcoming exhibition next year. “I just formed a collective with some artistic friends,” she explains, made up of some of St Andrews’ other resident artists, including Jenni Bangs, Keeleigh Lynott, Catriona Stirling and Rosie Gowans.

Then there’s The Cloud Collector, a children’s book that Gillian is illustrating – and her work is about go viral via her new online store, where fans of Gillian’s work can finally have a piece of her in their homes. “I love the idea that I can just make prints and send them directly to someone to put on their wall,” she muses. “The idea of art being quite a grassroots thing really appeals to me.”

It’s no surprise then that it’s back to the grassroots for Gamble, whose other upcoming project lies close to her heart – charity. For a woman who spent her pre-university years working with orphans and children in the UK and China, and who set up her own charity to run an orphanage in India, she’s found that “powerful images can actually be the best way to highlight a cause.”  So alongside helping out with fundraising for St Andrews’ 600th Anniversary scholarship fund, she explains, “I’m working with an exceptionally kind-hearted model from Glasgow called Nicole, and we are creating a 2012 calendar for SANDS – the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity – in memory of her niece who died after one day of life.”

“I used to think these two worlds [of charity and art] I’ve worked in were kind of mutually exclusive,” she considers. But then came the realization that “perhaps these interests could be more complementary than I thought.” 

Gamble lives by a refreshing standard of no-rules, of mixing media, manipulating via Photoshop or using filters where necessary. “I see photography, [and] digital manipulation as acceptable and inter-changeable forms of expression. To me, the idea or concept is the central concern. Technique comes after that.” So whether she’s blurring the lines between photography and digital art, or art and activism, ultimately, she explains, her goal is that “people look at art and feel something.” Mission accomplished.

For more of Gillian’s work, visit her website.