On Susan Mendel's 19th birthday, her father gave her a Ricoh brand film camera that would inspire her to spend her professional life behind the lens.
Today, armed with her "dream camera" - a Nikon D4S - the North Shore native is focusing her creative energy on two photo series: Waiting for Alice and Wild Horses. The idea for the first series arose while she was snapping pictures in a Langley garden and stumbled upon a purple tufted wingback chair covered in moss and vines. It looked like something straight out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
"When I saw it, I stopped in my tracks because I thought 'That looks like Alice's chair,'" Mendel says.
From there, she developed a concept. What would happen if the Mad Hatter gave up on waiting for Alice to come to his tea party? What would it look like if the curious girl arrived at a beautifully set table with no guests in sight?
Mendel spent several months gathering props and set up a photo shoot last summer in an organic garden in Ladner. Her whimsical images capture young Alice enjoying the tea party alone, feet up, standing on the table, completely disregarding the stifling etiquette of the Victorian era during which Lewis Carroll wrote his classic children's story. In the photographs, Alice is portrayed by two sisters, ages six and eight at the time of the shoot.
"The smile on their faces when I said 'Get up on the table,' it was so fun," Mendel recalls.
Her Waiting for Alice project soon branched into two additional Wonderland-themed photo collections. In one, the Mad Hatter finds himself wandering the streets of a modern city in search of Alice. In the other, both the Mad Hatter and Alice are in the big city, but their paths never quite cross.
Mendel didn't keep much from childhood but, in a happy coincidence, her copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland turned up in an old box not long before she embarked on this project. "When I opened the cover up I saw that I had actually signed my name in 1972 when I was eight years old," she says.
Currently a Vancouver resident, Mendel grew up in West Vancouver and she and her husband raised their three children in North Vancouver. For 15 years she ran a photography business on the North Shore, shooting weddings and portraits mainly. After that, she put her camera away for a little while, but picked it up again about four years ago with a focus on fine art photography.
Wild horses are the subject of the second photo series Mendel has on the go right now.
"Needless to say, they're not in this area, so there's a little bit of travelling and planning that's involved," she says.
In the last two years, she has tracked down wild horses in Sundre, Alberta, the Bronson Forest in Saskatchewan and, most recently, the Nemaiah Valley in the Chilcotin area of B.C. "I went and found hundreds of them in beautiful valleys with glaciers," she says.
Wild animals are notoriously difficult to photograph, but with patience, practice and the knowledge she has picked up studying equine sciences through the University of Guelph, Mendel has learned how to get the shots she's looking for. She hires a guide to take her into the backcountry and they search for droppings and hoof tracks then get out of the vehicle. In any herd, she says, there's always one stallion. That's the horse she approaches with a submissive posture and no eye contact.
"The herd reacts or doesn't react based on his behaviour. He is the one that makes the decisions about what is approaching and whether it's safe or not," she explains.
"They turn toward me and puff themselves up," she adds. "They're prey animals and yet they're so huge and strong and they would never ever charge towards you because that's just not in their nature. If you get too close, they turn around, they run and they're gone."
This strong flight response is one of the behaviours that fascinates Mendel about horses. Plus, the animals symbolize so much to so many people.
"They represent a lot of things. They represent freedom and romance and strength and purity."
Mendel is one of 21 artists whose work is on display at the North Vancouver Community Arts Council's Animal Farm exhibit, on display until Sept. 5 at CityScape Community Art Space, 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver. The two images she contributed to the exhibit depict domestic horses, photographed in Langley and Saskatchewan, to fit the farm animal theme of the show.
Meanwhile, some of her Waiting for Alice images, all framed with vintage windows, are on display at Tartooful, located at 3183 Edgemont Blvd., North Vancouver. To learn more about Mendel, visit her website at susanmendelphotography.com