Two twin sisters named Madeleine and Diarra embrace amongst the soft light of the day, perching atop a tree, deep in the woodland. It’s an iridescently beautiful scene captured by photographer Isobel Rae as part of her Siblings series, where the viewer at once becomes aware of the sisters’ connection and closeness. Another picture takes you to a porch where her dad is sitting and, in a similar vein to the picture before, luminous light bellows from inside and changes the tone of the moment; warm highlights protrude through the glass and leaves the subject in an almost indistinguishable silhouette.
These are just two examples of Isobel’s ability to merge photographic techniques with an honest representation of her subjects, something that she’s become exceptionally crafty at ever since she picked up a camera. Before this, however, the now New York-based photographer was a painter. She grew up in Calgary, Canada, and studied at Emily Carr University in Vancouver. It was during her first semester that she dabbled in photography, having signed up for a media class and thus making her debut with 35mm film. “I immediately fell in love with it,” she tells It’s Nice That. “After a few weeks, I changed my major to photography and kept going with it. I think I was able to communicate something that I wasn’t able to with any other medium, and I really enjoyed the process of it all – the film, the developing, the darkroom – having a hand in the photo coming to life.” Photography seemed “perfect” to her, especially as her late grandpa was a photographer too, who owned his own studio in the 70s or 80s. “That made me feel an even deeper connection to the medium.”
Having become fully engrossed in the process of picture-making, Isobel is more than eager to get her rolls of film developed – the earlier the better, and she’ll often spend her mornings developing photos in her kitchen before turning to any work. “For the most part, though, on a day where I don’t have anything to develop, I can be found at home multitasking with editing images, collating things or experimenting with new materials and papers, or applying for competitions and working or reworking on book designs,” she explains.
When she’s out shooting or planning for a series, there are a couple of motifs that Isobel turns to for inspiration. The first is nature for its ability to transcend the photographer into a state of calm and quiet, as well as “being able to let your mind drift off.” Otherwise, mythologies and historical themes tend to make appearances, all of which pop up respectively in the subtleties of her pictures – like the abundance of trees, luminous lighting, props and the positioning of her subjects. “Currently,” she adds, “I am inspired by my memories and feelings of nostalgia; it’s what is inspiring my newest project that I have yet to begin.”
Meandering through her recently published works, you’ll notice a plethora of artfully lit portraits and staged photographs, where each subject is exposed in a raw and natural state. This is achieved through a considered process, where time is spent getting to know the subject and the stories that they might want to share. “I often feel an immediate connection with my subjects and I aim to portray them as they are,” explains Isobel. “I aim to capture their essence in the image and try to understand their personalities. That is something I enjoy about what I do, being able to connect with so many different personalities and learning something new from each of them.”
So when you look at the image of Madeleine and Diarra, you start to realise that it’s more than just a timely snapshot of that particular moment. In fact, this is the second time she’s photographed the twins over a two-year period, as part of the wider series Siblings (the image was also the first of the series). By working this way, Isobel was able to witness the “passing of time and growth between them,” which she refers to as an “exciting” thing to do – “especially after a year; it felt like the time flew by but they had also grown so much.”
Comparatively, the picture Dad on the Porch rouses similar emotions. So much so that it’s one of her favourite images she’s taken of her dad, which is part of a larger series Grandma’s House – a project devised after flying home during the pandemic to photograph her grandparents’ house. “This was one of my last nights in town of a two-week trip, soaking in the last moments with the house and with my dad. I loved how the light shone through the window and it reminds me of the warm summer night with the warm yellows and oranges.”
Isobel’s work is so rich in personal sentiment, that even if you haven’t lived these experiences, you’ll still feel the emotion reverberating through the tones, compositions and framing. “I hope my audience feels something they can’t quite describe when they view my work,” she concludes, “because I’m kind of trying to communicate something that I can’t quite put into words either.”
Isobel Rae (Copyright © Isobel Rae, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.