Caitlin Fullam Creates a Magical World of Surreal Landscapes

Caitlin Fullam Creates a Magical World of Surreal Landscapes

All images by Caitlin Fullam. Used with permission. For more stories like this, subscribe to The Phoblographer.

“These photos were an escape for me during a dark time,” photographer Caitlin Fullam tells me. “I created a whimsical world of surreal pastel landscapes because I felt stuck. I craved new places, warmth, and color.” This past winter, Caitlin spent early mornings and late nights on the road and in the mountains, exploring landscapes across Colorado and New Mexico. She used double exposures on film to document the journeys she took on those endless December and January days, across rugged terrain and into the depths of her own imagination. 

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Once, she saw the full moon set and the sun rise simultaneously over Loveland Pass, watching the skies turn pink at twelve thousand feet. The air hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit, but there she stood, breathing it in. In between clicks of the shutter, she kept her fingers toasty with a pair of rechargeable hand warmers, tucked into her ski mittens. 

After months of COVID-19 restrictions, the natural world beckoned Caitlin with promises of brighter days and warmer horizons. When she answered its call, she found the once-familiar and well-trodden landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico transformed into scenes from a dream, with strangeness and magic at every turn. We asked her about the project. 

Phoblographer: What was happening in your life when you made these images, and how did what you were feeling inform what we see here?

Caitlin Fullam: I shot this series from December 2020 through January 2021. During winter in Colorado, I found my surroundings to be uninspiring and gloomy. The dead trees and short days combined with pandemic restrictions and the weight of the world’s collective grief had me feeling down. 

I had recently decided to take a long break from digital photography after feeling burnt out and unsure about my career path. I decided to switch to film and challenge myself to find the beauty close to home, to create a magical world for myself despite the pandemic blues. 

Phoblographer: How did you find these landscapes? Are they well-known or off the beaten path?

Caitlin Fullam: A lot of these landscapes I shot from my backyard in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been lucky to spend the pandemic renting a cottage with amazing mountain views, and that means getting to easily watch amazing sunrises and sunsets on a daily basis. The other landscapes in this series I shot at Loveland Pass, Colorado, which is a very accessible spot I always recommend for sunrises. There are also a few photos taken in Taos, from an Airbnb I rented near Arroyo Seco. 

Finding quiet places that I can experience alone is something I seek out but rarely find. Getting out for sunrise certainly helps, and of course, having a private view of the mountains at home is a treasured luxury. Sometimes I rent Airbnbs or car camp in remote places with the express purpose of enjoying solitude within a magical landscape, as I did in Taos. 

Phoblographer: Have you always been drawn to wide-open spaces? 

Caitlin Fullam: Nature played a big role in my very active childhood. I grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of time playing outside in the lush woods near my house, climbing trees, running around my neighborhood barefoot, playing in dirt, and swimming in the ocean.

Though I was an adventurous kid, I didn’t develop a thorough appreciation for nature’s beauty until a few years ago when I got into camping in the West. I would credit my solo road trip through Montana and Banff in August 2018 with truly falling in love with vast landscapes.

Phoblographer: You shot this project on Portra 160 and Portra 400 35mm. Why did you choose these film stocks, in particular? What qualities drew you to them?

Caitlin Fullam: I didn’t have very much experience in film, so I was just experimenting and didn’t know what to expect. I did some research online and crossed my fingers for pastel results, particularly for pinks and purples. 

Prior to this series, I had probably shot fewer than a dozen rolls in my life. Though I was inexperienced, shooting film turned out to be a big relief from the pressure I was feeling around photography. A new wave of inspiration motivated me to seek out sunrises and sunsets and really take my time to think through compositions. 

In the past, my shoot style was less thoughtful and more along the lines of, “travel to a beautiful location and shoot as many photos as I can.” So having the limitations of a set number of frames, not being able to see the results immediately, and not being able to travel much, I had to get more creative and revel in the slowness.

Phoblographer: Can you tell us more about your gear set up in general? 

Caitlin Fullam: For this series, I used a Canon Rebel 2000 SLR, and two lenses: Canon 24-70mm f2.8 and a Canon 70-200mm f2.8. Sometimes for a double exposure, I might take one frame with the wider lens, then switch to the telephoto for the second frame.

Phoblographer: How did you create these double exposures?

Caitlin Fullam: Most of the double exposures in this series I shot in-camera, and a couple of them I combined later in Photoshop. For the ones I shot in-camera, the Canon Rebel 2000 has a nifty multiple exposure function that you can use to set the number of exposures; I mostly chose two or three. 

Then for each frame, I underexposed by a stop or two. When I look through my viewfinder, there’s a focusing grid of boxes, which I used as a marker to carefully line up compositions. I also keep a notebook where I roughly sketch out double exposure ideas. 

Phoblographer: Why double exposures? What did double exposures capture about your experiences, memories, and feelings that single exposures might not? 

Caitlin Fullam: There are a few reasons. I often aim for a slightly surreal flair in my work, so in-camera film double exposures provide a perfect way to create a dreamlike scene or surreality without having to spend lots of time on my laptop later fiddling around. 

Also, double exposures feel so playful and interesting to me! I love the idea of creating a story by intentionally combining two separate images. The process itself is fun because I creatively construct the scene in my head prior and then try to bring it to life, which is much easier said than done. 

I found it very satisfying and exciting to compose shots, not knowing if they would turn out or not. The most exciting one for me was the image of street lamps and clouds. I made it by shooting one frame of street lamps handheld at night during a snowstorm and the next frame the following morning during a cloud inversion. I got such a giddy rush when the scans came back to see that the image came together so perfectly.

Phoblographer: Are you the person in some of these images? If so, why was it important for you to jump into the frame? 

Caitlin Fullam: Yes, I am the person in the photos. I’ve been shooting self-portraits for years as a means of self-expression. The double exposure of me walking through a series of archways into a mountainous wonderland reflects my ways of coping with grief and fear during the pandemic: daydreaming, nature, creativity, and retreating into myself. 

Phoblographer: How did you decide on the color palette for this series, and might you tell us how you achieved these extraordinary hues?

Caitlin Fullam: Color has always been one of the most important parts of my photography, so I knew what I was looking for going into it: purply blues, pink tones, reddish oranges. That’s how I edit my digital photos in Lightroom, so I didn’t want to deviate much from my usual style, mostly because it’s just what appeals to me. However, the scans I got back weren’t exactly what I had in mind, so I tinkered around in Lightroom using split toning to achieve the extra punch of color and consistency in tones. 

Phoblographer: What drew you to photography in the first place, and in what ways, if any, did working on this project remind you of the reasons you were first attracted to the medium? 

Caitlin Fullam: I bought my first serious DSLR at a time when I knew I wanted to create but had no clue what or how, having buried my artistic side for many years. Making art just felt out of reach at the time, like a locked door I’d lost the key to, but a voice inside me insisted that I try. 

“So I quit my desk job at the time and decided to just start from scratch: watching Youtube tutorials, shooting everything, and struggling for years until I found my style. Taking on this project of film photography was a bit similar in that it was a rebellion against the suffocating pressure of my career and a big step away from it to create just for me. 

In both cases, I listened to the voice inside that was telling me to stop and try something new. Now I’m back to shooting digital again in addition to film, but I feel like my relationship to photography, on the whole, has dramatically improved since embarking on this project. 

To see more of Caitlin Fullam’s work, visit her website. Shop for her prints here, and follow her latest work on Instagram at caitlinfullam.

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