Once upon a time: Spellbinding photos that breathe life into fairy tales

annie-spratt-467871-unsplash copy11

Often depicting dream-like, faraway lands with princesses, castles and menacing villains, fairy tales have an unreal quality about them that make them seem unrelatable.

Photo by Rob Potter

But if you look a little closer, you’ll find that numerous fairy tales are watered down versions of historical events, concealing deeper philosophical lessons—cautionary tales where good conquers evil, the wicked get punished, and the righteous live happily ever after.

Researchers at Durham University in South Africa found “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to be about 4,000 years old. And a folk tale called “The Smith and the Devil,” about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the devil to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.

So why are these stories still circling in the present day? By nature, storytelling—whether through imagery or words—is a way of sharing, connecting, and passing on culture.

That’s exactly what you will see through these 5 photographers’ varying approaches to fairy tale photography.

01. Samantha Everton

Photos by Samantha Everton
Photos by Samantha Everton
Photos by Samantha Everton

A contemporary Australian artist who lives and works in Melbourne, Samantha Everton creates images with dreamlike and theatrical qualities. While her imagery is color saturated and dreamlike, they often explore deeper issues including race, xenophobia, cultural degradation, and feminism.

Another notable feature is Everton’s focus on authenticity of image, as she favors a cinematic style of photography over post-production techniques. “Everything I create is in camera. This means that no montaging happens after production. Everything you see was there in real life: the snake, the bird, the detailed backgrounds, shafts of light, and intense color,” says Samantha.

02. Laura Zalenga

Photos by Lauren Zalenga
Photos by Lauren Zalenga

Growing up with an old copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales next to her bed, German photographer Laura Zalenga has always had creative stories inside of her—they were just waiting to find the right medium for expression. When Laura stumbled upon photography, she instantly fell in love and began teaching herself how to use her camera. The device was a way to release her  emotions and create compelling visual stories.

Inspired by the very book she kept by her bed, Laura set out to show a unique perspective on stories so recognizable that even a small detail reveals the inspiration. In her series, Grimm Compact, she uses minimalism in each photo, embracing those little recognizable details as a way to bring her audience in and let them decide which story was used as an influence.

Photo by Lauren Zalenga

03. Kirsty Mitchell

Photo by Kristy Mitchell

Hailing from Surrey, UK, Kirsty Mitchell’s ethereal photography was born out of her grief for her mother’s death from brain tumor in 2008. She has gone on to create a truly amazing photo series constructed from her memories of the tales she was read as a child by her late mother. 

With no digital photo manipulation used, it's Kirsty's talent and background in fashion and costume design which shines through in her images. Mitchell worked in fashion design for a decade, learning under tutelage of Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen.

Comprised of otherworldly images that can feel like fragments from a buried fairytale, Wonderland stitches together the imagery of dreams, illustration and fables to create a place more beautiful than reality.

Photos by Kristy Mitchell
Photos by Kristy Mitchell

04. Margarita Kareva

Photos by Margarita Kareva
Photos by Margarita Kareva
Photos by Margarita Kareva

Aptly named for its outdoor setting, Plein Air by Margarita Kareva brings Russian folklore to life through her exquisite, fairy tale-esque photography. On top of beautiful backdrops, Kareva employs surreal props, ornate costumes, and even live animals to capture the mystery and magic of each traditional tale.

She adds surreal elements to her shots that make them really stand out, combining Photoshop manipulation with real props. In an interview with Rosphoto, she explained that she finds inspiration for all her photoshoots in fantasy books.

An emerging photographer who began taking photography seriously just six years ago, Kareva’s work is constantly evolving and growing. Kareva’s story proves that it is never too late to take up a new hobby—you just need to learn every day, all your life.”

05. Anya Anti

Photos by Anya Anti
Photos by Anya Anti

New York-based Ukrainian photographer Anya Anti uses elaborate costumes, makeup, and props to capture imaginative portraits inspired by fairy tales and fantasy. Beautiful young women are transformed into magical beings and otherworldly characters in these enchanting images, thanks to Anti's creative eye and attention to detail.

It's easy to pinpoint specific fairy tale inspirations for some of the portraits, like the romantic image of Rapunzel gazing out the window of a tower, or the stunning new interpretation of Maleficent. Other photos, however, are not linked to particular narratives, allowing the viewer to imagine the fantastical stories behind witches, fallen angels, and rose women instead.

Photo by Anya Anti

Like holding up a mirror to humanity, storytelling helps us to understand and acknowledge our wrongdoings and prevent further harm. While traditional fairy tales are generally in spoken or written form—many photographers, like Samantha, Laura, Kirsty, Margarita, and Anya, have emerged in this genre too, using elaborate sets, costumes, and a cinematic style of photography to craft complex narratives within a single frame to create remarkable, spellbinding photos that truly inspire.

For more inspiration we have a a library of enchanting and imaginative fairytale photos in our own stock image library.