The images in the real Santa tell a different story than we imagined when we were kids. Against the backdrop of the Northern Lights, rolling snowscapes, beautiful pine forests and stunning wooden buildings give way to a solid, cold reality. The Santas we see in Kate Abbey’s series are real people who make a living during the month of December.
“For years I’ve wanted to explore Santa the way it should be,” Kate tells Creative Boom. “There was something intriguing about his bizarre representation, and I wanted to debunk the myth of the perfect, cheerful man and bring him closer to myself, to the real world. After all, he’s a real man dressed in red. He goes to work for an income.”
That’s why the award-winning photographer began exploring Santa Claus as ‘everyday’: before putting on his famous red and white uniform and heading to work. In fact, it was Kate’s niece’s creative words that first gave meaning to the process.
“The imaginary landscape he described with his superpowers and fantasy ideas led me to create a real version of how he ran his business,” she explains. “These guys weren’t magical in their mundane environment with their nafs, PVC boot covers, and Velcro fasteners. Nothing about them was necessarily exceptional, but they still had their quirks and uniqueness that seemed pretty special to me.”
“Magic is always great,” she adds, “but that’s the truth that I love and find much more remarkable.”
In Kate’s photos, we see snapshots of an almost underworld, a place most of us have never seen. Maybe even as adults we don’t want the magic to end. For example, seeing Santa Claus locking his car in an underground parking garage doesn’t exactly reflect the same mental image we can hold onto.
Reflecting on her experience of Santa Claus as a child, Kate only remembers asking Cheerful Old St. Nicholas for chocolate. “It was a cardboard sock-shaped collection pack with a net on it,” she says.
Santa used to visit the streets at his home every December. “She came in on a sled while raising money for charity with her group of lions. She was in a special cave area in the principal’s office in middle school and we’d all go in and get a gift – it was usually pretty hot and it smelled of a lot of corpses inside!”
We can all remember that feeling: the excitement of visiting Santa Claus but being a little sarcastic about all this as we drag our feet to say hello to the big guy. In those days, we’d sit on Santa’s lap and examine his beard and tell him we were doing very well that year.
While filming The Real Santa, Kate wanted to show “the decent guys trying to make a living by pretending to be this legend.” She continues: “To them, paying the mortgage was mostly just a job, and their hard work was the Santa that everyone saw, not the guys underneath.”
Kate hired several of her subjects to act as Santa Claus. Peter is a model who brings his own Santa costume as he specializes in Santa Claus commercials. Another was named Ralph, who volunteered at the village building, and Kate hooked him up to make him a “model” because he was “similar to the role”. “He’s an anti-capitalist, so the materialism that Santa represents is not for him, but he still finds it funny and amusing to do it,” she says.
And then there was Alec: the printer Kate used for her exhibition work. “She had a quiet week and was happy to support me,” she says. “I shot him in downtown Leeds and no one blinked.” There was Peter, whom Kate photographed in Bradford. “Everyone was like, ‘Santa, what are you getting me for Christmas?’ laughing as you pass him.” And finally, his cousin Mike. “We shot at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds – which got him very excited because that’s where he went to see all his bands. He was disappointed when I told him I wouldn’t be filming him on stage!”
Do we feel a melancholy in the series? Someone who reminds us that we’ve grown and the magic is gone? “It was more about demonstrating everyday uniformity,” says Kate. “Although I wanted the locations and the action to be mundane, I wanted the images to be aesthetic. I wanted to show the real and the everyday, but still make it appealing.
“The important thing is representation. And from an advertising standpoint, I wanted the images to be more realistic in representation so that the marginalized were shown more fairly. I’m still happy to edit the images, but I just want them to be fairer.”
Kate discovered her passion for photography while living in Thailand in her early twenties. She bought her first camera there and started shooting. “It was a pleasure to shoot everywhere, from hill tribes to street vendors,” she says. “I think I’ve always used my camera as a passport to places, giving me access and momentum to go places I don’t need to go and ask a lot of questions while I’m there. It makes me feel more belonging and also helps me find where I fit.”
Today, Kate lives in London, where she works as a commercial photographer. She has won many awards over her 25 years in the profession and has worked for clients such as British Airways, Channel 4, Google and Royal Mail. Focusing mainly on portraits and her shooting lifestyle, the artist says she loves “manipulating light to make it look natural, loving blurry whites and chalky blacks to give it a more timeless feel.”
“I want the scene to be intimate and ‘fly on the wall’ so that the audience feels they have the right to stop and stare. I want to leave some ambiguity so that the audience still has some questions to ask.” continues. “I want people to leave with a better connection to their world and an increased love for it.”