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Straight-Up East London

From his first visits to London during the late 70s, Jean Paul Gaultier has long been drawn to the capital’s innovative street style. Channelling this aesthetic, we’ve partnered with Create London in Ram Place Fashion Market, a nine day celebration of local, emergent and established talent in the heart of Hackney, East London.

In collaboration with i-D, photographer Olivia Rose took to the streets to create a series of images, on display at Ram Place and in our marketing campaign, inspired by the ‘straight-up’ images that have come to be characteristic of i-D since it was founded in 1980. This style of photography traditionally featured punks and new wave youths against a plain brick wall and demonstrated a fascinating and challenging synthesis of fashion photography, social anthropology and portraiture.

Ram Place Fashion Market Creative Director and Curator, Jeffrey Horsley, spoke to photographer Olivia Rose about her striking series of photographs.

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Jeff Horsley: It seems to me that the i-D straight-up images are hugely influential and an intrinsic part of i-D’s heritage and identity. When did you first come across the straight-ups?

Olivia Rose: Those first few issues of i-D were really game-changers for the entire fashion industry and have become somewhat iconic to most creative people – especially those of us who studied fashion photography. i-D’s early ethos, their radical agendas and focus on the ‘ordinary’ paved a way for a new style of fashion image. Steve Johnston’s first straight-ups were literally photocopied, the text cut out and pasted on. This freedom of expression set a benchmark for how images could be presented. It took away the neatness of fashion imagery and went full-on subculture – something that has always been at the forefront of my work.

Those early straight-ups have an essence of authenticity to them that can be lost nowadays in huge production shoots that are really just trying to achieve the same thing: that meditation on the banal.

JH:  When I first spoke to Graham Rounthwaite (Creative Director i-D) about this project, he was very interested in looking back at early straight-ups from the 80s and exploring how they could be reinterpreted in a contemporary way. Could you say a little about the creative direction you discussed with Graham for this shoot and any influence the early straight-ups had on this series of work?

OR: At our first meeting about the project Graham excitedly told me that he had some of the original straight-ups, scanned in high res. This was seriously intriguing for me as there is nothing I love better than access to original imagery. What struck me about them was the quality and depth of the work. Partly I believe this is down to Johnston’s use of film (I’m a strictly analogue photographer) and partly I believe this is down to his choice of location…an amazing white wall is harder to find than you think!

Graham wanted me to keep the rebellious vibe of the original straight-ups but approach them in a new way. I think my photography on the whole feels somewhat nostalgic and in lots of ways I think that is because I actually shoot with a style that has largely been forgotten – fun with film!

I went away from our conversation with two things in mind; the first – find an amazing white wall of epic proportions with just the right amount of texture and just the right kind of paving slabs in front of it and the second was how to get the gritty, nonchalant, breaks-all-the-rules feeling infused into my work.

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JH: For me, in this set of photographs, that feeling particularly comes through in the casting as much as the image. How did you select the subjects for the shoot?

OR: I am not a high-tech photographer. Most of my work is (in its entirety) about the casting. The difficult element here was finding people who were both interesting characters and had an effortless sense of style. I wanted to keep the shoot as largely un-styled as possible so I was looking for a really diverse set of faces – people who belonged to recognisable modern subcultures or stereotypes.

I am constantly scouting for new characters to shoot – I’ve been known to screech my car to a halt if I see someone with that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ and there are faces I have failed to stop for that still haunt me to this day. I am completely shameless when I see someone who might be good for a picture. I’ll walk right on up to them, tap them on the shoulder and talk them into being my next muse!

Also, I sort of hate to say it, but social media is kind of irreplaceable when you have 12 people to cast in just a few days. I spend a significant amount of time in the lead up to a shoot, trawling selfies on Instagram and Facebook, seeing if I can find my next favourite face.

I’m not particularly interested in popular ideas of beauty: I’m looking for something different. I like contradictions; androgynous girls hanging out with dykes, tough guys with feminine lashes, grunge musician chicks who only confirm at 3am the morning before because they’re up gigging all night. These are the people I know will bring personality to a shoot.

JH: As well as personality, there’s a real variety in pose and expression in the people you’ve depicted here – what kind of direction or guidance did you give to them on the shoot?

OR: What most people don’t realise about shooting straight-ups this way is that these guys aren’t trained models: they are just regular people that I’ve plucked off the street. Most of them have never been in a fashion shoot environment. I am about to ask them to stand and pose in front of my camera with strangers standing around watching them do it. It’s a tall ask for anyone (I HATE being in front of a camera) and people are often nervous before we get on set, so it’s also crucial for me to have the right people around me. I have a family of assistants that I work with who are irreplaceable for their ability to make my models laugh and feel comfortable on set.

I try and make every shoot feel as natural as possible. If someone needs a minute without my camera perched intimidatingly in front of their face, then we can all take a moment to chill – whack on some music and see where the day takes us. On set with Olivia Rose is normally a laugh a minute! I firmly believe that if you want to create authentic imagery you need to have a real sense of camaraderie throughout the day.

I fall deeply and instantly in love with certain aspects of a sitter and I only know that I’ve got THE shot when I’m literally moaning / screaming / making odd guttural noises down my camera lens. It can be off-putting for shy models, but that only makes for an even more beautiful image – the interaction of two awkward people.

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JH: Another important aspect seems to be the locations you’ve chosen for the shoot. How did you select them and how integral were they in creating the right feel for these images?

OR: The locations for the shoot are half of the image as a whole. They are undoubtedly one of the most important elements in getting a straight-up shoot right. I have a few places that I feel really comfortable shooting – normally places I know well or have some emotional investment in.

The brick wall I used in this particular series is next to an old flat of mine, not far from the i-D offices in East London. It felt right to take the shoot East and I spotted a huge white brick wall with really interesting light and a graphic line of black brick at the bottom before it hit the pavement. The only problem? A massive piece of graffiti that just didn’t suit the feel of my shoot. My solution? I went down there at 3am with my trusty crew of assistants, a bucket of white paint and two rollers and we painted with fury, like the police were going to come hurtling around the corner at any minute. The irony being that I’m not sure they could arrest you for re-painting a white wall white!

 

JH: These early images, from the 80s, obviously resonate deeply with you, but why do you think it’s now appropriate to look back at the style of the early i-D straight-ups and why do you think they are particularly significant today?

OR: The first i-D slogan: ‘Originate, don‘t imitate’ really says it all.

To me, this was about finding that essence of creative freedom, and what it means in 2014, than it was about copying an old style to make new images.

Creativity does come in waves and it seems that we are moving back to the handcrafted image after years of technical and digital influence. I believe recession is an important time for art – the last few years have been bubbling with feeling and creativity and I truly believe we are ready to go back to the future and find a way to combine this rebellious attitude with modern sentiment.

The images resonate today because the viewer still understands that sense of authentic interaction – a photographer who simply wants to document and show off the best side of interesting subcultures that don’t necessarily have a face yet.

 

Ram Place Fashion Market takes place 12–20 July on Ram Place, off Morning Lane.

 

Jeffrey Horsley
After studying theatre design and co-founding an independent company commissioning and performing new music-theatre, Jeff moved into a career in exhibition design and curating. With a particular focus on exhibitions of contemporary art and design, this interest was complemented by his interest in modern and contemporary fashion, culminating in his recent completion of a PhD at London College of Fashion examining innovative modes of the presentation of fashion in museums. Jeff also contributes to a number of fashion publications and is founder of displaymode.net.

Olivia Rose
Following her studies at Central Saint Martins, London, Olivia completed a degree in fashion photography at London College of Fashion. She presented her first solo show, ‘Epitaphs’, at The Victorian Vaults in 2011 and has exhibited work at The Getty Gallery, The House of The Nobleman and has participated in the Hidden Gems project with The Renaissance Hotel in King’s Cross. Her current project is a series entitled ‘The Lost Boys’ which has taken her around the world seeking out boys aged 15-28 what would lost causes, such as gang members, addicts, dealers, criminals, queers, minorities, estate kids – anyone who experiences feelings of ‘otherness’ to polite society.