‘The dark room’

What Brexit means to British photography.

By Shonagh Marshall
Illustration by Jean-Philippe Delhomme

A letter from… the United Kingdom. - © System Magazine

What Brexit means to British photography.

Since June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union, I have, like so many people, found myself wondering what it means to be British today. So, as a curator of photography, I began to ask other people. Like London-based fashion photographers, Hanna Moon, from South Korea, and Joyce Ng, from Hong Kong, with whom I organized an exhibition, English as a Second Language, at Somerset House in London earlier this year. Together we explored what being British means today and how it could be reflected in contemporary fashion imagery.

When Hanna and Joyce read the exhibition brief, they found it both slightly farcical and extremely British. Hanna decided to subvert it by ‘invading’ Somerset House and posing her muses, Heejin, from South Korea, and Moffy, from London, in various states of undress to parody traditional British (mainly female) portraiture. Joyce on the other hand looked to the international community working in Somerset House itself for inspiration, casting models from among its members. While the resulting images show how differently they both see the idea of being British, they do reveal a common trait. Living in Britain and so ‘being British’ has allowed them to revel in a degree of self-invention they could never have at home. Indeed, like many of their models, London has let them exist in a whole new way. For them, being British means freedom – the chance to be someone else entirely.

The liberty felt by Joyce and Hannah and their outsiders’ view of what the country means is similar to many of the new generation of imagemakers who have come to the fore as increasing numbers of non-British students have arrived in art schools. While these outsiders are creating new identities based on their feelings of living life ‘lost in translation’, homegrown fashion photographers are also looking at the country in different ways, in their search to discover how it can be re-envisaged.

Rosie Marks, for example, takes the spirit pioneered by Martin Parr, reinterprets it and makes it feel more relevant to now. Her sentimental and tender images comment on British society in a way that can make you reconsider your daily surroundings, picking out the details of the workaday world in photographs that often read as anthropological outings. She brings an empathy and inquisitiveness that leaves you looking for hidden clues; her Instagram feed (@marksrosie) is transformed into a treasure hunt through modern British cultural identity. Where Parr brilliantly captures the occasional, Marks finds poetry in the ordinary, the mundanities of daily life – the usual Friday night down the pub, as opposed to an exclusive day at the races – in a way that seems grounded in just the right way for our moment of national uncertainty.

Another British photographer Sam Rock recently went on a cross-country fashion shoot for i-D magazine, which aimed to capture ‘the beauty and diversity of Britain today’. Travelling from Dover to Liverpool, the two closest points in mainland Britain to continental Europe, he shot portraits of real people, wearing high fashion or their own clothes, during one of the hottest summers on record in the UK. The result is also a celebration of the quotidian, and an inadvertent political
manifesto. It is a quiet chronicle of what happens when an inchoate sense of nostalgia bangs into the reality of a national identity in a state of absolute flux.

All these photographers’ obliquely narrative approaches – from Joyce and Hannah’s outsider views to Rosie and Sam’s sneak peeks from the inside – push you beyond the clothes and leave you asking questions about the ‘plot details’ of model, clothing and location. Like clues that coalesce into a new narrative, these are stories that tell of ordinary Britain using real people, rather than untenable depictions of beauty with airbrushed models. And that is perhaps the paradox of these
new British fashion photographers now: by reflecting back a sense of life being lived, they are giving us fashion not as fantasy, but a dose of reality. And in a country where make-believe seems to have infected the body politic, their down-to-earth vision is perhaps exactly what we need. By showing us the normal in the middle of the uncertainty and possible chaos of Brexit, they are offering us new visions not only of who we are today but who we can still become tomorrow.

Taken from System No. 13.