Essay: English-style Photography?

by Penny Martin on 1 September 2011

In an extract from her essay 'English-style photography?' Penny Martin analyses an image from Simon Foxton and Jason Evans' seminal 1991 shoot 'Strictly'.

In an extract from her essay 'English-style photography?' Penny Martin analyses an image from Simon Foxton and Jason Evans' seminal 1991 shoot 'Strictly'.

Image from 'Strictly', 1991. Photograph by Jason Evans, styling by Simon Foxton

If 'Well Mannered Quality' represented the early 1950s conception of Englishness as specifically rural and Cowan's 'Monumental Ideas About Dressing' the 1960s’ urban, the photographer Jason Evans (Travis) and stylist Simon Foxton conflated these sensibilities and situated them in England's suburbs to explore the 1990s black experience of nationhood. For this image from the 1991 shoot 'Strictly', Foxton dressed the young, black male model Edward Enninful in a riding jacket and plus twos from the luxury tailors Swaine & Adeney and a monocle on a chain: an outfit associated with an upper-class, country gentleman. In an ironic reference to eighteenth century, English landscape painting, the model is pictured in front of what appears to be his 'estate'. However, the modern house with a harled wall and mock-Tudor detail at the gate behind him also alludes to the man's suburban context and situation at the periphery of both urban and rural existence. As I have argued, the ability to recognise and repeat the signs of national culture is fundamental to the process of identification and participation in an imagined community. In this image, the signs of the dominant ethnic and class identity are subverted by projecting them onto the body of a black man to critique the assimilationist concept that cultural harmony can be achieved by cloaking difference in the signs of normative national culture. Instead of the gentle juxtaposition of dissonant elements achieved in Parkinson's nostalgic view of England, Jason Evans' representation of Englishness in the early 1990s is characterised by dislocation and ambiguity.

Although mainstream British fashion titles such as Vogue, Harpers & Queen and even the more journalism-centred British Elle and Marie Claire had resisted the hard-edged, confrontational aesthetics of style photography throughout the 1980s, the industry perceived this approach as conducive to the representation of contemporary fashion in the early 1990s. At the height of the recession in 1992-3, fashionable young designers including Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis, Anna Sui and Martin Margiela used styling techniques to promote their layered and distressed garments that were most closely associated with photographers and stylists working for The Face and i-D. In January 1993, Nicola Jeal wrote in The Times that consequently, 'a new breed of fashion photographers and stylists' including the models Kate Moss, Cecilia Chancellor, stylists Melanie Ward and Anna Cockburn and photographers Nigel Shafran, Glen Luchford, David Sims and Corinne Day, had built up 'a cult following in New York’ (Jeal 1993: 13).

Photographers like Jason Evans, who engaged with Englishness explicitly, in order to attack normative British fashion photography, were less desirable to the mainstream international market.

The working partnerships and commissions that ensued signified that English photographers had returned to the centre of mainstream fashion, although their representational strategies had changed beyond all recognition. Any traces of a nation depicted in these images imagined it as alienating, ambiguous and potentially threatening in comparison with John Cowan's dynamic portrayal of 1960s London. It is significant that of all the photographers working for the style press, the appearance of Day and Sims' imagery appealed most to major American magazines like Vogue. These practitioners' admiration for the classic studio imagery of Richard Avedon inspired them to include the least possible information in their shoots, making it difficult to ascertain the precise national identity of the images or of their authors. Photographers like Jason Evans, who engaged with Englishness explicitly, in order to attack normative British fashion photography, were less desirable to the mainstream international market. Englishness was, therefore, no longer a viable frame of reference for English fashion photographers, as the pressures of globalism forced them to seek alternative imagined communities with which to identify.

Terry Jones' notion of the fashion magazine as a collective offered one possible solution to this crisis of identity. In 1998, i-D Books published Family Future Positive, a book composed from invited visual interpretations of the concept of 'family' from i-D's regular contributors. The theme of the publication was based on the premise that i-D was a 'worldwi-De creative community' (i-D Books 1998: 5). This problematic use of the concept of family to bind a commercial community was reflected by the juxtaposition of biological ties (i-D Books 1998: 124-9), professional relationships (i-D Books 1998: 226-33) and philosophical statements about the 'family of man' (i-D Books 1998: 34). By implication, i-D's subscribers were included in the i-D family by purchasing the magazine. Like Englishness, in this global fashion context, family was suggested as an alternative imagined community, used discursively to sustain security and belonging among its consumers.

In conclusion, the essence of a national character of English fashion photography cannot be defined by a single visual style because the two main discourses upon which it depends are contingent on different forms of renewal. Whereas the culture of late capitalism makes it necessary for fashion to constantly attach itself to new discourses in order to inspire identification, Englishness relies upon its apparent continuity with its past for meaning. It is the way that fashion images are used in fashion publishing to inspire identification that determines the nature of the discourse of Englishness in fashion photography. In the 1950s and 1960s, fashion's emphasis on English design and London as a fashionable space created a desire for images that referenced Englishness explicitly, both in their content and style of construction. The notion of a harmonious England was alien to practitioners working for the style magazines in the mid 1980s to 1990s, who used the strategy of repeating familiar narratives, central to the representation of Englishness, to critique the discourse from within. However, their belief that their mundane locations and everyday recycled fashions meant that they reflected the 'reality' missing in mainstream fashion imagery belied the fact that their work was equally discursive. In this sense, one fashionable fabrication replaced another at the will of external, global forces. As national identity becomes eroded by cultural homogenisation, contemporary English fashion photographers seek out new communities, such as the 'family' constructed at i-D, to give meaning to their imagery.

Jeal, N. (1993), 'Getting the new picture', The Times, Looks, 27 January, p. 13

i-D Books, (1998), Future Family Positive (London: i-D Books)

Extract from 'English-style photography?' originally published in The Englishness of English Dress, Ed. Breward, Conekin and Cox, Berg, 2002




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