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Photographing the Soul of UK Garage 

Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly clear that we didn’t appreciate UK garage to the extent that we should have. You can’t help but think that most of the DJs, producers, filmmakers, and fashion designers referencing Todd Edwards and Ben Sherman in their work today actually grew up listening to Coal Chamber and wearing JNCO jeans. 

One man who was definitely there, however, is photographer Ewen Spencer. Ewen’s done a lot of things over the years, from working with the White Stripes and documenting the halcyon days of grime (if there was ever such a thing) in his book Open Mic, to taking the liner photos for Original Pirate Material. His latest project concerns the increasingly lauded but still somewhat undocumented world of UKG, and comes in the form of a new book, Brandy & Coke.

The photos are fantastic, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of those early garage nights all my friends’ older brothers claim to have been at. The newspaper-print trousers and YSL button-downs are all there in the forefront, being splashed by open bottles of champagne and classy drinks. After a good few hours of longingly staring at the photos, wishing I was one of the satin-suited people in them, I decided to catch up with Ewen to talk garage, grime, garms and whether or not ex-Newcastle striker Andy Cole really was one of the “original 50 garage ravers.”

You can find some of these images and some words from Ewen in the latest issue of VICE Magazine.

VICE: Hi, Ewen. So, when did you first hear the term garage used in relation to dance music?
Ewen Spencer: In the early 90s, but that would have been American garage, like house music. New York vocal house music would have been called “garage.” I first heard it on the soul scene, probably. At that time, it was crossing over and me and my pals were going to soul parties, avoiding the atrocious rave scene. House music was infiltrating the soul scene and, at that time, garage was basically soulful house.

There’s this debate about who the true parents of UK garage are—what’s your opinion on that?
Yeah, I think it’s a worthwhile debate. It came from America, it didn’t come from rave culture. Rave culture was British. It came from Detroit, America, which is when we started to hear house music in the club—in Newcastle, for instance. We liked all of that stuff, but it was placed side by side with soul music: Soul II Soul, modern soul, SOS Band, all that shit. So I guess rave became overground and house music changed and became something else. And then I’d say speed garage came out of New Jersey and was popularized over here. 

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Viviane Sassen’s gorgeous, inscrutable fine art images from Africa have earned her acclaim and a place in the Museum of Modern Art. But recently, her surreal and equally beautiful fashion photography has been garnering attention, too: in 2011, Sassen won the prestigious International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography, and more than 300 of her fashion images are on view at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille Museum for Photography through mid-March 2013 in a show titled, Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion.

Born in Amsterdam, Sassen lived in Kenya — where her father worked in a polio clinic — between the ages of 2 and 5. Because the continent looms so large in her work, I asked her to describe her earliest memories from Africa.

“I remember,” she told me, “how Rispa, our nanny, woke me up one early morning and took me to a deserted football field to pick small white mushrooms. I remember the taste of sugarcane and ugali [a dish similar to polenta], orange Fanta and the bloody goat heads in the market in Kisumu.”

Returning to the Netherlands was difficult for her: “I didn’t feel I belonged in Europe, yet I knew I was a foreigner in Africa.”

As a young woman, Sassen enrolled in a university fashion design program and also modeled. Recalling her modeling work, she says that she “can relate to how a girl might feel in front of a camera: sometimes bored, tired or simply stressed or insecure. And then the shoes … three sizes too small but with killer heels. It’s not always fun to be a model.”

Nevertheless, she says she “got to know a lot of photographers; they made me aware that they controlled the image. That’s what I wanted, too; I wanted to be in control of the image … to create it.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Sassen made the leap into photography. She recalls that “in the beginning, [photographers] like Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki [were] very important for my work because of their formal language, but also because they depicted their own lives in a way that appealed to me.”

A turning point in her own photography came in 2002 when she returned to Africa with her husband. The fine art photography she has made there in the past decade shines as some of the most original, unexpected work to emerge from the continent by a Western photographer. But one finds no victims of war or famine here; instead, the viewer confronts contemporary Africans engaged in sophisticated, if mysterious, dream performances.

“Working in Africa opens doors of my subconscious,” Sassen explains. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning after very vivid dreams or if I just suddenly have an idea, I sketch. My photographs are sometimes almost literal pictures of these sketches.” At other times, she says, “I might just find something on the street that excites me.”

Her images are somehow primal and hallucinatory at once: two youths embrace in the dark, a giant banana leaf sprouting between them; a figure lies nestled in the diaphanous green cloud of a fishing net; a boy lounges on the ground, his limbs painted bright turquoise. Critic Vince Aletti says that Sassen “tends to treat the body as a sculptural element—a malleable shape that combines with blocks of shadow and bright color in arrangements that sometimes read like cut-paper collages, bold and abstract but full of vibrant life.”

One key part of the body that is often missing or obscured is the human face, as models turn away from the camera or appear with their faces cloaked in shadow. As Aaron Schuman noted in Aperture, the images might thus “appear to ignore the individuals they portray and instead inherently possess—maybe even propagate—the problematic histories, legacies, and relationships between Africa and the West. But perhaps in Sassen’s case this is the point, at least in part, and where the power of her photographs lies.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Within these mirror-like voids, Sassen allows the viewer to reflect on the clichés and prejudices Westerners so often fall back on when engaging the vast continent and its inhabitants.

“I want to seduce the viewer with a beautiful formal approach,” says Sassen, “and at the same time, leave something disturbing.”

Sassen’s fashion work borrows much from her fine art—obscured faces, extraordinary color. The acute graphic sensibility of Sassen’s fine art, meanwhile, works wonders in magazine spreads. In an elemental way, though, the museum show and Sassen’s images (made for magazines like Wallpaper, Purple and Dazed & Confused, and for brands like Levi’s and Stella McCartney) don’t make sense at all.

As Sassen told the British Journal of Photography in its December 2012 issue, “I find exhibitions of fashion photography within the context of a museum rather problematic. Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs—which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else…. Art photography doesn’t have to serve any purpose, fashion photography does, and that makes a difference…. [Then] there are images which are really between art and fashion, which I hope I do myself.”

Sassen hit upon a solution to this conundrum: projecting fashion images on museum walls, so the work retains a “kind of disposable feel.” Furthermore, Sassen has said she doesn’t care much about clothes. “My interest is not the interest of the fashion industry. My interest is to make fascinating pictures…. It’s always about desire and fear, about making images that are both appealing and unsettling.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Nevertheless, Sassen says she loves the “swiftness of fashion” as opposed to the “contemplated process of making art.” I asked her about the difference between shooting for magazines and shooting for advertisements.

“What I like about fashion magazines is that they create a platform to experiment and to work closely with people who can be super inspiring. I call it my laboratory. [It] should be like an adventure; not knowing where your play will lead you. When you’re working on fashion campaigns for a commercial brand it’s often much less experimental, but still creative in the sense that you have to match the pieces of a puzzle.”

Sassen has used a computer to retouch some of her images, but mostly avoids it. “I think that something beautiful is even more charming when it’s not too perfect. You don’t want to feel the artificiality of the image, you want to believe in it. I feel related to reality, while slick images feel exchangeable.”

Sassen’s lifelong interest in Africa — and her ongoing explorations of her own subconscious — have contributed to some of the most riveting fashion photography being made today. For a photographer rooted in (or, as she puts it, “related to”) reality, her magazine work is a revelation.

See more of Sassen’s work at VivianeSassen.com.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

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Brian from Greenpeace sez, "They say you can tell what next season's hottest trend will be by looking at the colour of the rivers in China and Mexico due to the dyes and hazardous chemicals used by the fashion industry.

An animated collaboration between Greenpeace and Free Range studios (creators of such activist classics as Meatrix and Story of Stuff) exposes the trail of hazardous chemicals from factories in the developing world to the clothes the developed world buys. Greenpeace claims some of the chemicals present in trace amounts in those clothes are banned in European and the US, making your washing machine a potential source of illegal hazardous waste."

TOXIC IS SO LAST SEASON

(Thanks, Brian!)

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Summertime is hot, but I can’t think of any better way to be welcomed  back to  NYC  than 100 plus degree afternoons, baking pavement and rooftop drinks with friends. Only been back a few days (maybe you didn’t know I left) and I’m already seeing lot of really inspiring things. It’s so truly great to watch the crew make moves and proud of them for putting in the hustle. One friend in particular thats putting down hard is Dominic Lord. You probably know him from is iconic work with the ASAP crew and Blackscale, but as we know from watching all the greats; that was just the beginning. At 19, his staggering list of accomplishments make my 33 year old self go: “Thafuk was I doin when I was 19?” In case you already hadn’t infered from my tone, watch this man; great things soon come.

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"Marga and Mike is such a crazy duo!" photographer Emman Montalvan tells us. Inspired by their friendship and unstoppable attitude the LA based artists brought the two models up on the roof top of his building to hang out and shoot until they ran out of polaroid film and battery. "It was perfect because they are best friends. I wanted the shoot to be really laid back with no fuss," he continues, before explaining that it was a true please to work with both of them.

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MAN is to showcase brands and collections who all have their own strong identities during men’s
fashion weeks in Paris and men’s market weeks in New York.

June 29-July 1
5bis rue Froissart Paris O3

CALENDAR, FASHION | Permalink | No comment |

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