Trevor Appleson is well known for his classic portrait photographs made in a makeshift portable studio. His approach to photographing people on the streets and on the beaches of their hometowns and settlements around the world, from Cape Town to Mexico City to Hatzerim in Southern Israel, enables a remarkably sincere and captivating representation of a particular place through its inhabitants.
His distinctive documentary style – involving the act of dropping a black backdrop behind his subject, outside in the public space, with the sun often the only source of light – allows for an unlaboured honesty and openness from those he photographs, and a neutral ground unhindered by the conventions of the traditional photographers’ studio.
In this new body of work commissioned by mac and the Library of Birmingham, Appleson has taken to the streets of the UK’s second city to look at youth culture now. Over the course of the past year, from the Spring of 2014, he has photographed over 500 people outside pubs and clubs, at raves and festivals, in schools, in parks, and in shopping districts and public squares.
From students and shoppers, to commuters and Girl Guides, Appleson’s portrait of Birmingham focuses unequivocally on the young people inhabiting the city. By editing out the noise and clutter of their surroundings, the resulting photographs concentrate wholly upon the individuals pictured and the infinite nuances of style; the considered attire, the modification of clothing and skin, the self-aware pose and the responding gaze.
Appleson’s interest in Birmingham as the context for this body of work relates to its status as the youngest city in Europe, and its established place at the heart of ‘multicultural’ Britain. Although not fully persuaded by the value of these superficial labels, or the motivations behind them, Appleson recognises that young people and the diversity of cultures in Birmingham play a significant and continuing role in shaping the city.
The photographs exhibited here, and the wider body of work, contribute to a rich heritage in the documentation and study of subcultures and style in Birmingham. This heritage is typified in the important collections of the photography archive at the Library of Birmingham, and in the pioneering work of the world-renowned Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Despite its closure in 2002, the Centre continues to be influential; Appleson cites alumnus Dick Hebdige and his book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, as an important text connecting social types to their histories in respect of class, race and the socio-economic climate of the time.
In Appleson’s portraits the British subcultures of the mid to late twentieth century echo through the current generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings. Alongside dominant global brands and more recent cultural imports, the prevalent motifs of the punks, mods, rockers and skinheads, among others, are referenced in everything from the application of makeup, to the postures, the hairstyles and the band t-shirts. Inherited and appropriated for the present day, today these familiar signifiers of subcultures from decades past appear to form part of an ever-increasing index of style, to be selected from, modified and deployed in the construction of the contemporary self-image.
Acting as counterpoint to the conventional photographic portrait, the exhibition includes seven large-scale assemblages, or three-dimensional collages, in excess of nine feet high, reflecting upon self-representation in the digital age. Each concentrates upon an individual encountered by Appleson in the course of making the portraits, and consists of three distinct components; a mural created from a low resolution selfie or snapshot, an object or collection of objects sourced from the domestic or online space of the person portrayed, and a still life photograph.
These assemblages have emerged from an extended dialogue between Appleson and those he has photographed. In this sense, they are a collaboration between the artist and each of the seven people concerned – a conversation that began on the street in the pop-up studio, continued online and during a number of home visits. Combining photographs with memoirs, mementos and other meaningful paraphernalia, Appleson creates a series of alternative portraits that bring the voice of the subject to the picture plane through their own personal archive.
In contrast to the books, blogs, family photos, video diaries and journals, Appleson’s esoteric still life photographs are separated from a direct association with the subject. They use the same strategy employed in the portraits, isolating the objects from their context and repositioning them within the infinite black space. There is a sculptural quality to the photographs, and a resemblance to European still life painting from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. By treating the objects in this way, Appleson invites a wider consideration of the meanings and associations these material possessions have, and of the owners who possess them.
Together, Appleson’s portraits and assemblages provide a fascinating representation of youth culture and style in Birmingham. They offer a view from both the outside and from within, through the lens of the photographer and the personal archives of the young people depicted. With the proliferation of the selfie and the shifting social conventions around the use and distribution of photography, facilitated by social media and affordable technologies, they also question the role of the photographer and our approach to archiving in the digital age.
Craig Ashley, 2015, exhibition catalogue.