Friday, 26 April 2013

The Watcher and the Watched

Wearing a vintage Chanel dress given to me by my fairy-godmother, with a vintage cape bought for £15 over the top. The second hand boots were from eBay. Photo by Dvora for 

Spotted in the May issue of British Vogue

The following piece was first written for Lionheart magazine just after London Fashion Week. It always feels important to explore and unpick the whole experience, rather than just report on the shows. Some of the aspects mentioned here have already appeared in other guises in previous posts. Thank you to the talented photographers whose photos appear here. Their skill is appreciated, as always. 

London Fashion Week is a bubble of watching and being watched. We watch the shows and presentations; observe the bright tangle of people outside Somerset House; perhaps spend some time staring at whoever is gracing the front row. That celebrity or editor who occupies the foremost bench inhabits both sides of the mirror – observing the models who stride past, and being observed by others in the showspace. They are both the watchers and the watched.
Perhaps unsurprising. Fashion is primarily a visual industry – with success, at its most basic level, dictated by how good something looks (or is perceived to be). That doesn’t necessitate that designs must be beautiful or pretty, but that whatever shape the garment takes, it works if it pleases, inspires or provokes the watcher.
Seeing is the most important of the five senses at London Fashion Week. Of course the beat of music and river-current-hum of conversation have their place, as does the hard flutter of the camera shutter. But the main medium here is fabric – the cut, the shape, the pattern, the texture, the colour. These elements come together to create a cohesive whole.
The concept of that cohesion, along with watching and being watched was firmly underlined at Corrie Nielsen’s show entitled ‘Enigme Absolue’ which took place in a gallery near Covent Garden. With large glass windows on both sides of the square room, there was a sense of being enclosed and cut off mixed with seeing life surging beyond the walls. Passersby peered through the glass, curious on catching sight of the flagged flooring, the violinist and cellist in black, the headless mannequins on display, the glorious clothes on the models. The show was a deliciously dark spectacle to those of us watching from the inside, and quite a different sort to those outside. We as the watchers were part of the mise-en-scene to those looking in.
But our eyes were firmly fixed on the clothes – a selection of designs in black, navy and plum. There were recognizable design patterns in the drapery, the oversized shoulders, the large fabric ‘knots’. But this season’s offering from Corrie Nielsen was the antithesis of her previous collection. The early dawn of Florilegium had been replaced with a gradation of shades from blue twilight leading through to black midnight. It was the equivalent of a pared back Gothic novella – short, well structured, full of resonance and beauty, ending with a truly glittering twist. Tailored jackets, stiff, ornate coats and skirts shaped like black seedpods gave way to a model clad in a fluid creation of silver sequins and duchesse satin. The fabric of the headdress fell to the small of the back, and then out into a train that slid behind the woman as she walked toward the cameras. The Lady of the Lake had been cast onto the tiles of this London-bound gallery and I watched, enthralled.
I relish those designers who value not only the narratives driving their design process, but the aesthetic impact of the finished products. Orla Kiely was similarly memorable in her presentation – a retro typing pool complete with typewriters, desk lamps, filing cabinets and models with beehives, all clad in a desirable range of fifties and sixties influenced clothes. The atmosphere may have been at the other end of the spectrum to Nielsen’s, but both produced visual feasts.
Outside the presentations and shows, watching and being watched are activities that find their home on cobbles and pavements. Street style photography is partly the art of watching; subjects becoming the watched as they are noticed, approached and focused on through the frame of a lens. The most talented street style photographers tend to be those who are observant – not only to what those around them are wearing, but to the way the light is falling, to nearby locations, to the potential composition of shots. Therein lies the skill. Some set up photos carefully away from the crowd, others capture what goes past in a rattle of clicks.
Their particular glimpse or perspective is shared with others. For there is an additional layer – the internet. Being at LFW enables watching of both people and shows, but both the catwalk designs and the street style shots are then showcased on a profusion of websites around the world. Clothes are subsequently viewed through screens and it is impossible to count how many individuals have seen them. The observation continues. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Out of Reach

When talking about weekly routines, we usually concentrate on tangible actions; beginning, perhaps, with the unwilling swinging of cold legs out of bed or (if there's time) springing from under the covers to make coffee. Then there might be travelling, working, reading, resting, making, watching, talking, eating, sleeping. These verbs are the markers that define each day. But threaded through the warp and weft of our habits there are screens. You’re reading these musings on one, either compressed on a Smartphone or stretched across a tablet, laptop or computer. The internet is the chain stitch that not only hems our lives, but increasingly loops itself right through them.
Sewing is a curiously apt analogy, whether we compare the hours spent online to pockets of time existing in a strange halfway state between being present and being somewhere else, or whether we acknowledge twitter, facebook, blogs, tumblr, pinterest, instagram and other sites as fibres now tightly wound into each day. What I find intriguing is the way in which we slide so easily between two worlds or modes of being. I still make a differentiation between online and ‘real life’, as do most people. And yet it’s hard to know where exactly that boundary lies.

The internet is a tool for entertainment, discovery, learning, work, creativity and the forging of connections, but sometimes I resent how much it seeps into and consumes time that could be spent doing other things. What have I gained from continual trawling from site to site, or from the desire for an update of any kind - leaving me feeling slightly hollow? The contradiction between being grateful for the opportunities that the internet continues to provide, and the limitations it instates can be tricky to unravel. It was only after I had an enforced and unplanned separation from the internet on my phone and laptop this week that I realized how rarely I spend an evening without my face being lit by the glow of a screen. Unsurprising, considering the hub of multiple possibilities always on offer. If I want to write something, look through or edit photos, listen to music, do research, talk to friends, respond to emails then the laptop is my means.

Technology condenses things down. I’m not complaining. The map function on my phone is a brilliant tool for navigating around unknown parts of London. Having emails readily accessible means that I can use spare moments to respond and catch up. However, the proximity of one thing to another can lead to blurring. It now takes a certain amount of exertion to focus entirely on the document that's in front of me; easy to take flight to the safe refuge of twitter if I hit a tangle in my text that requires some hard work. The intensity of being so immersed in the act of creating that nothing else is relevant is a rare feeling. Even as I type, my finger itches to scroll away and onto facebook. There's no rational reason to do so. I’m not expecting any messages; have no need to contact anyone. It’s merely the vaguely compulsive prospect of there being a little red icon. And if there’s nothing there, easy to just check another site or two. Part of this is neurological. Apparently receiving an update releases a shot of dopamine into the brain; specifically to the ‘pleasure centre’ area, thus creating a pattern of gratification leading to further cravings. The same process happens with addictive substances such as nicotine. A habit is created and subsequently needs to be sated regularly.

Interestingly, the relationship between dopamine and sugar has also been much-documented. Ever had that moment after a single square of chocolate where the rest of the bar suddenly looks intensely desirable? To me, certain aspects of the internet occasionally feel slightly like a selection of sugary snacks. Easily consumed. One click is rarely enough. Instead there are little bite-sized chunks to hop between, each satisfying some internal craving for a moment or two, a hunger for the new notification or the affirmation that you, yes you, exist and someone has proved it by commenting on your status.

Nonetheless, there are so many extraordinary and astonishing aspects to the age in which we live that I'm unbelievably grateful for the opportunities I've been able to seek while sitting at my desk. How else would I have met or communicated with so many wonderful people of varying ages, locations and professions? What other mediums or other times could have afforded any seventeen year old the possibility of constructing a platform with a global reach? The tapping of keys has (if you’ll forgive the image) unlocked plenty of potential, with much more ahead to explore.

The conclusion should be, perhaps, one of balance and moderation (though more easily observed than enacted). Surprising how I consider it an act of willpower now to have written this from start to end with only a single pause to look up and clarify a reference point. But in the last few days Spring has unfurled. I've started reading Crime & Punishment, sketched several portraits, gone for an exhilarating walk in the warm breeze of twilight, had intense face to face conversations over wine with friends, begun the process of revision by way of intricate, inky spider diagrams, visited bookshops and enjoyed the Saturday morning pleasure of coffee and newspapers. There have been a few social media interludes between. Most have been thoroughly enjoyable. But if I can keep them in the shadows of free time rather than the main focus, adding to my days rather than framing them, then that will be pretty wonderful progress.

I thought the location in the photos - a set of crumbling houses tucked away in the Welsh hills - illustrates how quickly things have changed in the last century. The isolation of such a place contrasts with the continual inter-connectedness of modern living. To wander among the stones and trees I wore a vintage velvet Principles dress over a vintage Jaeger wool jumper, with men's leather loafers and second hand accessories. Every item I'm wearing (apart from the tights) was bought from a charity shop. 


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Ida Kar

All photos by (and copyright of) Rosalind Jana

The piece below is one that I originally wrote for Kay Montano's blog here - where she has a fascinating platform that is used to explore and unpack ideas about beauty, appearance and culture. Kay Montano has been working as a make-up artist since she was sixteen, and has collaborated with photographers including Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier and and Steven Meisel. So it is somewhat fitting that the article I contributed was on the little-known 20th Century photographer Ida Kar. 
The photos above are my own small homage to Kar's work, all taken by me over the last year or so. (You can see some of Kar's photos if you click through to my original post on Kay's blog). 

What constitutes an inspiring woman? It’s perhaps an unhelpfully broad question. Inspiration is in the eye (or mind, or heart or responses) of the individual. There is no defined scale or quality, no absolute measure to rank one above another. That’s what makes finding someone inspiring for a very specific set of reasons so special.
For me, the draw to and appreciation of photographer Ida Kar (1908-1974) stems from the great capacity she had to frame characters, fix them in a shot, provide a quick glimpse into someone else’s life or vocation. Born in Russia to Armenian parents, with time spent in Cairo and Paris before she moved to London aged 37 in 1945, her early work focused on surrealism and experimentation. She forged connections in the arts world in the late 40s and many of her most accomplished photographs were taken during the 50s and 60s. From Bertrand Russell to Marc Chagall, Man Ray and Doris Lessing, she photographed plenty of the most innovative artists, thinkers and writers of the time.
Her photos have a deep, almost inky depth to them as light and shadow converge or contrast. Subjects are often pictured in situ, rooted in the paraphernalia of a studio, gallery or home environment. There is always a sense of context. Paintbrushes, canvases, sculpted heads, wire mesh. These are the frames surrounding her subjects. Bridget Riley stares up from a background of geometric lines; TS Eliot sits surrounded by shelves and stacks of books; a pensive Maggie Smith leans against the back of a chair.
Two words that often attach themselves to photography are ‘capture’ and ‘preserve’. Faces are captured by the lens and sensor, preserved on a strip of film or blown up in a print. The moment of taking is fleeting but the image often outlasts both the creator and her subject.
Perhaps part of the process of portrait photography is not only to document the sitter as they outwardly appear (which Kar so skillfully achieved), but also to catch something of the inner self – manifested in an expression, the placing of hands, a particular stance. Kar’s careful balance between internal and external gives her work an intriguing depth. There is both a curiosity and vivacity in her photos. They are utterly alive.
It’s this sense of life that I love the most. An hour spent poring over her work makes me want to put down the book, pick up my camera and seek out intriguing people. It reinforces my interest in the world’s richness, and potential. It’s so easy to get caught up in the camera-flash pace of twitter, blog views, Facebook debates and breaking news, that it can be revitalizing to be reminded of the slower satisfaction of craft – be it painting, writing, sculpting, making or taking photographs. Kar’s work not only stirs me to be more creative myself, but to be interested in others and what they do. There is so much out there to see and learn, so many to meet and make connections with. What a dazzling prospect that is. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

People Take Pictures of Each Other

It’s strange to think about how recent an invention the Internet is. The emails, notifications, feeds, coverage and images that take up much of the day are all comparatively recent developments. Looking back to snapshots of my mum’s teenage years is to peer through the window and witness a different view. Not necessarily a better or a worse one, but certainly distinct from this screen-filled modern life.
The Internet changes patterns - of product consumption, access to information, ways of communication, on and on it goes. Pick a topic, any topic, and we could probably discuss the impact of the Internet on it. Fashion is a readily available example. Style blogging is still young. So is the concept of online shopping. It wasn’t that long ago that Net-a-Porter was merely a tissue-wrapped whisper in Natalie Massenet’s ear. Growth has not just been rapid, but rocket-like. One of the most visible examples of fashion’s constant expansion and alteration is street style. The streets are a longstanding location. Both Norman Parkinson and Rico Puhlman enjoyed using them in fashion shoots, while Henri Cartier-Bresson netted and preserved the human variety he found there on rolls of film. But although Bill Cunningham has been snatching shots of the well dressed from the seventies onwards, it has only been in the last five years or so (and perhaps the last three for serious coverage) that street style has taken flight.
The bird analogy is fitting, for Suzy Menkes wrote an opinion piece during the recent fashion month that placed what she perceived to be respectable ‘crows’ in opposition to brash ‘peacocks.’ Her similes condensed down to editors versus exhibitionists. I have a variety of conflicting views on the issue, as I will readily admit the literal over-saturation of the streets with people outside each venue, whilst also acknowledging that I choose my outfits carefully to attend fashion week, aware of the cameras that will be there. To pretend otherwise would be disingenuous. However, I find it interesting that where ‘high-fashion’ fans of the dressing up box such as Daphne Guinness, Zandra Rhodes or the late Isabella Blow are celebrated for their innovation, those who do not have the name to match their outrageous ensembles are often criticized.
Furthermore, although it may be said that there are now too many photographers for what is essentially a finite job – there are only so many photos that can be taken of the same person – this does not detract from the craft of the professionals. These are the ones who are out on the pavements all day, searching and working. Some survive on little sleep, busy as they are uploading, editing and sending off batches of photos to websites or magazines. Others may have the pleasure of working for themselves, meaning less pressure but no less commitment to the quality of their photography.

One of my longstanding favourites of these photographers is my friend Dvora. Her ‘Street Chic’ selections for are always an intriguing delight. She also shoots for GQ and runs a superb blog called Fashionistable.
“I wanted to start shooting fashionable people on the streets as a means of taking pictures on a more regular basis,” she says. “I just needed to shoot more and more often. To start with I contemplated having a portable background, lights, camera. But the idea of carrying the equipment all the time put paid to that idea quite quickly. It was while chatting about it with my friend Alyson from That’s Not my Age that I first heard of blogging and suddenly I had a platform for my work, a voice, a purpose. It was very exciting, still is.”
Dvora’s photos have a distinct sense of clarity and colour. They radiate vivacity. Although the outfits, layers, shapes and shades are all sensitively composed, there is also a sense of personality – of characters framed by and manifested in their clothes. These are not snaps, but portraits. The graft that goes into each image is something that I can personally confirm. Alongside watching her in action, I have also had the pleasure of being photographed by her many times. Her focus is sharp. She notices stray hairs and fabric creases, carefully arranging everything in the viewfinder until the stance, light and location are perfectly aligned.  

I spent a day at the last London Fashion Week tailing Dvora. I had no camera as I followed though, merely a Welsh Wool covered notebook in which to dash off illegible notes. The brown pages filled with quick glimpses: the PRs’ resemblance to guardsmen protecting the inner sanctum of the show-space, or Anna Wintour’s face lit by a flash. The observations quickly coupled up, moments expressed in hendiadys. Phones and cars; sunglasses and fur; pencil skirts and tall shoes; blazers and skinny legs. As I watched passively, Dvora wove in and out of show-goers and other photographers. Like many of them she was engaged in a continual process of approaching individuals, quickly setting them up for a photo and then letting them continue.

Behind, beyond, around every finished image you see online or in print there are the crowds and chaos. That seemingly deserted road is probably several metres away from the queue fanning themselves with invites and gently flexing their ankles one at a time to relieve the pressure of heels. The candid, smiling shot is possibly the best of seven or eight clicks in the hope that one will capture the desired moment. A model caught just after a show will have a finite window of time before her car arrives to ferry her to the next. There in that beautiful instant we do not see the stress over transport between shows or the irritation at another photographer or twenty crowding in behind to steal the same shot. The resulting image is often a semblance of calm in the bustle of the street.

The ideal moment for these photographers is when a show finishes, and press, buyers and known names emerge. It is an incredible visual experience. A tide of style spills out of doors or down steps. It splits into smaller waves travelling in several directions. Some are fast – using bags as shields as they stride past the cameras. Others loop and linger, happy to chat and be photographed. Finally the surge ebbs. It is time for the next location, and another expedition in search of style.

The streets shown here are not from fashion week, but a previous visit to London. Dvora and I met in the East end for some wandering around Spitalfields, enjoyment of Columbia Road flower market and, of course, a shoot. The setting echoed my outfit (composed of a vintage dress from Beyond Retro, a £3 coat from a a charity shop and second hand Kangol beret) almost uncannily. These four shots really are a testament to Dvora's unerring skill. She and I have timed our posts so that the same images have been posted on her blog this morning, so do head over to hear her side of events.

As a side note, I'm extremely happy to say that you can see another article of mine in the May issue of British Vogue which examines perfume as a rite of passage. It starts on page 237. If you have particularly keen eyes you'll also notice me making a small cameo in a 70s cape and vintage Chanel dress in Emma Elwick-Bates' roundup of LFW. 
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