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Over the last two decades British photographer and filmmaker, Ewen Spencer, has built a prolific body of work investigating the themes of youth, subculture and the vitality of burgeoning underground music scenes. Central to his work, is a tension between two polar forces: individuality and collective identity, a juxtaposition within which clothes play a central role. Recently, we were lucky enough to work alongside Ewen whilst shooting another British icon, the inimitable Paul Weller, for our John Simons Apparel x Paul Weller collaboration line. We took the opportunity to sit down with Ewen, discussing his career to date, his interest in clothing and the relationship between music, culture and style.
What was your introduction to photography and at what point did this interest develop into a career?
The initial interest came from what was around me as I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s. I was always fascinated by imagery from the 1960’s. In particular record covers and then later magazines like The Face, Blitz, as well as Blues and Soul, were big for me, but I didn’t ever think ‘I could do that!’. I didn’t think, “I can pick up a camera and make pictures”. It simply was not accessible to me.
I went straight to work after leaving school in these very hip menswear shops around Newcastle city centre and then ended up working in restaurants and factories for a little while to get by. That then pushed me to try and get back into education, which for me meant art school. That is where I discovered photography and I had a very good tutor, Geoff Weston who opened up the idea that the work you create can have an impact on the world around you. He showed me American photographer Robert Frank and British artists like Tom Wood and Chris Killip who were both photographing a world that was very familiar to me. That was it for me, really.
Interesting, I suppose it safe to say that you had an interest in clothing from an early age then? Can you remember the first piece of clothing you purchased with your first pay check? What was it and where was this purchase made?
I must confess I have always loved clothing, yes. Since I was very young I have been interested in what that means. It is not the be all and end all it just attributes to something bigger for me. The first purchase I recall making was a pair of Timberland shoes during the early eighties whilst I was working at a menswear shop in Newcastle called Ricci. They were boat shoes but had a more substantial sole unit than you would typically find. I believe they were called the Timberland “Country”, or something along those lines. They were really bangin’ and they were a lot of money, at least £90 at the time. I saved up for them and I believe me Mam’ gave me a bit of money towards them too. My mates could not understand it at all, they were just like “What the f**k are those on your feet?” But I was watching the older guys I was working with, who would have been around the age of eighteen, and they were all wearing this look! I thought to myself that is it and I was away… A pair of Liberto jeans and Timberland shoes, I was up and running! Sure enough my mates would all start wearing this look a short while later.
Music and subculture are key themes within your work, what is it about documenting these phenomenon which so appeals to you?
I was always a part of the development of Soul music, from being a spoddy Mod revival kid in the very early 1980s, then into Tamla and Stax, and then eventually Hip Hop and House music. From around 1990 I was 100% committed to Northern Soul and all the multitude of genres and styles associated with the Soul scene. I was always very into the authenticity of where it had come from. I remember reading Richard Barnes Mod book when I was very young. That kind of thing. So when I began to take pictures that made sense to me, I turned to the Soul scene and photographed there for a few years and this carried on up until I graduated from art school in Brighton. My portfolio consisted of Soul kids and the type of magazines that picked up on that at around that time [circa 1997] were Sleazenation and the Face magazine.
I was commissioned to make pictures and began to generate a career photographing mainly UK music scenes: UK Garage, Northern Soul, Hardcore Rave, I even made pictures with Nu Metal kids! This then in turn developed into working with stylists and fashion shoots for Sleazenation as well as I-D magazine.
Similarly, clothing serves as a major signifier of one’s allegiance to a certain youth tribe or subculture. Which of the projects that you have worked on do you feel has been the most visually interesting from a sartorial perspective?
I loved UK Garage. It felt like an extension of the Soul scene I was a part of, just less nostalgic and more progressive. Predominantly working class kids getting dressed up for the weekend. A very British tradition. The clothes they were wearing were expensively produced, Italian, designers. Clothes perhaps intended for affluent Europeans and instead you have all these kids from South London wearing incredible Moschino outfits, a touch of Emporio Armani and some killer Paul Smith, Clark’s shoes or Patrick Cox loafers. It was a wonderful scene, the music was very soulful and up until around 2000 it was a very peaceful and happy crowd. Colosseum on a Sunday night, Garage Nation at The Cross. I loved it.
Shifting topics now back to your own personal style, what item could you not live without?
I like button up knits a lot. Pullover crew necks and the like. Back in the day it would have been a John Smedley, nowadays it would be an Alan Paine. I used to spend a great deal of time looking for the ideal collar on a knitted shirt.
What is your number one style tip for the readers at home?
Always make sure you wear a belt! So many people do not do it and I cannot for the life of me understand why. It finishes a look off. It is not that complicated but it is far too often overlooked!
Do you have a sartorial hero?
I always liked Weller in the early Style Council era and then his early solo career. For me that was spot on. It was always Paul for me really, such a great look. French actor Alain Delon would be another, as well as Johnny Marr of The Smiths in the early days and Bernard Sumner circa Low Life.
I think it is poignant that so many of your clothing references are taken from musicians. On that note, if you could choose to attend a concert from any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you wear?
It would probably be The Who 1964-65. That kind of proto-Mod, Pop Art era, and to be honest I would probably go dressed as I am, as I guess it would be pretty hot and sweaty right?
I would have loved to have gone to the Goldhawk social club in Shepherds Bush at around 1963-64, or, to have seen Guy Steven’s DJ at the Scene Club around then. That era of real cultural movement in the UK. I feel like this same spirit was present in the 1980’s during the Soul/Funk/House era.
Do you recall your first visit to our store? What motivated you to visit and what were you first impressions?
Yes, I would have visited early 1990s in Covent Garden. It felt oddly familiar. As I have mentioned, I had started out working in clothes shops for a few years back in Newcastle. I think they had all probably taken a piece from John Simons, so it was like returning to the source I suppose. I distinctly remember looking over the Baracuta jacket, Made in USA Bass Weejuns and the distinct smell of sandalwood.
Finally, do you feel that your profession has impacted your style?
No, I think my style has impacted my profession. It is the other way round really! I think style and my experience of it has impacted my work and what I do. The reason for this is because a very specific historical and musical journey has totally determined what I choose to make pictures of.
Foreword: Nicholas Sarnella
Photography: Alex Natt
Ewen is photographed wearing a number of items from our new Spring/Summer range.
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