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Damien Frost’s Soho Tableaux unveils London’s defiant flamboyancy

Image: ‘Soho Tableaux’, installation by Damien Frost at The Smallest Gallery in Soho.

Photographer and Nightwalker, Damien Frost, has spent several years walking through the streets of London at night photographing some of the city’s most captivating individuals from the Queer/Drag community. Rather than distancing himself from his subjects, Frost has sustained an ongoing dialogue with some of his sitters over time, giving a unique perspective on dress, identity and importantly, a sense of individual expression.

Rainbow moustaches, flamboyant wigs, OTT makeup, clothes and nails all feature in his images and tell a different kind of tale of the city at night. In 'A Photo a Day' series, Frost spent a year taking a portrait a day, documenting the beauty emerging from Soho streets at night in the form of flamboyant individuals dressed to the nines and boldly turning Soho’s dreary streets into a living, breathing catwalk. Whilst his initial impetus was born out of wanting to capture the brilliance he observed in everyday life, it soon became apparent that his work was contributing to an ongoing documentation of London’s nightlife scene. A scene which is resisting the gentrification and sterilisation of culture, shoulder to shoulder with independent thinkers and doers.

In 2016, Frost published Night Flowers: From Avant-Drag to Extreme Haute-Couture an amalgamation of his documenting of an ‘array of artists, dancers, designers, performers and others who were turning themselves into an ephemeral artwork that would last for a few hours at most.’ Documentary by nature but a full nocturnal experience, Frost’s images celebrate community bonds and an ever-changing city space.

Run Riot speaks to Damien Frost on his approach to image-making, queer culture, gentrifying London and his recent work Soho Tableaux, a vivant style, large scale photograph curated by Philip Levine and Andreia Costa for The Smallest Gallery in Soho, a historic shop-front which faces onto Dean Street, in Soho's heartland.

RR: What was the initial drive for documenting Soho’s drag and queer scene, the individuals who are the face of this community and atmosphere overall?

One of the things I love about London is the immense array of people to be found on the streets. I originally set out to document the more colourful and interesting people that I would see in my day-to-day travels around the city by doing a project where I set out to take a portrait every day for a year. It was never my intention to document any one community; but as the project progressed I found myself falling down a sort of rabbit hole - photographing the amazing array of characters that I would stumble across on the streets of Soho and East London late at night. So, the more photos I amassed I started to feel like I was documenting a community and it felt like a natural progression to keep going.

Image: Detail of Miss EU @bernardbukala at Sink The Pink. Photograph by Damien Frost.

RR: Did you have an inclination that the images might contribute to a historicisation of London’s queer and drag scene, or were you more driven by the fact that you came across these individuals in everyday encounters and felt they needed to be captured, celebrated, preserved and made visible?

I was definitely driven by this idea of capturing the intense creativity that goes into many of the looks which I photograph. These people treat their bodies like a canvas, creating ephemeral works of art that might only be worn on one night before the look is discarded and the person reinvents themselves in another look. After taking a number of these portraits I began to realise that I was documenting a community and it did really feel like it was capturing a moment in time - which is where the idea came of turning the project into a book. I felt it was important to document these looks in a format that wasn’t as ephemeral as Instagram or Facebook can be where everything is about the next new thing. I love the idea that these looks that were created for one night out can now sit on someone’s shelf or in a library and in 20-years time people can look back on these images and see that there was someone walking down the street dressed like that.

RR: What has been the most startling change you have witnessed in Soho over the years as it’s become more gentrified?

The first time I came to Soho was 20-years ago and many people would argue that it had already lost its edge then. Like many areas, Soho continues to get more polished, and with rising rents, fewer bars put on niche nights catering to the clientele that would appear in my images. Every other week there seems to be a new chain opening a restaurant or store. While it might always be the ‘spiritual home’ to a certain community it feels like it will soon be almost indistinguishable to any other cosmopolitan ghetto - as found in any number of cities around the world with the same coffee chains, restaurants and bars. Having said that I still love the place for everything that it is, was and used to be!

Image: Detail of Dylan Westerweel @dylanwesterweel at WUT? Club. Photography by Damien Frost.

RR: We live in a society fixated on gender and identity, how do you see your work - through presenting individuals who challenge gender conformity - as contributing to wider conversations around this area?

Because a lot of my portraits have been taken on the streets, you find yourself on the frontline of public opinion of what some random motherfucker thinks is acceptable or how easily someone can become aggressive when they simply can’t work out if someone is a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’ and then how confused they look when they’re told that it depends on which way the wind is blowing.

A lot of the poses the sitters in my portraits use are quite classical. In a way I’d like to think this forms a sort of lineage with a larger body of work: back to a time where it was actually the regency that were dressing up in looks not totally dissimilar to some of the looks I’ll document. Maybe this creates some kind of historical document around the images? But also, at the end of the day, the images are quite formal and classical. Maybe because of this I’ve seen people as varied as Muslims in the middle east, to housewives in middle America engaging with the imagery on Instagram. The idea that it can reach such a broad audience and find acceptance is really heart-warming.

At a very basic level I’d like to think my photos simplify that conversation in that it’s presenting a huge array of people doing whatever they please. People can be who they like.

Image: Detail of Ashraf @shraffin at Sink The Pink. Photography by Damien Frost.

RR: In ’Carpe Noctem’, aka Seize the night, there is something particularly prominent in the portraits with a queering of classical portraiture. Are there specific works or artists from art history that influence you?

Historically speaking, Caravaggio is a big influence, as are more modern painters like Odd Nerdrum. Also, photographers like Bill Henson, Diane Arbus, and the conceptual framework and playfulness of Sophie Calle. The idea of Carpe Noctem could be applied to everyone in all of my images, as people are making the most of the night. Some are experimenting with putting on a look for the first time and others have been doing it for many years. They all share this spirit of transgression, of reinventing or expressing an aspect of themselves, and seizing the night for themselves.

Image: ‘Two Ways of Life’ Oscar Gustav Rejlander. Credit: The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford, United Kingdom.

RR: Soho Tableaux draws on the historical tableau vivant style, known for its bold and confrontational characteristics, why was this particularly important for this image?

Most of my images are documentary in nature. While they’re deliberately posed they’re not pre-arranged. I’m interacting with people who I’ve found out-and-about at night: in a club, or on the street.

But for this exhibition I needed to work out a way to incorporate a lot of the people I had originally stopped on the streets of Soho. I thought it would be fun to incorporate them into the one image. I’ve always loved the classical tableaux images and it seemed like a great opportunity to riff-off those and create a group portrait of these fascinating people in the process.

There’s an image by Oscar Rejlander ‘Two Ways of Life’ which I drew particular influence form. The photo is an allegorical representation of the tension between a life of sin and a life of virtue. I quickly realised that I didn’t have enough people to represent the virtuous life so I had to throw my plans out the window, but the original photo of Rejlender actually is quite an interesting way of looking at where Soho is at the moment. You have this life of vice that is its history and this kind of false virtue that’s created by cleaning up the streets, bowing to the pressures of commercial interests, evicting the prostitutes and making it harder for the gay venues to stay open. There’s a very specific choice the council and community has to make about which direction it wants to head in.

RR: Was there a particular reason for choosing to print on fabric? Is this a nod to theatre, a prominent context of tableau, or was it the most suitable medium for this work?

The idea of printing the image onto fabric was a way to reference the classical tapestries and tableaux I took as inspiration for the piece. It also seemed like a nice way to inhabit the space and create a bit of depth in the window of the gallery. Not having printed on fabric before I was a bit nervous but the fabric printing specialists Contrado came on board to help iron out the creases in the process.

RR: Do you have any other future publication plans following the success and positive reception of Night Flowers: From Avant-drag to extreme Haute Couture?

I’d love to do a follow up book. I’m continually out documenting, taking portraits and adding to my selection of works I want to include in it.

RR: What do you love most about night time?

I love the idea that at night people feel free. Freer to express who they really are or even to explore different aspects of who they are. I’m not even just talking about drag here - there’s a looseness at night that you don’t get in the daytime. There’s a romance of the night that gets bleached by the light of the sun. I’ve always loved the quote by Yozmit Walker who says that they come out at night because that’s when people are sleeping and that they - and all these other night flowers - are the manifestations of these dreams.

Damien Frost

Damien Frost: ’Soho Tableaux’
Now until 30 September 2018
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, London W1D 4QF

’Soho Tableaux’ is curated by Philip Levine and Andreia Costa.

Damien and The Smallest Gallery in Soho say thanks to those who took part in the picture: Jet Moon, Sebastian Owsianka, Naddy Sane, Carlos Whisper, Eppie Conrad, Hurrr, William Dill Russell, Luke Harris, Philip Sallon, Julius Reuben, Chrissy Darling, Charity Kase, Amy Day, Parma Ham, George Skeggs, Kala Kala, Cynth Icorn, Beatrix Carlotta, Sadie Sinner, Virginia Wright, Philip Levine, Prince JayJay, Marnie Scarlett, Lewis G Burton, Dani Mejia, Gavino Davino, Danielle Von Harper, Luna Pearl Frost, Johnny Bones.

The image was printed onto three large pieces of fabric to hang in the window like a triptych. The printing was supported by Contrado who are always looking to discover new talent and work with emerging creatives. On learning about The Smallest Gallery in Soho’s new display it became a perfect partnership to collaborate on. contrado.co.uk

About the Curators:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them.
Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.
About the Gallery Manager:
Moira Rizopoulos
Moira is a Creative Producer at The Garage Soho, she works on array of creative projects, including advertising campaigns, films, exhibitions and events. It was this role that lead her to manage ‘The Smallest Gallery in Soho’ where she helps showcase creative and thought-provoking work. Previously, Moira gained a BA in Fine Art and a MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Image: ‘Soho Tableaux’, installation by Damien Frost at The Smallest Gallery in Soho, 62 Dean Street, London.