Just be yourself
‘Just be yourself’: the construction of identity in Trevor Appleson’s portraits of contemporary youth culture
In 2014 Trevor Appleson was commissioned by MAC Birmingham and the Library of Birmingham to create a new body of work exploring the city’s youth culture. Appleson, accompanied by a group of assistants and equipped with the basic elements of his signature portable ‘studio’ – a film camera and a plain black cloth to use as a backdrop for his photographs – went out into the streets of Birmingham, to its music venues and its shopping districts, in daytime and at night. He met and photographed hundreds of people, from ravers to girl guides, most in their teens and early twenties – although the oldest subject was sixty-two (after all, for some people, does youth ever end?). In each case, the subjects would be photographed in whichever outfit and items or accessories they were carrying at the time, and in whatever state of mind or sobriety. Appleson would simply tell them where to stand and to look towards the camera. In terms of their pose, the only instruction he would give was to ‘just be yourself’.
Just be yourself. The apparent simplicity of this imperative is deceptive. It belies the profound complexity of any notion of identity and self-representation, particularly when considered in the often-turbulent context of adolescence and early adulthood. It also raises the question of how the medium of the photographic image might be adequate to the challenges of depicting and communicating our layered, constantly evolving selves. In this interplay between representation, self-representation and perception, the precise natures of concepts such as youth, portraiture and identity are interrogated. No wonder that Appleson’s Birmingham project did not end with the series of photographic portraits created using his film camera and portable studio, soon expanding to include a series of intriguing ‘still lifes’ and a collaborative audio-visual work. More recently he began work on an ambitious publication titled Portable Studio and to be published later this year, drawing on his interactions with those he met in Birmingham to create an archival ‘document of contemporary British youth culture’.
Each of these additional elements involved Appleson working with individual subjects selected from the people photographed in Birmingham in order to obtain further material – a collaborative process resulting in a series of expanded, mixed media ‘portraits’. The audio-visual work was created from material provided by only one subject, a young girl named Alice: video footage of the 17-year-old applying make-up in her home. For the still lifes, Appleson and his assistants visited the homes of around 40 subjects and collected personal objects chosen by their owners, which he then assembled and shot against his black backdrop. Meanwhile, in the Portable Studio publication Appleson will feature over 150 of the subjects of his street portraits, along with a plethora of donated physical and digital material – both images, such as vintage family photographs and selfies posted on social media, and text, in the form of diary extracts and Google search histories.
For Appleson, a career-long photographer and occasional filmmaker, these additional strands represent a dramatic shift in the artist’s role: assembling (as opposed to creating) a mixture of images, objects and texts, digital and material, many produced by the portrayed subjects themselves. This development signals the artist’s desire not simply to reproduce but actively to explore the multi-faceted process through which one’s sense of ‘self’ is constructed and communicated in today’s network society.
Of course, visual portraiture remains key to this project: portraits, whether made using a camera, paintbrush or pencil, have been one of the most enduring and significant tools for human (self-)representation. Think, for example, of the iconic Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I painted in 1588, the year of the great battle at sea in which the English navy defeated the invading Spanish Armada. Every aspect of the Queen’s appearance and environment is carefully calibrated to convey her power and authority on land and at sea: her face and body are firm and upright; her clothes are covered in gems, pearls from the sea (symbolic of purity) and embroidered suns; she rests her hand on a globe, an imperial crown placed by her shoulder. Appleson’s portraits contain a decidedly more contemporary but equally loaded range of iconography: an Iron Maiden t-shirt, a cigarette hanging between the lips, a phone held up to the ear.
As if to highlight the significance of these objects, Appleson does away with the human body altogether in his still life photographs. The resulting images, carefully composed and lit against the same black backdrop used in the street portraits, convey a peculiar mixture of mystery and intimacy. In one untitled still life, for example, a packet of antidepressant tablets is placed on a glossy wooden surface. Propped up against the packet is a crumpled, half-empty sheet of stick-on gems and beside it a black-and-pink mascara stick. These objects are not just icons representing particular character traits or events; they are physical traces of the personal, everyday realities of human existence. The name, as well as the appearance, of their owner is withheld but the image nonetheless provides the viewer with a quiet, revelatory insight into the individual’s world, their activities and their values.
Indeed, the further one delves into Appleson’s portraits, the more details emerge that highlight the many actions and decisions constituting the ongoing formation of the self during the transitional period of adolescence and young adulthood. For many of us this is a time when we grapple with the question of exactly who we are and who we want to be: confronting social expectations, trying on different identities for size, inhabiting particular roles and attaching ourselves to specific groups in the continuous quest for certainty and belonging.
This is reflected in Appleson’s portraits in the loaded visual signifiers of the subjects’ outfits, styles and chosen companions (in multiple cases, friends decided to be photographed together). These rich details contrast with the neutral black backdrop to foreground the socio-geographic specificity of each subject’s external appearance – a point reinforced through the system used to organise the portraits. While the images are individually named after the people they depict, they are also grouped according to the site where they were originally taken: Broad Street, a popular nightspot in Birmingham city centre; Girlguiding headquarters; a Motorhead gig; a range of other music and social venues. Who you are becomes about who you are with; the individuals’ identities are voluntarily subsumed into the social context within which they are situated. From belongings to places of belonging, what emerges is the extent to which ‘being yourself’ on the cusp of adulthood is an active, performative process, which involves not just the individual in question but a whole network of social actors.
One of the networks in question featured in Appleson’s portraits is Project X, a ‘meet-up’ arranged on social media which Appleson stumbled upon one Saturday afternoon in Birmingham’s busy Victoria Square. The random nature of this encounter is revealing in two important ways. On one level, it encapsulates the conflict at the heart of Appleson’s project between two polarised modes of communication, digital and analogue, representing a second binary: youth and not-youth culture. Might there be a contradiction between Appleson’s decidedly analogue approach, its emphasis on physical encounters and material forms such as exhibitions and books, and his subject matter, the technologically immersed youth of the twenty-first century? Commissioned oil portraits may have been necessary for the Elizabethans (or at least those wealthy enough to afford them), but today in an age of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat entire identities can be fashioned in seconds by anyone with a phone camera and an internet connection. As the artist himself has stated: ‘I think a pertinent issue is how the relevance of the portrait photographer, and the nature of self-representation, has changed in our grassroots digital age’.
This is not to say, however, that the digital has or should have usurped the material world, nor that the tensions within Appleson’s project should be erased. Indeed, there is something brave and even hopeful in the mutual willingness of artist and subjects to reach out across the divide and create a new perspective that generates new insight, together.
The film Alice, which incorporates both increased subject participation and new media, encapsulates this collaborative spirit. Alice was one of the teenagers Appleson photographed at the Project X event. She is also something of an internet personality, sharing a constant stream of selfies (mostly in dramatic ‘drag’ style make-up), GIFs, memes, screenshots and the occasional diaristic piece of text with 1,000 followers on her Instagram and blog feeds. Much of this material will find its way into Appleson’s archival publication, the Portable Studio. In contrast to the online Alice’s open and sometimes overwhelming torrent of communication, Appleson’s photographic portrait is strikingly spare. Alice is wearing a simple, high-necked black dress, which merges with the black backdrop to foreground her pale bare arms and her face – or whatever of her face that can be seen behind the long strands of hair framing her cheeks and the heavy dark make-up on her eyes. The intense chiaroscuro gives the portrait a dramatic, even cinematic atmosphere, but there is also a sense of detachment, of a carefully constructed façade placed between the subject and the camera’s gaze. In Appleson’s words, ‘she looked authentic, yet it was obvious that her image was manufactured by her online world.’
And so he reached out, asking her to collaborate with him on a film, in which the process of Alice’s transformation from bare-faced 17-year-old to made-up selfie star would be documented. The film is composed of three separate recordings, all made by Alice using a phone camera, playing simultaneously side-by-side. The sound of Alice’s music provides a diegetic soundtrack. The low quality of the phone’s sound and image recording, combined with the harsh light reflecting off the girl’s face, lends the film a homemade aesthetic in stark contrast to the glossy finish of Appleson’s street portrait. The end-point for each recording comes when Alice has completed her make-up and, satisfied with her pose, she freezes the video. We are left with three carefully timed stills of the made-up Alice, three textbooks selfies: head tilted to the right, chin pushed out, lips pouting, eyes widened and directed at the camera.
The pose may seem unnatural, a distortion of reality, but these uncannily familiar images in fact provide a quite accurate description of the particular reality which Appleson is exploring, not just in the film but also in the street portraits, the still lifes, and his forthcoming publication. Brought together, these documents constitute a complex, multi-media portrait of contemporary youth culture, one that provides us with multiple insights into the social construction and performance of identity in the lives of young people, both off- and online, today.
Gabrielle Schwarz, April 2017