Elaine Constantine’s work is a gale of the freshest air. Since the nineties her inimitable images have jumped off the pages of Fashion’s most fashionable publications, but her work isn’t really concerned with labels or “posturing” as she puts it (in her beautiful Northern golden tongue.) The pictures are as real, as immediate and as exhilarating as she is. Meet Elaine and you’d think that the two of you go way back. Instant chemistry. For Issue Six BIG Elaine captures toothy brilliant beauty with Peter Philips – creative and image director of Christian Dior makeup.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM
In 2014 Elaine’s film Northern Soul was released – a feature she wrote and directed (and the closest thing you’ll get to the electric spinning buzz of the Winter Gardens in Cleethorpes, 1976.) Out on the floor tonight, I feel like singin’. The beat is hot and bright, guitars are ringin’. The room is packed up tight, lined at the door, oh, yeah. So I’m gettin’ my kicks, out on the floor. As people go… Elaine Constantine is a right beauty.
Beauty Papers: It is a bit of a cliche to start here, but how did you get started with your camera?
Elaine Constantine: Well, I was unemployed, living up North. There were three million other people unemployed at the same time as me and it was virtually impossible for someone without any education to get a job. I come from North Manchester and there was a photography dark room, you know those camera clubs you get? The really awful things where old guys compare lenses and stuff? My Mum said, “You know, you could go and learn photography in there.” I was very skeptical, because I was sixteen, creative and all the rest of it, but I was a bit slow. [Laughs]
So I was really reluctant to go in this place full of these old men, but my mum was putting pressure on me because I was on the dole, hanging around a lot. And I wasn’t looking too decent either. So to take the pressure off I went down there and really lucky for me, there was a fantastic younger guy there who was maybe in his forties or summit’ who was between jobs and he was a lecturer, and he was running this dark room for the summer. And he said to me, “We’ll give you free film, you can borrow a camera, go out for the afternoon and then come back and I’ll help you process it.”
So, when he saw what I’d done, he was like, “Oh, you’ve got loads of friends that you like photographing. These look really good!” Because I’d been out in town and gone come on, let’s get some pictures of friends of mine, because we were sort of into alternative culture, to put it that way. Youth culture. And I came back with these pictures and he went, “Oh, have you ever seen a photographer called Chris Killip?” And of course I didn’t have a clue about any photographers apart from Bailey, or Parky, Parkinson, old Parkinson. So it was like no, I don’t know who Chris Killip is. And he went, “Oh, I’ll bring the book next week.”
So he brought the book and it was called In Flagrante and it had just been published and it had all the young, ne’er-do-wells hanging around in Newcastle, who looked like me and my mates, and the pictures were amazing. It was like a lightbulb going on, and this guy said, “Look, you have got access to people like this. Most photographers are middle class men, and they’d be terrified of approaching people like this. You, go off and take lots of pictures of your mates and let me look at them.” So then I went off and did that, and then I started following Martin Parr, Shirley Baker, and I became obsessed with street photography. This was way before i-D you know what I mean. This wasn’t inspired by i-D or fashion, this was inspired by seeing kitchen sink films and bringing them to life… working class young teenagers. That’s how I got involved in it all.
I then did a City & Guilds in photography the next year and it just went from there, really. The next thing I was kind of managing a dark room in Manchester University and then next thing I was sort of demonstrating/teaching at Salford Uni, Salford Tech then, and then I got wind that Nick Knight, I knew who Nick was because of his Skinhead book, was interviewing for an assistant, and I came down to London and got the job as his First Assistant.
BP: How did you find school?
EC: School was mystifying. I mean, I just used to sit there thinking what’s going on? I don’t know what they’re talking about. But then, I guess it wasn’t very engaging for anyone. I don’t actually remember whether anyone in my class passed their 11 Plus. I think every one of them failed. And then I went to Catholic secondary school. It was dead rough, like a Borstal, and the whole thing was these guys shouting at the top of their voices, “On the left!” Because you would have to do this big changeover every half an hour with this bell going brrrrr and going to another classroom half a mile away down these long corridors. It was like a fucking prison, honestly. All these maniacs, going berserk. Big lads and big girls all really gobby. Terrifying. And school dinners. Jesus Christ. I was quaking. There was no order, just fucking grab.
My little boy is going to school in Islington now and on top of they door they’ve got written education is not the filling of a pail, it’s the lighting of a fire. And when I saw it, I just welled up. Because I thought fucking hell, what about all those poor bastards from my hometown and all the rest of them that went through that education? You’ve got no chance, absolutely no chance.
"When I was starting out, a lot of fashion imagery was very much about pretension in it’s posturing… expensive clothes... unwearable. This is not my take on fashion. It’s not like I didn’t like that stuff, it’s just that if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it so that it feels real."
BP: Do you feel that your work has a Northern identity?
EC: I don’t know whether it’s a Northern thing, but I think it’s more of a working class thing. Maybe the stronger feeling of that is in the North, I don’t know. But as a young kid I became very aware of a sense of who do you think you are? Get back in your box. From many institutions above you, starting with school. And I think that the idea of pretension on top of that, becomes ludicrous, because you have to be truthful and real and not step out of line. You know, the kind of conformity that is pushed onto you as a working class person, that if you slip into the abyss, you’re screwed. I think that has come through in my work ethic and my need to create something authentic.
When I was starting out, a lot of fashion imagery was very much about pretension in its posturing… expensive clothes… unwearable. This is not my take on fashion. It’s not like I didn’t like that stuff, it’s just that if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it so that it feels real. [Laughs] Like, it doesn’t feel like something that has many layers of intellectualism on top of it. It feels like something that’s very direct and visceral.
BP: And that goes a little with this idea of the kitchen sink. Reading or watching A Taste of Honey. It has that directness.
EC: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of focusing on the minutia of ordinary life and the authenticity of how little things mean a lot to people who have no power. Sorry I’m going a bit socio-political on you, but I think a question like that takes it that way, doesn’t it?
BP: Your work is constructed but always retains that authenticity. How?
EC: Well I do know how I get things together and try to make that happen, but it doesn’t always come off. Number one is I always try to find the right work that will give me the platform to make something feel authentic. So if the clothes are worn with some kind of conviction, and it doesn’t matter what kind of clothes they are… It’s about that person and how they’re wearing it.
BP: Style over fashion. Even if they happen to be wearing fashion.
EC: I guess it’s about believing in something, isn’t it? And if the person who’s sitting for you, or jumping around or moving or whatever is not feeling out of sorts in this outfit, then you can believe anything.
BP: Looking back at The Face your pictures look as fresh as the day they were taken. What do you think it is that’s kept that work so immediate?
EC: I’ve got no idea.
BP: Do you feel differently about it?
EC: I haven’t really thought about it in those terms, to be honest. I don’t know, I mean I try to avoid strong techniques. Like there was a time when I was working for Nick that I started cross-processing stuff and then pretty soon after I left him I thought I don’t really wanna go this far with technique, because it’s kinda hindering what I’m trying to say. And also, I try my hardest not to over-light things. I think mostly it’s avoiding heavy posturing. I guess making your person into a graphic shape over trying to figure out what kind of world they live in and how they feel about life is always gonna make something feel very dated. I don’t know, maybe not. You still get those amazing Irving Penn pictures … they don’t date, I don’t know …
BP: It’s funny talking about not posturing and a feeling of authenticity… because it doesn’t strike me that you were part of the greased up jeans and grubby carpet brigade either?
EC: No, my sort of success or time in the sun kind of came a bit later than that, because at that time when Juergen and Corinne and David were doing that stuff or labelled for doing that stuff – I think that was a very dodgy label because what they were doing was a lot more sophisticated than that – when they were having their moment I was working for Nick and I was not clued up as to what was going on in London in the music scene, and I think those guys were. I wasn’t influenced by that rock-and-roll thing, because I’m a Northern soul girl, and always will be.
It’s like the working class in me, the working class girl in me doesn’t wanna look dirty. Generations of my family have been in filthy jobs, and they come home from work and they get dressed up, so I wasn’t gonna throw someone on a sofa with shit all around them. [laughter]
BP: Can you remember your first Northern Soul experience?
EC: Yeah. It was at Bury Town Hall. I think the year would have been the mid seventies. That’s how old I am. I was about eleven? It was beautiful. [Laughter] And an absolutely amazing sight. Amazing young men doing million-mile-an-hour spins, fast spins. I see the difference now. If you watch a ballet dancer doing a spin, or an ice skater, they do this thing called spotting, and it ensures that they don’t go dizzy and their head comes round to where they started faster than their body does so that they don’t fall over. Well these guys were doing it without spotting, because they were faster. [Laughs] And they didn’t give a fuck. It was just like electric. Boom. Wow. Look at these fuckers! What is going on here? This is amazing. Working class lads from, I don’t know, shit towns and shit jobs coming out on the dance floor looking like absolutely the most incredible athletes you’ve ever seen, made in rhythm. Yeah, it was fantastic. Then I noticed the girls as well, I was like oh my god, this is just incredible. That coupled with the heartfelt Detroit vocals that were stinging like they meant it and this full-on beat [Elaine beatboxes], just an incredible sight and incredible feeling. Escapism at it’s max.
BP: What was your hair and makeup like back then?
EC: Well when I first became Mod I had a bob and had it dyed sort of quite pale blonde and I had liquid liner on the top lid with a tiny cats eye. No lipstick, and a bit of mascara. No eyebrows. [Laughs] I think the makeup stayed like that into the early twenties, and then my hair became a feather cut, like a skinhead girl haircut. Like with short fringe but long sides and cut on top.
BP: In your photography there always seems to be an important sense of movement. Do you think that comes from Northern Soul?
EC: Maybe. I don’t know how it ended up like that. I think it might have been the dynamic I wanted, to shift it away from so many controlled pictures I was seeing at the time. I just wanted it to be like me and my friends. I didn’t want it to be like this stereotypical kind of perfect person that a lot of photographers were portraying. A lot of old school ones, anyway.
BP: And when you were doing these pictures was the Northern Soul film bubbling away?
EC: That’s right, yeah, yeah.
BP: How soon after taking pictures did you start thinking and dreaming about film?
EC: When I moved to London I regularly started to attend this all-nighter at the 100 Club. I was thinking well you know, I can use cameras now, I can probably use a video camera and maybe try and make a documentary. So I guess around ’94, ’95, I was thinking I’ll make this Soul documentary and I’ll explain the power and the pull of this phenomenon, show it in all it’s glory.
So I started hiring cameras out on the weekends and making the documentary, but the people were getting on. They were hitting thirty and forty and they weren’t moving as well. I didn’t wanna tell the story of a fading scene I wanted to communicate this wonderful experience that people were still having, but if you looked on it as an outsider it wouldn’t have looked so exciting and sexy.
So after looking at this footage I realised that it needed to be made into a film. Initially I was like I need to find a writer. And I tried really hard to find a writer and I tried to hook up with several people and they let me down. Which was fortunate because I had to write it myself, and I had to learn to write.
BP: How did you do that?
EC: I went on this thing that was called The Hollywood Bootcamp, which is like an online course and it gave you a seven week schedule where you have to sign in for two hours every day and then you had a mentor phone you once a week for half an hour. It taught you the basics of a three-act structure for screenplay. So I did that, and then it took me ten years to write the script. [Laughs] I mean it wasn’t ten whole years, it was ten years bubbling away while I was doing photography and other stuff.
"I don’t ever think it’s a bad thing to challenge ideas and the status quo, and I think that if you can summon up the courage to do that then you’re half way there. As William Eggleston famously said, always be at war with the obvious."
BP: Tell me a little bit about the story that you did for Beauty Papers.
EC: Well, I had a brilliant team especially with Peter [Philips]. It was done in the way that I would have worked in the past – getting that time and opportunity to figure out who the models are and whether they’re gonna be able to respond to the direction. Everyone I wanted to do it did it. It’s like a little family around you, isn’t it? And the weather held out, the makeup was beautiful. Just one of those moments where you remember why you love doing it and why you’re good at it. I was having little breaks in between taking pictures and looking through the shots, standing there with a smile on my face. And I was like, wow, look at me. I’m enjoying this. A lot of shoots are quite stressful, it’s quite a lot to nail in a short time, there’s so many things that you have to think about. So yeah, I just really enjoyed it and you can be more creative when you can just relax, can’t you? Rather than when you’re in your fight or flight mode. [Laughs]
BP: Have you got any plans at the minute to produce another feature film?
BP: Are we allowed any trailers?
EC: Well, I tell you what, I’ve got a few plates spinning and they’re not even my babies, some of them. So, A, I can’t talk about those ones and B, the one I’m writing, I’ve been writing for four years now, so maybe it has to go another six years [Laughter] before it’s baked. But that one’s about photography. You know, write what you know.
BP: Have you got any pearls of wisdom you would like to scatter before the next generation?
EC: Bloody hell that’s a big question isn’t it. Well I don’t ever think it’s a bad thing to challenge ideas and the status quo, and I think that if you can summon up the courage to do that then you’re half way there. As William Eggleston famously said, “always be at war with the obvious.”
BP: What do you think is beautiful?
EC: What’s beautiful? For me what’s beautiful is something that’s funny. Right now at this moment. Might be different tonight.
BP: Last question, the theme of our current issue is BIG. So for you right now in your life, what is BIG?
EC: Oh, I love food so I’m gonna see how big I can get. [Laughs]
BP: What’s your dinner party dish?
EC: Dinner party dish? What, that I can make? Oh, god. Prawn cocktail. What do I think is big? I don’t wanna be negative about this but I think there seems to be an all pervasive kind of idea that everyone likes taking offence to everything, and that does my head in. There’s too much prudishness in the world. That’s big, prudishness is on the up. It needs to come down. Actually, you’re gonna ask me what is really big? It’s photography, isn’t it.