Europe is experiencing a renaissance in its clubbing scene. In France, Italy, Netherlands to name a few, the new “Ballroom” scene is blossoming. Theatrical make-up, wild costuming and outrageous moves … it appears to be a revival of Vogue, the predominantly black and gay dance culture that centered on 1980s Harlem.
British photographer Ewen Spencer has made a career of documenting subcultures. His new photobook Come, Bring, Punish celebrates the new European vogue, which incorporates a mix of genders, ages, ethnicities, and sexualities , but has preserved the essential spirit of love and competition.
For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Spencer.
Emily von Hoffmann: You describe a new incarnation of Ballroom “the predominantly black and gay NY subculture from the late 1980s.” Do you have a sense of why this particular form of dance has been reborn in Europe? Why now?
Ewen Spencer: I’m not sure why it’s popular now. It just appealed to me as it felt fresh and had the most diverse crowd I’d seen since the early days of House music in the late 80s.
EvH: If you had to broadly describe to me someone who goes to these gatherings, how would you? Why is this an attractive outlet?
ES: I’m afraid I can’t compare the new to the old, as I have no first hand experience of the scene in the U.S. besides what people tell me. I know it was a gay and black culture in Harlem when it was first established in the mid ’80s. The European scene is a bizarre mix of super beautiful women of all shapes and sizes making the most intricate moves and competing beside straight and gay men from all over Europe.
There are 14 year olds from St. Petersburg who are chaperoned as if on a school trip alongside a “house” of very camp, gay black men from Paris. I’ve seen a woman perform “old way” on a catwalk in a club in Rotterdam who came from Rome. She looked like a 21st century Sophia Loren, she was absolutely beautiful and could have killed a Couture catwalk in Milan. It’s this sense of surprise that lured me into making the pictures. You cannot anticipate what you’re going to see next.
EvH: How did you first become drawn to photographing unique communities, and can you share other examples of subcultures you’ve documented?
ES: Subcultures can often form something that becomes recognizable to many in mainstream culture. It’s the genesis of popular culture. Music and Style are my main concerns. I think it stems from an interest in Style being seen as a code. A way of communicating with others how you feel and think…what you listen to or are associated with. This bleeds into other areas that can become quite political. So the questions asked through the images or films can speak of contemporary matters, but often without the crisis found in contemporary commentary of conventional channels.
EvH: The images that I’ve seen so far are loud and athletic, and suggest quite a bit of access. Did you feel more like an interloper or participant? How well did you get to know your subjects?
ES: I always feel like a participant. I make friends with people and often share previous work I’ve made so they can see what I’m doing. I usually request permission from the event organizers and get as involved as I can without being too intrusive.
Sometimes when working on projects like this I remain in contact with people and speak with them on a regular basis. Other people I’ve worked with I never see again, or hear from them 10 years later. It’s a lovely journey all the same.
EvH: How has your experience documenting other subcultures improved your ability to move among different groups? Can you share any things you’ve learned about how to perform sensitive and original photography?
ES: Yes. It’s very much about not being too intrusive but working out who the Alpha people are within a group. If you have their trust then many people will allow you to work uninterrupted. Many of the groups I have worked with are performance-based, so people often want to be photographed.
EvH: It sounds like the title Come, Bring, Punish might have an interesting explanation — how did you arrive at this title, and what significance does it have for you?
ES: The title of the photobook is in the vernacular of vogue — It means to arrive, perform and do your best…to win.
EvH: Can you please describe one or two of your favorite images, and the situation surrounding them?
ES: There is a series of pictures of two guys competing on stage in Rotterdam. They are from the House of Laudree and they were quite outrageous. The crowd were intense and the evening’s catwalk competition was coming to a close. They were performing a lot of death drops, which means falling backwards onto the floor, very quickly.
EvH: Who are some of your inspirations, visual or otherwise?
ES: My inspiration comes from everywhere. Friends, family film and literature. I love Photography books from the likes of Joseph Szabo, Larry Fink and William Klein. I love Italian, French and American film from the 60s and 70s. Muhammad Ali was a big influence for me and so is the writing of Jon Savage, Tom Wolfe and Dick Hebdige. I also like Svengali type characters like Bernard Rhodes, Malcolm McClaren and Guy Stevens.