Graphic designer by day and photographer of the weird and wonderful at night, Damien Frost is a man of many talents. Having given himself the challenge of taking a portrait a day, he walked the streets of London’s colorful Soho district hoping to catch a sight of the “Night Flowers”. The portraits, which resulted from this endeavor in patience and perseverance, form an astounding collection of work. A document of the queer, goth and fetish scenes in the British capital, featuring some of the most fantastic styling and make-up you will ever see. Frost’s portraits resist the customary sensationalist classification of his subjects as freaks, much more so they bestow a fitting sense of dignity and respect upon these extraordinary people.
You are a graphic designer by trade but have created quite a following as a photographer. How did this development come about?
I trained in fine art and became a graphic designer and art director along the way, so it was quite natural to slip back into photography. I majored in painting and followed that path for a number of years after university but I based my paintings on photographs that I took so it wasn’t such a leap to focus more specifically on photography (though, it’s still the graphic design that pays the rent). Growing older I started to think more about documenting the people around me, my experiences and surroundings – somewhat regretting not having done it more in the past, especially in relation to the more colorful and interesting people I’ve crossed paths with over the years.
Was there anyone in particular, who influenced or inspired you along the way?
Not that you would know it through my own work but I’ve always loved the work of Sophie Calle – her fearlessness and humor in how she interprets the world is a big inspiration. Obviously other photographers like Diane Arbus, Roger Ballen and Bill Henson inspire me a lot, as do painters such as Caravaggio and Odd Nerdrum. But also the people in my images are a huge inspiration and I’m forever grateful to the time and trust they give me in letting me take their portraits.
What was it that drew you to your chosen subjects in the Night Flower series?
It was quite a natural progression and not something I initially set out to do but in 2014 I began a portrait-a-day project where I photographed a stranger every day for a year. As the project progressed I found myself being drawn towards the more colorful and extreme people that stood out in the crowded streets of London. I became more selective about who I would approach for a portrait, which found me wandering the streets looking for people late into the night and as a result, I found myself documenting the people who only come out late in the evening as everyone else is heading home. Most of the photos are taken between Soho, where I work, and London’s East End where I live, both areas with a history of vibrant queer nightlife and around the time I began taking my photos many of the clubs were also being closed down due to the increasing pressures of gentrification and even in the three years that have passed the streets feel very different. I became fascinated by this loose-knit community of club kids, drag queens, burlesque and performance artists, and fetishists, who really blossom once everyone else is tucked up in bed. There’s a spirit of transgression and punkish rebellion, which I find refreshing and inspiring but there’s also an ephemeral nature to it, where some people won’t repeat the same look twice so if you’re not around to capture it you may never get that chance again. It’s important to point out that I try and make a distinction between documenting what’s fancy dress and what’s self expression – it’s a fine-line and I often cross it, but my interest does lie in the ritual and reinvention of oneself through dress rather than just dressing up for fun and for some of the people it’s a daily act. My work as an art director revolves around the theatre, opera and the arts in general but it’s been said that maybe this day job working with the world of performance also informs my interest in my night time photography, which is often many times more theatrical than what appears on stage and certainly more vivid.
Although perhaps not instantly recognizable as such, the majority of these images are, in fact, street portraits or at least shot on location. Where and how did you go about finding and approaching your subjects on the street?
The Night Flowers series started off as purely street portraits but increasingly they’re taken inside a club but often in very tight and sweaty corners and it’s a credit to the people in the images that you often can’t tell that there’s sweat dripping from the ceilings or it’s too loud to communicate without shouting or that a crowd of people have stopped on the street to also take photos on their phones behind me or just shouting random comments at the subject. When I first started the project I found it important to situate the person in the context of the street but as I continued I found this distracted from the subtleties of the make-up and so I began photographing them on a more neutral background – often a dark wall or dark scaffolding or using a brightly lit shop or bus shelter at night to under-expose the background. Getting someone to agree to having their photo taken is only half the battle – the next will be finding the right light or location and so I’ve often found myself walking with the person for a block or two in whichever direction they’re heading and trying to find a suitable location, which can be a bit clumsy but it can also often help put people at ease. I’ll also sometimes wait near a certain background, which I know to work for the photos and approach people passing nearby. For the last year or so I have also started carrying an LED lamp, fold out tripod and a fold out backdrop, all of which fits on my bicycle and I’ll set the bike against a wall with the backdrop near a club and get people from the club who are coming outside for a smoke to come and get their portrait taken.
More often than not, now I’ll try to get permission to set up somewhere inside a club and I can choose the people who get my attention but the downside to this is that people think you’re an official photographer so it’s easy to get mobbed. Another downside is that after a certain hour it can be hard to get people to focus their gaze long enough to take a photo. But inside a club I might find myself photographing just next to a dancefloor or near a doorway where you’re constantly being bumped or people are walking into frame or distracting the subject, which is difficult but I find whenever I shoot in a more controlled environment I miss the buzz and the randomness that shooting on site offers.
Do you have the chance to get to know your subjects and, which characters have made the biggest impression on you personally?
I’ve always made it a point where possible to talk to everyone I photograph – I’m often fascinated by the motivation behind certain looks – they might be referencing other artists or other people’s make-up or they’re making a statement or even reacting to current affairs in some way, telling a story through what they’re wearing. It can sometimes just be the craft of the look that I find interesting – it’s fascinating to see the inventiveness that comes with using often very common household items or cheap materials and turning them into haute couture that might not even last through to the end of the night. In terms of people that have made a large impression on me, one of my favorite people to photograph is Dahc Dermur VIII, someone I met very early on in the project, who I stopped thinking they were on their way to a Halloween party only to subsequently realize that they dress like that every day and they’ve since become a good friend. I’ve always been fascinated by Dahc’s style, dedication and drive to constantly reinvent themselves often in adversarial circumstances.
The framing and composition of your portraits are reminiscent of classical portrait paintings with a three-quarter crop and half-turned torsos. What was it that made you choose this style of portraiture?
At some point I started thinking about the tradition of flamboyant dressing as documented in older portraits, of the (new) romantics and dandies and how many of the outfits of people I was photographing make use of historical elements – ruffs, corsets, vintage dresses, crowns etc. and while it’s been deconstructed and recontextualized into a modern look, it made me think about the timelessness of the practice and how it relates to a larger tradition. I wanted to somehow present the subjects as being outside of a definite time period, which is also where the neutral background came from – taking them out of context of the club or any signifiers where you could specifically place them in a certain era (for instance I try and avoid any obvious brands or logos). The style probably also connects to my own past as a painter and my appreciation of classical portraiture but the framing is more often than not a direct result of the often cramped circumstances the photos are taken in.
I think it is also important to mention that, as much as the portraits might reference classical art portraiture, I see them less as art pieces and more as documentary. While the poses may be purposely contrived, the subjects and the looks are the results of incidental meetings and capture people as I have found them. As a series, the photographs are documenting a specific culture in London at this point in time.
Rather than ostracizing and sensationalizing your rather extraordinary subjects, you manage to portray them in a dignified and sensitive light. Was this a conscious decision you made and, if so, how did you go about it?
As much as I think the portraits I take are about the look, the dress and the make-up – first and foremost I want to capture the person underneath that too. I have the utmost respect for all my subjects – as much as I’d like to think a city like London has an “anything goes” attitude I’ve witnessed the harassment that can come with walking down the street looking so different and I’d like to think my portraits are a rejection of that, in whatever small way, and it’s heartwarming when I see people on Instagram engaging with the photos, who you wouldn’t think are necessarily the “target demographic” and can appreciate all the strange beauty in this wonderfully weird culture. When I first started photographing people on the drag scene there was often a tendency for the subjects to be very exaggerated in their expressions but I didn’t want to capture the performer and performance so much as the person behind that so I would often ask them to dial it down and try to look for a more quiet moment.
Which camera, lens and further equipment did you use to capture this series and what do you see as the advantages of using this particular set-up?
All the photos were taken with either a Leica M9 or a Leica M (Typ 262). A good portion were taken using a Voigtlaander 35mm Nokton, which I recently upgraded to a Summilux 35mm, which I really wished I’d been using all along. The Nokton was great as a knockabout lens (I’m usually wearing my camera every day while I’m riding my bike around) but I always shoot wide open and the Voigtlaander was just a bit too soft focus and I love the sharpness of the Summilux. The portability and unobtrusiveness of the M-system is a huge factor and my Leica comes everywhere with me. There are many occasions when inquisitive drug dealers and questionable characters have approached me down dark alleys mid-shoot and I’m often relieved the camera looks analog enough that they think I’m not worth the bother.
The lighting of your subjects in this series is excellent and really adds to the feel of each image. How did you go about creating these effects, while shooting on location?
On the street it has often been about knowing the location and using a particular type of available light – for instance keeping my back to a bright shop using the shop window light to illuminate the subject or using illuminated bus shelter ads (as a large softbox) and avoiding reflective surfaces in the background. Sometimes I’ll carry around a cheap LED lamp I can set up somewhere to the side but in a club I will now bring a single small lamp (with a softbox) a fold-out backdrop and just try to avoid the disco lights. But there’s many shots that just didn’t work as the light didn’t have the right quality – too harsh / too soft / interfering flare from streetlamps etc.
How much work do you put into the editing of your images and can you briefly describe your process?
I do all my editing in Lightroom where I’ll adjust the crop and colors and then spend more time than is healthy deliberating over subtle differences in expression or pose to determine which shot is “the one”.
How long have you been shooting with Leica cameras and what was it that influenced your decision to do so?
I’ve only had a Leica for 7 years so I’m a recent convert. I spent years with an Olympus OM-1 analog camera and wanted a digital camera that felt similar in my hands, was all manual and at the time the M9 seemed to be the right fit. I’ve been a convert ever since. I’m not going to lie – I personally think it’s important to have a camera that you love whatever that may be but it’s just as important to not be afraid to take it anywhere and keep it with you as often as possible. There’s been quite a few occasions when people I’ve approached randomly have agreed to stop for me because they notice I’m using a Leica and so presume I’m a “serious photographer” or at least more interested in the craft.
Do you have any advice for those looking to improve their portrait photography?
Listen to your subjects and don’t be afraid to get too close. I try to always have my camera with me and I often approach people who stand out in some way – sometimes that can be people I feel intimidated by or scare me in some way. I’ve found sometimes people that scare you are the most lovely people (but sometimes they can just also be really scary people) but you’ll never know until you interact with them in some way and I’m a big fan of interacting with people. I’ve missed many good street shots because rather than just taking the photo I’ve engaged the person who’s absolutely said no but I’ve also had many lively, fascinating and interesting conversations with those same people so it all balances out.
Your Night Flowers series has received widespread acclaim, as well as being published by Merrell as a book of over 300 portraits last year. Do you have a new project you are working on and what can we expect from Damien Frost in the future?
I’m continuing on the night flowers series and hope to expand it to encompass not only London but also other cities and countries. I’m also working on a series of portraits of people immediately post-performance, which is moving along (very slowly) as well as another portrait series of people inside their personal spaces, who I had originally stopped on the street as strangers.