Taking real boys from the street and putting them on the pages of fashion magazines, Alasdair McLellan brings fashion down to earth and recreates personal memories in his hometown. We take a look through his book Ultimate Clothing Company and delve deeper into the mind of the roving Donny Rover.
When Tina McLellan bought her 13 year old son Alasdair a 35mm Halina camera in 1987, little did she know the impact this purchase would have upon not only his life but the direction of photography. As one of the most renowned photographers of his generation, Alasdair McLellan has helped define the fashion aesthetic of the last ten years. Working at the highest level for global fashion magazines and shooting campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Armani, Topshop, Supreme and Palace, his personal portraiture is saturated in a serene intimacy and humility. Often alight with a bright natural tone and in red brick settings, they are a salient document of a suburban Britain brought to life, previously overlooked amongst the stylised perfection of fashion photography. “It was just something to do on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and I really loved it.” Alasdair unassumingly reminisces about how he first ventured into photography. Growing up in Doncaster, he used his camera as a way to interact socially, snapping photos to keep up with the boozy descent at teenage parties. He later began to direct his friends and built up an ongoing body of work, taking portraits of three close friends; Liz, Derek and Jamie (a portfolio of Jamie would later appear in Arena Homme Plus). “They were just my mates hanging around the parks in my village. Then I also started to take photos as a one-to-one experience. It was a way of having something quite intimate with someone, without it necessarily being sexual.”
"When I started, it didn’t feel like there was room for everyday people in fashion magazines... I like my photographs to look like that moment actually happened. A document of something real.”
He explains that little has changed about his photography since his salad days in South Yorkshire. “It doesn’t look that dissimilar to what I do now really. It’s basically a series of very personal memories of walking around the estate in my village. That’s all we used to do in the evening. Like in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, when Rita says to Sue “Are you walking round tonight?” and Rita says “Yeah.” That’s what we used to do.
The visual imagery Alasdair was initially drawn to came from The Smiths, who introduced him to the characters on Morrissey’s iconoclastic cover artwork and placed James Dean, Elvis Presley, Truman Capote, Terence Stamp, and Joe Dallesandro within his context. The whole world began to make sense through Morrissey’s eye, with the styling and brooding temper of 1960s kitchen sink dramas steering him towards Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Kes.
Even more important than the visual language were Morrissey’s lyrics. “It was basically about Northern life, which related to me and my surroundings. There was also a yearning and longing in his lyrics which seemed to find a place in my photography too.” When later shooting Morrissey for i-D, Alasdair was conscious of not being perceived as too much of a sycophant. “Although it was probably quite blatant, Morrissey did ask Ashley Heath (Editor in Chief of Arena Homme+) who wrote the feature, if I was a fan... apparently he could tell.”
As house music began to grip Britain, Manchester was profoundly animated with a cultural uprising from The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Hacienda, and style was being dictated by the north. “They all dressed like my mates, and how my friends dressed was equally as important since they looked just as good. I looked at the way they dressed for a rave, Doncaster’s BYO Club, or the local towny nightclub and loved it. But it didn’t feel like there was room for everyday people in fashion, unless it was in a documentary context.” At the time, fashion photography was dominated by Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts’ faultless beauties and groomed Ivy League athleticism. It wasn’t until he observed The Face, i-D, and the work of David Sims and Corinne Day, that he began to realise that real British young men could be appealing too. “Even though Corinne Day and David Sims had more of a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, it seemed that because they were doing it, the possibility was there. Only then did it make sense to cast ordinary young British men in a magazine.”
In a particularly pivotal shoot for Vogue in 2013, Alasdair shot Sam Rollinson with Max Minghella in a love story with a working mine in Yorkshire as the setting. The story celebrated so much of Alasdair’s heritage and influence; from social realism to Viv Nicholson on The Smiths’ Barbarism Begins at Home record cover. “Growing up, all of my friend’s dads were miners. Then there was the strike and the mines were closed down. They ended up without jobs and there was a real feeling of aggression in the region. To me, those things feel quite personal and aspirational and they had a big impact on my life. It’s great when you can get images like that in a magazine like Vogue – it feels very British.” “Whether I’m photographing Kate Moss, Lara Stone, David Beckham, Beyoncé or a soldier, I always feel like photography should be personal. It could be a memory or an experience, but I like my photographs to look like that moment actually happened, a document of something real. I think it’s very important that you put yourself into photographs. You’re showing people something that’s deeply personal to you.” Working with Parisian art directors M/M on the winter 2011 issue of Man About Town, Alasdair photographed the swell of landscapes and the accompanying cooling towers and pylons around his hometown alongside his street cast portraiture. Following their brilliant collaboration, together they took the opportunity to collate images for his first book, Ultimate Clothing Company. Named after a now closed menswear shop in Doncaster where Alasdair and his mates would go every Saturday, 2000 numbered copies are available from Colette, bookmarc, Ofr and Dashwood Books. The collection is a celebration of very real British masculinity. “A lot of it’s just about walking down the street, seeing a great looking lad, and taking a picture of him because he has a good haircut. Sometimes it’s just an image. It’s not about being this or being that, it’s just about wanting to photograph someone.”