Agyness Deyn. Rawtenstall, 2008. Photography Alasdair McLellan 

how music and style magazines have shaped northern identity

Cop a look as we speak to Adam Murray and Lou Stoppard, curators of Somerset House’s brilliant North: Fashioning Identity exhibition, and premiere a short film exploring media representations of the north of England.

by Matthew Whitehouse
20 December 2017, 3:02pm

Agyness Deyn. Rawtenstall, 2008. Photography Alasdair McLellan 

Keener-eyed readers may recall that we spent a whole week exploring what it means to be northern last month. From the seditious Manchester queens using drag as a political weapon to Blackpool’s rather impressive, if surprising, contemporary art scene -- plus chats with Noel Gallagher (!) and Newcastle’s coolest cool kids thrown in for good measure -- it was a whistle-stop tour of northern identity; regional talent taking a good hard look at their surroundings and exploring the impact it’s had on their creative output.

Of course, we didn’t pluck the idea out of thin air. Opening the same week was Somerset House’s landmark North: Fashioning Identity exhibition. Exploring contemporary artistic and stylistic representations of the north of England, it does a stellar job of figuring out “the truth, myth and spaces in-between” of that vague, semi-fabled land just beneath Scotland and above the midlands. Style magazines have played their role in perpetuating all that -- be it the Mass Observation imagery deployed in Vogue’s Angel of the North editorial in 2008, or this magazine’s Alasdair McLellan shot Oh Manchester, So Much To Answer For story from the same year -- and, as part of the exhibition, Somerset House have put together a short film that uncovers a brief history of the region from within fashion photography. With the show open until next February, watch the film and read an interview with the show’s curators, Adam Murray and Lou Stoppard, below.

Where did the original idea for the exhibition come from?
Adam: It all started about 10 years ago when we noticed a series of editorials and fashion stories explicitly referencing northern England -- a lot of photography work and a couple of big Agyness Deyn features in particular. In fact, i-D did an entire Agyness special [The Agyness Deyn Issue, May 2008, #287]! There seemed to be a lot more photographers and designers beginning to reference the north and their heritage -- people like Christopher Shannon or Alasdair McLellan. And about three and a half years ago, we began to notice a bit of a revival.

Lou: It was a bit weird, wasn’t it? Literally as we were thinking about this exhibition, those conversations about Brexit had just started -- national identity, a country divided. So when the show did eventually open [in a smaller from at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery earlier this year], people felt so keenly about it all.

So, to what extent did you find ideas of northern identity to be constructed and to what extent did you find them to be based in truth?
Lou: That’s kind of what the whole show is about really. That really fine line between something that is authentic and something that is constructed, something that is organically developed and something that is forced. There are so many grey areas in that. You see all these stereotypes that exist, and people in certain places in the north seem to be so tired and sort of ambivalent towards them, and then you see whole towns and communities almost selling them back to themselves. Manchester is a really interesting example of that, where the whole city is wound up in these cultural moments from tens of years ago. All of that muddy area and complexity we found really fascinating.

There are a lot of international artists such as Raf Simons and Virgil Abloh in the show too. Where do you think their interest in the north comes from?
Adam: Charlie Porter writes a really nice thing in the book about being from a place that has no other identity. I think that’s what I felt growing up in the East Midlands too -- it doesn’t feel like it has anything really. It’s just this nowhere place. So I do vividly remember being in Preston, when I was there, listening to the accent and stuff. I think that appeals to other people around the world too.

Lou: It’s the same with Jeremy Deller. He talks about going to Manchester and how it just felt so different, it smelt different and the people were different. He was in London, there was all of this culture right on his doorstep, countless opportunities to achieve and do anything he wanted, but he was so interested in this place -- it felt so exotic to him. And it does for a lot of people.

What do you hope people take from the show?
Adam: Hopefully, one of the successes with the body of work we’ve chosen is that it appeals to a range of audiences -- photo people, fashion people, general kinds of culture people. But also the kind of people who wouldn’t normally go to a show like that but grew up in the north and it means a lot to them.

Lou: I think we were aware the whole way through that it was going to be difficult to curate. People will criticise it and they’ll think certain narratives were missed or whatever. We felt very keenly that there have been obstacles. Anything in the north that is related to style or art always comes back to well-dressed, white, heterosexual men, basically. And we have acknowledged that, but, ultimately, we are trying to tell a different story too. So I really hope that everyone sees a tiny element of their north within a shade; whether it’s a street that they lived on, a place that they’re from or a person that reminds them of someone they knew -- I hope people see that.

North: Fashioning Identity is at London’s Somerset House until 4 February 2018. A discussion on northern identity, chaired by i-D’s Arts and Culture Editor Matthew Whitehouse, and featuring photographers Alice Hawkins and Ken Grant, takes place there on Wednesday 10 January.

the north
Alasdair McLellan
london exhibitions
north: fashioning identity