in conversation with alasdair mclellan
For i-D’s 35th birthday, we invited a much-loved friend and long-standing contributor of the magazine, Alasdair McLellan, to shoot every picture in the issue. Here he talks to his friend Jo-Ann Furniss about what’s behind the pages.
"I don't think what I do has changed that much - well, you'd hope it had gotten better and more accomplished in some ways… But I don't know if it has!"
Alasdair McLellan started his life as a photographer in 1987, aged thirteen. He grew up in the village of Tickhill, Doncaster, and it is still one of the abiding influences on his pictures and is still a frequent location for his photography. It is a place on the borders of South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire — rural yet industrial, close to the many pit villages that dot the area, where many of the actual pits have now closed.
His way of looking at the world is almost exactly the same as when he was thirteen, particularly his way of looking at the world through a photograph. In other ways, his world has changed irrevocably. The locations for those photographs now span the entire globe and the many different people he now meets, works with and photographs come from all walks of life — although the people he met at school and in his village, the stars of his early photographs, still occasionally make an appearance in his pictures too. And yes, his photographs have become more accomplished over time, but the spirit that defined them from the very beginning has changed very little.
Instead, the world of high fashion that he now mainly inhabits has become that bit more attuned to the world of Doncaster, the output of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and the photographer's almost 'fairy tale' vision of some of the rougher places (and dare it be said, people) he likes to photograph, particularly in his mythologizing of the north of England. Above all, Alasdair McLellan has to like and be interested in the people and things he is taking pictures of, no matter who, what or where they are; you will never get a good photograph out of him otherwise. And it is this simple premise that has defined the 35th Birthday Issue of i-D.
"I wanted to do new, interesting people, as well as established ones, I didn't want it to be random," he explains. "I mean, who gives a shit about some obscure manicurist!" Although he hastily adds, "Mind you, I work with brilliant manicurists I really like… It really is about my world, my taste and the people I like to work with. I even went to LA to photograph Grimes because my assistant, James, is in love with her. I mean, that was like granting a wish! Although, I like her too, she's a nice girl."
It was almost ten years after first picking up a camera, in 1996, that Alasdair McLellan first started taking pictures for magazines and I had just started working on them; we have worked together ever since. And from the beginning of his magazine career, he always, always wanted to work for i-D. He achieved this aim in the year 2000, and this issue also marks his personal, fifteen-year history with the magazine. And yet, it was not always plain sailing with the publication from the beginning. "i-D used to drop my stories all the time," he harrumphs, still clearly slightly galled. He then laughs and continues: "Terry Jones [i-D founder and former editor-in-chief] couldn't seem to get his head around them, then slowly he started to like them and me."
Although Alasdair McLellan now has frequent copyists, his approach to and reverence for a certain type of boy or girl or a way of dressing now appearing commonplace, it once wasn't. Despite this proliferation of his style, the images produced never have quite the same charge of reality, experience and truth mixed with fantasy that Alasdair's photographs do. And it is through the pages of i-D that one of the most complete pictures of his output emerges.
"I started out with Thom Murphy and Simon Foxton as the two main stylists I worked with on the magazine," he explains. "I met Thom early on, and as I am from Yorkshire and he is from Liverpool and we are of a similar age, we shared similar points of interest … We just did stuff together. Our ideas really revolved around northern English men's casting. It sort of received a bemused response - people just did not know why we wanted to cast these boys… Eventually they ended up everywhere."
Simon Foxton was far from bemused, and soon took a major interest in the photographer. "Simon saw my work and I started to work with him for i-D quite early on - he was the first big stylist to take any interest in me," he says, adding: "Simon controls things from the epicenter of his shed in Ealing; he always knows what's going on. I think he is the banker from Deal or No Deal. Simon was obsessed by Deal or No Deal."
Alasdair McLellan has loved Bruce Weber's photography since being a teenager. The romance, the feeling and playful sexual charge that infuses each of Weber's pictures set an early example for his own. Yet he was led to Bruce Weber's photography by the Pet Shop Boys' Being Boring video, directed by Weber for the song's release in 1990, and he is equally a great admirer of the Pet Shop Boys and their unashamed pop sensibility. Yet, very tellingly, he once declared: "Bruce Weber art directed a country. Nobody else has done that." It became clear Alasdair wanted to do that too and he wanted to do that primarily through an idea of a certain type of working class English boy and girl, very different from the people Bruce Weber has mythologized. The country this time would be the north of England, the landscapes around Doncaster and South Yorkshire that he grew up in. His other great hero of 'art direction' and fellow mythologist of the north is Steven Patrick Morrissey. His unfaltering observation, both in his eye for The Smiths covers and in his ear for The Smiths lyrics, is the thing that, as a budding photographer, Alasdair most admired and took on board. And when he is dismissing something of no relevance or interest or merit today, he will often declare: "It says nothing to me about my life." Yet something lyrical, melancholy, mythological and unashamedly pop always does, and characterizes his pictures in a way that makes it clear they are also for mass consumption.
It was these distinct shared interests - although, for northern England, substitute Belgium - that led to Alasdair McLellan's most prolific working relationship with a stylist in i-D; his frequent partnering with Olivier Rizzo. Meeting in the early 2000s, and growing to prominence around the same time, both of their careers can be followed in the magazine's pages. Here they are united again.
"This issue I wanted to work with some of my favorite stylists and some of my favorite models," says the photographer. "So there is work with Olivier Rizzo, Jane How, Edward Enninful, Benjamin Bruno, Fran Burns and Marie Chaix. They all just felt right and related to i-D."
Shooting in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Derry and, of course, Doncaster, this issue still carries the spirit of Alasdair McLellan's teenage years with it.
"It's escapism, it's a view of another world," says the photographer. "All magazines are about escapism, you want to get lost in them and find out things that are not necessarily part of your life. It is why I wanted to work for them when I was growing up. Now I want other people to escape into my own little world. And with i-D, the cover concept of a wink and a smile - one of the best cover concepts and logos ever - is already a very positive view of that other world."
And what do you have planned for the future? "Well, I've got a pension!" Seriously. "I am doing more books, and I will have a book coming out later this year."
I thought you wanted to be the Mayor of Doncaster? "I can't be bothered, I don't want to be the Mayor anymore. Anyway, Louis Tomlinson will probably become the Mayor now." Alasdair McLellan is also a One Direction fan.
Text Jo-Ann Furniss
Portrait Lex Kembery
Photo Thoresby Colliery, 2013, Alastair McLellan