alasdair mclellan captures the humanity in military ceremony
Following the sellout success of his 2013 book 'Ultimate Clothing Company,' the British photographer revisits a seminal Arena Homme+ story for his second book, 'Ceremony.'
In August 2006, Doncaster-born photographer Alasdair McLellan spent nearly a month documenting the ceremonial troops of the British Army. Rather than shooting them solely in all of their formidable militaristic glory, Alasdair set out to show the human behind the ritualistic facade we see at state funerals and on parade at Buckingham Palace. "Jo-Ann Furniss and I watched the Queen Mother's funeral in 2002, and we were amazed at how brilliant the ceremonial troops looked," Alasdair says. "I think the state funerals in the UK look so great because of the ceremonial troops and the grandeur of their uniforms. It was extremely moving, powerful, and really impressive. Not many other countries can compete with the British Army's traditions and ceremony."
Four years after the Queen Mother's death, Jo-Ann became Editor-in-Chief at Arena Homme+ and commissioned Alasdair to shoot portraits of the soldiers. Given insight into a world few get to see, "Ceremony" revealed key themes that would be revisited in much of Alasdair's later work for the likes of Louis Vuitton, i-D, British Vogue, and his first book, 2013's Ultimate Clothing Company; a sense of self, the British identity, and the beauty, poise and vulnerability of youth. "When you see the ceremonial soldiers working, whether it's Trooping The Color or the Changing The Guard at Buckingham Palace, they always seem very regimented. We captured them smiling and laughing, because I wanted to capture their charm more than anything," Alasdair explains. "Many of those that we spoke to and photographed proved to be incredibly kind, tough, polite, idealistic, hilarious, and generous. They are real people behind all of their ceremonial duties and the uniform."
For his second book, Alasdair, who cites Bruce Weber and Stephen Patrick Morrissey as early influences, chose to revisit the Homme+ story and expand it into a full book. The 116-page volume, edited by Jo-Ann and published with M/M Paris, reveals disarmingly intimate images, but the beauty is in the detail: the chipped tooth smiles, the gleaming buttons polished with pride, the intensity of a soldier grooming his steer, and the unselfconscious pose of a young lad on his phone. "We had the opportunity to spend time at each of the soldiers' barracks, the Coldstream Guards barracks is part of Buckingham Palace, and also St. James's Palace," Alasdair recalls of the access he was granted. "We had lunch with the officers in the mess at St James' Palace, which was an experience that I'm probably never going to have again. That was incredible. We had breakfast every morning with The King's Troops for about a week in their mess, and they were just great company. The soldiers were very charming, they didn't really need to prove themselves. They felt like real people who knew exactly who they were, because they had a sense of duty and knew what they had to do. Often people at that age don't really know what they're doing yet, but the soldiers felt as though they had really figured out their purpose." Creating Ceremony proved to be a seminal moment for Alasdair. "It's hard to follow it up. Working out how to follow it up with a documentary project that is equally as good — how can you beat that? That's a challenge in itself."
Ceremony is available from February 8 at selected retailers including IDEA Books, Claire De Rouen, Dashwood Books, and 0fr. Proceeds from the book will be donated to ABF - The Soldiers' Charity.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Alasdair McLellan