Stories of family portraits, a vision of London’s darkest places and people. Australian artist Damien Frost in conversation with Antoine Schafroth.
Is there a reason why you do principally portraits? Maybe, is it due to a particular encounter?
I think on a very basic level; I’m endlessly fascinated by other people. I studied fine art at university and used to paint portraits, and I have always been interested in the body as a medium to convey a range of emotions. I don’t paint so much anymore, but when I did, I used to take photo-studies of subjects. Those images aren’t too dissimilar to the photos I take today – I was heavily influenced by old-master portraits and artists such as the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum and also the photographer Bill Henson who were tapping into this kind of dark sublime aesthetic, and that’s something that informs my portraiture today. About 10 years ago, I had a bit of a health scare and it made me very much think about how I didn’t have many photos of the friends and acquaintances I used to be friends with – the punks, goths and freaks who I knew growing up in Sydney, Australia and it made me want to start documenting the people I found interesting on the streets around me in contemporary London where I now live. This led me to start taking random photos of strangers on the streets, and this eventually led me to begin photographing many people in the alternative queer scene that I would always be bumping into on the streets while looking for portraits. It was all a bit of an accident – I never really set out to photograph a particular community, but I soon found I was building up a series of portraits of a loose-knit community – people that were playing with, exploring and exploding gender norms and people turning the every-day into a sometimes surreal and magical performative experience. I’m interested in the process of transformation that people undergo through makeup and dress. It’s easy to look at the photos I take and think people are dressing up in fancy dress, but the outfits and makeup are often the result of a deep-seated urge to transcend the every-day and to metamorphose into something else and inhabit a third space beyond gender or simply beyond their every day id (if only for a night). I’m interested both in the outfit, the costume, the makeup and pageantry of the person in the photo, but also I try and capture something of who they are underneath it, stripping back the external construction to capture who they might be sitting in a room by themselves.
Can you speak about the people that you are shooting? Do you feel close to them?
The people in the photos are generally part of a loose-knit community of drag artists, performers, dj’s and musicians, fetishists, fashion designers, models, students and club kids. The photos are mostly taken in clubs and parties and are unplanned and the result of chance meetings – I’ll set up in a corner somewhere and pull people over and ask them for a portrait so I never really know who I’ll find or photograph when I go out so there’s always an air of excitement and surprise when I find someone who might have a great look that I want to photograph. There are times when I can’t find anyone or the mood isn’t right, so I’ll pack up and go home – it’s fairly intuitive and I don’t like to force the process. Looking at the photos, you don’t necessarily realise that they’re sometimes taken outside the club in a carpark or on the side of the dance floor with hazy smoke machines blowing in front of the camera and laser lights or people walking past and jumping in, interfering with the shots, it’s a fairly random situation which often runs the risk of falling apart at any moment. Still, it’s enjoyable to try to capture a sense of stillness in an often loud and frantic environment. I do feel a sense of closeness to many people in the photographs and many have become friends over time. There’s a high level of artistry and craft in the looks that I’m most drawn to.
The photos are very much a collaborative process between myself and the subject. You have to try and get on the same level, which can be challenging in a short time frame when you often can barely hear each other over the sound of the club’s sound system. I see the photos as part of fine art portraiture and part of documentary photography. It’s actually the documentary nature of the photos that drive me to keep taking the photos – I think it will be interesting in 20 plus years in time to look back on them and see how people were dressing in clubs and in the late-night corners of the city at this time.
How has your background as a graphic designer influenced your practice as a photographer?
I don’t think my background as a graphic designer has influenced my photography that much, although working in theater, you’re often trying to get to the heart of a production’s story and attempting to convey that through imagery so maybe there is a through-line between the two. It is quite coincidental that as a graphic designer I work in theater and there’s a fair bit of theatricality in the subjects of my photos. But I’m often reminded of the stark difference between the theater of the stage and the theater of the street, when “dressing up” for a stage piece you’re very much insulated from the outside world and in a safe bubble, but the reality of dressing up in the way of many people in the photos means you will often be on the receiving end of both verbal and physical harassment. Many people in the photos will arrive at venues on public transport and it’s sadly all too common to hear of traumatic experiences that they’ve endured on the way to the club or on the way home and this is a common experience for many of the people who dress up like this on a regular and sometimes daily basis.
Where should our readers go out in London to meet the artists in your photography?
In London there are new parties popping up all the time and there’s no shortage of events depending on your tastes. There are clubs like Monster Queen, Wraith and Subversa, which are on the darker end of the scale as well as most of the nights that happen at Electrowerks. Then there are parties like KAOS, Inferno, Boudicca for a more queer techno experience, and you’ve got parties like Cookie Jar, or many of the events that happen at Dalston Superstore and The Glory that will satisfy all your drag cravings and Club Vanitas and Torture Garden for a more fetish orientated party. But really, there are so many parties and many I don’t go to because I’m lazy and will generally only go anywhere within bike riding distance from my home that has room enough for me to set up my equipment.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my second book. I have 6 years worth of photographs since my first book came out that I’m trying to hammer into some sort of form and shopping around for a publisher. At the moment, I’m also just enjoying being able to go out and take photos again after things have shut down and enduring various stutters on the path to reopening. During the first lockdown, I undertook a project of photographing people around the world remotely on my iPad, but nothing quite beats the in-person process and collaboration of making a portrait in the same physical space.