Jenny Lewis / Hackney Studios
Photography Jenny Lewis Words Katy Lassen
Also talks to photographer Jenny Lewis as she launches her new book Hackney Studios, documenting four years of photographing local creatives in their studio spaces.
Tell us how the project Hackney Studios came about and how it ended up in the form of this book?
There was no plan to do a book when I started this series, in fact there was no plan for it to be a series. One image led to another by each subject nominating someone they wanted to celebrate, so in a way I was just pleasing myself photographing interesting people. Twenty images led to fifty and after four years I had a strong body of work which said a lot about this community rather than just individual portraits. I edited it into a book as a way of it being seen together and documenting this moment in time.
You have lived in Hackney for over 20 years, working as a creative and watching the borough change dramatically. How do you feel about the changes and the current state of rising rents and increasing gentrification?
Of course it is distressing, the creative community is fragile like any economic eco system and I do fear what the community will look like in another twenty years. I am a little wary and slightly uncomfortable about moaning too much. When we moved to Hackney it was cheap and it was all we could afford we started this process of making the place desirable in a way. We made it unaffordable for the businesses that occupied the old factories and arches and local families felt the sting of the rent going up. Perhaps it is just the same but now it is our turn to be priced out. Very sad but inevitable. Aida Wilde, one of the artists I photographed for the series makes a great street art poster quoting “I caused Hackney Wick to become gentrified” I see her point and believe we have to be at least partly responsible for the changes.
Many of the artists you photographed are no longer in their studio due to these changes. How do you feel this displacement affects people’s creativity?
Having a creative community makes you feel stronger, you have found your tribe, no longer an outsider and feel more confident to be yourself. The atmosphere of acceptance and like minded people surrounding you makes a difference to all aspects of your life as well as just having a positive creative input. I know a lot of people have retreated to working in their homes and miss the companionship of a studio and the space to create larger work. Others have had to retreat further to the outskirts of the city or leave London all together. From what I hear this is of course a real struggle, as the creative network disperses it will take time to build up a network elsewhere and what will be left… this is yet to be seen. I also know a few people who have moved away but decided to come back as the community here was more important to their lives and their work than they had realised. I’m not going anywhere by the way, my roots are deep, but I do work from home.
There is an age-old image of the ‘poor creative’ and a myth that poverty somehow encourages creativity as if adversity is a constant source of inspiration. Personally I have found that in the darkest moments where I have struggled financially, the despair takes over everything and stunts any creative output. What are your thoughts?
It’s an interesting idea and something worth thinking on. I would agree that despair is probably not a great fuel for creativity but the lack of money/ commission gives you a freedom to express yourself entirely as you would like. You can be frustrated and stirred up and that can create a stubbornness to create, to make sure your voice is heard. It doesn’t make a lot of commercial sense working on a project for four or five years which I’ve done twice now but I have felt enriched and nourished by this personal work even if my pockets have not been filled. I also think if I had been happily going about my work and being a great success I don’t think I would have formulated these series, you need a bit of time, a bit of under employment to devote some focussed effort on your own work. I am now very grateful of this. I feel I have found my voice, figured out what I want to say through my images and feel confident I’ve grown into my own style rather than being diluted by a client’s needs.
The solitude of the artists in their spaces is something that you touch upon in this book. As a freelance creative, working under your own name with everything depending on your very personal output and reputation, it can be incredibly isolating. Is this something you encountered in your subjects?
It is certainly something I was feeling before I started the project. I felt unconnected. I wanted to figure out my place in this community to build more of a network and understand how it was working for everyone else. Talking to over a hundred people about this, laying my own experience bare and hearing different responses from all manner of people was a great education and it gave me comfort that I wasn’t alone. It can be lonely and tough but most of us wouldn’t have it any other way…as long as you are happy with what you are producing and being true to yourself that is the main goal.
The response from the subjects was often gratitude that they had been celebrated and nominated …that they were being given a voice and were visible, them, their work on this strange journey.
In the introduction to the book you talk about learning a lot about yourself whilst working on Hackney Studios. Can you expand upon this?
I have always felt a magnetic pull to Hackney, I immediately felt at home here but it was intangible. By putting lots of faces to this feeling, people that I could talk to and share the experience with has made me feel even more grounded in this community. Like I had a hunch but now its real. To me it feels tribal, that safety in numbers thing, I feel at home here, people are like minded even if they have come from all over the country. Possibly outsiders in their home towns but finally in the right place here, free to express themselves. It’s a lot to do with attitude I guess.
Analogue Film Artist
What was the most inspiring aspect of the project?
This community is a bit like a wonderland to me the richness of disciplines each person following their passion with such integrity. I feel I have been able to open a crack into a world and take a look around, hopefully other people will see the same and it can inspire, not in a rose-tinted way but with a truth… with hard work you can achieve anything. It’s not often you’re given the chance to celebrate someone you think is brilliant, someone that has inspired you. The series has a lot of soul and I’m really proud to have brought all these people together and share their work with a wider audience.
What do you predict for the future of Hackney – can it continue as a creative hub?
I can see its going through a massive transition, how can it continue to attract young artists with the rents so high, it’s impossible unless something is done immediately to save this community and encourage it to develop further. I still have the sense there is an awful lot going on here.
The artists all nominated someone else to be photographed and this forms the structure of the book. Who would you have chosen to nominate if you were on the other side of the camera?
That’s interesting…I kept thinking of people over the years that I was desperate for people to choose but now you ask me I see the responsibility of just one choice that would potentially take the project in a different direction, it makes the choice all the more difficult. You become the curator while the baton is in your hands. I would have chosen Polly Borland, a portrait photographer and someone who has influenced and inspired my work. I assisted Polly when I was starting out but she is now based in LA. If I were to choose someone in Hackney, discounting some of the people who have already surfaced in the project I think I’d choose Camille Walala. We worked on the Walaldreamcometruebuilding together, having just been Instagram friends previously. I learnt that if you put your heads together anything is possible, with volunteers and just eight days we painted a five-story building with pretty much no budget. The strength of collaborating with creatives in your community is something I’d like to do more of…together we are stronger.