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Jasleen Kaur, artist
30th March 2017

Go East: Jenny Lewis on preserving Hackney’s creative legacy

Back in 2015 Jenny Lewis made a huge impact on the world of photography with her intimate and emotive portraiture. If you’ve been anywhere near the internet during the last two years you’ve almost definitely seen her widely talked about book One Day Young. Published by Hoxton Mini Press, One Day Young is a highly personal series of portraits of women and their babies, all taken within 24 hours of birth. Rather incredibly, while the experienced photographer was shooting portraits for One Day Young, she had also kickstarted a second project, although she had little idea it would turn into the book she is now preparing to launch. 

A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to have Jenny visit us at Zetteler HQ, to our enormous delight she came armed with one of the first precious samples of her new book, Hackney Studios. Having moved here almost two decades ago, life in Hackney has played a huge role in introducing the traditionally editorial-based photographer to the delightfully eccentric community of creatives living and working in the area. Four years ago she decided to photograph the network of people she had grown to know (and many she didn’t) in their studios and workspaces. Taking recommendations from each subject in order to find the next she visited and shot a diverse number of artists, photographers and designers to capture the spirit of a creative community that is rapidly being forced from its native land.

We caught up with Jenny to learn more about her work, her experiences and what it was like working with independent publisher Hoxton Mini Press, as well as acclaimed designer and art director Charlotte Heal. 

Hi Jenny! We are loving the amazing people, stories and photographs in Hackney Studios. The book mentions that the people included were chosen based on recommendations from other participants, but where did you start?

I started with Isobel Webster, who I just spotted out in Hackney one day and thought would make an interesting portrait. Having spent an afternoon in her studio I felt I wanted to do the same again and asked her to suggest someone she found inspiring that I could shoot. She sent me to Louise Riley who was equally intriguing, the conversation flowed, hearing about her work and her life while capturing her portrait, the workspace was a perfect backdrop to the conversation. I couldn’t wait to be sent to the next. So that’s how it started, with no plan to be anything, just me pleasing myself and it continued for four years. Of course by the time I finished I can look back and see that the twists and turns of the series reveal so much more, a documentation of a time and a place. An equal balance of gender and age that wasn’t calculated moving through a rich variety of disciplines with no judgement or hierarchy. Everyone valued equally, playing their small part in something bigger. I look back and I’m very proud of this peculiar family tree and everyone in it.

We are loving seeing so many familiar and local faces such as Yinka Ilori, Juno Calypso, Jasleen Kaur and Margot Bowman, but it’s also a joy to be introduced to some brand new faces. Did you make any surprising discoveries or form new relationships during the four year process?

So many discoveries, names I had heard of but didn’t know their work well, new names that I had to look up and a few days later. I had the pleasure of standing in their studio surrounded by their work. I remember talking to Josh Baum, who was a Hebrew scribe for 15 years in Israel, and thinking what different journeys we had made to end up in the same place. 
Felix de Pass, designer
You received a lot of attention for your One Day Young project. How did you progress from that project to Hackney Studios? What were the most notable differences and similarities?

Hackney Studios sprung directly from One Day Young. In fact they overlapped for two years. Spending so much time investigating the intimate domestic settings in Hackney by capturing women the day they had a baby back in their own homes gave me the confidence that strangers would welcome me into their work spaces. I had started working very simply with minimal equipment and no team so carried on working in this way with Hackney Studios. Both series are a celebration of humanity, first the strength and courage of women to be made visible and empowered and emboldened, and now Hackney Studios to inspire and show an authentic investigation of this creative community which I suppose I feel needs celebrating while it struggles to survive the demands of the city.

Charlotte Heal designed the book, what was that process like? Did you work closely on the art direction?

The design process was pretty much left in Charlotte’s hands I made the first edit which was quite distressing — letting go of people. Then we worked on the final decisions together. I left the running order to her and pretty much all other design decisions. Martin at Hoxton Mini Press has a brilliant understanding of how a strong cover works. Very early on in the project he had already selected Rosy Nicholas for the cover with the red background ..i think that was even before we had Charlotte on board as designer, so it was very much a collaboration. Working with an independent publisher, which is my only experience of making books, gives you a lot of insight into the design process. I was there choosing the paper type, font, foil colour and every other decision along the way — as well as going on press in Latvia. I was adamant that we needed to somehow include the whole family tree because some images were dropped. Those people had been in charge of the direction of the project so they needed to be named and recognised for this. It was of course Charlotte’s job to make this diagram on the gatefold work.

Yinka Ilori, artist

The process of creating the book has resulted in a really familiar feeling in the collection of people included, how intentional was it? Why was that important to you?

It made so much difference that the subjects weren’t just cold called by me to be in a project but personally selected by colleagues and friends as a sign of respect for them and their work. We already had a dialogue, stories to share — shooting an already established group of people rather than manufacturing a scene I supposed existed. Their real connections and the warmth that that creates was obvious while shooting and hopefully comes through in the book. It’s a very personal project for me. This is my home, where I live, and I share this community with these people so it’s not an outsider’s view. I’m letting the viewer into my world too and celebrating what it has given me by looking at these these individuals. Looking back on the series I didn’t realise how much it was self investigation — trying to figure out what my place in this community was. I was fascinated by everyone, what they were working on, how they found a balance between following their passion and surviving in London. I wanted to uncover and meet these people face to face but I guess also find the tribe that I had been drawn to when I originally moved here over twenty years ago. 

What are people’s reactions to being put in front of the camera for a project like this? How do they vary?

I would say most people don’t like being photographed, being scrutinised and put in front of a camera. Its uncomfortable and certainly not something I enjoy. A lot of creatives are actually quite shy of a their own image, preferring to be represented by their work than a portrait. The location is really important so it kind of took the pressure off the individual. Their personality  strewn around them telling you as much about them as their expression or body language. The conversation that we were having were real too as we already had a number of connections by the time we were face to face. I’m sure I got a totally different portrait than if I had been commissioned to capture them as an individual rather than part of this series. The nomination they were leading me to was as important as the image we were working on.

What do you hope people get out of reading the book?

I suppose I just wanted to celebrate this community. I wanted to open it up and show you what’s behind the peeling paint and down the alleyways I have been cycling past for years. I wanted the outside world to see a true representation of what its like and the sacrifice that is made to choose this path. I don’t come from a creative background and I had no idea this world existed before I moved to Hackney, the inspiration its given me living here is something I wanted to share.

What’s next for you in 2017? Any plans to undertake similar projects in different ares of London and beyond? 

I have thought about this and I suppose investigating your own community gives you such a connection to the people you are photographing and when that community is so rich there’s barely time to look further, of course I’d like to explore elsewhere but this is where I feel my voice works best. I’m not sure what’s around the corner. It tends to be a question of an idea taking hold that I can’t not do rather than one I’d like to work on.

Margot Bowman, artist
Martino Gamper, designer
Anna Lomax, maker
Kirsty Harris, artist

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