Maybe it’s the coffee, but on the way into New Cross the graffiti only seems to say ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Alongside the railway line, for what seems like a full five minute stretch, mounds of garbage and industrial waste hurtle and spill, a vista of twisted white metal, most of it less than a decade old. It’s now just trashed and dashed between old railway arches and cracked shutters, poked at by men in yellow jackets riding yellower machines, sharp and torn and used. It’s hateful, but London puts up with it.
“Be more uncompromising Matt, just be a bastard” — and suddenly I’m not on the train anymore. I’m in a cafe surrounded by the fsssssh-pak of an espresso machine and the retro-jazz of New Cross with photographer Ellen Rogers.
Rogers’ work as a fashion photographer has captivated me for a while now, and for the life of me I can’t work out why it isn’t in a gallery. Her work has slipped through the pages of in-house agency books into i-D magazine and Milk. Cultural references meander between off-kilter comics (she frequently cites the work of Alan Moore and Warren Ellis as touchstones and recently curated an exhibition of Arthur Ranson’s work) as well as the films of Wim Wenders and Kenneth Anger, of which she has wildly mixed feelings about. Sitting somewhere between high art and retro-pop, her work plucks instants from lives that feel like fables, incorporating style and product and storytelling into faded film.
Sitting with her, it’s clear that film is, instantly, the crucial component. As far as her work is concerned “there’s not really a place for digital,” and she demonstrates a commitment to that sentiment at every turn by mixing her own chemicals, allowing the crackle of dust and hairs into the developing process and trying obscure techniques to bring out startling features in her work. At the moment, Rogers is working on step-by-step videos teaching darkroom techniques on the verge of dying out, “It doesn’t matter what camera you use or film or anything; if you have a clear vision of how you want it to work out, all you really need to know is how to use it… it’s the darkroom I suppose that brings it together.”
Her attention to detail extends to locations; spaces must have meaning. Without it she finds the shoots feel wrong. When I suggest that they somehow sit outside of time she’s quick to agree “I think it’s something I have an OCD about.” A proposed shoot near Old Street presented the instant problem of obtrusively modern architecture, which would instantly date her work:
“I never want to incorporate the modernity, but I don’t want to exclude it completely… I live in fear of being one of those people who airbrushes the sky.” By incorporating the work of talented stylists like Katie Burnett and Matthew Josephs into her process she can find a way where the contemporary can co-exist with decades old techniques. “I always find it odd when I look back at photography from the past and think ‘Why are they trying to be from another time?’ I want there to be subtle hints that I’m from my own period, and the women definitely are not from another time.”
Back at home and I’m lost in front of Kim. Sat rapt, with a mug of coffee pressed to my lips, the series ‘She Has Seen To It’ is one of Rogers’ most recent. It contains 15 images of Kim, a model whose look strays from classical romantic waif to smouldering 60’s icon with a click. In one image her face is cropped to fill the screen and she lies, eyes closed, washed out against white sheets, stuck in time.
‘Haunting’ doesn’t cover it – she is the image of sleeping death. Just two shots later in the sequence she is caught in motion, deep black hair casting shadows down her shoulder, eyes so dark they swallow the space around them, peering through the lens and questioning distractions.
(and in the background I listen to Dead Man’s Bones moaning and mourning the lyrics to ‘Buried In Water’, cymbal clashes against piano swells rocking back and over and back)
There is an inclination to refer to Kim, among others in Rogers’ images, as ‘an exquisite creature’, terminology which removes the human – let alone the feminine – and is wholly destructive. Whatever unreality is afforded by Rogers’ photography, it is not borne of the models themselves: it is their human quality, speaking across time and space that is so compelling. If nothing else her photography is a reminder that ‘unreal’ and ‘inhuman’ are not interchangeable.
Each set becomes a study in obsession; ‘She Has Seen To It’ is led with an image blistered in tones of fading paper. Here Kim is cast in fiery lens flare and walks towards the viewer – me – with caution and fragility. When I later hear Rogers talk about Hana, the muse-figure who appears in so many of her shoots, it’s clear that fixations on beauty and versatility run deep in her images. Make no mistake; Rogers’ work is erotic. But its relationship to erotica is abstract. Her images might be included in a book of pornography that devotes entire pages to a specific shade of yellow, or a description of walking on shingle. While a body may be – or appear to be – naked, there’s a subtlety to it. Anything more obvious and sexual “would lose something, become what I would consider cheesy… clichéd and unmoving.”
Unmoving. What a wonderful word.
At all turns Rogers remains straight and direct about her fashion photography: “The girls have to look good… there has to be a standard.” She is lucky enough that people come to her for a particular vision, but she resists attempts to mould that, “Most agencies have been really really flexible with me, and I’ve been able to work with beautiful beautiful girls.” But not all agencies “I got letters sent to me personally from one saying ‘Don’t make her look weird like you usually do.’” There’s a laugh that accompanies this, but no eye contact. The memory isn’t a pleasant one and it’s tricky to see if it’s the implied insult that catches her or the attempt at control.
She talks of the distinction photographers make between shoots, between collections that feel more ‘editorial’, as if the word implies a rigidity and aesthetic that’s impossible to negotiate “but I think it depends what kind of photographer you are. If you decide to be uncompromising then it doesn’t have to mean [looking like] something else. I still do what I want, because otherwise why would anyone want you to do it?” And in my notes I see again those words ‘Be A Bastard’; a softly spoken mantra.
Maybe it’s the coffee, but alighting at Westminster station I feel like I’m looking for Rogers’ characters. They aren’t on the platform, crisp and new and drab, nor are they lost in the hangar-like tunnel of criss-crossing escalators under strip lights and neon. When my feet clamp down on the walkway grilles, I don’t feel like Kim could walk through me, or that Hana might rip apart crowds to say hello to the shape of an old friend. But when I look to the side I see the alcoves and cell-caves surrounding the stairs and exits and I wonder if I’m wrong about all this. If I squint then maybe I can find room for them to intrude here too.