Creative photographer Kerry Curl has factored sustainability into her work for years. Here she argues the case for vintage and second-hand fashion photography, following her recent creative shoot with thrifted illustrated clothing brand Morwenna Farrell
I was always interested in photography. I know some people have deeply personal stories of how they discovered their love for it, were given a camera by a grandparent etc but I can’t pinpoint a deep and meaningful experience or moment in time. But growing up in the 80s and 90s, I do remember devouring what imagery was available through magazines, film and album art. That may well have been because having parents who were both blind meant that there was next to no visual imagery at home, but lots of music. There used to be a stall on Norwich Market which sold singles that were no longer in the charts for cheap, like 50p, and I would base my buying choices solely on the imagery and artwork. In hindsight it was, shall we say, an interesting way to discover all kinds of music from The Clash to Bonnie Tyler, but more relevantly for my future career, it informed a visual approach.
Photography at school wasn’t available and so I really had no outlet for it or scope to develop it into a career and certainly no-one was telling me it could be one. I was lucky enough to be able to learn photography skills through the adult education system, a system which does not exist in the same way today, which is a real loss. Being able to take classes which fit around life for a few hours a week to gain multiple City & Guilds qualifications over the years really allowed me to progress not just my photography but myself too.
I was probably about fourteen or fifteen when I started thinking about what I’d like to be, that age where you start to really wonder what your options are, and you’ve left behind the younger thoughts you may have had when someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up.
Without the opportunity to pursue it, it didn’t go any further for quite a few years. It saddens me that not much seems to have changed in terms of our education system. The pandemic has highlighted there is far from equal opportunities when it comes to learning including the arts, both in the ability to pursue them and having the facilities to access equipment. It’s something I think about a lot and I’m grateful to have got there eventually and to have found teachers in the adult and higher education system who believed in me and pushed me to be more, to want more.
Just being able to be creative and bring ideas to life is the best feeling. It’s always interesting to share work and projects and reflect on the responses. I’ve created work that’s been picked up for exhibitions and publications and some selected highlights include having work in the memoirs of musician Brix Smith (your readers who are Fall fans will get this); I had a signed copy from the launch but actually going into Waterstones in Norwich to see it on the shelves was a great moment.
As was having portraits selected as award winning images and exhibited nationally in the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain in 2017 and 2019, and more recently in 2020 and 2021 my work was selected for the Then There Was Us annual. The publication’s aim is to highlight what they believe are some of the best portrait and documentary photographers to watch and so to be amongst their chosen image makers is a great moment. I’ve also been lucky enough to be part of group shows in Europe, Norwich University of the Arts have both of my degree show pieces in their collections plus they also commissioned me to create their official Christmas card in 2018 which was a real honour and a dream to produce.
This year I was also granted funding to create a new multimedia installation project for the Norwich Fringe Festival. Under Covid restrictions, I can tell you this really pushed my critical thinking skills! However, with the help of the Norwich Fringe team we went for it and I am really pleased with the body of work which was created. This year I also undertook a research and development artist residency at the Norwich Shoe Factory joined by artist Emily Cannell. I’m hoping this will be the first of more residencies on my CV. More recently I was invited to show work from my ‘This is Not Nostalgia?’ project at the Norwich Science Festival Hello Future Fashion exhibition. It’s been a busy few years, even with the interruption of a global pandemic.
I don’t think people are always aware that I am in fact a recent graduate. Well, I was in 2020, having graduated from Norwich University of the Arts in 2017. I’d had in my mind that the three year mark of graduating was then the beginning of the end for that ‘recent grad’ status and so I’d worked really hard gearing up for that step change and had spent a lot of time before Covid struck getting ready for 2020. Plans were made, I had an arts residency and show in the diary, further exhibition plans, commissions and new projects which all involved the one thing we suddenly could not do – be with people outside of our own household.
Like the rest of the world, I was pretty shell shocked and as I watched my entire diary slip away I had many moments where I thought is this it? Is this as far as I could get? What now?
Whilst lots of people were out photographing the empty streets or finding comfort and distraction in documenting their walks or neighbours through windows, for me taking my camera out on daily walks brought me nothing. I took a few photos of handwritten signs in shop windows (and I realise now that was me finding a way to have human life in my work) I was enjoying the time outside but not wanting to photograph it, maybe not wanting is the wrong phrase – it was more that I didn’t feel I needed to, in the end I just left my camera at home.
After several weeks, one day I realised that the only music I’d heard in weeks was the intro to the news channels. Music is such an important part of my work, not just about the inspiration it brings but also the power it has to help me work. To feel that rush to create, or that calmness to relax through the process.
Ironically the first song I listened to (and repeated for days) was Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode. Music very much got me ‘back’ and whilst I never did feel the urge to use that first lockdown to go out with my camera, I did end up spending hours and hours going back through my archives, selecting previously unseen images, making new work from older work, and feeling back in that creative space again. As restrictions changed, I’ve been able to adapt my working methods and make new work with people including artists, musicians, designers, writers, makers and creators.
I left university with a creative practice made up of photography, video art and installation. In March 2020 I feared that was all about to be a distant memory. In March 2021 I was creating these very three things for the Norwich Fringe Commission. In November 2021 and I’m feeling inspired, creatively free and in a good place.
I never set out to be a fashion photographer and it’s still not a label I give myself. I’ve always been interested in fashion, but I fell into photographing it through being uninspired by what I felt we were being told was ‘fashion’… because if a 1950s Dior dress could be adored by the media then why couldn’t that £10 ‘70s faux fur from the charity shop? The latter being much more affordable for the majority.
It was during university my photography work became heavily influenced by previous decades which I combined with my own personal love of second-hand fashion. I was a blogger 2010 to about 2015, writing about vintage and second-hand style so I had a wealth of research and thoughts to pull from. This personal interest fortunately chimes nicely now with the increasing interest in the mainstream for sustainability in the fashion industry. There’s growing desire for sustainable fashion as consumers begin to ask where their clothes come from.
I wasn’t using second-hand and vintage to try and rebel any more than I was trying to fit in, I was just creating the imagery I wanted to and the garment choices happened to give my work a fashion dialogue which in turn posed questions about what ‘fashion’ even is.
Flash forward to 2021 and things have moved fast even in ‘slow fashion’. It’s been interesting to watch it happen. I’m not anti-buying ‘new’, I’m not a fashion activist. I’m uncomfortable with the way people queuing outside shops such as Primark are vilified in a way a queue down the road to get into a charity shop aren’t. I haven’t processed my thoughts on this into words properly yet, but I think it’s problematic to make people feel like they are somehow more or less because of where they got a jumper from…
‘Thoughtful consumption’ is a positive phrase and that’s something I’m working on myself. Having a creative output is part of that process for me.
I firmly believe that Norwich has been ahead of many other places when it’s come to accepting secondhand and vintage to consume fashion. Not just in a vintage way where people are on a sartorially distinctive scene like the 40s or the 50s but also for those who just preloved clothes and for them it’s not a way to identify within a subculture, it’s just a way to buy clothes.
The Norwich Fashion Week Vintage Shows for example are a perfect example. As a team we were keen a Vintage Show being added to the line-up shouldn’t be too era specific. Norwich had a lot of victory rolls and petticoats going on in its vintage scene, but we wanted it open to all. If you enjoyed fashion, why not second-hand and vintage? We were right because those shows sold out every year with a waiting list for tickets and these were venues with big seating capacity. The appetite for different was there. The desire to see second-hand clothing in a ‘fashion show’ context was huge and this was before the current spotlight was shone on consuming with a sustainable mindset. I knew there was an appetite for it because I was quite literally feeling the energy in the room.
I was so pleased to be asked to photograph Morwenna Farrell’s latest work. We’ve worked together several times since we met a few years ago. That first meeting for coffee we turned up wearing almost identical outfits, so the creative relationship got off to a strong start!
Morwenna’s latest project was her most ambitious yet and it was great to be involved with this from photographing the campaign shoot to documenting her first fashion presentation catwalk show which involved models walking around the room under disco light to live music provided by The Moleeshakes.
The day before the show I also photographed the rehearsals. The three parts of the image creation for this latest collection has resulted in an interesting body of work and this is very much where I’m at with imagery – I want it to be something that lasts. I’ve factored sustainability into a lot of my work over the years. My final project at uni used vintage and second-hand fashion to question what a ‘fashion’ image is and what it could be…The project got me to the finals of the Graduate Fashion Week Fashion Photography Award. So, it’s very pleasing to be commissioned to make work with businesses who embrace second-hand and sustainability and understand where I’m coming from as a creative.
As I absolutely love a second-hand find myself, I completely get the value and joy of a one off piece that simply can’t be mass produced. Which is why I LOVE working with indie designers, makers, sellers, and creators. It’s important to me the image/campaign can live beyond a shot of the product. Which is why I work to create the spirit and the vibe of the business. With one off pieces, once the item in the images is sold, they’re gone so the images have to still offer value. They have to tell the story and show the attitude of the brand/designer/maker/person. Fashion meets art quite literally.
A recent trip to the Lake District resulted in something I don’t very often do, which is landscapes, although it’s a more surreal take than a quiet and calm look at one’s surroundings. It was just a micro project in August this year, but it’s been interesting to show these to people and see the reactions. Over Christmas I’ll be taking some time off to write this project up for my website and show the images as a collection. I’ll also be doing this with work created during my residency at the Norwich Shoe Factory, so in terms of new work to see, there’s quite a bit coming out during the rest of 2021.
Other projects to look out for include SCOTT, which is a music inspired project that’s ongoing. It’s still very much a work in progress so this is a bit of ‘stay tuned’ notification. 2022 will also see me creating a solo exhibition at Studio 20, Wensum Street in May. Again, it’s a more details to follow scenario but wow does it feel good to be planning for future events. It does feel like everything is still subject to change depending on how this ‘new normal’ develops but if the last 18 months has taught me anything, it’s that I can adapt…