Olivia Rose’s Boy London

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“This is one of my good friends Dapper,” Olivia Rose points out, as we pore over the many strikingly wistful close-ups that fill her portfolio. “He was arrested for carrying a corkscrew, for which he was going to open a bottle of wine. He went to prison for that! Oh, and this is Terry. Look at his double grill. His son’s name is Terry, and his dad’s name is Terry; he’s such a sweetheart, you know. He likes dancing to Haim.”

Rose is not one to shy away from the complex realities that exist within her work. The male-orientated portraits feature not the faces of your typical pin-up, agency model, but real lads and men, fresh off the street. Her repertoire of male muses originate from all walks of life; drug dealers, gang members, young London lads off of the local council estate – you name it. They have all been captured by Rose’s lens.

She is leading a new wave of photographic talent who, frustrated with the fashion industry’s stagnant stereotypes, are breathing life into what can all too easily seem a lifeless industry, championing personality and character via the unknown, the unique and the ugly, channelling her innovative aesthetic through her photography with fearless vigour, not only confronting the industry with the idea of imperfection, but also with issues of racism and classism attached to her work – issues that continue to flourish in institutions and society today.

“I can imagine what so many people might think when they look at my pictures,” says Rose. “This guy Mario; look at his dog’s prison tattoo. I met him on the street and was terrified. So I asked my friend to come along to the shoot with me, and when he arrived he was the sweetest guy ever. It’s just one of the many examples I’ve had over my career of judging people – judging people for the way they look, which is what all my work is about,” she explains.

“It was the same for the gang members I met in Kingston, Jamaica. After the shoot, they were going back to their grandmother’s houses for Mother’s Day, something you just can’t imagine, because you would never put your mind there. Because when you think of a gang member you think gun-toting, drive-by shooting, tattoo-getting drug dealer, right? And if I still think it, then God knows how many people are going to think it too.”

These raw, touching, anecdotal moments Rose expresses reveal an invaluable insight into the lives of her muses. The resulting portraits bleed all sorts of emotion and sexuality, depending on who sits behind the lens. Evoking a modern nostalgia through her analogue style, Rose lays her distinct sense of femininity onto her very masculine subjects.

Her photographic process centres around building strong relationships with her models, such as Jay who over time has become a firm friend, assistant and confidant. She has a knack for breaking down the hard barriers the young men she casts often bring to her shoots, sometimes spending 48 hours getting to known them, with beautiful, sensuous results.

As I speak with Rose, her passion is exhilarating and infectious. Yet the irony of her photographic life is that she never wanted to do it in the first place. Rejected by all her desired university courses, she ended up studying fashion photography at London College of Fashion – the only one that accepted her. “I wanted anything but photography. For the whole of the first year I thought I’d made a mistake. In the end one of my tutors, who came along halfway through the second year, completely changed my outlook on things; he made it OK for us to not shoot ‘fashion photography’ in inverted commas,” Rose laughs. “And suddenly I stopped feeling shit about myself. I was like, hold on a second, I’m better than you lot, and I went flying.”

Olivia began with shooting Polaroids, buying bin bags full of them off friends who were defecting to digital. She spent years keeping her head down to focus on her projects, especially The Lost Boys. “I had no interest, no care in the world, in anyone else seeing it; it was ultimately all for me, which I think is what impressed people about the project.” This fearless approach led to Rose being approached by i-D magazine, eventually turning her into a staple in the magazine and online.

“What i-D was impressed with was that I hadn’t just gone through the route of publicity, publicity, publicity and taken any job. Funnily enough, the first major job i-D offered me was to shoot clubbers at night with flash. I don’t do that, so I had this awful thing where I turned down 15 pages in i-D,” she explains.

Often called arrogant, stubborn or ballsy by her peers, she aims to “really stay true” to her firmly grounded aesthetic. For Rose, it’s not about balls, “it’s that I do a thing, my thing, and I stick to it; saying no actually worked in my favour”.

Always inspired by i-D’s rebellious nature, family ethos, and the magazine’s infamous straight-up photographs from its very first issue, this influenced the idea behind last summer’s collaboration with the Barbican and Ram Place Fashion Market, which celebrated local, emerging and established talent in the heart of Hackney, East London.

“For me it’s as much about the people around me, in a kind of Nan Goldin, Corinne Day kind of way; about identifying who around me needs their picture taken, because sometimes my understanding of a person is more important than the aesthetic of a person. It can bring out an amazing image that you really feel a connection with.”

This unique approach is bridled with the fact that she has little interest in the fashion draped across her models’ sculpted bodies. “It’s always going to be about the characters first and everything else later,” Rose says.

Her decision to focus on the male body has been subjected to its fair share of criticism. “A family member said to me, ‘How are you going to make a career out of sleeping with hot men?’, and I thought, ‘How fucking dare you!’ That’s such a limited way of looking at what I do.

“I won’t lie, there have been times when I’ve slept with my models, or maybe I’ll find someone who I’ve had a one-night stand with and think, ‘You’re amazing and I want to take your picture,’” she recalls. “But does that matter? I could never have imagined years ago that anyone would ever question this, because for me it’s really a natural thing.

“There is always going to be an element of who am I attracted to. I’m attracted to men. So that’s probably why I go for that aesthetic, and that’s what I work best with, in exactly the same way that there are hundreds of thousands of male fashion photographers who literally shag their way through a modelling agency. We might want to sweep that knowledge under the carpet and pretend it never happens, but in reality it is an amazing way to get a good picture, to have a connection. And if that happens through flirting, or if it’s through traction, then I think that’s fine.”

Rose is unapologetic as she faces up to these debates surrounding female sexuality and social prejudice. Her work celebrates the male body in all its forms, and is an exciting contribution to the meteoric rise of menswear shaping the fashion world of late. She pins her success on her unflinching attitude: “It’s taken me a really long time to believe in what I am doing – to believe in the worth of it. If I could go back, I would tell myself, ‘don’t be afraid’, because being fearless means you can do so much with it. The bigger my balls get, the better I do in life!”

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Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.