What are the first things that spring to mind when you think of the North? Cagoules? Football? Northern Soul?
Preconceptions and stereotypes about Northern England are so entrenched that it can be hard to know how they got there, but curators Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray hope to change that this winter with a show examining how photography, fashion and art have developed in the region over the last century. And in doing so, they hope to demonstrate – and celebrate – North England’s immense influence on global culture and style.
Running from 08 November-04 February at Somerset House, North: Fashioning Identity continues a show that Stoppard, SHOWstudio’s editor-at-large, and Murray, academic and lecturer at Manchester School of Art and Central Saint Martins, exhibited at Open Eye Gallery earlier this year. Featuring over 100 works, the exhibition includes fashion photographers such as Alasdair McLellan, Corinne Day, David Sims, and Glen Luchford, but also documentary photography dating from the 1930s to the present day.
“In the mid-2000s there was a resurgence of interest in work that explicitly referenced Northern England,” says Murray. “Agyness Deyn [who comes from Littleborough, Greater Manchester] was becoming quite a successful model and practitioners like Alasdair McLellan [who was born in Doncaster] were becoming recognised names, and their work constantly referenced the North. Then things like Brexit happened, and there seemed to be a resurgent interest in what the North actually is now. People wanted to recognise the North more and explore it again.”
“It’s about learning how common themes and shared understandings are built,” says Stoppard. “If you say ‘Northern England’ to someone, they have a visual idea of what it looks like and that’s been encouraged by fashion photography. There are motifs and themes that people imagine in the same way as they would with Paris, New York or Rio. We just wanted to explore where those things come from, and to work out which stereotypes are true I suppose.”
“These things are kind of embedded in the national consciousness,” Murray agrees. “I hope it [the exhibition] provokes younger people to think about what it means to them, about what the ‘sense of the North’ is these days, and how it has changed since the 1980s and 90s.”
The exhibition includes images from Open Eye Gallery’s archive, which includes documentary shots from now-internationally renown photographers such as Martin Parr, Tom Wood, and Michelle Sank. But it also includes many images by little-known photographers, says Murray, and for him that was part of the appeal.
“In the 1980s and 90s particularly, [the gallery] had a history of exploring the areas around Liverpool,” he explains. “There’s so much work in there by people who are massive names now, but there’s also a lot from people you’d never have heard of or who maybe only ever did one project.
“The really exciting thing about having Open Eye involved was not only in discovering the work, but also in recognising the value of an institution like that for surrounding area. It provides this narrative for the city, and a lot of these images haven’t been seen for years.”
The exhibition also includes interviews with fashion and set designers taken from the SHOWstudio site, and fashion pieces such as Raf Simon’s contemporary take on the parka; it felt counter-intuitive not to mix in these elements, say the curators – even wilfully ignorant, given the importance the various mediums have had for each other.
“It would be ridiculous to separate them by medium because it’s all coming from the same place and shared experience, just from different generations,” explains Stoppard. “It’s important to show all that work together because there are just so many common points. I love that we have Turner Prize winners alongside documentary photographers from the 30s, alongside 23-year-old fashion graduates.”
But Stoppard and Murray resisted going with the flow when it came to who was represented, and how – making a concerted effort to highlight diversity, and include otherwise under-represented Northern communities. “There are lots of stories about the North that are told time and time again that tend to focus on well-dressed straight white men,” says Stoppard. “We felt very keenly that there were a lot of important stories that hadn’t been told yet that we wanted to try and tell – for example, we tried to put a big focus on the LGBT community.”
And while they feel they have tugged at the stereotypes, and made an effort to be inclusive, Stoppard and Murray are also open to criticisms from those who feel that their North isn’t represented. It’s a complex project, they argue, and one that continues to evolve. “It’s an invitation to explore,” says Murray. “We want to energise people to feel that their point of view of the North is as valid as everybody else’s.”
North: Fashioning Identity opens in Somerset House, the Strand on 8 November until 4 February 2018. www.somersethouse.org.uk