Famously described by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp’ as “a sensibility (as distinct from an idea)”, the appreciation of camp was born out of artifice and opulence, a vulgar fascination with theatrical exaggeration. And while it has long been tied up with LGBTQI culture, it has become a compelling way to convey messages without limits.
“To me, camp is a very powerful thing,” says Phillip Prokopiou. “It’s a form of satire – a way to exaggerate and ridicule things that are very serious.”
Prokopiou, a South Africa-born, London-based photographer behind an eponymous studio, which he co-founded with his partner-in-life-and-art Panagiotis Poimenidis, has long been fascinated with the power of kitsch to communicate our deepest hopes, fears and fantasies – whether they manifest in the form of a moustachioed Virgin Mary (stage name: Virgin Xtravaganzah) sitting chastely in the glow of ‘Gawd’’s glory, or an otherworldly extraterrestrial gazing into the distance.
“I like the dichotomy of it,” he says. “It’s very frivolous, and it has a very specific aesthetic, but it’s also talking about more serious topics. That’s kind of my approach to everything; I love things that are either really good taste or really bad taste. I’m not interested in the in-between.”
Prokopiou originally studied costume and fashion design, coming to photography four years ago when he realised it was not so much clothing he wanted to create as the images capturing it. “I’ve always been interested in visual arts and popular culture,” he says. “All my favourite designers were the lavish, extravagant 1980s and 1990s designers – Mugler, Gaultier, Lacroix.”
Newly living in London, he picked up a camera. “A friend of mine from the east London club scene started a night for drag queens and queer-identifying folk, and asked if I would take some pictures of another friend. So we set up a studio in my bedroom – a kind of makeshift, Bedouin, decadent harem scene. One thing quickly led to another, and here we are.”
Prokopiou is drawn to powerful, marginalised characters, which London’s subcultural hotbed cultivates in droves. “The subjects I look for are the people who have a different outlook on life. It’s about an attitude,” he says.
Instagram provides a fertile ground from which to cast them, and once he has, he and Poimenidis set out to build a world around them from whatever they can find. “I get asked a lot about how much I rely on post production,” Prokopiou says. “People ask, ‘How much of this is trickery?’ And I say, ‘There’s a lot of trickery – but it’s real trickery.’”
Wigs and make-up account for a large part and there’s ingenuity at play too. “That underwater effect you see was made using a plastic bag. And that skyline? It’s a backdrop I bought on eBay for £2.”
Chiara Bardelli Nonino, photo editor for Vogue Italia, nominated Studio Prokopiou for this year’s Ones To Watch. She describes the work as, “Striking, an uncanny mix of queer culture, classical portraiture and kitsch religious iconography. What makes them so contemporary is how their images exude a complete freedom from any canon: freedom from standard photography aesthetic, from a fixed idea of the self, from a mainstream concept of beauty.
“It seems like the characters they portray have a liquid identity that can be reinvented over and over in each new photograph, making them otherworldly at first glance, but on a deeper level, surprisingly relatable.”
studioprokopiou.com This article is taken from BJP’s 2018 Ones to Watch issue www.thebjpshop.com Phillip Prokopiou is one of five Ones to Watch whose work BJP will be exhibiting this year at Peckham 24, which takes place over the Photo London weekend from 18-20 May www.1854.photography/2018/05/bjp-peckham24/