As a photographer, capturing the essence of a person is no easy task. So, when Brynley Odu Davies resolved to create a series that not only celebrated the UK’s up-and-coming contemporary artists, but their artistic output too, it could have felt like an insurmountable task. Yet the photographer was passionate about the project. “Documenting an artist in their studio space felt special and important from the very start,” Brynley says. “There was something natural and real about it, capturing the artist at ease in their own environment surrounded by their work, and in doing so telling a bit of their story.”
Brynley wanted to ensure the project rejected London-centricity, instead representing the nation of artists as a whole. He travelled widely, from Glasgow to Northern Ireland to the south coast. “Having grown up in Bath, I knew there was life and creativity outside of London, and I wanted to see it for myself,” he says. What’s more, Brynley wanted the project to support the artists in some way. “It’s a powerful thing to be able to take a professional portrait of an artist; the image acts as a document of that individual at a certain age, time and stage in their career and becomes an unchanging record as they advance and reach new successes.”
In line with this thinking, Brynley wanted to give the series a sense of visual grandeur, “taking these images of young artists working now in their studios within the tradition of portraits of great artists of the past”. When setting up the images, Brynley opted for a “clean” look – this, he tells us, proved quite difficult in the context of artists’ studios. He would work with the artists to work out the set-up and curate their artworks into a “pleasing” arrangement. He also stuck mainly to natural light, sometimes using two softbox LED lights. “Over the three-year span of the project, taking artist portraits literally became second nature – I would walk into the studio and nearly always already see the best shot in my mind.”
Understandably, such a people-facing project has resulted in a whole range of images and stories. One portrait from the series that resonates with Brynley is of Salomé Wu, painter of dream-like, ethereal works. He sees these as some of the best images he’s ever taken; the paintings she had been painting before her arrival seemed to “bleed” in the background. “You don’t often find people who feel like a piece of art themselves; she embodies this feeling,” he recalls. “During this shoot, I really felt like I was capturing a true artist in their element.” Other artists proved similarly intriguing characters, like the collaborative duo Anna Choutova and Andrea Gomis, who wore the outfits matching the ones they’re wearing in the self-portraits featured in the shot. The final image has a satisfying sense of synthesis, the ‘four’ mirrors mirroring each other, portraying the two artists’ deep connection. “I think this photograph will continue to make me happy for a long time,” says Brynley. “I always enjoy looking at it.”
The project didn’t come without its struggles, especially with much of it occurring in amongst the many Covid lockdowns. Many of the shoots involved wearing masks and social distancing. “I was pretty stressed for most of it, especially at the earlier stages of the series; I felt like I was battling the pandemic to keep shooting and working and not lose my career,” says Brynley. When he first photographed Kemi Onabule in 2021, she was pregnant with twins. Naturally, both she and Brynley kept their distance with their masks on. After the shoot the pair stayed in contact, before in 2023 bumping into each other at an exhibition. “She stared hard at me and said she had never actually seen my face before this moment,” Brynley says. “This was a really funny moment and really represents the Covid years.”
In this context, Brynley hopes that the project gives an insight into the lives of artists at such an unsettled and unpredictable time. “Despite it being such a difficult time, for me it was actually very positive, as I was able to connect with so many young talented people who were persevering with their practices nonetheless,” says the photographer. “It felt powerful to document these incredible young artists all across the UK, and I hope when people see the images, they connect to the spirit of creative resilience that I felt while making the series.”
You can see Brynley’s portraits at Studio West in Kensington, London until 31 May.
Adebayo Bolaji, Croydon, South London, 2020 (Copyright © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST, 2023)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.