Neil Drabble, a Manchester-raised and London-based photographer, artist and academic, has launched a new long-form publication, titled Book of Roy. Shot over the course of eight years between 1998-2005, Neil photographed an American teenager named Roy. Authentic, telling and in some ways utterly familiar, the series is an extensive documentation of a young male growing from and navigating through adolescence into adulthood.
Having studied photography during his foundation course in Manchester, Neil was first introduced to the medium during a time of pre-internet – but it was this analogue and hands-on approach that allowed him to fully understand the process. “I still remember the magic of the picture appearing on the paper as it floated back and forth in the developer,” Neil tells It’s Nice That. “I think that is a very powerful memory for most photographers I have spoken to who came to photography in a pre-digital age.” Although instantly drawn in by the spellbinding process of creating and developing an image, he didn’t properly engage with photography until he had left art school a few years later – a time after he had acquired his grandfather’s old enlarger and when he would visit the library to study technical books.
Back then, photography was a completely different ball game. Neil would utilise the V&A print room as his main resource, trudging through boxes of original prints from photography giants in order to gain inspiration. Now, London is a pure minefield of exceptional talent and influences from every corner – which, alongside the rise of all-things digital, has encouraged an influx of imagery at every beck and call. “Nowadays there are pictures everywhere and exhibitions running constantly, but years ago it was a very different picture, and galleries or exhibitions were few and far between – London wasn’t the cultural capital it is today,” says Neil. “Photography was still very sidelined as being ‘legitimate art’, and exhibitions were a rare occurrence and from a narrow band of practice.”
Channelling his interests to the utmost and, of course, the increased accessibility of his medium, Neil began his next venture. “The process began very casually,” explains Neil of his reasons for starting Book of Roy. Having been introduced to Roy’s father in England – who invited Neil and his wife over for a visit if they should ever be in New England – Neil and his wife planned a trip to New York a couple of months later and stopped by their residence in Boston. One thing to note is there there wasn’t any real intention of it becoming a larger project. “The whole process grew organically,” says Neil, “and, during the next visit, I made some more pictures with Roy, and when I was looking at the contact sheets later, I considered the potential of this becoming a larger and longer body of work.”
Upon agreement of dates where Neil could visit, Roy was photographed on numerous occasions, with some years more frequented than others. Each trip would last for at least two or three weeks – “We worked together – portraiture is a collaborative process,” says Neil. “Roy was aware that I was photographing him, so I had no aim to be inconspicuous. The work may borrow from the visual language of ‘documentary’ photography, but these are not fly on the wall pictures.” Naturally, the project grew into a record of magnificent pre-adulthood filled with all its pubescent glory. Formed into a cohesive collective series, the viewer is transcended into Roy’s world – watching him transform physically into a man, as well observing a friendship blossoming between the photographer and his subject.
In fact, Neil admits that the project only worked because of the friendship that developed between Roy and himself – “I don’t think it’s the type of thing you can pre-determine.” During the course of the project, Neil would notice the changes in Roy physically and psychologically, and overtime they had met up, they would quickly re-establish their friendship and working process. “Over time, you do develop a sort of symbiotic relationship, and there were some instances where Roy’s body language or actions reminded me of myself – I think it’s a time (teenage) when you are very receptive to all manner of influence and stimulus as you develop to work out your own psyche and self-image,” Neil continues. “For me, Roy became like a younger brother – and we remain close still today.”
Book of Roy (2019) by Neil Drabble published by MACK
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.