London has been in a crisis of gentrification for a while now. Across the city, venues created by and for marginalised communities vanish in the dozens every year. Nobody knows this better than Hackney-born-and-bred photographer Roxy Lee, whose photography has effectively become a modern-day archive of contemporary queer nightlife in London. “I first became interested in documenting things photographically as my home borough began to gentrify,” Roxy tells It’s Nice That. “The gentrification process in Hackney and other parts of London made me very aware from a young age that things can just disappear, and it’s completely out of control,” she says. Roxy’s lament for spaces come and gone is what fuelled her to “take pictures of things and people I love and experience,” she explains, pointing to the queer nightlife. The excitement and joy that permeates her 35mm images of what’s still left across the city is an effective way of recuperating the loss the London queer community have collectively endured over the years.
Being a mainstay in queer London nightlife herself, Roxy’s work quickly began to take the scene by storm. To be captured by her quick 35mm lens in the dark walls of a club became a bonafide honour, and garnered attention from the likes of BBC, Gay Times, and Vogue. But, Roxy doesn’t let it get to her head – she still carries an air of charm and a relaxed approach to her work. “I’m not too sure whether there’s any kind of formula to what exactly catches my eyes when I’m at parties and events,” she says. It’s hard to believe that Roxy captures these iridescent images in the midst of partying, as each contains a miniature world and story of its own that bursts with queer personhood. “Obviously, I love a good look,” she clarifies. “I think style is one of the most important factors of going out, and I don’t necessarily mean you have to dress yourself up to go out.” Instead, Roxy believes that “nightclubs, parties, and the like, allow people a space to express themselves stylistically that nowhere else does.” And, whilst style is very important for Roxy when she’s scouring the club for an iconic shot, she remains steadfast in her commitment to hedonism: “It’s what I aim to capture the most,” she tells us.
Roxy’s Instagram has now amassed somewhat of a cult following in the regulars and devotees of the London queer nightlife scene. It’s an archival space to look back on and celebrate parties, moments of gathering, and unadulterated fun. “The main priority for me is mine and my mates’ memories,” Roxy explains on her approach to a night out with the camera. “If I can remind someone of a funny moment or an outfit they’ve worn and felt amazing in, then that’s the job done,” she says proudly. It’s a kind of “sensory spunk” she tells us she looks for, and nowadays never goes to a party, club, or event without her camera. “I carry it with me like most people do their phones!” Roxy’s particular penchant for capturing her friends’ array of drag in the London circuit landed her a gig shooting promotional material for the wildly successful second series of RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K.. “It was really fun,” she says. “I felt quite at ease if I’m honest, purely because a few members of the cast were familiar faces and old friends,” Roxy admits, referencing her kinship with London mainstay Bimini Bon-Boulash and familiarity with queens Asttina Mandella, Tayce, and A’whora. “I think the biggest difference between that shoot and some of my more personal work was using digital alongside the 35mm,” she explains of the big-budget professional arena of the BBC. “In clubs, I’m very used to not being able to see.”
The flash-and-its-gone aspect of 35mm candid photography is actually what Roxy loves the most. The “the preciousness that 35mm puts into every frame” keeps Roxy moving in the dark, barely able to see how the lens frames the image and focused more acutely on the moment she can see with her own two eyes. But, a big part of her work is also curatorial. This is evident in her Instagram, and her successful bi-annual zine Vinegar Sniffs. “It’s a really fulfilling way for me to get work out that may not have been seen otherwise,” Roxy says. Her commitment to bringing a new queer archive clearly remains strong, and she tells us she’s only “gonna keep going.” At the end of the day, “work doesn’t start and finish for me,” she explains. “It has become extremely habitual and I don’t see myself ever stopping.’
Roxy Lee: Vinegar Sniffs (Copyright © Roxy Lee, 2020)