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Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

Features / Photography

“Unless you’ve put the graft in, you’ll be found out”: the action-packed photography of Elaine Constantine

Words:

Daphne Milner

Photography:

Elaine Constantine

“I was a teenager in the late 1980s and unemployed,” Elaine Constantine tells me first off. “Like most kids my age at that time in the north west of England, my prospects were bleak. I’d been at a bad school and unless you’d been lucky enough to go to a grammar school, you came away at 16 still struggling with the basics.” Renowned for her honest, expressive and observational photography, Elaine is now one of the most well-respected photographers in the fashion industry, a Bafta-nominated film director and has taken part in legendary exhibitions like Tate Britain’s Look at Me and the V&A’s Imperfect Beauty. 


Elaine was one of the first photographers I became aware of as a young teen; her arresting photographs of northern England’s youth culture struck me due to their bold colours and off-centre framing. “You see, at the time, I was into the idea of photographing myself and my friends looking cool in our latest charity shop finds,” she says. “I’d been a mod and was graduating into a suedehead. I’d got a good collection of shirts and tonic suits, fine brogues and loafers and, of course, a scooter. I felt the need to record it so that, if anything, I’d at least get some clear photos of us standing around in this quality gear — and with the Lambretta of course.” Story-telling was, and continues to be, at the heart of Elaine’s photography. Unapproachable professional models with stock poses never interested her. Instead, the photographer gravitated towards unconventional characters with a tale to tell.

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First Fashion Shoot, 1991. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

After receiving a camera from her aunt as a teenager, Elaine joined a photography club advertised in a local arts and crafts centre in Bury, Lancashire. It was during her time at the club that Elaine first got inspired, particularly after reading photographer Chris Killip’s book In Flagrante. “The kids in some of his photos were into the same music as me and my friends were. They looked like us, only they weren’t posing, they were mid-dance or mid-something, anything, not aware of the camera. The images blew me away,” she recollects. This moment of recognition fuelled Elaine’s passion, prompting her to sit a qualification that led her to become Nick Knight’s photographic assistant. “I discovered I had a terrific work ethic and a tendency to obsess, two things that when combined can compensate for a lack of confidence and, indeed, a lack of talent.”

Gap was Elaine’s first big, high-publicity client. In the early 1990s, she was jetted over to San Francisco to shoot the clothing brand’s new campaign. The photographer’s creative vision was progressive, her shoot radical. At a time when commercial campaigns featured the same models posing against white backgrounds, Elaine encouraged her sitters to be light-hearted and playful in the hillsides of Sonoma Valley. “I thought the pictures were full of life. They had a real honesty to them and didn’t feel posed. Unfortunately, the whole shoot was canned. Gap played it safe and went back to the studio. The final pictures felt fake again — you know that posy, controlled thing that makes the clothes look as perfect as possible, but takes the humanity out of it,” Elaine says. Despite the initial disappointment, the shoot was an exemplar of Elaine’s refreshing, innovative outlook. As she puts it: “I made good money, flew first class — I was like a pauper in the Ritz”.

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Tea Dance. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

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Tea Dance. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

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Tea Dance. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

One of Elaine’s most celebrated projects is Tea Dance, a series she shot in 2002 documenting the English tradition of afternoon tea dancing. Populated by elderly dancers with their hands locked and clothes twirling, Elaine’s unconventional angles and stark colour contrasts are captivating. “I thought the culture would make great subject matter for a stills project,” Elaine tells me. “I was just looking to capture the spirit and the atmosphere of those events. I wasn’t working for anyone so didn’t have any particular need to show anything other than reality as I saw it.” Elaine’s reality transcends beyond the stills; Tea Dance is a celebration of the dancing couples’ dynamism and vibrancy, while the observational shots place the viewer at the centre of the action. 

Tea Dance is characterised by its honest, heartwarming portrayal of northern English dancers, a truthfulness that Elaine tries to incorporate into her commercial work as well. “I’ve always tried to bring something that feels human into my photography when it comes to casting and direction and so, if it’s a large brand, then that is always my starting point. It can sometimes be a real fight to use talent who are more natural in front of the camera over famous models,” the photographer says. As a result, Elaine’s photographs are anything but monotonous. Action-packed and energetic, she waits to push the shutter until her models are dancing or chatting, riding their bikes or getting drunk. It’s this fearlessness that lends her work a compelling authenticity and sees her photographs featured time and time again in the likes of American Vogue and Nike campaigns. 

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Northern Soul. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

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Northern Soul. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

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Northern Soul. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

Film was, for Elaine, a natural progression from her animated photographs and led to a Bafta nomination for her 2014 debut film, Northern Soul. “That whole idea of ‘fashion story’ was baffling to me,” Elaine points out. “To most fashion magazines the word ‘story’ really means a theme. I’d get really frustrated with these editors who would say stuff like, ‘it’s a scarf story, it’s all about the scarf’. I’d want my ‘story’ to start from a character not a repeated item of clothing,” she explains. Consequently, Elaine sat down and put pen to paper in order to write Northern Soul’s script. She soon discovered that developing storylines and character arcs was a step in the right direction. 

Northern Soul explores American soul music’s impact on British dance culture through the eyes of two Lancashire teens. Elaine describes the film as a tribute to her childhood years spent watching older teenagers come alive when listening to Tony Clarke and Gloria Jones. “It was pure escapism to discover soul music because it was a pretty tough and limited existence back then. To a lot of the kids in Lancashire at the time it was a revelation, an epiphany. I wanted to capture that bleak daytime existence versus this expressive, passionate night culture in 100 minutes. I wanted to show what it was like to discover it for the first time and how it could change a child’s life.” From colourful dance floor shots to clips of a bleak British 1970s small town, Northern Soul is a moving love letter to a site-specific subculture that feverishly swept across England’s north.

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Gucci Antinoeion. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

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Gucci Antinoeion. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art

Elaine’s latest venture sees her shooting Gucci’s Antinoeion collection. In characteristic Elaine style, the photographs are brimming with bold colours and candid movements. Yet, this job differed from her usual shoot: “I had a slightly unusual experience, in that the talent was already cast and the location was ‘literally’ set in stone. Most of the kids they were using were very shy individuals, kind of awkward in a way, which tends to be the opposite of what I look for,” she says. Set among ancient Roman ruins, Antinoeion is a testament to Elaine’s innovative skill set and resourceful ability to incorporate her aesthetic into any job. With the help of her acting coach Paul Sadot, Elaine encouraged her sitters to feel confident and relaxed as she snapped the models during unsuspecting moments. It was an experience which, Elaine says, allowed her to reinvent herself as a photographer.

“When I was starting out I would try and do a test shoot every day. I’d have a job in the day and test at night. To make it in this world you need to be an obsessive workaholic or you’re not going to float. It is hard work to find a unique vision and, even then, it’s a huge commitment. You need to make as many mistakes as you can when you’re starting out, and always assume that everything you do is a test for something better. There’s no easy route — unless you have connections and money, in which case you may have a little time in the limelight but eventually, unless you’ve put the graft in, you’ll be found out.”

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Gucci Antinoeion. Elaine Constantine @ Industry Art