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Features / Photography

A fierce portrait of the battles, snaps and outrageous outfits of voguing culture from Ewen Spencer

Words:

Emily Gosling
The attitude, the poise and the glittering glory of the costumes make the voguing scene one that’s instantly compelling: its place in gay history and its fierce sense of community make it a vital part of 20th Century history. For the uninitiated, voguing is a type of dancing typified by spiky, stylish movements and narrative gestures. While Madonna made the word part of pop parlance, the scene itself is rather more complex than the queen of pop conveyed. Its roots lie in Harlem, New York, where during the late 80s the gay ballroom scene saw an explosion in the style’s popularity. Decadent competitions saw members of different “houses” – family-like collectives – battle it out on the dance floor, with many of the catwalk-inspired poses and moves forming direct, gestural insults.

While the American 80s scene is documented beautifully in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film Paris is Burning, there’s little documentation of voguing’s flourishing contemporary European scene. The man who’s changing that is Ewen Spencer, king of documenting subcultures and managing to capture the sublime moments within them that others would miss.

“Right from the first one I went to a voguing competition I had visual tourettes – I just couldn’t stop taking pictures”

Ewen Spencer

Ewen’s fascination with voguing began when a man he’s met on a shoot showed him footage of a Stockholm waacking [a voguing sub-genre]. He then decided to travel round Europe’s voguing battles, visiting cities including Berlin, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Tallinn, in Estonia. “Right from the first one I went to I had visual tourettes – I just couldn’t stop taking pictures,” says Ewen. “It was a lovely light, in the backroom of an underground club in Rotterdam. People had come from all over the world, and there was just this mad thing happening.”

That was in the summer of 2014, and the products of Ewen’s “visual tourettes” since have now been gathered into a new limited edition book, Come, Bring, Punish. With lush colours and Ewen’s candid way with image-making, it’s a beautiful document around a powerful, and empowering corner of the world of subcultures he bases his work on.

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Ewen Spencer:

“Voguing is a true subculture,” says Ewen. “It has its own linguistics and subgenres.” Through this project, we’re also introduced to a broader look at a world which had seemed so firmly entrenched in New York. But while voguing now has a global reach and a devoted European competition, its roots in LGBT rights and ideas of being marginalised are still a crucial subtext. Ewen explains: “While there’s still a lot of camp, it’s so broad now, and voguing incorporates tricking, breaking and ballroom. It started out because as gay, black men at the time [in the 80s] it was very unlikely you would get onto the catwalk.” That’s where the name comes from, after all: if these men couldn’t get their bodies into the pages of Vogue, they would take the fiercest and most beautiful tropes of the models that could and make sure they could be the star of the show elsewhere.”

As Ewen’s images prove, voguing’s outlandish costumes, angles are colours are paramount; and like any show, the audience reactions make for as captivating photos as the dancers themselves. “There’s a huge crowd reaction and response if your performance isn’t good or accurate,” Ewen explains. “Hopefully that comes through in the shoot – I was in the middle of the crowd a lot of the time, and when you’re there you’re as much at the heart of it as the people performing.”

“It’s a sexy book: there’s lots of men and lingerie and sweat”

Ewen Spencer

Even though the book has been completed, this isn’t the end of the beautiful romance between Ewen and the voguing scene, and he still plans to travel the world to competitions. For now though, we have Come, Bring, Punish, and its design aims to reflect the bold, unapologetic style of the dance itself. Designed by Berlin-based studio Yukiko Design, the large-format book is described by Ewen as “big and brassy. It’s a sexy book: there’s lots of men and lingerie and sweat.”

With such universally brilliant themes, why on earth don’t we see more voguing in the UK? “We like getting pissed and fucked up in the evening,” says Ewen sagely. “People want to get on it here, but [in Europe] they don’t get fucked every weekend, they might drink once a month or so.”

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Ewen Spencer: Come, Bring, Punish

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Ewen Spencer: Come, Bring, Punish

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Ewen Spencer: Come, Bring, Punish

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Ewen Spencer: Come, Bring, Punish

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Ewen Spencer: Come, Bring, Punish