Back in 2014 while Liv Siddall was Features Editor here at It’s Nice That, she came across the work of photographer Francesca Allen as part of It’s Nice That’s Graduates. Four years later, Francesca – or Frenchie to her friends – is a successful photographer and a dear friend of Liv’s. To celebrate the release of Francesca’s first book, Aya, Liv details why Francesca has the ability to photograph women like no one else, not only because of her photographic eye but because of her personality too..
I met Frenchie back in the summer of 2014. I say that as if the summer of 2014 was some kind of heady daydream, but it was fairly uneventful. I think both of us were sort of living lives with our fingers crossed behind our backs, wishing to be transported into a bygone decade where things were a bit more exciting.
Back then, I was working in my first job as features editor at It’s Nice That, helping to run The Graduates programme. Meanwhile, Frenchie had just left art school with a bit of a bad taste in her mouth. I remember seeing her photographs and immediately knew she was something very special. No question about it: exceptional.
She’s got a way with a camera, you see. You can recognise her work a mile off, despite how many people have a crack at imitating it. Sometimes I’m walking down a London road and I see a billboard and know it was Frenchie winking and darting around behind that lens. She’s got a way of seeing women that other photographers don’t seem to possess. I think it’s because of the stuff that goes on which we don’t get to see: the way she is when she’s let into someone’s house to take a portrait. The chit chat she serves as the subject awkwardly prepares to submit themselves is that expert hairdresser chat: self-deprecating, non-judgemental nattering about clothes, nails, holidays, personal disasters, embarrassing things that happened at work. That sort of thing. She disarms people, regardless of who they are. And you can see that in her work.
How else would she have convinced so many people to reveal themselves to her? And I don’t mean someone just taking their kit off. Frenchie’s earliest work, taken when she was just 16, saw her have the foresight – and the confidence – to document her sister’s tentative foray into puberty. The images were so good that Frenchie’s poor sister had no choice but to let her put them into the world. An early photo of her sister standing in a sports field wearing a boyish t-shirt, with ruffled, candy floss pink hair, train-track braces peeking out from two parted lips is sensational. Her work has a vibe to it that has since been imitated by countless photographers (and brands’ marketing campaigns) who desperately want to harness whatever magic that photo possesses and have it as their own.
To me, no one’s quite nailed it. Anyone can photograph a pretty young girl in front of a lilac tree (and they do), but not many manage to hit that high note, that joyful honesty and cheerful sneakiness that Frenchie projects. Frenchie knows how to capture fading youth, the pale skin of an underarm, a curl of hair tucked behind an ear, a snaggletooth which only emerges mid-grin.
Frenchie’s magic is very much present in Aya: her first book, published by Libraryman. Having spent a few years working on editorial and client-based projects for the likes of Stella McCartney, i-D and Twin, she was keen to expand her output into some more personal work and so, allured by the lights and visual opportunities presented by Japan, in the summer of 2016 she flew out to Tokyo to look for inspiration.
What she found was Aya Yanese, also known as Aya Gloomy, a slightly eccentric musician and model who she was introduced to through mutual friends. Frenchie was so taken with Aya that she travelled back to Tokyo a year later with the intention of shadowing her and documenting her life. They spent just under a month together, unable to speak the same language but becoming close friends.
The result of this month is a study of Aya’s charming and slightly wild day-to-day life which manages to tell the story of a whirlwind romance of a new-found friendship, while simultaneously being an affectionate portrait of Japanese youth. Aya led Francesca to her home, to parties, museums, parks and through the back streets and hidden corners of Tokyo. Throughout this whirlwind trip, Francesca shot around 200 rolls of film.
While Frenchie has worked for countless brands, magazines and record labels over the years, this series is her first fully-fledged personal project. It sees her take a long-running passion of photographing girls, and applying it to the beguiling Aya. What we have here is not just a series of portraits of a beautiful, youthful Japanese woman, but a documentation of a strong, curious friendship blossoming over the course of a year and cemented in those few weeks in Tokyo. “I didn’t want to make a book about Japan,” explains Frenchie. “I wanted to make a book about Aya just as someone I had met. I wanted to show friendship, and also try and truly capture someone from many different angles, showing every side of their personality.”
Aya is a mix of studio shots, peaceful portraits and snapshot documentary style photos documenting two young women exploring an impulsive, riotous and meaningful relationship, devoid of language but rich in communication. They taught each other a lot in the three weeks they had together in Japan. “It was an unusual amount of time to spend with anyone without speaking,” Frenchie admits.
In Aya lies the proof, or the result, of a three-week-long, wordless conversation between two extraordinary women on the topic of friendship, intimacy, and strange beauty. To me, it’s Francesca Jane Allen at her very best.
Aya, published by Libraryman, launches this evening (4 September) at Tender Books and can be purchased here.