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My Generation: Leeds New Modernists

My Generation: Leeds New Modernists
Written by Casey Orr  05/12/2016

For the past forty years, every new generational sub-culture has looked back to discover the art, style and culture of the 1960s and '70s, appropriating and incorporating the music and style of those decades into a modern experience. Leeds, along with the rest of Britain, has its club nights, bands, record stores and clothes shops dedicated to the music and fashion of the beats, the mods, the skins and the punks. The young people of 'The Z Generation', photographed here, are rummaging through the archives, but with the added desire for the technologies those decades utilised.

'My Generation – Leeds New Modernists' is a collection of portraits of this new generation.

It was a year ago, at Immy and Ione Lamb's eighteenth birthday party, when I got the itch that became this project. Here were Leeds' coolest teens, all hairspray and eyeliner, sharp-cut suits and turtlenecks, jumping around to each other's bands and scratchy record collections.

The Who sang 'Talkin' 'Bout My Generation…' as the teenagers danced in a loose circle, singing the lyrics at each other. No irony, just a yearning for something beautifully imperfect, raw and passionate, a lifestyle that wasn't quantized, autotuned, Photoshopped.

They're a generation immersed in technology, coming of age at a time when the social and political climate my generation knew seems to be dismantling in front of their eyes. There are many battles to fight in the world they're growing into. The optimism, activism and passions for equality and freedom of the 1960s, built on physicality, on gathering and shouting, are needed today more than ever.

The digital revolution has made communication easier, but it can also leave us unsatisfied. The sophistication of digital technology coupled with a consumer and capitalist society can leave us feeling disconnected and isolated, not just from other people, but from the processes of the technology itself.

The big old Mamiya film camera with its clunking hand-cranked mechanisms is a joy to use again after these years with my ugly computerised digital camera. We play Bowie and The Doors loudly and everyone jumps around in the studio, posing and playacting and generally having a laugh. I love working in this way, collaborating, talking, playing and taking pictures.

Mechanical, electrical and analogue represent a past where, from the perspective of our digitally-saturated world, technology had a presence which, when coupled with embodied events and community, could be experienced as something real, something authentic.

I notice after the first session that this generation has a creative and healthy disregard for the rules and codes of dress for these subcultures. There is a plundering and cross-dressing of mod, punk, skinhead and glam. This is a generation who have grown up with the internet and its ability to democratize everything, cultivating this pick and mix attitude. They don't seem to adhere to the same stifling rules about gender and identity either. They're breaking down traditional roles right in front of our eyes and replacing them with a more fluid sense of self.

For Katie's beatnik portrait we all watch a YouTube clip of Audrey Hepburn's jazz club dance in the film 'Funny Face'. We play it again and take the pictures, mimicking and loving the bohemian silliness and self-expression of it. 'Funny Face' is a film about a photographer and his model/wife. It's based on the career of Richard Avedon. My portraits here are in the studio style of the great photographers of the 1960s, specifically Avedon and David Bailey. I am playing at being them, borrowing from the past and reappropriating. We're all picking at the bits we want, taking the fun, genius life-affirming stuff and leaving behind the stifling gender roles and outmoded ideas about who we can be in this modern world.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the lives of people in Western societies were transformed through the technological advances of the telegraph, the railway and photography. These advances changed our relationship to time, to the natural world and to each other. In the era immediately following the Industrial Revolution there was a recognisable desire for people to physically escape the overwhelming non-stop mechanisation of daily life. This desire continues.

Culture, in its multiple guises, is interpreting the search for authenticity in the many forms of old technologies. Looking to the past is a part of being modern. Vinyl records, film cameras, typewriters and old guitars are vital to the search for authenticity through technology.

I've been developing film again; darkrooms, chemicals, contact sheets… a way of working that I am revisiting. I don't think of it as more authentic, more real than digital. It's just different and it gives different results and is the right approach for this project, but it undoubtedly has qualities that are uniquely analogue – from the click of the shutter to the smell of chemicals, from pegged-up film reels to marked-up contact sheets. It's these physical things but it is also the waiting, the unknown. An exposed roll of film is the embodiment of potential. The time between exposing it and it being safely developed bursts of promise. In this I come into direct contact with chance, hope and the unknown and that is a wonderful thing.

Photography is central when questioning what it means to be modern. From its beginning the technology created new understandings of nature, community, family, memory and self. Photography, while allowing us access to images of other worlds, landscapes and people simultaneously separated us from our immediate surroundings. It changed our perception of time and space and gave access to visual information that, before its invention, was limited to what the eye could see.

It also gave us a way to see into the past, something that we take for granted now. It became integral to record-keeping and cataloguing, brought places to us instead of us having to travel. It facilitated a change that was happening through the Industrial Revolution, through the mechanisation of processes, through a new ease of travel and standardisation of the measurement of time. We are modern through technology, specifically photography. It is a powerful shape-shifter, redefining its role in our lives through its ubiquitous presence.

For Generation Z, for the New Modernists born into the digital world, using old technologies can connect with a slower, less perfect, more human experience; and this desire is leading them and us back to a more embodied world – one full of aura, physicality and joy.

New Modernists / The Chemic Tavern / 5 January 2016 - 1 January 2017

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