Photographer Focus: Ewen Spencer

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Ewen Spencer is a well respected photographer who since the late 1990’s has been known for his groundbreaking work across a wide range of publications. He has always worked closely around his own personal interests of music, graphical art, fashion subcultures and multiculturalism. He has also successfully launched two books; Open Mic, is a series of images looking at teenagers in London’s ‘Grime’ scene, and most recently UKG, a comprehensive look into the UK Garage scene of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

First off, if you’d like to introduce yourself…

Hello, My name is Ewen Spencer Im a Photographer and Film-maker. I was born in Newcastle but Ive lived in Brighton for the past 20 years.

How did you first get into photography?

I had worked from leaving school in small fashion boutiques, restaurants and a bit of manual and factory work. I decided that I couldn’t go on with all that and I needed to see a little bit more so I applied to the local Art College and began an Arts Foundation course where eventually I specialised in Photography. I had a very kind and encouraging lecturer called Geoff Weston who taught everyone on the course how to look at the world as a story teller. I fell in love with Photography.

Could you give us a brief description of your working set-up? Throughout your portfolio there seems to be a combination of both film and digital work.

I worked with a medium format rangefinder camera up until around 2008/9. Then i switched to a digital SLR. Later on in 2009 I was asked to make a short video for Massive Attack, it was a very simple process by then to simply flick a switch and begin making moving images. A little further on and I now work with a much larger format Moving Camera and a small team inc sound etc..

Are there any particular jobs you prefer working on over others?  For example, shooting a big brand campaign versus working on a much more personal, smaller scale project.

No not really. Ive been very disciplined in creating my own visual voice this tends to attract the right kind of commissions that are sympathetic to my process. I rarely ever receive a commission that asks me to do something very different from my own personally motivated work.

Visually, your work takes on a very ‘real’ aesthetic, your ‘Teenagers’, ‘Waglad’ and ‘Guapamente’ projects are all prime examples of this reality.  Is this something you consciously set out to achieve from the start? 

Yes I’m interested in SubCulture, style and music.  So Im often looking for new groups to work with. There is pathos, but I enjoy celebrating the everyday. The common moment or goal that we can all share.

Tell us a bit about your work for UKG, was the intention to turn the imagery into a book from the start?

No I had no idea the work would become a book. It was one of the first projects i began after I graduated in 1997. I was surprised by the amount of material I had made when I began to look at the work again last year.

Did you have a personal affinity with the UKG scene beforehand?  Did this make it easier to focus on what elements of it you wanted to capture?  

I liked Garage. It was a development of the Soul scene for me. Id been knocking around the Northern/Modern Soul scene since my late teens and the scene had began to embrace more soulful House sounds in the early 90s. By around ’96 the Chicago House/NY Garage sound had developed into a pacier UK sound that became known as UK Garage. When I first got to Twice as Nice at the Colosseum it felt a lot like a return to the the SOul scene I knew from 5-6 years earlier. Everybody dancing, people dressing up smart and a very diverse crowd. One thing I learnt early on was its important to Photograph something that you are passionate about, it shows in the final result.

Is there ever a challenging element that you encounter when working? I can imagine shooting in a club environment can get a bit difficult at times!

I rarely shoot in clubs and never really considered what I was doing as ‘Club Photography’. I imagined I was looking at something socially significant or important to me at least.

Was the fashion side of Garage something which interested you?  Full Moschino suits and high end brands seemed to be a constant trend throughout.

The style factor was hugely important.I think it will always apply to British kids. Getting dressed up smart at the weekend and making the most of your spare time and hard earned is epitome of escapism. If your existence is that of hard work and limited opportunity then maybe it becomes all the more important to make a splash at the weekend. Garage ticked all the boxes.

Tell us a bit about your selection process for your new t-shirt collection.

I chose some big hitters. Some images that define that very British trait of working hard and living clean. “Clean living under difficult circumstances”

Any projects we can expect to see soon? Any goals you’d like to achieve in the future?  Every photographer’s got that dream subject they’d love to shoot!

I’m always working on new projects I can tell you about one that is the European Voguing/Ballroom scene. It has its own music, moves, style, linguistics and personalities. its a complete Subculture. Im off to Estonia next weekend to get some more images.

size? will be stocking a limited range of Ewen Spencer T-Shirts using some of his most iconic imagery shortly.







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