Intimate photos of the next generation of artists in their studios
Against the backdrop of the property crisis, Brynley Odu Davies' debut solo exhibition takes viewers into painters, printmakers and sculptors' sacred creative habitats
words Megan Wallace
Artwork is largely judged by the final product hanging on a gallery wall or shared as a snapshot on Instagram, ready to be consumed by onlookers with little-to-no behind the scenes access to its making. But, like life, art pieces are a process - often the result of days, if not weeks, of hard slog. And the location of all this creative grind? The studio.
Be it draughty, cramped, leaking from the rafters or just an elevated supply cupboard, these often inauspicious spaces hold a special place in any practitioner’s heart. Even if it doesn’t look like much, the studio represents a space for artists to hunker down and hone their craft, explore new approaches and expand their expressive horizons.
Yet of course, the studio isn’t some hermetically sealed vessel far from the very real issues facing artists today - in fact, increasingly difficult to find in most cities and subject to soaring rent increases - the studio distils one of the central issues facing creatives today: the ways that an impending recession and continued cuts to funding places artists in increasingly precarious financial positions, while circumscribing the arts as a calling for either the obscenely privileged or those willing to fund their practice through myriad side hustles and part-time jobs.
Against this admittedly bleak backdrop, photographer Brynley Odu Davies is shedding new light on the symbiotic artist-studio relationship. With a new body of work, the simply titled ‘Artists Portraits’, now on show at Notting Hill’s STUDIO WEST, Davies is spotlighting 200 artist-subjects via intimate in-studio photos. First shot during the 2020 lockdown but continuing as an ongoing, three-year project, it provides a survey of some of the UK’s most exciting young artists while asking pertinent questions about creative labour conditions.
Below, woo talks to Davies about his own photographic process, how creative careers have changed post-covid and the enduring resilience of artists.
What was the initial idea behind this body of work and how did you start working on it?
I started the project in 2020, during the first lockdown. I had been working as a music photographer before the pandemic and, when I came back to London after having spent some time back home in Bath, I decided to change my approach and start photographing something new. I found my next subject, artist studio portraits, after photographing an artist local to me in South London called Conor Murgatroyd.
How did you select the artists involved? Was everyone receptive to being included?
I did loads of research online, looking through Instagram, messaging people and building a database of young artists based around the UK. I went about this in quite an organic way, choosing artists whose work I liked or who I was intrigued to meet. I also really wanted to make sure the series represented individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and at various stages of their careers, so I tried to connect the dots as to who was working where and I travelled a lot to do the series. Once I found an artist in a certain part of the country, I would reach out to them and, with their help, tap into the community of artists in that particular place.
In general, artists were really receptive to being photographed – most of it took place during lockdown, so I think many of the artists were excited to have somebody over for a chat and to spend time with someone new. Or at least that’s how I see it, I guess I can't always tell. I'm so used to taking photographs that it feels so natural to me, but for the artist subjects it might have felt slightly strange to suddenly be under the spotlight.
The body of work initially came out of lockdown - what sort of resonance does it have post-pandemic? Has its meaning been altered within this different context?
I started the project in lockdown, a very particular moment for artists. In some ways artists actually benefited from the change of pace that Covid necessitated - with part-time jobs no longer an option and the chance of receiving furlough or universal credit it was as if artists were being paid a living wage to create. Many of them were making work full-time for the first time in their careers. In this way, the project is also a document of what a lot of artists were doing during the pandemic - toiling away in their studios. Even in normal times, art can be quite a solitary pursuit that necessitates the artist spending a lot of time alone developing their practice, lockdown just made this possible.
In addition, in terms of the timing, I was mostly shooting young artists at the beginning of their careers – in the three years that have lapsed between the start of the project and now, many of them have gone onto very significant successes like hosting their first solo show, exhibiting internationally or just really excelling in their practice. In the case of the artists I have shot more than once such as Callum Eaton or Daisy Parris, it’s really nice to compare earlier images with recent ones and see their development over the years.
What sort of relationships did your subjects have with their studios?
The artist’s studio is a unique place, they are often quite sacred to the artist as a safe space where they go to create work and think of new ideas. Having said this though, a lot of artists have to frequently move studios these days, so they have to be adjustable and focus more on the work than the environment around them. Studios themselves really vary as well - in London, many are smaller or shared, often in quite derelict buildings whereas out of the city I went to some incredibly big and comparatively luxurious spaces.
How are young artists' relationships with their studios changing due to the ongoing property crisis? What do you think the future holds in this regard?
It seems like good studios are harder and harder to find. Some people search forever for new spaces, some people have to move a lot and others find one studio location and try to stay there forever. Despite this though, I think artists will always create. I remember photographing my good friend James Owens for the first time at the start of his career when he was making paintings in the living room of his shared house. The resilience of artists is pretty incredible, they seem to find a way no matter what their circumstances.
What did you take away from working on this series and what do you hope it gives to people who view it?
The series will always be really special to me. It was a monumental labour of love and it allowed me the privilege of connecting with lots of like-minded young creative people, many of whom have become really great friends. There is an incredible community of young artists in the UK and I’m lucky to be a part of it now.
When others view the series, I hope they get a sense of the huge breadth of talent we have here in the UK and gain a unique insight into the hard work, resilience and positivity of these amazing young artists. Even in the face of lockdowns and Covid, they kept going and kept such a magical energy alive.
I hope the series also allows people to see into the early stages of many of these artists' careers, especially those who have already gained amazing success. There's an image I particularly like of Georg Wilson; I first photographed her when she was working from her parents' home in North London. She looks young and she was young - it's exciting to look back at these images and to already see how her career and her life have both changed so much. In this way, I think the images offer a record of a really particular time and probably feature some of the household names of the future. It’s kind of wild to think where all these artists will be in five or ten years.
Brynley Odu Davies’ 'Artist Portraits' is on show at Notting Hill’s Studio West Gallery until 31 May.
Cover image: Mattia Guarnera-MacCarthy, Peckham, London, 2023. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST
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