Art Interview Interview

When photographer Brian David Stevens moved to Ladbroke Grove he found himself at the beating heart of West London’s annual Notting hill carnival. On his way to work, at a local gallery, Stevens would see people setting up and getting ready for the event. One specific element catch his eye; the towering speaker rigs and sound systems sat on the streets like “modern monoliths”. In the summer of 2004 Stevens woke early to capture these sonic sculptures, resulting in his series Notting Hill Sound Systems.

In a reprise of this series shot twelve years ago, Stevens is releasing a new book cataloguing those original images alongside more recent photos of ‘wrapped’ or covered sound systems – further simplifying the shapes and form. Published by Cafe Royal books on 27th July, here Stevens talks us through the series and his carnival memories.

Aaron West: What is your relationship with the carnival?
Brian David Stevens: When I first moved to London, West London was my ‘patch’, I was producing work for a gallery in Ladbroke Grove. My London was bordered by North Pole Road and Bramley Road – sadly places I’m revisiting for my current work on the Grenfell fire. The carnival was just something that happened each year like winter or spring. It was a season in itself.

Aaron: How have you seen the carnival change over the years?
Brian: It’s obviously got more commercial, but not overpoweringly so. It survived having Boris Johnson as mayor, which is great. It’s still pretty true to its roots, I think, despite all the pressures on its existence. It’s still certainly unique. It remains to be seen what affect the tragic events of Grenfell will have on this year’s Carnival.

“It remains to be seen what affect the tragic events of Grenfell will have on this year’s Carnival.”

Photo from Brian David Stevens' 'Notting Hill Sound Systems 2016'

Aaron: What specifically attracted you to the sound systems?
Brian: I paid for university by working as a roadie, so I ended up with a love for speaker stacks. The ones you see at the carnival are hand built; beautiful looking systems. By shooting very early you remove the context of the sound system and can see them as sculptural forms in their own right, imposing in the empty streets, alien and sometimes threatening, but always interesting. Modern monoliths, new henges, places of worship.

Aaron: What do the speakers mean to you?
Brian: They are the building blocks on which the festival is constructed

Aaron: It’s quite jarring to see the sound systems in a place you normally associate them with.
Brian: Yes it’s exactly that, seeing them as forms, sculptures, I tend to produce work in series or sets. I’ve experimented with the print of these images, traditional high quality photographic prints, risographs, screen prints. Each process brings something new and unique

Aaron: You have done a collection similar to this before, what motivated you to revisit this?
Brian: This year I was shooting some speakers for a book project about British bass culture with the writer Joe Muggs. Due to the rain many of the systems were covered by tarpaulins I thought it would be great to reprise the series showing both covered and uncovered systems to really emphasise the sculptural qualities and shapes. 

“I paid for university by working as a roadie, so I ended up with a love for speaker stacks. The ones you see at the carnival are hand built; beautiful looking systems. “

Photo from Brian David Stevens' 'Notting Hill Sound Systems 2016'

Aaron: Whilst researching I came across your recent collection on the Grenfell Tower Fire, would you like to share what was it like to visit the community and capture the surroundings?
Brian: It’s unbelievably shocking. I’ve been shooting there every day since the fire. I’m trying to capture it the best I can, it’s a terribly damaged landscape. The tower stands like an open wound, it’s hard to take your eyes off it, it doesn’t become any less shocking no matter how many times you see it. I’m just trying to make respectful work there; it’s all I can do.

Brian David Stevens: Notting Hill Sound Systems 2016 is out on 27th July, published by Cafe Royal.