What began as a series of candid portraits, a means of perfecting her fledgling craft as much as anything, has now swelled into Rosie Matheson’s debut solo show, opening in London next week. Boys is a study of masculinity and adolescent identity in the UK and abroad, drawn from still and moving imagery taken over the last three years, beginning when Rosie was just twenty.
“I started shooting these images in late 2015, documenting how young men express themselves, capturing their emotions, looking at how they present themselves in everyday life,” Rosie says of the series. “The project explores expressions of masculine identity at a moment when the subcultures which give young men a voice are increasingly invisible.”
Her portrait of Elliot Jay Brown, eyes shut in a blissful stupor at his favourite Camden skatepark in 2015, initiated the idea for a series and was included in the 2016 Portrait of Britain exhibition. Editorial projects with Nike, Adidas and The Financial Times have followed, and with her debut solo show around the corner we don’t think we’ll have to wait long for her second.
Finn Blythe: Huge congratulations on the show. Can you tell me about how you got it together? I saw you were looking for funding earlier this year.
Rosie Matheson: I’ve been trying to get a show together for the last year or so. It’s incredibly hard to find somewhere affordable in central London. However, I recently found out about Creative Debuts who assist young, emerging artists to put on an exhibition. They provide the space and the rest is up to you, which is great. It’s a little different from a standard gallery space but that’s a lot of why I like it and it’s a great place to host my first proper show. It’s more of a workspace than the typical four white walls. I’m hoping the mix of rooms, corridors and outside space encourages more social interaction.
FB: Why are you exclusively interested in boys for this exhibition?
RM: I’ve been working on my personal project, ‘Boys’, since December 2015, aged 20. The project almost made itself, it wasn’t planned and at first, I never intended it to turn into what it has. When I began the project, which started really just as portrait shoots whilst I was learning my craft, the main reason behind shooting young men was they made me feel more at ease. They naturally carry a sense of confidence and attitude but also vulnerability – they would rarely ask for styling or make up, and it would always be a super relaxed and relatively quick street style shoot. I began to shoot young men more and more frequently and the handful of ‘Boys’ I’d shot, then turned into a project – now there’s over a hundred! Looking back now, it’s crazy, I have so many portraits of young men from around 2012, it’s just always been a natural subject matter for me to shoot. I do photograph girls too but this time it’s all about the boys.
FB: Many of the faces you’ve featured belong to young, successful musicians like slowthai, bLAck pARty and Ady Suleiman, how do you know them?
RM: I’ve met them mostly through mutual friends. Working and spending a lot of time in London, everyone is connected and knows everyone, I’m friends with slowthai’s manager and had worked with him for a couple of years prior to knowing Thai. I’ve worked with and been Ady’s photographer since early 2015 and he’s also one of my best friends – we’ve travelled to a load of amazing places around the world and I have a crazy amount of photos of him – he could almost have his own exhibition! I met bLAck pARty in Los Angeles through our mutual friend, director CALMATIC. I photographed Malik (bLAck pARty) at Childish Gambino’s studio in the hills of LA last year, which was incredible!
FB: How is the reaction of boys different from that of girls when put in front of the camera?
RM: I’ve heard varying opinions on this from other photographers, so each experience is different for everyone but for me I feel way more relaxed. I feel with girls, in the industry, it’s very much about their looks, beauty and sexualisation – there’s a pressure to make them look super attractive whereas with guys I don’t feel that at all. Girls want to look hot, Boys want to look cool. Not so much from the subjects themselves but the magazines or agents behind them. Both are enjoyable to photograph, it’s all down to the person really rather than gender – it can go either way for any individual. I enjoy the carefree attitude of boys in front of a camera lens – it suits a more documentary style approach of photography.
“With girls…it’s very much about their looks, beauty and sexualisation – there’s a pressure to make them look super attractive whereas with guys I don’t feel that at all.”
FB: How did you find all these boys?
RM: A lot of them through Instagram. I’ve had mothers of some of the boys reach out to me to photograph their sons who have then gone on to become models. Once again, often through mutual friends and suggestions. Street casting is also where I find my subjects, including in Brighton Library, restaurants and just out and about.
FB: How does the film piece you did with Kaj Jefferies build upon your portrait work?
RM: The aim of the film piece is to provide the voice behind the photo. I love the idea of challenging perceptions. Photos are generally up to interpretation, people can make what they want of them. Adding the video element means those initial perceptions are challenged. You can hear their voices, opinions and stories and this results in going back to the photos and perhaps looking at them differently.
FB: How are you looking to explore issues of masculinity today?
RM: This was never my initial focus and I actually never began to think about issues of masculinity until further down the line. I think my perspective, whether it’s due to the fact I’m female or an outsider to the subject or not, is a lot softer then usually seen with males. I look for the quiet moments in people and I think this brings out a more vulnerable and peaceful side to each subject. Most of the time, I like to photograph people in a one-on-one environment, so there’s no friends or anyone else they have to show off or prove themselves to. I spend most of my shoot chatting to my subject about who they are and what they do. I want them to open up and really show a moment of themselves in the photos.
FB: Does your exploration of manhood extend beyond the UK? I know you’ve shot in LA and Hawaii, but have you noticed any cultural differences in terms of perceptions of masculinity?
RM: I’ve shot boys in Paris, Los Angeles and Hawaii but not as many as I have in the UK. Opinions and perceptions definitely change as you move around the world, culture and tradition have a lot to do with it. However I feel it’s different with my generation and younger. The youth and the huge influence of social media on our opinions have made the majority of us more liberal than past generations. In chatting to boys all over, I’ve found openness and non-judgemental attitudes do exist. Of course, this is partially due to the countries I’ve vistited. My overall goal is to document boys all over the globe and produce a full documentary and photo book. I’m interested in the emotional link between people and places and how this changes around the world.
Rosie Matheson: Boys is on at the Black and White Building, EC2A 3AY London, on 27th July from 7-11pm. Tickets can be purchased here.