Damien Frost

Damien Frost

Interview Kirk Truman

Portraits Joseph Lynn

“I feel that just as my subjects often exist outside of traditional notions of gender, they also sit outside of time…”

Damien Frost’s stunning photographs apply the techniques of classical portraiture to the larger-than-life denizens of Soho’s nightlife. Journal talked to him about the importance of documenting London’s threatened club scene and its colourful characters in an age of gentrification.

Tell me about your upbringing and how you came to pick up a camera.

I grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney and I remember being fascinated by this melting pot of subcultures, of old school punks, skinheads, metalheads, revheads and surfers. I have vivid childhood memories of walking with my father at night through the seedier areas of the city, wide-eyed at all the prostitutes and transvestites working the streets, hanging about with the bikies, which seemed to embody this total rebellion against suburban normality.

I studied fine art at university and majored in painting, and kind of came to photography through painting. I would paint in a very formal, renaissance-influenced style and would get people to pose for me; but because it would take me so long, I’d photograph people and paint from the photos.

After university, I worked as a graphic designer and dabbled in both painting and a bit of photography. Then, in my mid-30s, I had a health scare that made me reflect on what I was doing to document my time here. I realised that I regretted not having photographed the people from my past. As a teenager I mixed with a lot of goths, punks and freaks, and while I had a camera I had zero money to develop film and so didn’t take many photos.

Around the same time, I had a friend who was travelling the world; and looking at the photos they were taking, I was drawn to the portraits of people they encountered. It made me think, “Well, here I am in London, surrounded by all these fascinating people I pass on the street each day; what’s to say that I can’t document them?” So, in 2013 I decided to take a portrait every day for a year of a person I’d come across on the street. Each day, I’d find someone who stood out from the crowd, stop them and ask for a portrait. I’m a shy person, so it was no easy process, but as the project progressed I found that I was drawn to more colourful and ‘extreme’ personas; and in searching for people to photograph I’d have to stay out later and later. And that’s more or less how I fell into documenting club kids, drag queens and other ‘night flowers’.

Did you have any particular influences when you got behind the lens?

I’m probably just as influenced by painters like Odd Nerdrum, Caravaggio, Velázquez and Rembrandt as by photographers like Sophie Calle. Dianne Arbus and Joel Peter Witkin, Roger Ballen and Bill Henson have all been very influential throughout the years.

What is it you try to capture with each of your images?

What attracts me to the people I document is this idea of reinvention and transformation through dress and make-up. I’m drawn to people who aren’t just dressing up as ‘fancy dress’ but who feel the need to express themselves in this way, whether it’s a desire to be something else or just as a flying fuck you to what’s expected of them. As loud as some of the looks I photograph are, what I’m trying to capture is the quiet self of the person underneath the make-up.

Tell me about your relationship with Central London.

One of the things I’ve always loved about London is that you can be invisible and that, really, you can wear whatever you like, walk down the street in your pyjamas, and people won’t bat an eye. But in the process of taking the portraits, when I’ve been out and about with one of my subjects, I’ve had people shout abuse as they walked past. It made me realise that it’s not quite as open and accepting as I’d thought. I’m constantly hearing stories of the abuse people have to endure on public transport or the anger that’s directed at them on the street; so, I’m not being flippant when I say that when someone walks down the street looking like this that it’s a defiant and brave act.

How did your Soho series come about?

The Soho series came about purely due to geography. I work in Soho and after work each day I would wander the streets looking for interesting characters to photograph. Much has been written about the increasing pressure of gentrification and in the last five years the nightlife of the neighbourhood feels very different. There are fewer parties catering to alternative queer subcultures, which have mostly moved east, not just because they’ve been being priced out but also because they were made to feel unwelcome.

Define your own style.

I would describe my work as documentary, but it’s kind of filtered through a classical and formal style. It’s extremely rare that I do any pre-arranged shoots, with the majority of my shots being taken on streets and in clubs. I’m just documenting how people look on that particular night, so there’s no styling involved. In a way I’m trying to make images that somehow feel timeless. I feel that just as my subjects often exist outside of traditional notions of gender, they also sit outside of time.