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PORTRAITS BY BALINT ALOVITS in collaboration with thats_so_csm

© courtesy of Balint Alovits

Text by Anastasiia Fedorova

Today, our lives are constantly documented in numerous different ways, but one has been unchanged for decades – id photos. In passports, driving licences, travel cards and visas we always appear looking straight ahead, not smiling, framed in a tiny pale rectangle of nothingness. From a very young age, these photos are a proof of our very existence in society, and an unintentional archive of our life journey – be it a move to a new country, a new car, a new career path, or that very experimental post-break-up haircut.

Despite being painfully simple and repetitive in their format, id photos often evoke artistic interest. Old travel cards or student passes are a unique slice of a personal archive regarded with nostalgia and curiosity. Within the 2x2 inches frame your former self stares ahead blankly, unaware of the future which you now live, decisions still doubted, lessons still not learnt. Part of the appeal is precisely how uniformal and how limiting id photos are. There is only a fraction of our identity which can fit: a bit of clothes, an earring, the way we wore the hair that day. Most of the trivial memories of that day would be gone, but the document of this moment in front of the camera will stay. Most of the story is out of the frame – but this is what makes us look even harder.

There are many reasons to get lost in “CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT” by Balint Alovits and thats_so_csm – but the appeal of the id photograph is one of them. Over 300 portraits of CSM students, staff and alumni were taken in 2019 in a photo booth installed at the spacious red brick and glass 1Granary campus. They look not unlike pictures for a passport or student id, but don’t let the format fool you – they have a very different intention. Flicking through the pages, we know that every single image is a glimpse of a creative universe and holds dozens of untold stories. At the same time, it also speaks about two opposing notions of today’s culture – uniformity and uniqueness – and the way in our hyper-digitalised era it’s never one or the other, but always a bit of both.

The pop cultural fascination with documenting individual style dates far back into the pre-internet era. British i-D magazine was founded by Terry Jones in 1980 – one of its main features being “the straight ups”, snaps of British youth, including many punks and new romantics, in their natural urban environment. Japanese magazine FRUiTS, founded in 1997, was a fascinating visual documentation of the colourfully dressed youngsters in Tokyo’s Harajuku district for two decades, before shutting down in 2017. Both publications created a specific visual language for capturing style: we got to know every character (standing up right gazing into the camera or leaning against the wall) just for a brief moment before turning our attention to the next one. Every look added to the anthropological survey of style – while still celebrating the taste and the mind behind combining that pink jacket with these green platform shoes and fishnets.

Amongst projects exploring the social meanings of style, Exactitudes stands out especially. Photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek started Exactitudes in 1994 in the streets of Rotterdam which were incredibly rich with urban tribes and subcultures. The notions of uniformity and individuality are the key – as well as our desire to differentiate ourselves through belonging to a specific group. Exactitudes creators are excellent at pattern recognition: the photos, much like the ones in a “CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT”, are taken in the studio with a neutral background to isolate and distill every social type they have encountered on the streets. The resulting grids of 3x4 photographs are truly mesmerising in capturing the similarities and nuances of style as part of social consciousness.

Firmly rooted in the pre-digital meaning of subcultures, Exactitudes has recently gone through a resurgence thanks to fashion designer Demna Gvasalia who referenced it in Fall-Winter 2017 Vetements collection. On the catwalk, a gallery of recognisable social types – a punk, an office girl, a bouncer, a rich lady in a mink coat – were recreated using Vetements clothes. However recognisable the types were, in the contemporary context they looked a bit like cosplay – which exposed the fact that in the digitalised universe identities are perhaps not so clear cut anymore. It also prompts us to ask, why do we wear what we wear? And, in today’s over-saturated visual culture, is anything even unique anymore? With these questions in mind, we enter Central Saint Martins.

The Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, or simply Central Saint Martins or CSM, is well-known worldwide – so much, in fact, that its name has become a shortcut for creative talent in fashion and art, and the legacy of London’s most outrageous creators, makers, eccentrics, movers, shakers and visionaries. The list of CSM fashion alumni is truly remarkable: John Galliano, Katherine Hamnett, the late Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Hussein Chalayan, Riccardo Tisci, Gareth Pugh and Christopher Kane are just a few renowned names. They all contributed to making CSM a dream for countless emerging creatives across the world – and to provoking endless curiosity about the environment where the talent was nurtured, about what was it really like, there and then, when their grand and revolutionary ideas were first conceived. Up until now, we can’t help but wonder, what kind of conversations did they have in school corridors, and what kind of id photos did they have on their student railcards.

Central Saint Martins relocated from its old building in Soho to 1 Granary Square in Kings Cross in 2011. At times of the move, the late professor Louise Wilson, legendary course director of MA fashion, expressed her disappointment: she believed that the rundown character of the old campus served as an additional motivation for the students. "You feel that you're better than this corridor," she told The Guardian. "In the new building you want to hide”. As years passed, the area around 1Grarany got more and more developed, with more glass and concrete, more coffee shops and fashion retailers, – and the building itself more and more lived in. By now, it has seen quite a few degree shows, countless cigarette breaks and sofa naps, thousands of faces passing through every day. Life at CSM doesn’t stop – it keeps going at high speed with all the deadlines and all the changes it brings to the lives of young people who come here to pursue their artistic calling. “CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT” offers a glimpse of CSM in the new millennium, and a unique insight into what a day here might feel and look like – not through the surroundings but through faces. After all, it’s the people who make CSM – and the new generation of students certainly don’t dress like they want to hide.

The process of making “CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT” was woven into the life of Central Saint Martins over the course of two weeks in May 2019. Every morning, Balint Alovits and Lina Sophie Stallman installed a makeshift booth which took about 30 minutes to assemble in various locations on campus. To shoot as many people as possible, they picked busy spots frequented by many: like the library entrance or the main street on campus opposite the canteen.

“The idea came from the point of a genuine interest in people, their appearances and the ambiguous relationship between the outlook and the real character. Maybe, one can say that we had an anthropological ambition to capture our observations within a culture or community we were part of – but taking positions behind the camera rather than in front of it”, says XXX.

The student got to know about the project through a series of posters, word of mouth – and @thats_so_csm instagram account, which also has become an integral part of “CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT”. @thats_so_csm has been going since 2018 and is dedicated to showcasing CSM’s wildest and weirdest looks and characters. It is a great resource for those seeking to delve deeper into the environment of Central Saint Martins – although it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The photos are often candid and grainy and snapped from far away – here the weird and the outrageous meets the mundanity of the college life.

@thats_so_csm was one of the topics discussed around the photo booth – alongside studies and experiences at uni, and the meaning of personal style or certain wearable items. “Throughout the process we established a strong empathy for all the faces and characters we were shooting, having a feeling of knowing them very well”, XXX admits. “It is a very human portrait of a community – flaws, pimples, odd ears and crooked noses. Taking a series of headshots in a corporate office, would definitely give the same results of feelings just in less extravagant outfits. In this sense, the strong individuality in the CSM series leads to the thought that we are all the same, human and imperfect”.

Over the last few decades, the way students dress has been a crucial part of Central Saint Martins and its creative environment. In his essay “What Students Wear” for Fashion Central Saint Martins book, acknowledged writer, editor and lecturer James Anderson remembers his days as a CSM student in the early 1990s – and the extensive amount of time he used to spend choosing outfits. He writes about the individual fashion “micro-revolutions” he witnessed among students

today, the experimental styles which are “future-facing and gender-bending”. “What emerges within the walls of this bona-fide laboratory of style known as Central Saint Martins is purposefully playful, inquisitive, hard-faced, in-your-face, cute, ugly-beautiful, beautifully ugly, impractical, mind-boggling, retina-poking, ambiguous, ambitious, political, confusing, amusing, daring, non- compromising, innovative and, yes, sometimes a glorious mess,” he writes.

In recent years, I’ve got to know a few people who attended CSM and have passed through its campus in 2019. Despite the differences in their work, they all had one quality they shared: they seemed to be constantly going through a transformation, their individual style an integral part of their creative journey. Masha Popova and her rough around the edges bleached hair and a long vintage leather coat trimmed with blue ostrich feathers. Paolina Russo and her colour block makeup in the most vivid colours. Katya Zelentsova with her azur-blue or fuchsia pink fringe and orange lace fishnets of her own design. Chet Lunn who would effortlessly switch between 90s- boy-band look and the most elegant evening gown drag. Harry Freegard, who I never got to meet in person, but saw many times walking down Kingsland High Street in sparkly mini-dress and heels. Their looks and attitude were created for and within CSM – but they would of course take them whenever they went. They had a presence which would illuminate the room, they were bold, bright – and brave. Because brave is the word we should remember when it comes to wearing a transparent lace dress, shimmering-evening-gown-drag or sandals made from pumps for an inflatable mattress in the ordinary world. Stepping out unapologetically yourself in any circumstances is something very CSM – and something worth of admiration.

It makes me think of a few recent CSM alumni – Matty Bovan, Reba Maybury, Dilara Findikoglu – who have greatly enriched London’s cultural scenes not only with their work but also their personalities often expressed through style. Nowadays, fashion is still sometimes deemed trivial – and therefore it is no less than a political statement to express your values and your creativity through the way you dress. Having CSM campus as an environment for experimentation is crucial. One of the brightest recent graduates, Goom Heo, admitted that she came to Central Saint Martins after living in small towns in South Korea and US, and have never even dyed her hair before – the whirlwind of style she witnessed on campus had a huge influence on her gender- bending menswear full of floating textures, bold colours and tight bodycon silhouettes, which is very far out from the ordinary. She invented the style which, in the world where menswear is dictated by rigid gender norms, might make someone feel beautiful, seen, themselves – and the crazy CSM style has played a role in that.

“CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT” is a project about the defiant and fearless style of Central Saint Martins – but it’s also bigger than that. It is about people in all their messy imperfect unique beauty. It’s about the world we live in – in 2019, 19 thousands students from 130 countries attended – this radical diversity is something very important to celebrate amidst the conservative anti-immigration rhetoric. It’s about the state of pop culture: how in the post-digital world there are no more subcultures as such but an endless pool of references to pick from, a playground where 1990s Rotterdam punks can be in one room with new-age drag queens. But most of all, “CSM PORTRAIT PROJECT” is about the value of personality, empathy, solidarity and compassion in the world which is becoming more and more homogenous. How, even photographed in a mercilessly identical manner, as if for an id photo, we’re all precious for trying to step out as – beautifully and unapologetically – ourselves.

Huge thanks to Photo London for featuring us in their 31st Issue!

Photo London brings together the world's leading galleries in a major international photography Fair at Somerset House.

Emily Burke (@emilyondineburke)
Johanna Crafoord (@Johannatcrafoord)

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