RTM Words by Lauren Hurrell. Photographs by Holly Revell.
Holly Revell has achieved an abundance of credits as a talented creative behind the camera, for capturing iconic looks in the queer scene, from portraiture to artwork and behind-the-scenes candids of projects in the making. Holly works as a photographer of queer performance, portraits and projects. Originally from Derbyshire, (as the oldest of fourteen siblings!) Holly has now lived in London for almost twenty years, and has dedicated the past decade to performance photography – shooting, seeing shows and getting to know the makers, helping her find her place in queer London.
Intrigued to learn more, I had the opportunity to interview Holly Revell for Read The Muse, to ask about her role as the creative behind the camera, what draws her towards the queer scene, her muses, how she came to find them, and her book on performance artist David Hoyle.
RTM: How did you get into photography? Have you always played with cameras or was it a more recent venture?
HR: I’ve always been into photography but never saw it as an art or a special skill even when I was at art school studying fine art – I made work about photography and found photos but I never considered being a photographer, particularly one who photographs other people’s art! In the 90s when I was growing up, there’d usually only be one person in a friendship group who had a camera and that was always me documenting our lives – I was a bit of a groupie then hanging around with bands and taking snaps of them and the parties and protests… but I didn’t think it was anything more, I just had a 35mm compact which I’d send off to Truprint to get printed and relish the awaited results.
When I first started out making work post art school I was using photography as a vehicle to ‘make things happen’, I was interested in the experience of photography and was looking at it theoretically but soon realised participants wanted good photos too and stepped up my game as a lot of the images were very abstract and blurry, made in these darkened spaces I would create at art, cabaret and club events. ‘Darkroom’ was my first big project and got me on the same bill as the avantgarde mess makers of the time such as Scottee and David Hoyle who both gave me my biggest breaks.
RTM: You’ve recently worked with some of my favourite queer activists and artists, including Travis Alabanza and Scottee. How did you get into becoming a photographer of queer performance and projects in particular?
HR: So I was doing my Darkroom installations on the queer cabaret scene from around 2009, working alongside the performers I loved, but the last thing I wanted to do was to take photos of them on stage, I thought there was enough of that and I aspired to some ‘higher’ art with my experiential work! Haha, look at me now! David Hoyle invited me to do my Darkroom at his RVT (Royal Vauxhall Tavern) shows after taking part in one of the early ones but it took me a long time to start photographing him on stage, however it was inevitable I guess. In the meantime Scottee was after someone to document his second run of ‘Burger Queen’ (now known as Hamburger queen) and asked me as I’d expressed an interest in doing something with photography at one of his nights, I didn’t really have any experience in that kind of photography but learnt fast, on the job and became part of a team learning about the making of theatre and cabaret and getting to meet the people I’d been admiring from afar, the rest is history! I have documented most of Scottee’s work since and done many portraits with him, I love working with him and have learnt so much, I can’t wait for his upcoming book ‘Scottee: I made it”, celebrating a decade of performance and activism which includes many of our photographs and launches at LADA (Live Art Development Agency) on the 6th September.
Working with such greats has helped me to meet younger talented artists such as Travis who you mention, I basically collect new muses from their shows, those who really excite me and I can see something fresh in.
What is your favourite thing about being a photographer?
Along with making beautiful images, it’s the relationships I have built with my subjects over time, there’s something very special about that – photographer and muse/performer. Doing a photoshoot allows for an intimacy with a person you might only see out and about otherwise, it’s a great way to spend some quality time getting to know each other better and sharing ideas.
RTM: To what extent are your shoots collaborative in coming up with ideas, or is that your part of the shoot as the photographer?
HR: Oh yes always collaborative, there’ll be some discussion and sharing of ideas and reference images usually but anything can happen on the day too – I’m very open to things happening and want to find some kind of truth in my photography. Some people have a very clear idea of what they want, particularly for promotional stuff but there’s always space for other ideas and the people I work with are very open too. I recently did a very staged shoot with Ginger Johnson, we had been bouncing ideas between us for ages and planned this one to every minute detail such as setting the sausages into the jelly, it was very technical and stressful on the day but the results were pretty darn good! Normally I work much more fluidly though.
RTM: What’s the best thing about working with queer people/in queer environments?
HR: Their openness I think and that I feel immediately connected with these people. The venues I work in are very welcoming and encouraging and I feel well respected which gives me confidence.
We’re all in it together finding our way, working hard and trying to be original.
RTM: Who are some of your favourite people to work with or that you have worked with?
HR: Well a photographer of such great performers can’t name favourites can they… haha?! However I love working with certain people for different reasons. David Hoyle literally gives me everything – his body and soul backstage and calls me ‘Holly AAA (access ALL areas). With Scottee, I know we will always get loads done and will be guaranteed something of quality, new and fresh every time – he literally doesn’t stop and he makes me laugh so much and makes me feel special also. The first time I shot with Lavinia Co-op was nerve wracking because she is such a legend and I didn’t know her very well then but she was so warm and taught me confidence; to slow down and get what I wanted… it was also a great history lesson and I even got a few songs and jokes like a one on one performance – I often feel that luxury when working with performers, that I’m getting a private show! I adore Travis and love our latest set of portraits so much, it’s so interesting getting to know these younger revolutionaries and hearing their stories plus they also make me laugh a lot. I have a new muse too, Archie Redford who I met through the film ‘Uncle David 2’, which he stars in, he is very special and has that complete openness where you can do anything, he is so positive and free, I love that. I must mention Russella too, she’s a one, a total nut-bag, love her to bits, OMG and Jacqui Potato, we have a good connection… you see and the list goes on – I love them all!
RTM: Do you have any influences that encouraged you to pursue photography, or that helped you to develop your own style?
HR: I think coming from a fine art background has made me more of an experimental photographer, I have always been a documentor, keeping a diary since I was 8 and taking snaps of my life when it wasn’t so common. I am as influenced by the performers I work with as other photographers and artists and together we have a vision. I always dreamt of going to art school but never expected to go, I was a nanny for an artist for a while and they’re the ones who pushed me to apply to do a foundation course as a ‘mature’ student at the grand old age of 25, I didn’t have any A levels or portfolio, just a scrapbook of rubbish sketches from my travels, but thankfully after answering no to all the questions on the form the person who interviewed me at Hastings college said he’d take a gamble on me and I went on to get a distinction and go to uni – I was on Tony Blair’s ‘New deal’ at the time!
RTM: How would you describe your individual style or approach to creating and shooting?
HR: Being an insider definitely, I would not attempt to photograph what I don’t understand or am not a part of, like the press photographers jumping in on the next cool thing and taking horrible superficial photos that don’t represent our community properly.
For me this is a life long project and I will continue to document the same people as long as we all live. It has to be done with LOVE.
RTM: What are the more challenging aspects of your work, if any?
HR: To keep on doing a good job, being original and representing the performers as brilliantly as they are brilliant – doing justice to their talent! It’s really really important that subcultures are represented with quality and honesty.
RTM: Do you have any current/future projects you’re working on, or are looking forward to?
HR: I am currently working on my own archive as Bishopsgate Institute have offered to house it and they have one of the biggest queer archives in the world so I am very honoured, there will be a special launch in Spring next year and that will lead onto my next book celebrating a decade of queer performance and its makers through my particular lens.
I am also in a collective; DARC (Documentation Action Research Collective); an interdisciplinary collective of five international artists working on alternative and collective modes of documenting performance. We have recently completed a project called ‘Transformance’ which involved working with artists from Tempting Failure festival, who performed a piece of work to us to be seen via our documentation which took a variety of forms from my 35mm black and white photography to sound, animation, drawing, collage and performance, our responses became a new 3 hour durational performance piece, a zine and a wall based exhibition.
I am also researching a new project exploring trans masculine identities, as I think these stories have not been told so much and I learnt more about the complexities when working with a group of performers on the play Bullish, which was written and directed by Leo Skilbeck – Milk Presents.
RTM: Tell us about your David Hoyle book – what inspired you to pursue this project and what can you tell us about it?
HR: It was when I realised I had over 8 years worth of intimate backstage photos of David which I felt were too special to share online but needed to be seen that I decided a book would be the best vehicle for them. Most were shot just for us, for the hell of it and what started as a cautious venture into David’s sacred space which I fully respected and took lots of time getting to know him before pulling out my camera, became part of his performance routine really, the build up to getting on stage, followed by the adrenalin fuelled character shots taken in the intervals to the raw emotional exhaustion at the end of the night. I was surprised that there wasn’t already a book on David as he is the godfather of avantgarde drag after-all and has influenced many of the wonderful performers we are spoilt with today. The limited edition book is like a posh fan zine featuring over 300 photos and collages of David on and off stage, along with some textual art works by David himself, interviews and anecdotes from his fellow performers (it’s available to buy at a number of bookshops including Foyles, Gay’s the Word and the Photographers Gallery, LADA Unbound and my website).
Do you have a particular message you want to convey through photography or creating?
I hope to convey a truth, an honest recollection of this special time in queer performance history which will be preserved for future generations. I am so lucky to be working with such amazing trailblazers and want to do them justice, I want to show the making, the effort and emotion that goes into their work.
RTM: Any artists you’re particularly obsessed with at the moment?
HR: I continue to be obsessed with the people I work with as they keep evolving, but I’m always on the lookout for new talent and charismatic characters. I’ve had my beady eye on Rhys Hollis for a while now and am looking forward to working with them very soon. Lucy McCormick has kept my attention too over the past year or so. Christeene Vale is back in town with her new album tour ‘Basura’ which is exciting, I had an unhealthy obsession with her once upon a time but we came through it luckily!! It’s these mad obsessions that have driven me to get where I am and pursue the performers I love.
Head over to Holly’s fresh website to have your own browse across her work, and get updates on Holly’s work, her David Hoyle book her muses via the links below!