The buzz and chaos on the opening night of BLINK at Central Saint Martins was a true representation of the MA Fashion course. The documentary project by acclaimed photographer Anna Fox followed the designers during their intense eight week lead up to the LFW show back in February. Fox’s intimate portrayal gives us an insight into the excitement and banality of everyday life for graduating designers. The most recent MA alumni came out in full force to revisit some of their most stressful moments, artfully extracted from time.
Large format digital prints and the latest Google imaging technology captured abstract moments throughout fittings, critiques, backstage panics and onto the runway. A disheveled abandoned stocking, a stern panel of tutors shot by a trusty Nikon D800, through scattered pieces, you can puzzle together Fox’s translation of her time spent behind the scenes. The day after the opening, we found the opportunity to ask her about those exciting eight weeks.

What attracted you to the project?
I love fashion, I think it’s terribly exciting. That’s one thing. Number two, it’s always exciting to get behind the scenes somewhere and that’s one of the great things about documentary photography. It makes it so much easier to do a project when you’re invited rather than having to negotiate your way in. Everyone knew I was there, what I was doing and it’s just a very exciting environment. The minute I walked in I felt that.

Had you done much fashion before?
I’d done one or two small fashion thing for editorials and some work for commissions but nothing like this. I’d never been to a fashion show so that was fun. It makes it all the more interesting and fun.

How did the collaboration with Google work?
Well they brought equipment that was very interesting and very new and unusual. We worked with them collaboratively because it wasn’t always possible for me to work with it on my own. Basically, the two cameras are extraordinary pieces of equipment but you can’t use them like you use a regular camera. You can’t really move around with them, you set them up. The camera I was using was a Nikon D800 and you just run around with it. They were very different kinds of equipment and essentially it was quite exciting experiment to do something with them.

Did you do any research or interview them before hand?
I didn’t think on this project there was enough time to do things like that. I’m very interested in research. It’s a big part of my work, learning about where I am and what’s happening. But usually I do slow research over a period of time. Once I’ve done a project for ten years and I’m slowly getting to know the field. I looked at other photographers work on fashion, Nick Waplington did a similar sort of thing for Alexander McQueen when he documented backstage, behind the scenes leading up to a big fashion show. It was quite interesting to refer to other work that had been done. But I didn’t talk to the designers too much, I talked to them a little bit as it went on. There actually wasn’t time, the kind of work that I do is incredibly short.

How did you approach the project?
Each time I work it’s a different approach, it’s not like I’ve learnt a way of doing things and then I go and apply it, which is what quite a lot of commercial photographers do. But I tend to respond to each project differently. Partly it will be a technical response, what is actually feasible in this space, place and time. Then there will also be that technical consideration, thinking how it will be presented in an exhibition. But there is also what I’m feeling needs to be conveyed. The department is very hectic and frenetic and things change every five minutes. You get this real sense of the staff pushing ideas through, the visitors doing the same and the technical staff really running around urgently helping people with really important technical detail. There was this multi-layered business going on which is why I chose to work with digital – which is the first time I’ve ever shot something completely on digital. So that was interesting for me.

How much time did you actually spend in and around them?
It was one to two days a week for eight weeks roughly, so it’s not much. Actually I had three assistants with me as well. I use a lot of lighting. That’s one of the things that improved the quality of the work and enabled it to be blown up big, so they helped with that.

Did you try and keep a distance from the subject?
I was keeping a bit of a distance, again that varies from commission to commission, but I felt a sense of urgency about getting it done. When Alistair showed me the gallery, that’s the first thing that happened when I came, he said, “we’re going to make a show to fill this gallery” and I thought “really, I don’t know if that’s possible.” He said it would be five big images to fill the gallery. I felt an urgency, so I was more distanced than I normally am.

What was your relationship to the observation?
I was doing a lot of rushing around. They were really busy, the students. One of the things that Alistair said is that they’re fine about it as long as you don’t stop them from working. The thought of stopping and talking to someone when they’re in a really busy last phase of their course didn’t seem right. Also, it’s not my subject, so I’d probably ask some ridiculous question. They were constantly being assessed and critiqued. It was another time when students are sensitive and nervous, I didn’t think it was quite right to talk to them too much.

Did you set out to learn anything in particular about them?
I run an MAF programme at UCA Farnham, so I was interested to see how similar the process was in a different subject area. What the characters were like within the course because it’s a very highflying course. I think I was also interested in how one might feel in a fashion environment because you think you might be intimated in someway, but actually it’s the complete opposite. It felt quite liberating because they all wear extraordinary garments. It’s really do what you want and I like that feeling. So that was a very nice feeling, I found it a very nice environment to be working in. I don’t know if I’d like to be one of the students because that seems really stressful but in terms of being part of the process, a bit outside of it, I found it a really great environment.

What did you enjoy most about your time spent there?
The way they let me in. I was like a paparazzi, with a Nikon just clicking and clicking. But that’s another thing I don’t normally do. I’m quite wary about how people feel with a camera in their face. I had about four to six lights in every room, even the tiniest of rooms and at least between one and two assistants, three at the fashion show – so really I think I was really impressed by the way we were let in. I could sense they were nervous on day one, I could sense the nervousness. Then I could sense the way they relaxed a couple of days later, there were a couple of technical staff that were like “don’t come near me with that camera!” but after a couple of days being there, any tension disappeared.

Was there anything interesting you saw that you didn’t expect?
Loads! The clothes – I’d never really seen anything like it because I’d never been to a fashion show, I’ve seen stuff in magazines and what have you, but I’d never been to one. Also the process behind it all. When I went in January I couldn’t actually believe they were going to make this set of costumes ready in two months time, it seemed impossible! The speed at which it was done, the meticulous craftsmanship of it all. From what I saw, the craft – I really didn’t expect to see people making their own stuff. God knows what I expected, I thought fashion people just designed things and other people make them but the fact they were making them. They had to achieve a high level of craftsmanship as well as coming up with the designs is quite extraordinary. Very demanding.

BLINK runs from 12 to 26 April in the Lethaby Gallery

Words Elli Weir