Representing the creative future

Influential Fashion Educators:
Adam Murray on fashion communication and the importance of looking outside the big capitals

The MA Fashion Image and BA Fashion Communication and Promotion pathway leader at CSM shares his career journey and gives advice to aspiring image-makers

When appointed as the pathway leader of the MA Fashion Image and BA Fashion Communication and Promotion at Central Saint Martins, Adam Murray cemented his longtime role as a fashion educator. Growing up in Leicestershire, where, as a teenager, he attended photography night classes at his local college, Murray studied photography at university in Preston and went on teaching there and at various universities across the North-West. His pursuits though did not stop at a career as an educator with him recently curating The Time We Call Our Own at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, a show which brings together image-makers from all over the globe under the shared mission of ‘documenting a sense of time, place and identity’.

We spoke to Adam about the importance of fashion outside the m25, his path towards fashion photographer to fashion educator to curator, and the importance that he places on each student’s individual knowledge and experiences.

You originally hail from the Midlands, Leicestershire to be exact, what led you down the path of photography and how has this developed further into academia and curation?

To begin with, it was buying magazines from when I was 13 and it was my mum actually who suggested I do a night class in photography at a local college. I then studied photography at university in Preston, but all the time it was fashion photography that I was drawn to. After finishing my degree I stayed living in Preston for 10 years, which is where Preston is my Paris started and I began teaching at the university there. Initially, it was technical workshops, then progressed through the different levels of academia to where I am now.

In terms of curation, this came much later. The most significant person in terms of influence but also support with my work is Charlotte Cotton, she has done so much important work about the role of fashion image and photography in general,  mostly in a curatorial way rather than being the photographer. Charlotte’s projects such as Imperfect Beauty show how museums and galleries should be engaging with such a relevant form of image-making. This definitely encouraged me to move in a more curatorial direction with my first major curatorial project being North: Fashioning Identity that I curated with Lou Stoppard which we started in 2015 in collaboration with SHOWstudio.

Has your sense of a midlands/northern-identity influenced your work in any way?

I think it is more my experiences of living in the midlands and the north-west that have informed my work. I’m interested in how audiences engage with photography and fashion outside of capital cities, this has informed my work both as a photographer, but also with curation.

Beyond my own projects, I am very much interested in how students can explore their own identity with their practice. Each student has experiences that are unique to them that they know better than anyone else. These different experiences all have relevance in fashion, so it’s about encouraging the student that this knowledge developed throughout their life is significant, how to then bring that into their work, and make it relevant to an audience.

The exhibition The Time we call our own, which you curated recently opened at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery. The show brings together photographers from around the world who’s work documents a collective sense of time and identity. This sense of a global shared identity feels vital at a time of political and social upheaval like this. What role do you feel photography and particularly fashion imagery can play in creating collective identity?

I think the collaborative process of creating fashion image means that it can play such a strong role in collective identity. It is very rare that an image is the work of just one person, so inevitably it is a collective piece of work that is communicating collective identity. It is important that the audience is viewed as part of this process. The audience can have a very active role in engaging with, responding to, and ultimately determining what happens with the work.

The show was originally due to open back in April but was delayed by four months. How did you adjust the exhibition to cater to a more online audience?

I spent time with the fantastic team at Open Eye Gallery, particularly Mariama Attah and Jacob Bolton, to develop an online programme to continue to explore the themes of the show whilst we were not able to stage the actual physical exhibition. This gave us the opportunity to host talks from the artists in the show, discussions about the role of nightlife and spaces in Liverpool, and also commission two original projects by artist Harold Offeh and Stephanie Francis-Shanahan, who is currently studying MA Fashion Image. In hindsight, it actually developed the scope of the project which would not have happened without this extra time.

The show was originally due to open back in April but was delayed by four months. Was this frustrating? How did you adjust the exhibition to cater to a more online audience?

It was a little frustrating, but then I spent time with the fantastic team at Open Eye Gallery, particularly Mariama Attah and Jacob Bolton, to develop an online programme to continue to explore the themes of the show whilst we were not able to stage the actual physical exhibition. This gave us the opportunity to host talks from the artists in the show, discussions about the role of nightlife and spaces in Liverpool, and also commission two original projects by artist Harold Offeh and Stephanie Francis-Shanahan, who is currently studying MA Fashion Image. In hindsight, it actually developed the scope of the project which would not have happened without this extra time.

Fashion educator Adam Murrey on fashion communication and the importance of looking outside the big capitals
North: Identity, Photography Fashion, Open Eye Gallery, 2017, co-curated with Lou Stoppard
Fashion educator Adam Murrey on fashion communication and the importance of looking outside the big capitals
Fashion educator Adam Murrey on fashion communication and the importance of looking outside the big capitals
North: Fashioning Identity, Somerset House, 2018, co-curated with Lou Stoppard
Fashion educator Adam Murrey on fashion communication and the importance of looking outside the big capitals
The Time We Call Our Own, Open Eye Gallery, 2020
The Time We Call Our Own, Open Eye Gallery, 2020

 

You were appointed as the CSM MA Fashion Image pathway leader in 2017, has this changed your outlook on fashion and photography and where the two meet? 

Not at all. I’ve always thought that fashion and photography are so closely related, for me there isn’t a hierarchy, it is how practitioners from both areas can bring equal input to the outcome.

Could you explain what the course is about and what is asked from the students?

The course is very practical and requires students to create original fashion images from the outset. The cohort each year is predominantly photographers and filmmakers, with a small number of stylists and art directors. The students work on a mixture of collaborative projects with other pathways and courses at CSM, contextual studies, and industry projects all leading up to each student producing their own major project. The major project is a significant body of work that allows each student to explore themes and ideas that are important to them and develop their practical skills, whilst all the time considering how their work fits in a fashion context, why it is innovative and relevant, and how an audience will engage with it.

What have you learned from this role?

One of the things I most enjoy about working in universities is working with so many people, both students, and colleagues. It’s a very social role and not having this face to face interaction is something that I really struggled with during lockdown. With the constant flow of new students, I find that every year I learn so much.

“Having access to large budgets or high-end equipment does not automatically produce the best work. Some of the most exciting communication and image work I have seen was produced by students with very limited resources during the lockdown.”

Why do you believe there is a special need for a course that focuses on the imagery of fashion rather than purely photography? Where do you draw the line between fashion imagery and other photographic forms?

Fashion photography is too specific, it is important that the course has scope to allow for different image-making practice in a fashion context, for example, still image, moving image, print-based and digital platforms.

Usually, it is the context that the work is presented in that will define whether it is fashion, fine art, documentary, etc. I tend to encourage students not to get too bogged down in defining between forms, it is all image-making so it’s about making decisions about what is appropriate for their work, the purpose, and the audience.

COVID-19 has impacted all levels of education, but creative courses have arguably been some of the worst hit. Students with limited or no access to studio space and facilities have found themselves at a disadvantage, exposing and amplifying an already existing inequality between students within CSM and other similar institutions around the world. Do you see a way to bridge this gap?

Whilst I completely understand it is very frustrating and challenging not being able to access studios and other facilities, having access to large budgets or high-end equipment does not automatically produce the best work. Some of the most exciting communication and image work I have seen was produced by students with very limited resources during the lockdown. Part of my role is to work with and support each student to produce the most resolved work possible with whatever is available and making sure that budget or resources are not prioritised in a brief over creativity and talent.

“I have always thought that when a fashion image is at its best, it is one of the most relevant forms of visual communication that certainly has the potential to be a catalyst for social change.”

Has the pandemic led you to reflect on the role of fashion and fashion imagery in contemporary society? Do you see it shifting to a new catalyst for positive social change?

I have always thought that when a fashion image is at its best, it is one of the most relevant forms of visual communication that certainly has the potential to be a catalyst for social change. This is true even without the pandemic. Fashion has a huge role in our culture and society and we can’t underestimate it as a powerful platform.

“What I find particularly frustrating is that platforms, even those with a heritage of championing new talent, seem to be commissioning a small number of the same image-makers.”

Do you think there is a place in the fashion industry for your students in terms of employability? Do you feel that your students are worried about this?

Of course! The visual communication of fashion is the way that most people first encounter fashion, therefore the role of fashion communicators is vital. I am lucky that I’m working with the most talented students in the world, so when the work is that good then of course there is a place for them in the industry.

What I find particularly frustrating is that platforms, even those with a heritage of championing new talent, seem to be commissioning a small number of the same image-makers. With all the recent discussions about the relevance of platforms and the challenges of how to communicate fashion in the last few months, there is a massive opportunity to engage with students and early career talent who can definitely offer exciting, innovative, and relevant points of view.

Do you feel there needs to be a larger focus on the creation of roles for your students outside of London? 

Yes, having worked at universities in the north-west of England for over a decade, it is very noticeable how little infrastructure there is to support students on fashion communication type courses to develop a career staying in the region, certainly within the UK, the focus is very much London.

“Developing a personal brand seems to work for some people, but I tend to focus on encouraging young creatives to develop a creative identity that is manifest through their work.”

What would you change in fashion education at large? 

Not just in fashion education – ideally develop government policy and structure that could maintain the quality of education but remove or significantly reduce tuition fees.

Do you think that developing a “personal brand” online is important to young creatives today in order to have and maintain a career?

Developing a personal brand seems to work for some people, but I tend to focus on encouraging young creatives to develop a creative identity that is manifest through their work. Developing a sense of who they are, what they can offer, what their work is about, and how all this is communicated to potential employers, collaborators, and audiences.

Could you share some advice that you give to your students? 

Start making work; the momentum really builds once a student becomes active in producing their own work.

 

The Time We Call Our Own runs at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery until the 23rd of October.

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