Maxi More at Manor House
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
It's one of those true clichés. By day, London's Soho is a jumble of small-plates restaurants and men with trimmed facial hair and shiny shoes shuffling to marketing meetings. But later, out comes that ever-euphemistic night-time economy. The drug dealers, the club promoters, the twinks fanning themselves with G-A-Y discount wristbands. Loiter long enough on Old Compton Street, though, and you'll see the "night flowers" – as photographer Damien Frost calls them – rise. They're the men and women caked in theatrical drag, swaying haute couture headpieces and stage makeup.
Damien, originally from Australia, took a photo of one of these queens once a day for a year, either trawling Soho, where he otherwise works as a graphic designer, or heading home to east London, where drag exists in pockets of sweaty flamboyance, from the Resistance Galleries to Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. The photos in his book, Night Flowers, are 365 sublime flickers of rare and bright beauty against eerily dark backgrounds. We spoke to Damien about capturing flashes of late-night ephemera and how drag reminds us of London's colourful past.
VICE: Hi Damien. First off, No one in this book looks like traditional ITV-viewer friendly drag. Did you have any hard and fast rules about who constitutes a "night flower"?
Damien Frost: I'm not that interested in the chameleon disguise of men dressed as women. I want it taken further, where gender becomes less of a thing and you get this blurred line where women can do drag queen looks, imitating and reclaiming a grotesque version of a woman. And the best looks come from people who aren't focussed on the scene. If I saw someone great on the street, I'd take a photo because they stand out, but in the context of Sink the Pink [a messy and exuberant drag/dress-up night], I'd try to find out what normality is then see what jumped out at me. I'm more interested in people who have made the outfit they're wearing, something they've spent a lot of time creating that looks like haute couture. Along with the makeup, it's a look they might never repeat again.
Miss Fit on Bourchier Street
The looks themselves seem impermanent. While shooting, how much did you notice a particular age range in your models?
In the few years I've been taking photos in the community, I've seen a lot of people stop doing drag. It's almost a rite of passage for people – maybe they're from a small town and so dress themselves in a way they couldn't back home. Maybe they just want to get it out of their system. But for others it's part of their identity. They commit hours of work before they go out and then they're judged on that look. It's hard work and a constant pressure to reinvent themselves.
With that pressure on, did you ever get people refusing to have their photo taken because they didn't feel they looked their best?
It's rare, but people will say, "Can you not take it from this side because my lashes have fallen off?" or "Can you not put my hand in the shot because I've not got nails on tonight?" Sometimes, though, I'll want to take a photo because their makeup has run.
You say in the introduction that you took photos in "seedy alleyways" – just how seedy did it get?
I was taking a photo of one of my subjects, Simon Shoots, and he said: "There's some guy jerking off over there." We were down this dark alley doing a photoshoot and this guy was behind us jerking off and watching us. Simon managed to keep his composure, every now and then shooting a glance over to make sure the guy didn't get any closer.
What was the reception like from the average passers-by?
People will shout "batty boy" and get quite aggressive towards the queens. Soho's not necessarily as safe and welcoming as you think, especially as the night gets later; people are more free with their abuse, I guess. I've not seen anything eventuate into assault but I do know people who've been assaulted for wearing drag. The thing I find interesting is people who hassle them asking, "What are you?" And the queen is like, "What do you mean, what am I?" and they go: "What are you? A man or a woman?" And they'll get really worked up, they just need to know what side of the fence everyone's on. What's great about the drag community is that nobody even asks that.
There were good experiences too, I hope?
Totally. We've even had Ian McKellen walking past taking photos of the queens, and when Bourgeoisie had a wig made of balloons people were trying to pop them for a laugh.
How does the interference with your subjects affect your work?
Well, it makes it hard for the queens to keep their composure and stillness, which I like the shot to achieve. That sense of calm can be difficult to maintain with distractions around.
Soho and east London are full of characters after-hours. Have you ever been tempted to document them in a similar way?
Not really. I mean, sometimes the drug dealers will ask "Take my photo!" but it doesn't fit in with what I'm trying to do. Plus, they give the queens a lot of grief, they're the most intolerant, and it's ironic in a way, like, go sell your wares somewhere else. The Night Flowers project was an accidental thing. I never intended to do a series of the drag community or queer community, but I now find it now harder to go back and look for less colourful or less extreme people to photograph.
The Infamous Boom Boom at Cirque
Playing with gender has hit the mainstream, but do you think this sort of drag will ever "cross over"?
TV shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and the Sink the Pink night on the festival circuit might not normalise drag, but they get it out more. And the more people are aware of it, the more we get used to it. That said, you still get a shot of electricity when a six-foot queen walks down the street at night and everyone's heads turn. I find that power to shock really interesting. They also do things that reference history of other people's makeup. So there's this conceptual look that [one of the book's subjects] Luke Francis does, by copying Boy George who was copying [late performance artist] Leigh Bowery and I like that lineage. Maybe a few people will get that reference but it keeps it interesting.
As for borrowing from previous culture, there's a big ongoing cultural conversation about when it's appropriate, if ever, to reference other people's cultures and histories via costume and dress. What's your take on it?
I'm a middle-class white person, but in the case of people painting themselves black, if they're not mimicking a black person in any other way, not doing the minstrel or mime thing, then it's just the colour that the face is painted. A lot of cultural appropriation happens innocently, a lot of people just want to incorporate things into their outfit. Julius Ruben in the book has a Maasai necklace and decoration that he's put into a headdress. He's part-Maasai so can do that and it would be a shame if someone else couldn't create something out of that, without it being seen as offensive to that culture.
Duo Raw on Ganton Street
What was your experience of photographing people on the fringes of an experimental subculture in a city like London, where so much money flows into certain areas and not others?
A lot of people I photograph don't live in central London where the clubs are – it's just too expensive. Everyone's always going to be pushed out to the fringes, or to smaller towns, and eventually they'll be pushed out when that becomes cooler. It's an ongoing battle with gentrification, but I think culture does survive because you work out a way to do it. The lack of money in the drag community maybe forces people to be more experimental with the materials they're using. So Bourgeoisie will do something with bubble wrap and packing tape that looks incredible.
Yeah, I noticed one of the models made an entire inflatable bodysuit using the same IKEA bedsheets I have.
Totally. I come from an art background and that's what really impresses me with the looks and the makeup: it's often a one-off artwork for the night. The clothing's impractical, the sort of stuff you only ever see on catwalks, but they manage it, just walking down the street.
Night Flowers is available now, through Merrell Publishers. Here are some more photos from the book.
Lolo Brow at Virgin Extrazavangzah
Meri Karhu at Virgin Extravaganzah
Yozmit on Shaftesbury Avenue
Imma Mess on Brewer Street