Matthew Finn was 24 years old when he took a job teaching photography at an art school on the outskirts of London. This was the late-90s: Tony Blair had just come into power with New Labour, Britpop bands were massive, British artists like Tracy Emin were gaining traction, and young people actually felt some pride in their country.
For Finn, this was also a time of experimentation – he was still trying to figure out who he was and what type of photographer he wanted to be, just like many of the students he was teaching. So it’s no surprise that he ended up turning his camera onto them. The result is an extensive series of beautiful black-and-white portraits that he shot between 1995 and 2003, before moving onto a different institution (where he continued to make photographs until 2015).
Later this week, STANLEY/BARKER will release School of Art, which features a selection of Finn’s portraits shot in 1997. I sat down with Finn to talk about the book, his process and what art schools were like in the 1990s.
VICE: What can you tell me about your new book?
Matthew Finn: School of Art is a collection of photos taken in 1997 at an art school in England. That year was a very pivotal moment in British art culture and political culture. We had the start of a new Labour government with Tony Blair, which – to a left-wing artist – seemed ideal. We had a real explosion of young British artists that seemed viable for students to actually admire and understand. We had a burst in British music. For me, this book is about documenting that slice of history.
So the series spans the course of many years, but this book represents one small portion of that?
Yes, all my projects are duration-based. The book I did before was a 31-year project. But for this book, I felt 1997 encapsulated everything and took the images beyond just the idea of a photograph of a student at an anonymous art school, and placed it into a significant cultural moment.
You say "anonymous art school" – why be vague about that particular detail?
Partly because I want it to be more universal. What I’m trying to not do is make a corporate brochure for an art school. This isn’t Central Saint Martins, it’s not a Royal College. It was a Victorian school, which many art schools traditionally were. It had all the high ceilings, the parquet flooring... and what was taught was universal as well.
You were 24 years old around this time, and I assume your role was teaching photography to these students?
Yeah, I would introduce them to ideas, concepts and techniques. We’d spend time in the dark room and studios. I was learning as well – I wasn’t much older than the students, and basically straight out of university. I was trying to figure out who I was, what type of photographer I wanted to be, and in many ways it was the same as them. So I think we were all kind of supportive of each other and learning together.
How did the idea for this series come about?
My projects are never planned – I don’t go travelling around the world trying to find subjects. I don’t have anything I want to say politically through photography. I always wanted to be a street photographer, but no one was paying me to do that and I needed a job. So, I thought, 'I'm here at this school five days a week, what am I going to do other than teach [my students]?' They became my subject because they were physically there. If I would have been building cars in a plant I would have been photographing the people and the cars. It was just the fact that they were there. I’m interested in people and, at that time, no one was worried about you photographing teenagers.
What was the shooting process like?
You know, you come across a student and you think the light was great or what they were wearing was fantastic, so you say, "Look, can I take your picture?" It was a very small environment – maybe 300 students. You got to know them all really well. It’s just what I did, and everyone got used to it. We were all supportive of each other. A lot of my former students will be at my book launch in London on the 17th. I’m excited to see them remember how they looked 20 years ago.
You mentioned that sometimes the way the students dressed would catch your eye. It seems like today a lot of people are dressing the exact same way. Are cycles in youth culture of any interest to you?
Yeah, everything comes back: in terms of the type of music we listen to, how we play music, what we wear, the certain brands and logos… and in six months it will be something else. For me, it was about these kids trying to find an identity, and certainly in art schools that tends to be through clothes – it identifies you as part of the group. And I think they could group themselves through their clothing. If you’re into heavy metal, there’s a certain type of uniform you wear. The fact that it’s come around again is only because we’ve got another group of teenagers.
Earlier, you mentioned that the instalment of the New Labour government in the late-90s was pretty appealing to artists, that there was a sense of hope that had not been felt for a generation. Did that come across in your interactions with students? Was politics discussed?
There was a lot of politics. Nan Goldin was really breaking through at this time, so we were dealing with a lot of sexual politics. A lot of the students were politically engaged and a lot of the work was biased towards that. This was before people expressed themselves and their anxieties through Instagram and Facebook – they did it through their work.
The work could be very personal. If they were having issues with family then it was reflected in the type of work they made. We’d spend a lot of time at the Saatchi Gallery when it was down at St John’s Wood. We’d see Tracy Emin drunk on late-night TV. These were incredible role models and so everything got politicised. We were happy to have debate because the only way we could communicate would be to talk. We couldn’t text and there weren’t many computers. I think conversation was very much a part of it, whereas now that’s not the case in education.
It’s easy to forget that there was a time when texting wasn’t a thing – you had to talk.
You know, a lot of these students were angry. They would have had mental health issues, they just weren’t diagnosed or recognised. We used to drink heavily, smoke, do a lot of drugs, and at that time art schools were a liberal enough environment for no one to really care; everybody was relatively safe. It was about making the work, and the work was incredibly expressive: it’d be giant papier-mâché penises with hypodermic needles stuck all over them. We’d have a sheet of A4 explaining what the work was about, but the head of school wouldn’t allow it so students would get angry. We’d go to the local press and then find the stories in local newspapers. [The students] weren’t prepared to accept what someone in authority was telling them. They would say, "Actually, this is what I’m about. This is the person I want to be, and fuck you. We’re going to make this work." And because of the political time, we had these Tracy Emins and your Sarah Lucases. For the first time it was strong women who were visible, who were vibrant, who were sexual, and they were great artists. These young students had never had that before. All of a sudden they had their own role models.
How did your own experience at school compare to your students' experience?
It was chaos! We had no formal teaching – you could do what you wanted. You’d drink heavily with the teachers. It was a real tight-knit community. It was very, very different to now. There was no paperwork. My experience away from school was very liberating. I didn’t particularly enjoy the constraints of school, and I think others who went to art school felt the same. So all of a sudden they were free – they could make their own choices. They could make a mess. They had time to fail and it didn’t matter. That’s not the case now: everyone’s obsessed with grades. They’re paying so much money, so there’s a sense of entitlement. But [back] then, there wasn’t that sense of entitlement; I think students just wanted to make work and figure things out for themselves.
School of Art will be released on the 16th of May by STANLEY/BARKER.