July 22, 2024

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Photographer Jamie Hawkesworth finds beauty in ‘awkward’ moments

5 min read

For 13 years, Jamie Hawkesworth would travel around the British Isles with a cup of tea and his analogue film camera, alighting at different towns, rural villages and remote islands, photographing the faces and landscapes he came across. “Nine times out of 10, I would go to the train station and just pick a place that I liked the sound of, like Bridgend or Hartlepool,” says Hawkesworth, speaking over the phone from his darkroom in east London. 

Initially, it was an exercise in curiosity and getting more comfortable approaching strangers to photograph. “Once, I decided to see what the furthest place north I could get to was, and that was Unst in the Shetland Islands. I jumped on a train to Aberdeen, got a ferry, then a bus, then another ferry and another bus, and it dropped me off at this pony competition,” he recalls.

It was on this trip that he took one of his favourite photographs, which is being presented as part of a new solo exhibition, The British Isles, at London’s Huxley-Parlour Gallery this week. A portrait of a young girl (“who came last in the competition”) wearing a pink windbreaker, her damp riding-helmet hair perfectly dishevelled as she stares impishly into Hawkesworth’s lens. 

A young girl in pink cagoule, her fringe pinned back but several strands of hair sticking up
© Jamie Hawkesworth/Huxley-Parlour, London

It is “a reminder of how special it is to ask people to take their picture”, says the 37-year-old, with a slight Suffolk twang. “It’s funny and awkward and you kind of have this interesting, fleeting relationship where you can, just for a second, spend a moment in their universe.”

At first glance, the photographs might appear innocuous, even banal: a murky grey puddle by a kerb; a solitary bench overlooking the sea; bags of candyfloss swinging from the handle of a pram; a schoolgirl staring down at her mobile phone. But through Hawkesworth’s empathetic eye and warm, ochre palette, they take on a dreamlike quality, everyday details rendered sublime.

A young blonde woman, lollipop stick in her mouth, looks down at her phone as the breeze blows her hair
© Jamie Hawkesworth/Huxley-Parlour, London

“I remember when I got back the contact sheets from the Preston bus station project,” he says of his first photographic series. “They were always cold and blue, and it never really felt like how excited I was being there in reality, so I started warming them up,” says Hawkesworth of his trademark printing technique, fine-tuned following a mistake in the darkroom about 12 years ago when he accidentally left the door ajar. “To me, it brings another layer of sensitivity somehow and celebrates a person rather than sort of pointing a finger at them.”

His optimistic approach stems from a giddy, almost childlike enthusiasm for his craft. He cites the work of photographers August Sander, Paul Strand and Jem Southam as some of his early influences. He also recently got back from Cape Cod, where he was following in the footsteps of American street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, “like a proper nerd”. (It’s where Meyerowitz shot one of Hawkesworth’s favourite books.)

“I really did fall head over heels in love with photography and it came out of nowhere,” says Hawkesworth, who initially studied forensic science at university, where he was taught to use a camera to take pictures of reconstructed crime scenes, before switching to photography. “I had never really used my hands to make stuff and I just remember fiddling around with this camera thinking, ‘God, this is interesting.’ It just felt so good to be doing it.”

A figure in golden grassland, with a smoking factory in the distance
© Jamie Hawkesworth/Huxley-Parlour, London
Two boys doing back flips on two mattresses in a garden
© Jamie Hawkesworth/Huxley-Parlour, London

Hawkesworth, who grew up in Ipswich, first came to fame as a fashion photographer after working with the French stylist Benjamin Bruno on a story for Man About Town magazine in 2012. Shot in South Shields near Newcastle, the image of a young blonde girl dressed in an adult-sized electric-blue Gucci suit struck a chord for its raw, low-fi aesthetic, at odds with the glossy and highly stylised fashion imagery of the time.

He has since become one of the industry’s foremost image-makers, working for brands such as The Row, Miu Miu and Loewe, bringing his offbeat and tender documentary style to the sometimes formulaic world of fashion photography and moving seamlessly between photographing Kate Moss or Erykah Badu windswept on a beach for the cover of American Vogue and everyday people at brutalist bus stations. “I’ve never really seen a difference at all,” says Hawkesworth, who still shoots exclusively on film on a Mamiya RB67. “It’s all really personal. It’s all the same thing. Obviously, a fashion situation is very strange and quite difficult to understand, but so is a stranger in the street.”

A shed tied to a fence next to a house
© Jamie Hawkesworth/Huxley-Parlour, London

Taken between 2007 and 2020, the images in The British Isles offer a visual record of a tumultuous period in the country’s history, defined by austerity, referendums, a revolving door of prime ministers and a pandemic. One image, taken in Hartlepool in north-east England, shows a lone figure in the middle of a golden field, smoke billowing on the horizon from a factory that has since closed down. “I suppose stuff like that has made me aware of how time moves on, big places change,” says Hawkesworth.

But if the exhibition might be viewed as a tool for social commentary, that was not the intention. “To be honest, the places were never that important, in the sense that I was never trying to say, ‘Well, this is what Newcastle looks like,’” says Hawkesworth, who has left the works untitled deliberately. “I just felt guilty when I wasn’t making the most of going out and taking pictures, so it truly was just born out of a love of taking photographs and exploring somewhere new.”

What does he hope people coming to the exhibition will take away from it? “I could say, ‘Oh, I’d love it if people came out of it feeling the wonder of everyday life’ — but that sounds quite silly somehow,” he says, self-effacingly. “So, I probably wouldn’t say that. I suppose just the joy of photography.”

‘Jamie Hawkesworth: The British Isles’ runs from 11 July to 10 August at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 45 Maddox Street, London W1S 2PE

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