We get a double dose of the We Made It ethos here. Brian David Stevens is a craftsman in his own right – a unique photographer whose work sits somewhere between high art, documentary, agit-prop and subculture, and who is as appreciative of the presentational qualities of the photocopied fanzine, or indeed a digital gallery for theartsdesk as he is of the top-end digital print for the gallery wall. But his most recent exhibition and print series are in themselves an appreciation of craftsmanship, too.
His screen print series Notting Hill Sound Systems, which has been showing at notorious west end bar The Social and sold in a boxed magazine edition by Cafe Royal Books, is a love note to London's speaker-stackers and bassbin-luggers. Its depictions of the huge soundsystems set up on street corners in preparation for Notting Hill Carnival, with not a human being in sight, are a reminder of the hard labour and street-smart technical wizardry that gets the all-important music playing at one of the largest public events in the world.
“I've always loved speakers,” Stevens says. “I paid my way through college working as a roadie, so I've been physically close to them – and these one were great, hand made old systems, each with their own fingerprint visually and sonically. I want people to see them as objects: they're strange and beautiful in their own right.” As to why he would present them so starkly, alone on the street: “It's playing with context really. It's odd to see them in public but without people, so you end up looking at them in a different way. And also, by photographing them you've removed their primary purpose – which is to create sound – so they become something else.”
As to how he chooses to present his pictures: “I'd rather do a show with giant photocopies than not do it at all because there's no budget for prints,” he shrugs. “The photography world can be quite insular and people end up producing work that's only seen by other photographers – which has it's place – but it's fun to mix things up a bit. Jeff Barrett from Heavenly Records loved the Sound Systems so having them up in The Social was a no-brainer. It's nice to put photography in different environments whether that's bars, tunnels (as I did with a set of photos of graffiti writers), streets... whatever.”
But the real mark of Stevens's ability to adapt to any context or subject matter is that alongside his pictures of spraycan artists, soundsystems and rioting protestors, his best known work is They That Are Left, an ongoing 10 year project photographing the faces of war veterans on armistice day. It's going to exhibited this year at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and at Fort Nelson in Portsmouth and, he says “people seem to really connect with it.” It might seem a leap between this and reggae/rave soundsystems, but in fact there's a clear theme in Stevens's work of the physical manifestation of real lives lived – and thanks to the work he puts into creation and placement of photos as physical objects, this work is a rare and important reminder of life away from the digital fizz of our online lives.
They That Are Left is exhibited at Leeds Royal Armouries from next month: