Last Friday evening, I passed the National Portrait Gallery on my way to the theatre and noticed lots of people buzzing around outside. Lots of fashionable, pretty young things. As I was 45 minutes early to meet my friends, I thought I’d pop in for a quick look and also pick up some info about the Photographic Portrait Prize the Gallery runs every year.
As I walked through the doors and was confronted by heaving crowds, I remembered the Gallery now opens late on Friday nights. But I couldn’t understand why the place was so busy. As well as all the young trendies, there were lots of people my age and above. And…er…wasn’t that a DJ I could hear in the background? Clearly, I was missing out on something exciting – the Gallery was rocking with energy and music!
I’d stumbled into ‘Snapped’, an exhibition celebrating the diversity of beauty. It’s the latest project from All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, the initiative by Caryn Franklin, Debra Bourne and Erin O Connor, designed to change the way the fashion industry sees and portrays women (and, presumably, men).
They’d worked with Rankin, the renowned fashion photographer, to create a series of portraits showcasing the Spring/Summer 2011 collections of designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood – but using more realistic and diverse models than you’d normally see on the catwalk or in the media. Ranging from 18 – 80 years old, the models were of varying body shapes, heights and ethnicities.
I applauded All Walks Beyond the Catwalk when I first heard about it, around a year ago. So I was delighted to have a chance to see this exhibition – albeit by accident! Each model looked stunning in her portrait. More to the point, they each just looked like a model. Not a black model, a short model, an old model. Just a model. A beautiful woman selling something. And selling it just as well as their skinny, younger, lighter-skinned counterparts. It’s an important message. Too many women and men suffer from unhealthy body images, aspiring to unrealistic, often airbrushed, figures.
Whilst the photographer and campaigner in me were undoubtedly impressed and fulfilled by Snapped on Friday night, it’s the marketer in me that was really blown away. I was struck by the National Gallery’s concept behind the whole evening and the way they’d pulled it all together.
Snapped was the first of the Gallery’s Late Shift Extra tours, designed to encourage visitors to explore the space, discover some of its amazing art and learn about some of its events. To this end, Rankin’s photographs weren’t displayed together. Instead, each model’s portrait, printed large on canvas-like paper giving it a paint-like sheen, was displayed on an easel and positioned somewhere around the Gallery amongst the more permanent and hung paintings dating back as far as the 15th Century. This encouraged visitors to walk around the whole Gallery, looking at everything whilst seeking out Rankin’s images. A simple but clever idea.
The overall effect was to embed a touch of edginess into the Gallery, rather than adding it consciously on the side. Introducing the Gallery to a new audience, whilst retaining its intrinsic core values and offer. This premise was set up well from the start. A pop-up bar in the ground floor foyer, overlooked by a female DJ on the first floor balcony, welcomed people as they entered, immediately removing any potential for stuffiness.
Crucially, neither looked out of place in the foyer’s white, light space. More subtly, the free Late Shift Tour (sic)/ All Walks Beyond the Catwalk booklet handed out didn’t just talk about the Rankin exhibition.
It also gave historical, cultural and fashion insights into some of the key portraits around the Gallery – from Queen Elizabeth I circa 1592, to the 1985 Queen Elizabeth II pop culture icon by Andy Warhol.
Finally, to complete the Gallery showcase, was a life drawing class taking place on the second floor, with a (fully-dressed) model standing on a huge table to pose for 15 or so students, with an amazing wall-length painting as her backdrop. Lots of bystanders, including myself, stood and watched intrigued. Brilliant.
Looking on the website the next day, I saw there’d also been model scouts – hence the prevalence of dressed up girls; a chaired debate about fashion and identity; and ‘soundscapes’ including commentary from Vivienne Westwood.
Whilst there, I heard at least one group of twenty-somethings remark that they’d never been to the Gallery before but that they thought it was amazing and would definitely go again. And they were referring to the entire space and collection, not just the Rankin element.
I was mentally congratulating the Gallery on a job well done, when I unexpectedly came across the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. Kidnapped into slavery in 1731, he became recognised as a scholar and was cited by advocates for the abolition of slavery when ‘asserting the moral right and humanity of black people’. This is the earliest portrait of a freed slave and the first in which a slave was portrayed as an equal. I’d read about it recently, as the Gallery had been campaigning to keep it in the country due to its cultural significance. Seeing it first-hand and reading the description made me really comprehend its power and value and made me want to find out more about Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. It brought home the diversity and importance of the National Portrait Gallery.
From the Photographic Portrait Prize to the first freed slave; with Warhol’s Queen Elizabeth II and Rankin in between.
It’s amazing what you can do in 45 minutes!