I began this project three years ago as something of an experiment. Will and I were at the first of these annual parties which began in the nineties. We've watched the event blossom, morph and transform year on year. The first one was 120 friends from a mixture of social backgrounds. Camp was set up in the field. Not that anyone was intending to do that much sleeping. There was a bbq, music moved from laidback chill to pumping house when the party moved into the house itself. We danced in the potato room in the cellars of this magnificent home, coming up for air when the birds began to sing, standing to admire the quintessentially English landscape and the sweeping vista which overlooks the lake. I went to bed before many of the others and fell asleep on a mattress in the attic with the thrum thrum of the bass still pumping and the whooping of my mates reverberating through my pillow.
This year there was, I believe, around 5,000 people. It is still a private event but the scope and scale have changed. A small eccentric village erects and transacts for an extended weekend. There are shops, cafes, stages, big tops, live music, light shows, children's area, yurts and tipis. Campers and glampers. But on Saturday the party moves back into the cellars for a night. The whole venture is an exercise in trust. A friendship culture operates. Guests must be invited by someone who's been and will vouch for them. Partygoers exhibit a playful exhuberance, dressing up and down. 'Norms' are relaxed.
It only occurred to me a couple of years ago, with my portraiture and photographic practice emerging, that it would be a really interesting experiment to try and photograph the guests on Saturday night as they made their way down to the party. I tentatively asked if this was a good idea and if there might be somewhere I could photograph...? I didn't expect the venue I was offered: the ballroom; the exceptionally, exquisitely beautiful, delicate ballroom. So I set off three years ago with my lights and camera and a vague and nebulous notion of doing a series of portraits.
I was very mindful of my privileged vantage point and the responsibility attached to preserving not only the privacy and security of the house, but the discrete nature of the party and its location. I decided on two approaches. I was attracted to the frame of a doorway between the ballroom and the china room beyond. It has a checkered floor, very Alice in Wonderland. Thresholds are a visual theme that pervades a good deal of my imagery - I am interested in liminal experiences, points of transformation, the connection between psychic inner landscapes and aesthetic outward appearance. Magic Realism. I like portals and doorways. Atmospheres. Having set up this shot with three of my lights, I only had one left. I put up a dramatic spotlight and bounce. A single shot, emerging out of the darkness, preserving the identity of the location, focusing on their individual identity within the collective nature of the event. A moment of theatre. This is another emergent theme of my work. I grew up within a theatrical family. Both my parents were - are, in my Dad's case - actors. My mother used to critique what she considered, my 'performance' of emotions. 'I'm sorry, I don't believe that. You'll have to try that again. It didn't feel authentic to me.' This was quite a conundrum for a small child. How could I get my parent to believe the urgent needs, reality and immediacy of my inner world? Apparently, the only way was to 'perform' it better. To create a heightened moment of authenticity that would let my mother believe in and access the drama of my young existence.
My mother was a devotee of the great Russian teacher, Stanislasky. Famously, his preliminary acting exercise for new students was to make them sit in an armchair on stage and do nothing. Just be. Until then, theatre had been declamatory, big and artificial. Stanislasky's method heralded a new style of acting. Leaner, more realistic, observational. Blending an inside-out and outside-in approach, technical artistry and creative imagination, he was the first recognized theatre practitioner. And Mum loved him. She was, however, highly allergic to the Actor's Studio in New York and the americanised take on The Method which she considered self-indulgent or as she put it, 'wanky'. The point was not for the actor to have a moment of self-centred and personal realisation, it was for the audience to experience a collective catharsis. That involves a dual awareness of self and others, being in and standing simultaneously outside of the moment. Stanislasky considered his approach to theatre 'spiritual Realism'. (I only found this out recently.) Synchronicity, as my Mum would have said.
But I digress. Let's go back to the ballroom.
I was setup and waiting. I stood on the stairwell steps and watched as guests were funelled carefully into the cellars by security. I photographed until 4am and then went down to the cellars and danced a while. At dawn, exhausted, tea was no longer enough and I fell into the campervan and my sleeping bag. The next day I had a look back at my pictures and was fascinated. Three years down the line, I am still looking back at those pictures, adding to the collection, editing, revisiting, watching people and themes emerge out of the darkness. I hope that I can continue for a few more years to come so that eventually I (we) can look back at the heightened moment that this party represents and see if these pictures can show us something about this curious moment we're living through.