Elly Lucas on stereotypes, community and her new exhibition at Cecil Sharp House: Folktography

If you’re a British folkie, the chances are Elly Lucas’s work features somewhere in your record collection. You might be familiar with her musical duo – David Gibb & Elly Lucas’s 2013 album Up Through The Woods is a gem (and they spoke to FW about it here) – but even if you aren’t, Elly’s photography work has been a key part of the scene’s image overhaul in the past few years.

Cupola:Ward
Cupola:Ward – one of Elly Lucas’s many photography clients – get messy

Elly’s photos have appeared on the albums and/or press material of the likes of Lucy Ward, Blair Dunlop, The Full English, Bellowhead, Gavin Davenport, Jackie Oates, Eliza Carthy, Cupola:Ward (above), Jim Moray… you get the idea.

This work has led to something slightly different – an exhibition at English Folk HQ, no less. Entitled Folktography: a decon/reconstruction, the exhibition currently showing at Cecil Sharp House began when Elly asked the public what visual images sprang to mind when they thought about the word ‘folk’. The end result is a fascinating, diverse collection of photographs, realised with affection and professionalism. Folky stereotypes are incorporated, yes, but the sometimes surprising answers Elly received has meant the exhibition depicts a scene that’s vibrant, self-aware and bursting with ideas.

Elly was kind enough to talk to Folk Witness about Folktography, beards, and the balancing act between being a musician and a photographer…

Folk Witness: What came first for you – playing folk music or taking photos? When did the two worlds collide?

Elly Lucas: Technically speaking, the music came first. I first picked up a violin aged eight years old having spent my first few years listening to my mum playing in an orchestra and – more importantly – the Captain Pugwash theme tune. I was classically trained for about five years but found that the playing style was one that never really spoke to me, so finding the folk tradition around the age of 13 was a hugely liberating thing. I’d grown up listening to the likes of Duncan Chisholm and Eileen Ivers, but now I was becoming interested in actually learning the tunes and discovering more about the scene they revolved in.

The photography didn’t really kick in until a couple of years later when I was encouraged to create my own source material for my GCSE art coursework. I’d always enjoyed taking holiday snaps previously, but until that point it was never something I’d considered from an artistic viewpoint. I started taking lots of conceptual images and portraits at every available opportunity and was hooked from thereon-in! I spent quite a lot of time on tour and gigging sporadically in my late teens, taking photography jobs whenever I could, so it probably wasn’t until I hit 20 that I seriously began to view it as something I could have a decent career in. I’d obviously dreamed about being able to make a living out it (who doesn’t want to do something they love?!) but it wasn’t until my client list began to expand in the way it did that it seemed like a possible reality. It was probably around this time that the two jobs really began to twine together.

How does being a musician affect your work as a photographer?

I love working in both capacities! It can be fairly exhausting working both the day and the night shift, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love that just by chatting to other artists and audience members at gigs I can make new contacts for both aspects. I’m also hugely lucky that I get to work with my friends and a plethora of incredibly talented, fascinating people!

What do the artists you work with request when you photograph them? Do they ask for conspicuously ‘folk’ photographs, or is that something that you bring?

Every now and again I find myself having to tone down ideas or am asked to think of something in a very short space of time or shoot in a not particularly inspiring environment, but generally I’m given quite a free rein by my clients. I never consciously think “I’m going to make something really obviously folk today”, but I’m glad the scene seems to like what I do!

How did the Folktography exhibition come about?

The exhibition came about thanks to an exceedingly lovely email out of the blue from those nice folk over at Cecil Sharp House. Two prominent members of EFDSS were kind enough to bring my work to the attention of the overseer of visual exhibitions for the house and how fitting it would be for the venue, and the next thing I knew I was having a meeting about creating some new pieces for them! It’s been a genuine pleasure working with the whole team.

Nature meets the city: an Elly Lucas self-portrait from the exhibition
Nature meets the city: an Elly Lucas self-portrait from the exhibition

For the exhibition you asked people about the visual images they associated with ‘folk’. What was the response like?

The response was absolutely amazing. It was very interesting indeed to see the difference in the way that people outside the scene perceived ‘folk’ in comparison to those within the scene. Almost infallibly (and expectedly), those outside the scene would come out with the usual “beard, banjo, folk dancing, ale, socks and sandals, hippy women with mad hair and clashing clothes, singing with a finger in one ear, rural things” but when I took that question to a range of ages within the scene, the answers suddenly became quite thought provoking and beautiful.

Some of my favourite quotes from the messages I received from within the scene ran along the lines of “acceptance of eccentricity… community… people of all ages singing together… people talking together and enjoying the company of others”. When I actually sat down and thought about it, these were all things that suddenly seemed obvious and that I’d actually always loved but had never thought to process before, so it was great to hear them vocalised. I think we sometimes take for granted just how lovely this crowd is! There was also, of course, some affectionate pointing of fingers at some of the recurring visuals that are very well known within the folk scene but perhaps not so much outside of it, including the likes of: horrible woolly jumpers/endless ballads/old folkies in dingy pub rooms clutching folders of songs/lying in a field/“dancing in a wet, empty pub car park for the entertainment of a stray dog”… You get the picture.

Was there a keenness to dispel the stereotypes? Or do people want to ‘own’ these signifiers?

I’d say there’s a bit of a balancing act. Whilst some parties are actively trying to get rid of these images, the general impression I got was that people either a) didn’t necessarily want to encourage the socks-sandals-beards stereotype but were kind of affectionately aware of it or b) were too busy being gloriously comfortable in who they were to actually give a monkey’s.

How have you incorporated people’s ideas into the exhibition?

I was bombarded with so many brilliant ideas that I unfortunately couldn’t visualise all of them this time round, but the pieces created for the exhibition stretch from depicting a few of our classic stereotypes in a simple, obvious form through to taking a regular theme and applying one of the ways our scene has changed, through to actively smashing a look or two. A couple of notes on feminism and urbanisation may also have sneaked their way in. You’re just gonna have to head over to Cecil Sharp House for the full details here!

Elly Eliza
No beards or sandals here, folks: another self-portrait from the exhibition

How do you think the exhibition will affect your future work as a photographer?

Oh heck, I have no idea. Hopefully I won’t have mortally offended/startled too many visitors to the house… It’s been a brilliant experience either way and has been a fascinating project to research and work on. I’ve had some lovely feedback about it so far but have no doubt that there will be a few grumbles too. One thing I can definitely say is that after seeing my images printed at that kind of scale I’ll absolutely be planning a new concept or two for the future! I can’t lie, I did squeak and dance round in circles a bit when the prints arrived. It’s all been terribly exciting.

Folktography: A decon/reconstruction is open to view (for free) at Cecil Sharp House from 9.30am to 5.30pm daily. Prints are available from Elly’s online shop, here

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