Dean Davies’ new photo project, Manchester Girls, is a love letter to the north of England

© Dean Davies

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In 2017, the visual influence of the north of England became the focus of an exhibition entitled North: Fashioning Identity. First launching in Liverpool, it moved to Somerset House and this year, it travels to The Civic in Barnsley as its final stop. The north has been a subject of interest in mid-20th century art and continues to inspire established designers and a new generation of artists today. Belgian designer Raf Simons, Virgil Abloh and Fashion East alumni Matty Bovan – who resides in York – have drawn inspiration from the area for their work. However, the north still remains largely underrepresented in fashion and culture titles.

With his own adolescent experiences rooted in the area, Wirral-born image maker Dean Davies has been lensing the northwest in a bid to spotlight the area and its residents – from its working class heritage to the mundanities of suburban life. Recently, Davies launched a Kickstarter to help fund his latest project: Manchester Girls, a photo book based on characters and depictions of the northwest. Coloured in soft, subtle pink and yellow tones, Davies’ compositions build a strong relationship between the subject and their environment; each model appears to be posing effortlessly for the camera, captured against the suburbs in the north, and staring straight into the lens. How their stories are told, however, are not only through their backdrops but through their stylings too. Collaborating with stylist Vicky Olschak, clothing is used to exaggerate the model’s character or to project one that’s entirely different – blurring reality with fiction and imagined identities. Davies’ style of photography and use of fashion has also seen brands – such as House of Holland and Levis – tap into his aesthetic for their campaigns.

As the donations are steadily climbing for Manchester Girls, we catch up with Davies to talk about the project – how he cast the models, approached the topic of the book and the significance of the northwest in his work.

How did Manchester Girls come about?

The book came about quite organically. Vicky and I had been wanting to work together for years as we both had similar upbringings in the northwest, and both pull up on these experiences within our work, which is predominantly created in the region.

Why did you choose to focus on Manchester in particular?

Vicky is a born-and-bred Manchester Girl, and the city is one of my favourite places. I’m incredibly inspired by Manchester and its people, who have featured in several projects I’ve captured in the city over the years.

In Manchester Girls we were looking to pay homage to a city that has inspired us both, and to represent less documented areas of the city, capturing the series in Tameside, Greater Manchester, and in particular, the towns of Hyde and Dukinfield, where Vicky is from, and on a housing estate in Hattersley – all areas that are often overlooked for how much character they have, and how picturesque they are.

Manchester Girls © Dean Davies
© Dean Davies

In the press release, you mention that the project is a love letter to the women you grew up around. Can you tell me more about who these women were and how they inspired you to start this project?

The women I refer to as my inspiration for not only this project, but my work in general, are those I went to secondary school and college with. Equal parts intimidating and affectionate, and rarely seen alone, these groups of females can be identified by their hard exteriors, and impeccable, matching style. A style I’ve been paying homage to through my work for the last seven years.

Our adolescent years are the most vivid and formative in shaping our identity, so there are recurring symbols within my image making of the street and groups of people – particularly females, in the same or similar clothing, and of housing estates, suburban streets, and strong-looking cliques who, for me, are representative of people and places from my younger years. It’s autobiographical but it’s not reality because my images are recreations of my experiences.

How did you go about finding models for Manchester Girls?

I knew I wanted to feature groups of girls within the series, inspired by the female cliques I grew up with. I cast all 13 friendship groups – 34 girls in total – who feature in this project through open calls on social media, by approaching people personally, and through word-of-mouth. A number of the girls recommended other girls for the project, too.

“I am someone who works within fashion, but positioned from somewhere on the outskirts, and I think this is, in part, due to never truly identifying with the fashion depicted in the titles I read growing up”

© Dean Davies

Can you tell me more about the styling? How do the clothes tie into Manchester and northern identity?

As fashion image makers, styling is an important element of our work. In Manchester Girls, Vicky and I were looking to pay homage to northern style from our adolescence. We had a number of discussions about style trends prominent throughout our youth, which Vicky then took inspiration from to create outfits for the girls I cast for the project.

Whilst the styling is influenced by our memories of northwest style, I would hope that people from elsewhere within the UK and beyond could identify with the women and fashion featured, and perhaps even see themselves, and their experiences of adolescence, within the photographs.

What were some of the highlights of creating this photo book?

From working alongside Vicky, to meeting and photographing the girls that feature within imagery, and curating the book with Art Director Alfie Allen, the project has been an incredibly fulfilling experience from start to finish.

Were there any obstacles you had to overcome?

The difficulty with any longform project is knowing when to stop. We could have proceeded with the project indefinitely, but after two years of working on the project, there had to be a logical end.

Also, with any personal projects that are self-funded, there are of course financial limitations. We have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the Manchester Girls book, and to be able to realise our ambitions for the project in the medium of print.

Why do you focus on communities close to your home in your work?

I am someone who works within fashion, but positioned from somewhere on the outskirts, and I think this is, in part, due to never truly identifying with the fashion depicted in the titles I read growing up, and not seeing many stories that represented me or my upbringing within them. Which is why I jump at any opportunity to represent the people and places of the region I grew up in, that shaped me as a person and image maker.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to experimenting more with moving image in storytelling. My next project will be a combination of photography and film, and will of course take me back up north.

The Kickstarter campaign for Manchester Girls ends on 31 October

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