This is THE ELEVENTH HOUR, a series dedicated to spotlighting graduating talent across the globe spanning art, design, architecture, engineering and of course, watchmaking. Notionally, the timely adage references the very last moment where an idea finally comes into fruition; the finale of the creative process. In this edition, we speak with the Condé Nast College graduate and writer, Sophie Walsh, who sought to capture the meaning of visual identity from the streets of England, on the cusp of the pandemic.
“We’re a country caught between old stereotypes and rapid cultural shifts,” shares the journalist, Sophie Walsh on the national identity of the United Kingdom. Stuck in a liminal space between deeply-concentrated nostalgia and assimilating modernity, the Surrey-based creative is subverting the semiotics of what it means to represent Britishness in the present day.
It was back in 2019 that Walsh hatched the idea to circumnavigate the terrain of visual identity, staging a portfolio of photography and words under the title, ‘Blimey,’ a jibe toward the antiquated English colloquialism for surprise, neatly summing up the idiosyncrasies of this nation. The convivial spirits of Walsh’s self-published tome brought together an assembled cadre of British photographers from across the country, to explore the state of flux we exist in as a nation as equally infatuated with its past, as it is its future.
Capturing the beacons and bellwethers of British life, Walsh responds to this unique passage of time in a post-Brexit, pre-pandemic world, where uncertainty was ever-present, but the feeling of community rife. Commenting on the passage of time, not only in her role as purveyor, but also viewer of this montage of British tropes, Walsh explores the language between storytelling and time.
The Next Hour: Hi Sophie, it’s great to catch up with you! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in journalism/photography?
Sophie Walsh: I’m fascinated with storytelling, whether that’s visually or linguistically. I think there’s something incredibly primal about our desire to share and consume the human experience, whether that’s passing down stories generationally or capturing them in a beautiful form on paper. My granddad was a journalist and my mum was in the WI so I suppose nosiness is in the blood.
TNH: So creating something like this has always been a goal for you then really? Talk us through the final project and how it came together.
SW: I created the project in 2019, pre-COVID and against a backdrop of Brexit buzz and an increasing demand for devolution in the UK. I became interested in the concept of national identity, specifically ‘Englishness’ – a term loaded with stereotypes, taboo and political connotations. Alongside a hefty 30K word thesis on the topic, I decided to see how far I could push my cortisol levels and create an accompanying photography book, Blimey. Collaborating with a tribe of talented British photographers, Blimey sought to capture an un-filtered snapshot of a country caught between old stereotypes and rapid cultural shifts. I was particularly interested in exploring how this is expressed in visual identity. Whilst crooked teeth and faded Three Lions tattoos were there, so were hungover festival goers hiding smuggled goods in bum bags, Sunday market stalls bedecked by sari’s, a harnessed man in a leather policeman’s hat at pride, a six year old traveller girl dripping in diamontes. Authenticity was truly at the heart of this project; everything was shot on film with no studio backdrops and no photoshop.
TNH: The Eleventh Hour notionally means the very last moment. Can you describe how you were feeling during this time and if you decided to make any changes?
SW: Like a one-man band. Juggling the thesis, book and exhibition prep was a test of my metal I can tell you. I had some mammoth cock ups along the way – predominantly the incident when I had one day left to get five books printed as A3 hardbacks. I realised after a conversation with the printers that I’d obviously created the entire thing on an A4 size InDesign page, meaning I had to go through and manually readjust the formatting overnight with a five hour deadline. This was alongside trying to source an ‘English looking armchair’ on Facebook marketplace for an exhibition prop. The day after it was over I flew out to New Zealand to go backpacking for the next few weeks. Make of that what you will.
TNH: What has been one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt from producing your own project?
SW: Always check the correct InDesign measurements.
TNH: Who would you say is one of the most influential icons of our time that has impacted your work?
SW: Shirley Baker, always. She’s a social documentary photographer, best known for candidly capturing life amidst the slum clearances of 1960s Manchester and Salford, a period of great social upheaval when communities were forced to disband and relocate. During the 1980s, she applied this style of photography to a new project involving an emerging subculture; punks. Travelling the streets of Britain, she captured the spirit of the time – often just ordinary teens in shopping precincts with homemade jewellery, messy makeup and blemishes, but always with something to communicate. I admire the authenticity of her work and the sensitive rapport she builds with her subjects.
TNH: Since you began at Condé Nast College, how would you say your vision has evolved over time?
SW: My concept of fashion has certainly broadened. I discovered it’s all really just a tapestry of concepts based on layers of history, politics and socio-economics that then feed into our visual identities. I think it’s so important to consider these wider themes and issues around fashion rather than taking it at face value, hence the very un-fashiony project.
TNH: What does a typical day look like for you now after graduation?
SW: On weekdays I work as a copywriter for a fashion brand in London. At the weekends it’s so yin and yang – I’m either doing softgirl cottagecore shit in the countryside or going on a bender in the city. I swing between 24 and 64, there’s literally no in-between.
TNH: Can you describe a moment when you felt proud of your work?
SW: I graduated from The University of Manchester with a first and Condé Nast with a distinction but passing that maths GCSE in 2014 is still my biggest personal flex to date.
TNH: Can you talk us through how you navigate the timing of your creative process, and how long you spend on each stage from the fruition of an idea to the final result?
SW: I definitely have intense love affairs with my projects. I used to be an early starter and a to the wire finisher, eking every scrap of time in the pursuit of my magnum opus. In ‘the real world’ this isn’t always possible so now it’s more about prioritising key elements and learning to let things go when necessary. I think people can also sniff out un-enthusiasm like blood hounds so it’s good to sometimes step away momentarily and reflect on a project to maintain that personal hype.
TNH: And finally, describe your project in one sentence!
SW: Definitely not a UKIP thing.