Fashion Photographer Alice Hawkins
She’s the petite, fun-loving, peroxide blonde who has gone straight from a college degree show and photographing her friends into the world of cutting-edge commercial high fashion, with Nick Knight as her biggest fan. Alannah Sparks meets Alice Hawkins, a photographer playing the game by her rules.
Alice Hawkins looks like she could be a Page Three girl. Tousled peroxide blonde hair, deep tan, killer body. She’s got the lot. Which is why Hugh Hefner was somewhat bemused to find her on the wrong side of the camera when she went to shoot him and his bunnies for Katie Grand’s glossy fashion tome Pop. Which is also why Alexander McQueen was deeply unimpressed when she turned up to shoot his portrait some years ago. Which is also why she can be credited with trouncing (in white stilettos, naturally) all over the strict, unspoken rules of the fashion world. Because fashion hates Page Three girls and beauty queens, right?
Eight years ago, when Alice graduated from Camberwell College of Arts, fashion photography was being dominated by the ultra-glossiness of Mario Testino and the pristine goldenness of Annie Leibovitz. And all the people in the shots were glossy and pristine. For her final show Alice threw a fancy dress party for her parents’ neighbours in their village and her art school mates from down the pub. She took party snaps of Essex housewives all drenched in Versace and jewellery getting off with young student boys from Camberwell. “I just shot them all night long,” she recalls, “it was so raucous and so ridiculous – I didn’t need to do anything fancy because the characters at that party were so colourful. Did they look like fashion models? God no, but I thought they looked amazing.” It wasn’t supposed to be fashion, but something about its unabashed exuberance made it appeal to the fashion set. On seeing her final show i-D magazine instantly signed her on as their resident party photographer, and she was suddenly catapulted into the deep end of the fashion world. “I didn’t ever plan to do fashion,” she insists, “I’m not fashionable at all, just look at me!” She tosses her Dolly Parton curls to make her point. But encouraged by her success she entered a fashion photography competition in The Independent newspaper, where she shot famous fashion insignias shaved into the pubic hair of her friends. “Apparently the judges were battling it out until three in the morning,” she recalls, “but in the end they just couldn’t put pubes in The Independent, so I didn’t win.” One of the judges was Nick Knight, who has been her staunchest supporter from the outset. When I ask Alice what he meant when he said at the time that she had “the audacity that photography needed”, her answer is brief: “I had balls. Either that or I just didn’t have a clue what I was getting into.”
For Alice, resetting the parameters of what is accepted as beautiful in a glossy magazine has always come very naturally, because her idea of beauty is not a perfect body or a set of glass-cutting cheekbones, but rather a great sense of character. “That’s what I look for. A story to tell and a certain lifestyle lived. Anything that’s glamorous, that sparkles, that’s a bit different from everyone else.” So her fashion editorials are populated with East Anglia beauty queens and Blackpool showgirls, Texas hicks and drunken debutantes. “They can sense my admiration for them and it’s coming from an honest place, it’s not a piss-take. A lot of the people I photograph look just as great as Gisele Bündchen. Maybe not in a physical sense but they can still fill a page in a fashion magazine with va va voom.” Her shoot for Agent Provocateur boasted not the flawless vital statistics of a lingerie model, but the post-pregnant body of Maggie Gyllenhaal. The photos are supremely sexy, with the gamine actress making love to the camera with total abandon. “People wonder about my obsession with these powerful sexy women, because you can see in the pictures that I’m all over them with the camera, and they’re all over me. They wonder if I’m gay or if I’m a feminist, but it’s that love of the camera that I’m after. I don’t want any stolen moments, I want someone who craves it.” Which is possibly why she finds many of her most willing subjects in the States, where people are less camera-shy than their Anglican counterparts. American culture is rich with the glamour, excess and sometimes sheer tackiness that Alice adores. “Vegas is the best place in the world, women have the biggest hair, men have the deepest tans. And they’ve got the biggest hearts. I can’t wait to move there when I retire – I’ll live in Palm Springs but drive to Vegas for the weekend.”
Her obsession with Americana pours out of her work. The bling and the brash colours, the white teeth and false nails. It seems to stem not only from the hours of Beverly Hills 90210 and Dynasty that she imbibed as a teenager, as well as a long-held fascination with the misfits of Diane Arbus’s photography (“I cried when I first saw her work”) – but it also comes from a childhood speckled with long visits from American war veterans and holidays to the States for her dad’s research trips. An author and historian, his area of speciality was the Second World War and the role the Americans played, so the US influence featured heavily in their household. The pursuit of the American Dream was not her dad’s only influence on her.
When I ask how she has managed to cut it in such a cut-throat world, she tells me it’s her gritty determination, which she has got mainly from her father. He has been paralysed from the neck down since before Alice was born as the result of an attempted murder (somebody put an axe in his head when he was living in Saudi Arabia), but the dogged pursuit of his goals in life made Alice all the more determined to achieve her own. “If he can do all that without being able to move an inch, think what I should be able to achieve with the full use of my whole body.” Her awareness of her own body is visible in the many series of self-portraits, where she dresses up, makes up and plays the parts of the colourful characters she loves to shoot. Her own suppressed physical ambitions are revealed in pictures where she’s resplendent as a showgirl or tarty as a pin-up. “Of course I’d love to have been a Page Three model,” she admits, “but I don’t think I’d have had the guts. What would my dad think?” This cutesy, slightly dizzy demeanour belies her steely business awareness, and she knows how to use it to her benefit. It’s a way of disarming her subjects when she is shooting portraits, and for the most part they warm to her instantly (although McQueen was one she remembers who “just didn’t fall for the cute little blonde thing”). She’s quick, too, and this has allowed her to work with a host of famous faces, from Keith Richards to Donatella Versace and Marilyn Manson to Girls Aloud (she somehow managed to make the latter look like five ordinary schoolgirls– albeit extremely pretty ones – just having a bit of a laugh). The overriding impression you get from her portraits is that people seem to be having fun. Even designer Roberto Cavalli seems to suppress a giggle when she photographs him surrounded by his menagerie of treasured monkeys, dogs, cats and birds. “Ah, the animal shoot,” she says, reflecting on the odyssey she undertook for Pop magazine where she photographed celebrities with their pets. “It was just so over the top. Dogs and mice and even lions. Now if I do a shoot and there’s no lion I just feel, well, not that bothered!” But despite the lack of large predators in her day-to-day life, she is channelling her boundless energy in other directions.
As an acolyte of Nick Knight, she is making strong forays into the world of the moving image, having already worked on one project with him where she made a short film focused on her friend’s boobs for an exhibition about fashion and the body. “He is really trying to nail what fashion film should be and make sure that it’s not just a documentation of a shoot – to try to make the film something else. It’s a new medium and he is really pioneering the harnessing of it.” She is one of his closest collaborators on the online SHOWstudio project, so he will certainly be drawing on Alice’s talents to push it along. So, apart from lions, tigers, boobs and brassiness, what else does thefuture hold for Alice? She and her husband are moving to the States for six months where she would like to get her teeth into more portraiture – and more parties. “I’ve made a little group of friends from working over there that I just want to hang out with. That and, of course, to get a really good tan!”
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