/ 22 July 2008

Dedicated follower of fashionistas

The Observer, a leading British Sunday paper, recently published a list of the 50 coolest people in the United Kingdom. Coming in at number 35 was 29-year-old South African photographer, Alistair Allen. He shrugs off the label. “I don’t take that too seriously,” he says. In any case Allen thinks that “cool” is something that is hard to define.

I never considered myself to be badly dressed until I met Allen. Pitching up in my unironed clothes from Edgars and the Gap, the typical scruffy journalist, I worried what he would make of my gear. Luckily when I arrived at the offices of the arts magazine, Dazed and Confused, where he works as the digital director, he was wearing just jeans and a T-shirt.

Originally from Durban, Allen, a self-confessed techno-geek, studied electronic engineering at Technikon Natal. He moved to the UK eight years ago where he first worked in TV and then in the music business.

A dedicated follower of fashion, in his spare time he runs the website www.dirtydancing.com, which he set up two years ago. The site features photographs of the trendy young people he sees when out clubbing. He makes no money from it and there is no advertising on dirtydancing. “It’s a totally personal project,” says Allen. “I just want to keep it that way. Because I’m taking pictures of other people, to me it’s their moment, I don’t want to capitalise on that.”

There are some famous people in the shots that he takes, but as Allen says “they’re just in there with the rest of them. They’re not treated in any special way. Most of the people I take pictures of are just people I know.”

Allen tries to portray the world of fashion in which he finds himself. “Kids go out, they make an effort to dress up, that’s just what I’m documenting,” he says. “Nobody can hire me. That’s one of the main points that I make. You can’t pay me to come to your club. I just do it when I’m out with my friends. I go only where I want to go and take pictures when I want.”

“A lot of people have dressed up and really make an effort.” There’s no stopping to set up the shot. “I prefer them not to see me coming, because then I can capture a moment, rather than having a forced pose, or something like that.”

He thinks of himself as a fashion photographer, but does studio photography as well. “Event photography is a lot harder than people imagine it to be. When you’re in a studio you can control everything; when you’re in a different environment you have to know your camera instinctively well to be able to change your setting without even thinking about it.” You need “to know how to cope with things in a split second, rather than spending half an hour setting up a shot”.

But Allen likes both forms of photography. What interests him about studio work is that “you don’t want to do what anybody else has done, you go for a unique shot, which is always really difficult”. His pictures have been in Vogue, ID-Magazine and Dazed and Confused. “They’ve been around,” he says.

Allen bought his first camera when he was 15 and taught himself how to use it. He moved on and bought other cameras, but was a late convert to digital photography. “I really got into digital only around three years ago,” he says.

“I did not want to go digital,” Allen says, “but it just lends itself to a totally different way of storytelling.” Using film you just can’t get it processed so quickly, unless you’re a major newspaper with people working overnight for you. “So it’s beautiful for getting home at three o’clock in the morning and by nine the pictures are up.” He modifies his images using Photoshop and gives them a bit of a gloss. “I have my special secrets,” he says.

Many of the young designers showing at London fashion week, such as Gareth Pugh, Henry Holland, Christopher Kane and Richard Nicholl, go to these parties. Allen believes that they draw inspiration from there and the young revellers get ideas from the designers, making it more than just a night on the town, but also a cultural exchange.

The pictures remind him of the night of the party and the fashion kings and queens rarely ask him to remove dated pictures of themselves. “It’s the parties that keep me going, that keep me inspired really,” Allen says. But it isn’t always easy to find exciting fresh parties in the scene around East London.

Allen laughs when I ask him if it’s art. “No, I don’t think so,” he replies. “I think [with] art you put thought into it. This is capturing a little piece of history, rather than art. You know, it’s retrospective.”

Objects of design
The pottery brand started by Willaim Moorcroft in Stoke-on-Trent in the late 19th century has a distinct look that is popular with collectors today.

With its intricate patterns created by tube-lining liquid clay and its hand-painted designs, Moorcroft provides an ideal palette upon which to create contemporary designs inspired by the African landscape.

Last year the National Antiques and Decorative Arts Faire launched the Moorcroft South Africa design competition. At this year’s event, running this weekend, the fruits of that design talent search will be on display. The eight winning vases are made exclusively at the Moorcroft factory in the United Kingdom in two categories: four winning designs by adults and four by kids.

The winning designs by adults include South African Village by Audrey Harvey, Bird of Paradise by Lindy Acton, South African Crane by Morag Pringle and Tortoise Tails by Jill Smorenburg. Pringle, who executed the crane design, works professionally as a tattoo artist in Sea Point, Cape Town. The child designers who hail from Johannesburg and Cape Town range from 11 to 13 years old.

The winning works were auctioned in aid of the Twilight Children’s charity at the opening of the antique fair on July 17.

Moorcroft’s leading designers have used South African nature as inspiration in the past. Senior designer Rachel Bishop created a vase featuring South Africa’s endemic agapanthus, Sian Leeper produced dramatic scenes of lions and leopards in the bush and, following a visit to South Africa, two of Moorcroft’s designers, Kerry Goodwin and Emma Bossons, launched vases depicting the springbok and the blue crane.

In the 1930s Moorcroft himself designed a king protea vase now valued at almost R100 000.

The National Antiques and Decorative Arts Faire takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre until 6pm on July 20. Tel: 011 802 1611.