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Artist's Spaces: Innocence Lost - Johnnie Shand Kydd on photographing the YBAs in the 1990s

A group of people partying
Sam Taylor Wood, Abigail Lane, Gillian Wearing, David Falconer, Angela Bulloch, Georgina Starr, Louise Wilson, Sarah Lucas, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 13 December 1996. © Johnnie Shand Kydd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022.

Honest and unfiltered, Johnnie Shand Kydd’s photographs of the YBAs on their trajectory to success in the 1990s take you back to a time before the art world made headlines. Artimage speaks to the photographer to find out what makes these images so special.

Why did you start photographing the Young British Artists (a.k.a YBAs)?

I used to be an art dealer in Bond Street in the mid-‘90s. I got so bored with it I kind of jumped ship, having no idea what I was going to do. I had no training as a photographer, I’d hardly ever taken a photograph in my life really. I had always loved a book called Private View, with photographs by Lord Snowdon and essays by John Russell and Bryan Robertson. It was about the London art world in the 1960s, with big sections on Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, and also the dealers and the collectors. It’s incredibly seductive, and I always thought it would be a lovely idea to do a new version of it.

And then somebody said, ‘Well, why don’t you just start taking pictures’. I was very aware that something was happening in the art world and nobody was recording it. So I got a point-and-shoot and kept it in my back pocket. I knew a lot of artists socially and would go out to openings and dinners, so I started clicking away.

There must have been a huge element of trust involved.

There was complete trust. I suppose at the beginning nobody quite knew where the pictures were going to go and also because it was quite early on in their careers. I suppose at that time, because I always had my camera, people just got used to it. You become sort of invisible.

People were much less protective of their image back then. In this day and age, everybody’s so aware of how important image is. In those days, there was a lovely fresh naivety and a ‘couldn’t give a damn’ quality, which was much more attractive for a photographer than somebody who is aware of how important it is to manipulate image. The great thing about photographing with film as well is that you don’t have somebody looking over your shoulder saying, ‘Can I see that image?’ So there is always a kind of detachment.

What was the atmosphere of the art world like back then?

It was enormous fun! There was a real sense of community and the art world had a slight corner-shop, handmade quality to it, which is so different to how it is now. Now it’s a multimillion pound, pan-global industry.

What was lovely about the ‘90s was, you went to your friends’ private views, you all went out to dinner and you always ended up in a bar, and then if you really had a lot of stamina, you would do a four-nighter or something. I couldn’t do that, but a lot of the others did.

Someone was saying to me the other day ‘How did you always end up finding each other?’, because these were the days before mobile phones. When you couldn’t send text messages you just had a natural sense of which bars to gravitate towards. It was really fun. That again has completely evaporated. For birthdays and things people come together but you don’t have any sense of that kind of spontaneity.

What memories stand out from that time?

Oh Lord! I remember in about ‘96, there was this wonderful restaurant that was run by Margot Henderson, the French House Dining Room in Soho. It was Gary Hume’s birthday and Cerith Wyn Evans was there, and Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. We had dinner and then we all went to Dick’s Bar, which was a watering hole at that time and was run by Oliver Peyton.

Everybody got completely pissed and – I didn’t – but a group of the artists then broke into Damien’s [Hirst] studio to sign one of his dot pictures, their names on each dot. It was just one of those really, really crazy nights where one thing kind of morphed into the next…

Do you have any favourite photographs?

I was very close to Jay Jopling [founder of White Cube gallery] and Sam Taylor-Johnson, so I took pictures of their children growing up. There are some pictures in Spit Fire, where Sam Taylor-Johnson is pregnant with her first daughter and there’s a picture of her showing off her tummy, just outside the old White Cube in St James’s. Her daughter’s recently got into Stamford University, so that shows you the passing of time.

You photographed the YBAs for the Sensation exhibition catalogue in 1997. What was that like?

Sensation was symbolic of a change in the art world. I was originally asked to take photographs which would be reproduced as tiny little thumbnail images at the back, with biographies of the artists. They would give me two names a day and I would cycle off to the artists’ studios and go click, click, click.

Charles Saatchi [whose collection of YBA art was exhibited at Sensation] liked the images a lot, and I think he suddenly became very conscious that this was a moment in history where the image of the artist was becoming much more important. Up until then, the personality and image of the artist was almost irrelevant, but he picked up on the fact that it was going to be a selling tool. So he then wanted to publish the pictures full page alongside all the artwork. Norman Rosenthal [co-curator of Sensation] hated the idea – he thought personality should be put behind the product – but Charles won.

A lot of people now think that YBA equals Sensation in a way, and it’s almost as though that was a starting point. But I remember when Sensation was happening, a lot of people were thinking that this was the death knell of the YBAs. So it’s funny how these things shift perspective.

Did you ever sense any tension among artists as the media attention grew?

I think inevitably there was a little bit of tension with some people. The thing I remember, looking at the party pictures, was that people criticised the YBAs for being a bit vacuous. But because there was this amazing sense of community and because the artists were each other’s best critics and could be honest to each other – in a way, that was an extension of the studio. It’s not to do with an old fashioned concept of the studio with an easel and the canvas, the nineteenth century Bohemian loner – it’s all to do with bouncing ideas off each other and ideas often bandied around at 3 o’clock in the morning when you’re completely off your head.

What is it about these images that fascinates people?

I think people have always been slightly fascinated by artists because they’re perceived as outsiders. There’s been a tradition of photographers who have photographed artists, but it’s a very special access to get into that world.

Artists capture people’s imagination and people like a little bit of that stardust. A bit like the property market in a way, you know, artists move out of one area because it becomes too expensive and they move to a cheaper area, and then the bankers want a little bit of that artist stardust so they follow, and property prices go up and the artists have to debunk to another area.

The funny thing about going back to those YBA pictures is that it’s something I did for a very concentrated period of time. Photographing people at a specific time in their career is more interesting than photographing them when they’re middle-aged and more aware that they’re not looking quite so hot, and their hair’s thinning and they’re getting a paunch. The great thing when you’re twenty-something is that, even if it is 4 o’clock in the morning, you don’t care.

You’ve recently digitised the photographs. What was it like going through them again?

It was a strange one, quite heart-breaking revisiting them. They were taken twenty years ago and friendships have dissolved, and unfortunately there have been a few deaths. It’s kind of like a lost childhood. There was a fantastic sense of innocence. I was showing the pictures to somebody else the other day and they were welling up with tears looking at them. It’s like a lost world and you can’t reclaim that world.

I think the big difference between now and then is we now live in the world of Instagram where every single person has a phone with a camera. People don’t look with their eyes and experience life freshly. They filter the whole thing through the lens of a mobile phone and it wasn’t like that then. I was super conscious of this very intangible line between public and private, although the pictures might not look like that. I think that concept of what should be kept back and what should be shown has completely evaporated.

Why did you decide to make them available to license through Artimage?

I’ve always been very controlling about the use of my imagery because I feel very protective of the subject matter. But these pictures were taken 20 years ago, so I feel that they’re at a position in their history where I don’t need to protect them quite so much.

This is the first time I’ve ever syndicated my photographs, and I digitised my work to make it accessible. Otherwise it’s a case of, ‘Where is that negative? I’ve got to get a print made, I have to get it scanned and then I have to send it to New York within three hours to be included in an auction catalogue’ – that’s practically impossible. Artimage makes it much easier.

What are you working on at the moment?

I think I’m going to do a project in Africa quite soon. I’ve been doing rather amazing long-term projects working with a Russian friend of mine, going to places such as Mogadishu, Central African Republic, Gaza and North Korea. I’m doing quite a lot of film work at the moment as well, which is quite interesting because as a stills photographer, I’m looking through the viewfinder thinking about composition and crop and things like that. But when I’m directing short films, I have a Director of Photography and I leave them to their devices. It’s actually in the editing suite that I can impose my eye on the work, so it’s a different way of working.

This article was originally published on Artimage on July 7th, 2016, DACS' digital platform dedicated to sourcing and licensing exceptional modern and contemporary art.

It has been revisited as part of our Artist's Spaces series, which explores how the spaces where artists make work impact their creative practice and the wider artistic community.

You can view the original article here.

Find out more about the series.