“The British Isles” by Jamie Hawkesworth

Jamie Hawkesworth The British Isles

by Luca Fiore

Jamie Hawkesworth is a photographer born in Suffolk, South East England in 1987. In the last decade he has established himself in the world of fashion. He photographed Kate Moss for Vogue, Gisele Bündchen just woken up and without makeup, but also David Hockney for the New York Times Magazine. Mack is about to release a book on his non-commercial work, entitled “The British Isles”. It is, perhaps, the British publisher’s most ambitious release this 2021 and is poised to become a best seller.

Hawkesworth is, without a doubt, a great portraitist. He proved this in 2014 with his first book, “Preston Bus Station,” a volume that featured work done visiting the bus station of the small town in the north of England each day for a month. Teenagers, office workers, laborers, the elderly. The faces of the people of Preston are illuminated by a golden light that enhances their beauty and dignity. That station, a Brutalist giant that recently escaped demolition, as the photographer recounted, “Was the first place where I really looked at light. I began to see, feel and understand its effect, I was becoming sensitive to light. Being patient in such a transitional space began to amplify every detail. Everything became significant. In the continuous motion of people’s days, light became a magnifying glass – a tool to study and appreciate life. A cold circular space became heaven.”

“The British Isles ” appears as a bit of a development, of that extraordinary book, which is now impossible to find; it takes Hawkesworth’s poetics from the limited spaces of a “non-place” to the undefined spaces of the entire country. Here too we find the faces of men and women of different ages, ethnicities and social groups, but the setting is now that of the English landscape. The portraits, all shot in urban contexts, alternate with images of coasts, moors, and the English countryside. The same light rests on the human figure and on nature: warm and golden. And the wild spaces, with large horizons, caress the idea of the sublime and, perhaps, would like to evoke the boundless expanses of feelings and emotional patterns that dwell within the bodies of the protagonists of the portraits.

The photographer’s investigation is not systematic and does not aim to offer a social cross-section of contemporary England, although its title seems to suggest this. What is striking, and that could even be found annoying, is the general feeling of positivity that this overview of faces conveys. No account is given of the deep fractures in the social fabric. The multicultural dimension seems peacefully resolved. Political divergences do not appear. The knot of Brexit is not touched upon. But, as said, it is perhaps the connection between the human and interminable spaces and superhuman silences that develops in the sequence of images. And, if we look closely, another theme that arises, in various forms, and that intersperses the gallery of faces: the enigmatic theme of the house.

This is an important volume also in terms of its size; with its 304 pages, the book constitutes a very demanding sequence of images. And here lies the Achilles’ heel of a work of great charm. The sequence of images, which could have been more selective, presents some lapses; at times it lingers and is more explicit than it should be (too many smiles, for example) or slips into an aesthetic that is more suited to the pages of Vogue than to those of a song about beauty in life.

Il Foglio, 2nd July 2021