Olivia Rose was never supposed to be a photographer. In fact, she actively ran in the opposite direction from it when she was growing up. Born and bred in the suburbs of north-west London, Rose was desperate to become a fine artist or a journalist when she was a teenager. She partly puts this aversion down to her tumultuous relationship with her father, who worked as a photographer throughout her childhood.
Despite Rose’s best efforts to avoid it, in the end photography chose her. She ended up being accepted onto a fashion photography course at the London College of Fashion, which she tried to drop out of on a regular basis throughout her first year. “At that time digital was god,” says Rose. “Everyone was shooting skinny white girls on white studio backdrops in digital, and absolutely nothing about that resonated with me. I felt quite alien to everyone else on the course, and was just like this weird dinosaur who was shooting everything on polaroids and photographing her gay friends.”
Things only started to change in Rose’s second year when her path crossed with a tutor called Itai Doron, who taught her that being different didn’t make her bad – it made her better. It was through Doron that Rose says she first learned to own her stubbornness as a photographer.
More than a decade later, that obstinance has clearly stuck with Rose. “The first thing to say is that I don’t give a fuck about fashion,” she declares. Yet the photographer regularly gets commissions from publications such as i-D and ASOS Magazine, and has worked with high-end fashion houses including Fendi and Givenchy. Contradictory? Sure, but that is arguably a big part of the secret to Rose’s success. “On a fashion shoot you have to have a great stylist, especially with me because god forbid I will not be looking at the clothes,” she says. “For me that’s all distraction from the task at hand, which is interacting with and getting the best out of a person.”
While Rose is the first person to hold her hands up about her unusual approach to fashion photography, in other ways she considers herself to be quite traditional. The photographer started out by experimenting largely with polaroids while she was at LCF, before progressing onto film. Today, Rose remains a strictly analog kind of girl, mainly because it allows her to think differently about the process of taking a photograph as opposed to just being better quality. “It’s about knowing that every time I click that button it’s going to cost me £2.50. That does something to a person’s head and the way you compose an image,” she says. “I’m much more about [spending] an extra hour perfecting a set than shooting it to perfect it on a computer. I don’t really believe in that.”
The same applies for black and white photography, which dominates Rose’s personal projects and has spilled over into much of her commercial work over the years. “Black and white is kind of like the love of my life,” she says. “A big part of that is how it allows you in a very literal sense to remove the colour, and especially for portraiture just look at a person. A lot of what I do is also about race and masculinity, and there’s something about the use of black and white in that situation which is quite metaphorical.”
All of these visual quirks make for a distinctive style that has allowed Rose to photograph everyone from strangers off the streets to big name grime artists and musicians (“I don’t care if you’re Mary J. Blige or Tom from Whitechapel”). One of the first personal projects she started after university is an ongoing portrait series called Boys, which documents kids from the streets all over the world. It began with two brothers called Jay and Jerome who lived round the corner from Rose in Angel, and has developed to include people she’s spotted at events Notting Hill Carnival or even just on the street. “If you want to talk about things I’m notorious for, [it’s] pulling my car over on a double red line and getting a £160 ticket and three points just so I can grab a beautiful face off the street. My insurance has gone up because of it,” says the photographer.
Projects like Boys opened up doors for Rose, and she began to work regularly with i-D magazine where she met features director Hattie Collins – co-creator of one the photographer’s most notable works to date, This is Grime. Released in 2016, the book tells the oral and visual history of the music scene through the people within it – including its original architects such as Wiley through to newer players like Stormzy. Rose describes making the book a reality as a process of real blood, sweat and tears; she ended up shooting 171 MC’s, producers and other people over just 153 days.
Having photographed London’s grime scene for the past decade, Rose is conscious about the irony of being a white, female photographer in a predominantly black, male world, and says she is normally the first person in the room to point it out. “Even within myself there’s been a lot of conflict and questioning my part in all this. It’s a conversation that I will have with anyone who will have it with me,” she says. “Nowadays some jobs that come my way [will be] all about hailing up black culture, for example, and then I notice on the call sheet that everyone is white. That’s not necessarily a job that I want to take. Maybe it’s something that I’ll pass onto someone else, who might not otherwise have been considered for the opportunity just because of who the clients are and their way of thinking.”
While much of Rose’s work still involves photographing musicians and models, lately she has also thrown herself back in at the deep end and explored other creative avenues. The photographer is currently in the middle of curating an exhibition with Platform LDN and Red Bull, looking at pirate radio’s role in the grime scene as part of Soho Music Month, and has just directed Jorja Smith’s new music video Blue Lights. Set in the singer’s hometown of Walsall and shot in black and white (of course), the video retains Rose’s distinctive look and is essentially a series of moving portraits of both the place and its people.
The common thread running through all of Rose’s work – whether that’s photography or her recent move into directing – is the personal relationships that she nurtures with her subjects. Depending on the nature of the commission and how long she has to work on a project, this could involve hanging out with someone at a couple of different parties beforehand, or just sitting in the dressing room with them for 20 minutes while they get their hair and make-up done. Rose has several different guises that she wears these days, she explains, including a “mumma” character that she uses for younger artists, or a flirtier one if she’s getting the right vibe off someone.
“I know there are photographers who work very differently to me, whose whole thing is about putting the model on the backfoot,” she says. “That produces a different set of images, but for me it’s all about trying to build a connection. It’s not a conscious thing, I just really enjoy meeting people. If you take away that bit of a shoot for me, what’s the point of my job?”
To see more of Olivia Rose’s work, head here