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Marc Vallée, “Lloyd and Jamie”, London (1998)
Marc Vallée, “Lloyd and Jamie”, London (1998)Photography Marc Vallée

Marc Vallée’s photographs distill the 90s London art school experience

This series recalls the photographer’s college days amid the decade’s alternative queer scene

“This was a dangerous landscape for an eyelinered young homo to be flitting about,” writes Jaime Atherton, recalling his experience of London in the mid-90s. “My wanderings were tinged with fear: lone strangers, groups of lads, flashes of panic upon realising I was truly lost. East London wasn’t empty, of course; lives were being lived everywhere. But when I was at art school in the 90s, I was new to the metropolis and seeking something else. In a wooded cemetery I scribbled over the sharpie swastikas on a bench with glitter-pen.” 

Atherton conjures up these memories in the beautiful accompanying text of photographer Marc Vallée’s series When I was at Art School in the 90s. Once flatmates living in a shared student house, Vallée’s images of Atherton and their third housemate, Lloyd, seem to perfectly distill the undone glamour of the 90s. “We went to the same art school,” Vallée explains in an email conversation. “We were at The Cass opposite the Whitechapel Gallery, with Brick Lane just around the corner. We were also part of the same 90s alternative queer scene. We went to Popstarz, and to Ghetto which was behind the London Astoria.”

Their house in Stratford appears like a film set-perfect time capsule of midcentury wallpaper and soft furnishings – an era as distant at the time as the 90s themselves are for us now. Details of items in the rooms seem to take on the significance of relics preserved in time, a layer of meaning the photographer had no intention of at the time. “When I was shooting the images, what you describe as ‘artefacts’ were just posters and books that happened to be in the rooms,” he says. “But when I was editing the images for the zine, the Nirvana poster did trigger a memory of dancing to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on a dance floor of a club and I thought that the image has to go in. In a way, it helps to lock in the period and acts as a soundtrack to the images.”

“I made the pictures before I was known as a documentary photographer, but they are a document of that time and place,” Vallee tells me. “The house, posters, objects and the clothes the boys are wearing are authentic and not constructed by me. But it was a collaboration of sorts, moving from one room to another, changing outfits and removing clothes. Jamie and Lloyd were not boyfriends but the images do present an ambiguous ‘reality’, my gaze, maybe even my desire, is definitely in the mix.”

As 90s nostalgia continues to apex, a renewed interest in the decade’s styles and subcultures may have created an opportunity for Vallée to share his work from this period with a younger audience, but his images are ever shot with a future audience in mind. “My work is rooted in the here and now, documenting the lives of people in pursuit of their own desires and identities and that’s what fascinates me,” he says. “Nostalgia is tricky. When I’m shooting a project today, I’m not thinking about how I can exploit the pictures in 20 years’ time. My focus is on the subject, issues and people I’m documenting. And that was what I was doing in the 90s.”

He’s also resistant to nostalgia when I ask him to hark back to the London he knew as a student. “I don’t want to fall into a Generation X trap of saying that things were better in my day,” he concludes. “Young queer people today are doing all sorts of intriguing and amazing things, despite the chaos of the last two years.”

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