Rising photographer Rachel Fleminger Hudson presents her meticulously curated nostalgic portraits in her debut solo exhibition
When you think of the 1970s, you might visualise flared trousers and platform shoes, Ziggy Stardust, Studio 54, punk rock, or images of youth in revolt. These years were marked by radical politics and technological transformation, set against the backdrop of austerity and blackouts. Among its complicated legacy, the 70s is also a decade that ignites a unique kind of nostalgia and fetishisation amongst millennials and Gen Z-ers, evidenced by trending hashtags on TikTok.
One young artist who is particularly enamoured with the decade is the young London-born, Central Saint Martins graduate, Rachel Fleminger Hudson. She’s making waves in the contemporary art scene right now. Recently, her photoshoot of Mia Goth for Culture Magazine went viral, and last year she won the prestigious Dior Photography and Visual Arts Award for Young Talent. Ahead of her debut solo show opening at Paris’ Maison Européenne de la Photographie.
“I’m so intrigued by the 1970s because it’s the start of postmodernism,” she tells Dazed. “It’s when things become kitsch but also start to take on double meanings and irony.” As a movement in which art becomes increasingly self-aware and enters an ambivalent dialogue with mass and consumer culture, postmodernism seems inseparable from Hudson’s photographic philosophy. Finding the humour in things is very much part of her brand, a quick look at her Instagram page will reveal that she’s mastered the art of not (or appearing to not) take herself too seriously. “I would totally describe myself as a kitsch person. I’m so fascinated by things that are both ugly and beautiful, and equally imagery that reflects both high and low culture, humour and tragedy.”
But Hudson’s work doesn’t intend to be simply irreverent. “I’m not laughing at the 1970s, I’m deeply entwined within that decade from an emotional place. I’m obsessed with the aesthetic and culture.” Her practice is rooted in extensive academic research and an earnest and deeply felt connection with the world. “From a young age I’ve had excessive exposure to the arts and critical thinking about the arts from my parents” Hudson adds (her father Mark Hudson is an art critic). “And I also grew up surrounded by objects from the 1950s and 1960s collected by my grandparents. So I’ve always had an intense relationship with materials from the past.”
Like a theatre director, her work is staged and meticulously curated. She thinks deeply about every component of her sets and how those elements all relate to one another: the models, facial expressions, clothing, texture, colour, and light. “The main thing I’m interested in is the building of identity. The way we determine meaning through clothing is what I’m constantly engaging with and how mythologies are constructed through fashion.” In short, Hudson is revealing that social relations are embedded within the material culture of the 1970s – she’s capturing the conscious and subconscious self-fashioning of the epoque.
“The way we determine meaning through clothing is what I’m constantly engaging with” – Rachel Fleminger Hudson
Later, her images will be highly edited – with painstaking observation and finesse – to achieve that pre-digital ‘70s effect. “I find the editing process frustrating because it needs to be a long process – to look carefully. But I often don’t have the time I need.” Hudson’s aim is that the final photograph not only becomes a highly researched recreation of history – giving viewers a visceral sense that we have been transported back in time – but draws attention to the mediating effect of photography itself. In this sense, her work is a self-referential rumination upon the flattening impact of image culture in the capitalist consumer context.
In a contemporary world saturated with marketable images, romance is lost. And this sentiment made its way into Hudson’s academic dissertation, which looked at subcultures and postmodernity and how today’s subcultures manifest themselves on TikTok. “I was thinking about whether you really can create a subculture today – in a world that is devoid of real meaning. We’re constantly trying to create stuff that is ‘new’, but it loses meaning when placed into the context of online culture.” For Hudson, and many other 1970s lovers, the allure of the decade lies in its detachment from technology and rampant capitalism – the calm before the storm. Illustrating this point, Hudson comments: “I find the 80s repulsive and depressing, it’s a time that reflects high consumerism.”
“I was thinking about whether you really can create a subculture today – in a world that is devoid of real meaning” – Rachel Fleminger Hudson
But she also denies that her work is simply about nostalgia for the 1970s. “I don’t see it this way. Whether I’m nostalgic or not is perhaps irrelevant to the meaning of my work. I’m responding to the fact that almost everything we do in contemporary culture is nostalgic. I’m consciously engaging with that by creating the most precise recreation of the past.”
Nevertheless, Hudson owes much of her aesthetic interests to the distinctive fashion and film culture of the 1970s, in particular films by directors such as Ken Russell, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She’s drawing upon a rich array of visual and cinematic references accompanied by her in-depth research into material culture theory, from Marshall McLuhan’s writings about mass media and cultural consciousness to the theories of sociologist Erving Goffman, who inspired the production of her film La Ronde (which is included in the MEP show.)
As viewers will notice at the MEP show, the majority of her works centre on women. Hudson explains: “The sexualising of women in 1970s image culture and film is something I find interesting – you start to see sex expressed through cultural means, especially through kitsch and postmodern culture. You see the balance of masculine and feminine traits in film and television, which creates interesting sexual juxtapositions.”
Although the 1960s is often credited as the beginning of women’s sexual liberation, it was only in the 1970s that many laws promoting equal rights were introduced. Yet in equal measure, violence against women was heightened in societies in which women grasped their freedom. This is in part witnessed by the number of horror films of the 1970s, many of which gratuitously include scenes of sexual violence.
“Cinematic representations of women in the 1970s resonate with me on an aesthetic and theoretical level because you can detect that relationship between empowerment and disempowerment,” she tells Dazed. “They’re beginning to expose themselves sexually, even though there was still moral panic around that.”
To expand on this point, Hudson references the film Images by Robert Altman. “It’s a great example of women’s situation in the 1970s. The film is about the mental breakdown of the main female character, who is a housewife that has a complicated relationship with men and motherhood. Her clothes are casually sexualised and suggest her liberation, but at the same time, she’s still a kept woman who feels incredibly frustrated by her situation.”
“I find the 80s repulsive and depressing, it’s a time that reflects high consumerism” – Rachel Fleminger Hudson
Within 1970s film culture and critical theory, feminist figures such as Laura Mulvey were redefining women’s participation on screen. In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema she drew from psychoanalytic theory to coin the term the ‘gaze’, which she defined as: “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly.”
The gendered politics of the gaze underpin Hudson’s practice, although she argues this is an unavoidable part of photography. “I’m interested in my own gaze as a woman, and how much I still partake in the male gaze by the nature of taking pictures,” she says. “On a level, I’m still objectifying the person. But it’s about exposing the dynamics between myself, the model and my camera…I try to choose female subjects and characters who aren’t afraid to look outwardly and squarely back at the viewer.”
The gaze of an audience is also something that Hudson struggles to come to terms with as an artist. “I’m very private with my work. I deliberately didn’t show it to anybody while at art school. My whole life is so deeply involved in an emotional way with the textures and themes of various moments in the 20th century and the 1970s – so it feels weird to share it.”
Her privacy is also a reflection of her perfectionism, which she describes as “extreme”. “I’m so aware of the difficulties and setbacks of perfectionism – yet at the same time I’m a big believer in it,” she confesses. “It’s such a privilege to be able to make work, so unless you’re trying your best, why do it?”
The appeal of Hudson’s work reflects not only her vivid imagination and immersion in the 1970s, but speaks to today’s insatiable yearning for the past. In an era characterised by fleeting engagements with images monitored by algorithms and at the mercy of brands and market forces, constructing images of a bygone era – untainted by the digital world – become delectable reminders of what a more authentic world could look like.
Rachel Fleminger Hudson’s exhibition is running at the MEP from July 21 until October 10, 2023.