Last month, Allpress Cafe in London and several buildings in Dalston were hung with portraits from an intriguing bygone era, shot by New Zealand photographer Rebecca Zephyr Thomas.
Evidence of an ‘indie sleaze’ revival has been fascinating outlets like Vice, Vogue and Dazed and thousands of Instagram followers apparently nostalgic for the smudged vintage glamour, frenzied party scene, and convoluted mash-up remixes of the mid-late 2000s.
But digging through images she shot on 35mm film at an East London underage music festival in 2007, Thomas saw something different about that time. Gentler, more thoughtful, more pure.
She decided to present her works as an exhibition, a poster series, and a very reasonably-priced zine, titled We Are Your Friends after a hit single at the time. I get the feeling they’re also presented as a f..k-you to the hyper-sexualised images that dominated the era.
In contrast, Thomas’s series shows sweet-ing youngsters lounging, smiling, with their friends, often wearing eccentric, creatively crafted outfits. No one is holding a phone. The global financial crisis was another year away; Instagram another three years in the future. Interesting-looking emerging musicians like Florence Welch, Dev Hynes and Ipso Facto were circulating. I asked Thomas about her alternative take on indie sleaze.
I thought indie sleaze was photographers tipping alcohol over women and taking pictures of girls that look underage.
Well, that's the sleaze part. Tumblr was the social media of the time, and the American Apparel vibe was coming out, influenced by photographers like Terry Richardson that have now been cancelled.
I remember going to gigs and house parties, and people would be taking party pictures. Then the next morning, you’d lie in bed and go through websites looking at them all.
That was massive. I’d almost say the photography was just as important as the DJs.
It felt like the beginning of being conscious of your image. You weren’t taking selfies, but there was a self consciousness of trying to look debauched, but still hot.
That was the whole aesthetic, yeah. You're allowed to look messy, but you couldn't be doing a strange facial expression. No dribbling, no gurning.
You might have your eye makeup smudged, but not your lipstick…
If you were a hot DJ, you might have all sorts of work opportunities during the 2000s. Do you remember The Misshapes? They were suddenly working with Chanel! People based whole careers off throwing the right club night.
But there's also the indie part of it, which is soft, sensitive, quirky. It's hard to imagine now, but Kanye West was kind of indie sleaze – The College Dropout was an indie take on hip hop. Lots of female artists were influenced by the quirkiness of Kate Bush, like Bat for Lashes and Florence and the Machine, when she started out. Amy Winehouse was a massive cultural icon at that time, along with bands like The Libertines.
What can you remember about taking these pictures?
At the time, I’d just moved to London and was trying to find my way. I was working and partying a lot. The Griffin in Shoreditch was the indie sleaze stronghold.
Shooting these teenagers was quite a different experience for me. For one thing, it was daytime. Also, I was outside. And these cute teenagers were all super excited to be there. It wasn't alcohol-fueled or commercialised like what we now think of as a music festival.
Teenagers can be really weird: they wear their heart on their sleeve, and when it comes to how they dress, their identity and subculture, they’re super passionate, and I suppose I related to that. I spoke to someone at my launch last week who’d played in a band at the festival. He said he thought he’d imagined it all - it felt like a fever dream as it was so innocent and pure.
Are you nostalgic for those times?
I'm not really, no.
I have no nostalgia for it.
No. But I liked looking at my photographs from that time because I was so resolutely uncommercial. I was influenced by Nan Goldin and really anti earning money. Because of that, even though it was possibly not the best strategy, it means that the pictures don't look cheesy. I wasn't bowing down to other people's ideas of what photos should look like.
But I'm not personally nostalgic for my 20s in London. Women in the 2000s were really badly gaslit! I remember feeling like if someone hit on you in the workplace, that wasn't something to be upset about, that was something to be pleased about! At the time, it seemed like one of the main ways you would be getting ahead in your career would be if a man fancied you.
Why did we feel like that?
It was the culture of the time: we were all being conditioned to be the cool girl.
And there was so much misogyny in media. It's easy to forget, but I used to read Heat magazine every week, which was mostly talking about who was fat and who was old. When Kylie Minogue did that Spinning Around video with very short gold hotpants, everyone was like “Wow, Kylie’s making a comeback! She’s older – but her bum still looks great.” She was 32 at the time!
That sort of misogyny was part of everyday life. Russell Brand was massive, and making huge money off his version of sexual liberation.
Where were you working at the time?
I was working at Agent Provocateur. And then I quit that and ended up working in a gay bar. I sort of got out of straight culture in my late 20s, because I didn’t want to be sleazed on.
Looking back at these photographs now, I can see that I was trying to shoot women in the same way that men had been shot, like how I imagined Lou Reed would have been shot in the 70s – that kind of cool edginess, without being pretty or sexy. The Strokes’ first album cover was a naked woman’s arse. I was trying to photograph women in the way that The Strokes themselves would have been photographed – rather than a chopped-off arse.
Male photographers got away with a lot of bad behaviour for a long time. Somehow sexism and exploitation of women had been repackaged back into this cool thing that we should all be on board with, because it's edgy and it's cool. And they didn't really have any justification for why they were doing it either.
In my starry-eyed-ness, I actually once asked this older photographer about the ideas behind his stuff – which was this borderline kiddy porn vibe that was quite fashionable in the 2000s. Basically, his artistic justification for taking explicit pictures of late-teenage girls was that he liked it. They just did it because that's what they wanted.
Do you think people today are interested more in the indie part or the sleaze part? Have we grown up and evolved since then?
I think both. The sleaze part – I mean, I was obsessed with Studio 54 and photographs of Diana Ross dancing to disco. In a way, the party photography is the current generation’s version of that. (Not as good, obviously.)
And I think the creativity and bedroom DIY aesthetic of the indie part is especially appealing because it's the opposite of that designer label side of youth culture that’s really big, but really hard to access, unless you have rich parents. Indie sleaze style is very affordable: skinny jeans, band t-shirt, vintage dress and loads of thick black tights, even in the height of summer.
Anything that lets you wear black opaque tights all year round has to be a good thing.
That’s true liberation.
We Are Your Friends 01 zine is available to order at rebeccazephyrthomas.com