A blockbuster photography exhibition at Somerset House is celebrating the beard in all its diversity. The clean-shaven Alexi Duggins speaks to a few of its subjects about what their facial hair means to them. Portraits Brock Elbank
All across the capital, beards are growing. In fact, so many Londoners have been sprouting fuzzy masks of late that our citizens lower faces have started to look like the floor of an unswept barber’s shop. There is, basically, hair there and everywhere. Now primo cultural institution Somerset House is dedicating a whole exhibition to the facial hair phenomenon. ‘Beard’ is the brainchild of photographer Brock Elbank, whoís made portraiture of the hirsute something of a speciality. The free show is a beefed-up version of #Project60 ( photographic study of 60 beardy types that Elbank ran as an awareness-raising campaign for Sydney-based skin cancer charity Beard Season) but with more than 20 new portraits. This isn’t a fashion statement, says Elbank. There are models among those we’ve shot. But there’s a cross-section of real people in this exhibition, because for me this isn’t about fashion. It’s about people. Here are four hairy Londoners keeping it real.
Teaching assistant and bearded lady
‘Around the age of 12 I started seeing little hairs appear on my face. They’re the result of a medical condition I have – polycystic ovary syndrome. At first I got rid of them, as people started to bully me. But at the age of 16 I was baptised as a Sikh. One of our codes of conduct is to keep the body in its natural form, including all your hair. So I started to let it grow.
‘It was horrible at first. I was bullied so badly that I felt suicidal. It was like: ‘She has a beard. She must be a man.’ At one point it felt like the whole school was bullying me. I went through sixth-form with a fully grown beard. I ended up self-harming.
‘Nowadays, I’m not religious at all, but I keep the beard to show that beauty isn’t exactly how the media portrays it. I want to show that we’re beautiful regardless of how we look. Since a journalist wrote about me last year, I get asked to do a lot of magazine interviews and a lot of photoshoots.
‘I’m a really resilient woman, and I have very thick skin. I still get nastiness every single day – especially now that people know who I am. But I also get a lot of love. Sure, some people throw horrible hate at me, but I am who I am and I love my body for what it is.
‘Would I shave off my beard? No way! Nothing would ever make me part with it. That’s like me saying to you: ‘Will you part with your ear?î It’s a part of me, it’s who I am. It’s my strength. It’s my pride and joy. It’s my lady beard.’
London’s premier bearded model
‘I’ve had the beard roughly three-and-a-half to four years, and to be honest with you I started growing it out of laziness. I was working in Camden at the time and I wasnít getting much modelling work. But when I popped into my agency with it, they said it was looking quite good. So I decided to go with it. I was one of the original guys with a beard and tattoos in the modelling industry, and since I grew it my career’s really snowballed.
‘You do need to take care of it, though – things can get out of hand when you’re eating. Ice cream, soup and burgers are the worst. I have to steer clear of them. If I’m eating a burger I have to do it in the privacy of my own home, because it goes all over my face. It’s a nightmare.
‘It does annoy me that a lot of models have copied my look. They’ve saturated the market now. There are so many of them. But I am the original, so I don’t worry too much. It’s flattering at times when you see people in the street who’ve adopted your look. It’s like: ‘It’s done now, mate. You’re a little bit late to this.’
‘People have been saying we’ve reached ‘peak beard’ for about a year now, but I don’t think we have. I think it’s a cool thing and I think it’s here to stay. People have seen too many beards, got pissed off and thought: ‘We’ll write some bullshit about beards to stop people growing them.î But it’s a very manly thing and a lot of people look better with a beard. I don’t think we’ll ever reach peak beard.’
Mustachioed building site manager
‘I’ve had a beard in some shape or form for 12 years. I started off with a curly moustache that got bigger and bigger and it kind of went on from there. It’s changed over that time, but it’s stayed as it is now for five or six years.
‘I’m very attached to it. At one point I was trimming the ‘tache and I went wrong on one side, so I ended up shaving it all off. I didn’t like it at all, and I realised I’d done the wrong thing when my wife came home. To quote her: “I hate to look at you without it. It looks wrong.”
‘I’m the subject of some banter most weeks. I’m in and out of building sites all day long and I come across people who usually have something to say. Most of it’s positive, though. It’s surprising what a broad spectrum of people the look appeals to, really. Although drunks do tweak it sometimes.
‘The hipster thing doesn’t annoy me at all. I have weathered the storm for many years when facial hair wasn’t trendy, but I’m definitely a style-focused man myself and I appreciate lots of different sorts of trends. I spend most of my money on clothes – largely Ralph Lauren, as I really like his style – and am always wearing bright colours to work. Hipsters are free to do their thing. Itís all good beard love. Fair play to anyone who does what they want, really.’
Tattoo artist at Frith Street Tattoo
‘The first time I was aware I could grow a good beard I was 20 (I’m 42 now). I started out with a slightly ridiculous Red Hot Chili Peppers influenced comedy beard. A little soul-dad chinbeard. After that, I let it grow.
‘Back then, having a big, full beard was definitely unusual. Especially if you were young. All the Calvin Klein models were bare-chested, clean-shaven adult children, but I didn’t identify with that at all. In my eyes to be a man you needed facial hair. My role models were people like Geoff Capes, Burt Reynolds, the guy from ‘Grizzly Adams’. Men who looked like men.
‘It was definitely a subculture thing. I worked in a tattoo shop called Into You on Frith Street and there was a bunch of us with beards and tattoos who were into 1950s militaria. We’d all meet up in Camden. We’d all hang around the same tattoo shops, all go to the same gigs. We were part of that whole post-grunge scene. We were unusual, and totally left alone by the mainstream. People wouldn’t even sit next to us on the bus.
‘I like to think that people have realised that we were fucking cool, now that our look’s everywhere. That’s what it’s about really. It’s about aesthetics. It’s adorning yourself. Some people don’t like that beards have become popular, but I think it’s great. It’s all come from Frith Street’s tattoo culture, and more power to us.’
‘Beard‘ is at Somerset House until Mar 29.