Welcome to the Spring experience

Tucked away in the unassuming back-streets of London’s Kentish Town lies Spring Studios, a sprawling space spread over 45,000 square feet which contains a number of photographicstudios, a design studio, retouching company, bar and restaurant, and an art gallery.

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Founded over 13 years ago, the development of Spring has run para­llel to the expansion of the UK photography industry. The Spring team is now aiming to challenge the perception of fashion photography within the creative industries, alongside offering its clients an experience far beyond that offered by the average photographic studio.

It wasn’t always like this. When Spring Studios was set up in 1995 by managing director Mark Loy and two colleagues (whom he has since bought out) the original intention was to create music studios, although their ambitions were always diverse. “We had so many plans,” says Loy. “Few with focus. Photography studios to poetry nights, exhibitions to Chinese drumming. Although at that point much of our enthusiasm was spent in pubs in Camden – ideas we were full of, but hard work and any kind of professionalism was very difficult at first.”

More definition to the business came through the discovery of the space itself, after a year of looking across London for premises. “When we saw it, we thought it must have absolutely masses of potential,” continues Loy. “Because even in those days, buildings like this were being turned into loft apartments, and it was one of the last opportunities to have a building like this for this type of use.” Originally a paint factory, the building had been derelict for some years. “We literally did it up ourselves, we came in, painted the walls, put all the floors down. It was on the back of a credit card, I put £5000 on my credit card and went into a bank and got another £5000, so it was really humble. It was three studios and we did all of it – the teas, the lunches, painting the walls, the accounts.”

Camden in the mid-90s was the centre of the Britpop scene, the stars of which became friends of Spring, and used the studios for both partying and photo shoots. “Notorious music shoots were common,” says Loy. “I remember Liam Gallagher hearing that Atomic Kitten were shoot­ing in the studio next door. He ran out of his studio, pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall, walked on to the set and drenched the entire band, telling them exactly what he thought of them.”

The early years at Spring sound chaotic and highly entertaining, but in the background the more serious business of building up a client base and learning how the industry worked was taking place. However, after six years, Loy realised that things had to change – “I was having as many cups of tea with bailiffs as I was photographers.” Plus the photography world was also changing. “It was not only us that had grown, there was a generation of art directors, stylists and photographers that were using us in the beginning that had evolved as well. Our combined ambitions had changed, as had all our responsibilities, but technology was also a major influence on how we were to do things,” Loy explains.

Spring launched its digital arm, Spring Digital, in 2000, and became the first company in the UK to bring digital capture on set. It has since launched Henhouse, a high fashion retouching company, and Six Creative, a design agency that provides art direction, brand development and graphics for luxury brands and retailers. To complete the package, Spring also offers lighting, location and set building services. The space itself has thus increased and is now spread over five floors, with Loy’s flair for interior design retained throughout: the studios are kitted out with vintage furniture he finds in auction houses on the weekend, and all the floors are reclaimed. This aesthetic continues in the restaurant and bar, which is available for use by studio clients, where two large murals by illustrator James Jarvis dominate. The whole look conspires to give Spring a trendy yet warm atmos­phere, far removed from the anonymous feel that might be associated with photography studios. “I think that’s part of the process,” Loy says of the studios’ style. “We’ve never looked at this model and tried to improve on it, it’s been trial and error. A lot of the staff have been here since the beginning – I think the business has had a lot of heart as much as being a well-organised, driven business.”

A natural next step for Spring was to open a commercial art gallery, where fashion photography could be exhibited alongside fine art and design, and a new audience encouraged to visit the space. Spring Projects was born at the beginning of this year, opening with an exhibition of images by renowned fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø. It is currently showing an exhibition by artist Mat Collishaw, while a group show in the summer will include work by Lawrence Weiner, amongst others. “The essence of the gallery is to be broader culturally than a typical fine art gallery, by also showing fashion and design,” says gallery director Andrée Cooke, who curates the space with input from Pop magazine art director Lee Swillingham.

“The gallery is a celebration of the last 13 years but also provides a space as a much-needed platform for experimental work across the fields of art, design and fashion,” continues Loy. “London provides few commercial exhibition opportunities for fashion and fashion photography and no spaces that I know of that set these disciplines alongside a regular fine art programme.” In placing fashion photography within this set-up, Spring Projects also hopes it will gain some long overdue recognition. “I think fashion photographers are massively underrated in terms of their talent,” says Loy. “There’s always been this argument that they produce so much throwaway material, but to get to that consistency, to get to the point where you can keep producing all the time, is 10–15 years’ work. A fine artist can go to St Martins, have works bought by Saatchi and become a working artist – there’s no way you can do that in the fashion industry, you are looking at a 10-year period to get to a point where any designer brand is seriously going to consider using you. I think that deserves merit, and it’s been very interesting seeing the art world mingle with the fashion world.”

Over time the gallery will begin representing artists, some of whom may be drawn from another of Spring’s ventures, a sponsorship scheme that supports two new photographic talents per year by covering their editorial costs and allowing them to build up a portfolio of work. This year’s recipients are Jacob Sutton and Josh Olins.

In terms of other future plans, Spring’s ambitions are broad. Six new studios are being built in the Kentish Town space, alongside a floor containing private rooms dedicated to meetings, fittings and castings. The team are also beginning to offer video services to clients, and branching out overseas, with Spring Studios in Palma, Majorca due to open this summer. With 50% of its clientele now coming from abroad, further overseas expansion is an obvious ambition, although Loy is aware of the difficulty of maintaining the quality levels he has achieved in London over a number of locations. “You can find the bricks and mortar probably, but it’s finding people who are going to remain enthusiastic for what you’re doing year in, year out,” he says. “The reason why Spring has grown is because we have some decent, honest, hard­working people here who are not necessarily blown away by the whole fashion set, but they’re obviously very enthusiastic for what we’ve done and where we’re going. Finding those people each time would be very difficult, but yes, that would be the ambition for the business.”

The photography industry may have changed enormously since Spring’s early days – rowdy music shoots are a rare occurrence these days, although Pete Doherty allegedly conformed to type on a recent visit, by struggling for two hours to pull a toilet off the wall – but like Spring, Loy envisages that it will inevitably also continue to expand. “I think more and more photography is being used in different devices that didn’t exist five years ago – you have e-commerce, websites … there seem to be thousands of magazines on the shelves. I think it will continue to grow, this could actually just be the start of it. Imagery will always impact on people’s lives, that won’t disappear.”