In the summer of 2013, for 25 days, Luke Stephenson travelled 3,500 miles around the British coastline, documenting the 99 Flake ice cream and the seaside vans and parlours that sold them. His photographic project 99 x 99s tells the story of this very British icon.
Traditionally, the 99 refers to an ice cream in a cone, usually made with vanilla flavoured soft serve ‘whippy’ ice cream, with a Cadbury Flake stuck in the top. However, during his trip, Stephenson became fascinated by the little human touches that made each of them unique, documenting these variations on the treat, whether different cone shapes, toppings, or type of ice cream used.
He travelled the coast in a campervan, which acted as both his transport and a home from home, and took along a portable ice cream studio (created by Stephenson himself), to help him quickly shoot the ice creams before they melted. He only had one rule – that he asked the vendors for a 99, and when offered extras like sauce he must say yes.
Stephenson’s work often focuses on the eccentricities and traditions of British life, and unusual cultural activities from further afield, from The Incomplete Dictionary of Showbirds, to the World Beard and Moustache Championships. Check out more of his delightful collections of bizarre and everyday things on his website at www.lukestephenson.com.
We spoke to him about his work as a photographer, and the joys of a foodie road trip…
CR: Could you tell me about your background – how did you first get into photography?
LS: Its quite a boring answer but I got into photography at school, becuase I wasn’t very good at painting, and there was a tiny darkroom there, so I started taking pictures. I enjoyed pottering around, taking pictures and disappearing into a darkened room, so just carried on with it.
CR: What are your creative influences and interests?
LS: I think my influences are quite broad. I try to be open to things as I find an idea can come from anywhere – it might be a visit to an art gallery or overhearing a conversation on a train. The trick is recognising them.
CR: What items are in your must have kit?
LS: A Canon 5D for good photos, an iPhone for snaps, and an old lady trolley to help carry all my gear around.
CR: How would you describe your photographic style/aesthetic?
LS: I always find this a hard question to answer as I think ‘my style’ was quite a unconscious decision. But generally I like to show things on their own, without any clutter around them, so you can see the person or thing for what it is. I also think I like to collect things though taking pictures of them, which is a bit strange, but I enjoy taking pictures of groups of things.
CR: Where did the concept for 99 x 99s come from?
LS: A couple of years ago I took some photographs of ice cream vans and started to think about ice creams and particularly the 99 flake as this icon of Britain and of my childhood. Another influence was the title 99 99s that popped into my head one day and thought it was too good not to use, so I started to think how I could take 99 photographs of 99 ice creams with a flake.
It fitted in with something I’ve wanted to do for some time, a project on the British seaside, as it seems to be a right of passage for a British photographer to do. The Americans have their long road trips across the country, we have the seaside.
I recently did another project trying to find out how many cornflakes were in a box of cornflakes, which looked at the small differences in objects that are basically the same. That project ended up being massive as I photographed over 7000 cornflakes, so I think 99 x 99s is an attempt to do something similar but on a more manageable scale.
CR: Could you tell me more about the journey that you took around the British coastline?
LS: It was quite an exciting prospect going for a big drive around the country and visiting lots of places that I haven’t been before. I bought myself a camper van called a Bedford Nipper, which was my little home for the time I was away. I had no real plan as to where I would go or how I would fine the ice creams, I just knew if I stayed close to the sea I would be sure to come across a ice cream van or parlour.
I decided to start in Southampton and then head east. Annoyingly I broke down shortly after photographing my first ice cream in Southampton and had to sleep on the side of the road in my van. Luckily it was fixed the next day and I was on my way again. I then travelled all along the south coast towards Kent, around Essex, and all the way up the east coast to Edinburgh. I crossed over to Glasgow and from there went down the west coast of England, round Wales, Devon and Cornwall, and back along the south coast towards Southampton. It took 25 days and I covered around 3500 miles, and ate a lot of ice cream. It really showed me what a lovely place Britain is and I got a real sense of the scale of our little island.
The 99 x 99s series is currently being made into a book with YES studio, including all 99 ice creams and their 99 locations, plus an essay by author and broadcaster Michael Smith. More info is available on the kickstarter page here.