A woman leans forward, applying mascara in a tiny square of mirror. She has a sense of urgency. Maybe she’s even a little frantic. Yet, something about her remains calm and comfortable. Perhaps this adrenaline-fuelled application is actually a familiar routine. Her hands hang awkwardly as they multitask. Blink and you might miss the dirty orange mic poking out of her hairline. This photograph just keeps unravelling. The image by Alexander Coggin is from a series he is developing called ‘This Rough Magic’. The project investigates backstage life in London’s West End. Like much of his work, this portrait is a starting point for more questions. He has a unique ability to identify the small but telling moments, which hook you in and don’t let go.
Theatre is the backbone of Coggin’s work. It informs his whole practise. He studied acting before focusing on an autodidactic approach to photography. Image making allows him to control his own narrative, before that “Just being an ‘actor’ really meant my sense of expression was contingent upon a production, a director and other actors.” Inspired by playwrights such as Tony Kushner and August Wilson, his images are informed by theatrical lighting and character. “Values are important, candidness, character and story, but it also needs to be fun.”
Alex is a master observastionalist. His camera is a tool that allows him to unpack and understand the world. He uncovers the nuances in seemingly banal scenarios that speak to cultural behaviours we can all relate to.
The work seeks to deconstruct character, one gesture at a time. Stripping back the shiny veneer we all cling to, showing us our weird and wonderful truth. He calls it ‘Magical Realism’. “My work literally shines a light on the backstage aesthetics of everyday life”.
Observational photography has seen a revival in the last few years. A new generation of photographers are using this approach to tell stories in an episodic format. When executed successfully this creates a really immersive visual experience. Although, as with all trends, there is an abundance of individuals who attempt to jump on the bandwagon. The resulting work is a compilation of ambiguous details, which rely solely on the viewer to do the heavy lifting in finding a purpose in the work. It is often difficult to distinguish the work and identify the photographer.
What I love about Coggin’s work is that although on first read it feels loose and free, it is unmistakeably authored. His images offer an immediate and visceral response, while creating a dialogue about the performance of the everyday. The playful tone and distinct aesthetic make his work instantly recognisable. There is a serious rigor employed to ensure every image hits the right note, fusing humour and cultural observation.
‘Oh Okay Fun’ is his first book, which presents odd and trivial situations in a bizarre or coincidental way. The dissonance between his intimate, voyeuristic moments and the orchestrated lighting create a playful tension and sense of illusion.
His latest work ‘Brothers and Others’ is a raw and honest portrait of the lives of his affluent American in-laws on vacation. He strips back the surface to reveal the moments of error, bizarreness and tension in the performance of leisure. The work explores family dynamics, social expectations, hetronormative rituals and privilege in a unexpected and mischievous way.
At a time when social media is the governing force of individual identity politics, Coggin is focusing on the intersection of sociology and humour to reflect a more honest portrayal of human behaviour. He closes the gap between our perception and reality while fun remains the lifeblood of his work. It’s what makes his so accessible, refreshing and what makes the salty truths he reveals more palatable.