Archive, Projects

The Joy of Essex: Lucy Sparks’ unusual images of Britain’s most stereotyped county

All images © Lucy Sparks

While recent depictions of Essex in popular culture have veered towards the loud and lurid, Lucy Sparks presents the shiny surfaces in unexpected ways

Returning to Theydon Bois on the outer borders of London after a four-year stay in Berlin, Lucy Sparks embarked on a project about her birthplace. “I felt it was the perfect time to explore what I perceived as an Essex renaissance,” says the 31 year old. “The stereotype has been enjoying a revival, thanks in part to cult reality TV show The Only Way is Essex. A stereotypically Essex lifestyle has become even more decadent since the 1980s and early 1990s, so I wanted to investigate this.”

Essexland, which Sparks made into a book for her photojournalism and documentary photography master’s course at London College of Communication, looks at the county as “an aesthetic phenomenon”.

“I didn’t want to avoid the stereotypes; the project definitely reiterates many of them,” she says. “The images play on a sense of hyper-reality. The new story Essex has been telling about itself is loud, brash and in HD. Of course it’s an unsettling characterisation for some as not everyone in the county fits such a generalisation. But I hope the work will serve as a historic reference for how parts of Essex have typecast themselves.”

Sparks photographed mostly everyday objects, often focusing on unusual surfaces and textures and their reaction to light. “In Essex, mirrors, menus and soap dispensers are often bright, self descriptive and operate as signs of a larger trend,” she says. “I chose these items to show how nightclubs, bars and shops are embellished in Essex. My work is minimally invasive; I did very little work on them in Photoshop,” she adds. “The colour of the light, the angle and severity of the shadows are all present in the environment. I tend to seek out instances where light and material work together naturally.”

Sparks wants viewers “to take the locations and objects on their own terms”, adding that she hopes to capture the atmosphere and character of a location, citing LA-based photographer John Divola as an influence. “He was once quoted as saying, ‘I’ve always had an interest in the scene asserting its character, its sense of place, the specificity of its arrangement and being.’ This echoes the way I approach my work.”

Find more of Lucy’s work here.

First published in the March 2014 issue. You can buy the issue here.