1883 Magazine

A show called Beard could easily slip into the realms of farcical trendiness. Thank the Lord then, that Somerset House’s latest exhibition was created in the very capable hands of Mr Elbank; the beards in question becoming more of a vessel for the very varied and well considered elements at play here - namely, gender discussions, charity campaigning and our overall humanity.

The images certainly utilise the modern trend for facial fuzz - it took off on social media after all, the hashtag project60 leading to 1,200 applications for Mr Elbank to photograph hairy faced folk from around the world, all travelling at their own expense. This photographer clearly understands the power, not just of the beard trend, but also the modern marketing trend - a visually appealing, simple concept with a nifty hashtag, equals an enrapt audience for your cause.

It all kicked off with one Jimmy Niggles, a bearded charity campaigner who grew his facial hair and set up project ‘This Is Beard with a few mates, when a very close friend died of skin cancer in 2009. Mr Elbank came across Niggles’ on social media and offered to photograph him. After placing the image online it gathered a whopping half a million views in four hours. Realising the potential of a talented snapper and a bearded bloke, Project 60 was born, with candidates applying online, and the chosen sixty coming to London to be photographed. The final collection, whilst hugely helping the reach of the cause - Niggles’ beard is now available for a pretty bonkers £1mill auction for charity - also widened out the diversity of the work.


Gender is a big player here, with the inherent ‘manliness’ of the beard both celebrated and questioned. The beard is in essence one of the biggest gender differentiators, and there are many images that play on its’ almost phallic power; not least because of the dominant stares and muscular figures of the wearers. This form of masculinity is both eccentric and traditional however, taking a wild, cliched understanding of manliness and mixing it with modern grooming. This isn’t rugged machismo plain and simple, it is the image of modern man, allowed to be both strong and vulnerable, tough and vain, alpha and metro. This is enhanced hugely by the nod to personal style. It is not purely the beards on show, but the wonderful array of colours, fabrics and quirks, a plethora of peacocks rather than wild cave men. Italian designer Angelo Gallamini, sheathed in luminous turquoise - and aptly nicknamed Zeus by one of Elbank’s friends - is an indefinable mix of wizard-like unconventionality and noble power.

The images of both drag queen Stefan ‘Madame Heinz’ Bostrom and female Harnaam Kaur - growing a beard since the age of 16, caused by polycystic ovaries - are both strikingly feminine, despite their magnificently sculpted beards. The use of both subjects could have seemed a little gimmicky, however the results really are masterful. The beard is shown off as a exquisite form in itself, its’ exact tone of gender defined by the individual, rather than the beard going on to define and bracket them. This extends out to our overall ideas of gender, something that is becoming more difficult, and more backward to attempt to strictly specify as the years go by.


This sense of self definition stretches beyond gender, to thoughts about a natural vs affected face and body. The beard is incredibly natural - it is after all more unnatural to shave - but in modern society beards are considered more of a contrived addition to the face than a close shave is. They are at once an expression and a mask; as Jimmy Niggles points out, ‘they extend your face’. This is developed further throughout the exhibition, not purely in the many different colours, shapes and styles of beard - who knew you could do so many things with a moustache? - but also through the various piercings, body art and clothing choices. The tension between disguise and self expression remains unanswered, the viewer left to decide the true identity by staring into the piercing eyes of each sitter.

Throughout all of the various themes within these images, there is an overriding sense of humanity and individuality. Nearly all of the subjects glare straight down the lens, an intense eyeball fix that opens every one up to further investigation. They are colour drenched, crystal clear, and close enough to see almost every pore, insisting upon undivided and individual attention. There are parallels with wildlife photography and old explorer portraits with skin rugged yet, not a hair out of place. Again, this harks back to man as a primal animal that also happens to be the vainest creature to walk the earth.


This is definitely a project that could keep exploding outwards, and despite the depths that can be found in the work, it all hinges on a simple and effective premise; beard as universal vessel for a whole host of diversity.

Beard will be running until 29th March at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA


Words by Emily Steer



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