Photography studio, gallery and training complex

“Gingerfest” – Criticised But Copied (Part 1)

Perhaps it says something about the subjective nature of photography that the most successful and far-reaching photographic project I’ve ever been involved with was comprehensively slated by my tutors at university at the time.

I originally embarked on the project which later became known as MC1R – or Gingerfest – as an early part of my Fine Art MA at Wolverhampton University. I needed a small, easily achievable project for a practical module and, as a photographer with my own studio and an passion for portraiture, the obvious choice was a studio-based series of portraits.

At this time my young daughter was beginning to show signs of having the same red hair that her mother has. I wondered how this could be as I have dark brown hair and none of my family have any shade of red hair as far as I know. My wife informed me that it takes two parents with the red hair gene (which I later found was MC1R Receptor) to produce a red-haired offspring – so I must be a “carrier”, even if I didn’t exhibit the physical traits myself. And what’s more, according to some sources, red hair would die out within a century.

So that was the inspiration for the project. I rather like red hair, in all its hues. I love freckles. What a shame if this beautiful coloration were absent in future generations. Over the next few weeks I became something of a “gingerologist”. I learned about the genetics and I learned about the historical – and contemporary – prejudices towards redheads. My project, I decided, would be to photographically document the physical traits associated with the so-called “ginger gene“.

However, I quickly realised that once I’d photographed my wife and her sister, I was already running a bit short of ginger (and I use this term for its brevity rather than its derogatory connotations) models, so I put the word out among my friends and photography students and managed to arrange shoots with a few more. All came along to my studio to be photographed against a white background and wearing only white clothing so as to accentuate the colouring of hair, eyes and freckles etc. What they also brought with them was a wealth of stories about years of “gingerist” abuse and micky-taking. But I still ran out of models.

The university’s press office sent out a press release about my search for red-haired models and for the next few weeks I was inundated with enquiries from local and national press as well as local and national radio. I gave a few interviews and I was soon answering dozens of emails a day from would-be models. I arranged as many shoots as I could and found myself answering the same question: “What will you do with the pictures?”

I hadn’t really thought about this. It suddenly didn’t seem enough to say that it was just for a uni project. That would’ve been short-changing the people who gave up their time, and in some cases travelled a long way to be photographed for the project. So I found myself telling people that there would be an exhibition… Time to organise an exhibition then.

Here’s a little slideshow of images from the project and exhibition. I’ll finish the story shortly…

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