Meet Mr. Brock Elbank. He’s the man responsible for some of the most thought provoking portraits in the world right now and last month, they were all in one place, exclusively available for viewing at Somerset House, London. This was not only an exhibition. Behind it was an inspirational story that grew from just one man’s idea and his desire to educate more people about melanoma, a skin cancer that took his friend from the world.
Back in 2009, Wes Bonny discovered that a melanoma on his neck had spread to his brain. A few months later, he passed away at the age of just 26. It was a massive and unexpected loss for everyone around him and his best friend, Scott Maggs (better known by his alias Jimmy Niggles), made it his priority to warn people of the hidden dangers and to encourage people to get regular skin checks in order to prevent anymore unnecessary loss.
Niggles, along with a few friends, decided that the best way to spread their message was to grow beards. “This was a time that no-one our age was sporting a beard”, he explained. “It was a good conversation starter and it meant that I could talk to lots of different people”.
Jimmy Niggles quickly became a social media sensation and his message soon extended to more people than ever before. Throughout the portrait series, a range of different reasons are given for sporting a beard, with many noting its rise in popularity and ‘cool’ status.
Others, like Ricki Hall, “grew a beard out of sheer laziness”. He told us: “I had a moustache for a while – like a Freddie Mercury moustache. I do miss that quite a lot! But a lot of it was just being lazy. I went to my agency with it as a joke and they said it was forming quite a nice image. Obviously with the tattoos it’s quite a rock and roll, vagabond, gypsy kind of look.”
He added: “I was stuck with it and then I landed my first campaign with Lyle & Scott. That campaign came out over in Milan and a Milan agency found me and signed me to an agency over there. Soon that spread to Munich, L.A, New York – it really all blew up after that! Primarily, though, it was just a bit of laziness. I couldn’t even afford a fucking razor! When I first moved to London I couldn’t afford anything!”
Of course, the charity work of Jimmy Niggles and the lazy beard growing of public figures could not have achieved what is embodied in this exhibition without the tireless work of one Brock Elbank.
In 2005, whilst living and working in Sydney, the portrait and advertising photographer shot his bearded friend Miles Better for Follow Gentlemen magazine. From then, Mr. Elbank photographed another bearded guy called Daniel Gino Smigliani in 2007.
“I’ve had dozens of interviews over this entire series,” he explained. “I don’t have a beard fetish – I’m not a beard photographer. I photograph people, I photograph characters. The reason I shot Daniel and I came up with that idea for Transformer was purely because he was an amazing looking guy… he was only 21 when I shot that story. He just had a very individual look and that’s why I shot him. It wasn’t because he had a beard – he was just a cool cat!”
This same reason applies for every single portrait that Mr. Elbank shoots: “One of the only reasons that I shot Jimmy is because I thought he was an interesting looking guy. Then obviously he told me about his charity, Beard Season, and that’s when I came up with #Project60.”
“I came up with the idea in August of 2013 when I was moving back from Sydney,” Mr. Elbank continued. “We’d had some quite healthy social feedback with the imagery of Jimmy that we’d done and I said that we needed to do something with it. Jimmy had become this cult, bearded fellow online with all his memes, as had Miles Better and Ricki Hall. People just seemed to relate to the characters I was photographing and they didn’t necessarily know it was my work, generally speaking.”
He added: “They just knew the faces. A week or so before we flew back I told Jimmy my idea for a pack of playing cards with the images from the series on them. ‘What if we tried to get the who’s who of bearded social media to be ambassadors for your charity?’ I’d asked him. Then we came up with a lucky card so that’s in the pack. But we wanted to keep it a secret – we didn’t want anyone to rip the idea off so nobody that was photographed, apart from Jimmy, knew about the pack of cards. It was like this dirty secret that we had to keep.”
Mr. Elbank continued: “We called it #Project60 because obviously there’s 54 cards including the joker. I didn’t want to call it #Project54 because that sounds like Studio54 and I got paranoid that someone would get an idea of what we were doing! We called it #Project60 and it just so happened that we ended up with 6 people getting on board so there were actually 60 people on the project in the end.”
Upon returning to his rural Warwickshire home, Mr. Elbank soon received over 1200 applications from people wishing to travel without payment to sit for a portrait: “Applications”, Elbank explains, “that are still rolling in despite the completion of the project.” #Project60 not only includes the facial fuzz of the average Joe, but that famous facial hairs of icons such as actor John Hurt, models Ricki Hall and Billy Huxley and artist Gavin Turk also feature in the widely shared gallery. Tattooist Miles Better and the infamous British bearded woman Harnaam Kaur also sat for portraits. All in all, the exhibition makes up a pretty unique set.
Ricki Hall explained: “There were a lot of models and actors amongst the set, a good motley crew of bearded guys. Brock wanted you to just do your own thing. I’ve worked with him a numerous amount of times before. He’s great – really good photographer and a really good mate. I’ve stayed at his house loads of times. His kids are great, we go out for dinner, his wife’s an amazing cook. He has a really great family around him.”
He added: “In front of the camera he just wanted you to do what you do best, really. He didn’t want you to put on a pose – he just wanted you to be as much like you as you could possibly be.”
Ricki admitted: “I’m not a photographer, I’m never going to be one. But I do think that they’re great photos. They bring out everyone’s little charms and quirks. And they’re not photoshopped to fuck either. They’re really natural – you can still see the little blemishes and I think that’s great. That’s the way it should be: no one should be perfect. Obviously you get all these covers on magazines that are polished to perfection but on these photos you’ve still got a little nitty gritty, they’re raw. That’s a really cool way of doing it. Brock is a fucking great photographer.”
News of Elbank’s photographic prowess quickly spread. “People came from all over,” Hall told us. “Bearded men, non-bearded men and a lot of females too. People travelled in from New York, Australia, Spain and Italy, just to come to see that exhibition for a few hours. It’s insane. It had such good advertisement too. We did interviews for Channel 4 and BBC Radio Xtra.”
#Project60 is a landmark artwork in the bearded world and, indeed, in the world of photography, and it has come together not only in the form of this prestigious exhibition and this prestigious venue, but also in the form of a coffee table book, available to buy and to keep.
“A lot of different people got involved in it,” Hall explained. “Loads of people that are in the public eye like myself, Billy Huxley, Miles Better and then you’ve got the actors and everyone else. They’re just fucking good photos and its been really rewarding to be a part of it all.”
Elbank told us: “What’s been refreshing with the series that has gone on to be the exhibition at Somerset House is that I haven’t shot any of it as a fashion statement. It’s not been done as anything other than to assist Jimmy’s melanoma charity and to raise awareness. For me, what’s been very rewarding is that most people going to this show weren’t aware of #Project60 and they were leaving with new insights. Seeing the explanatory wording on the wall and realising that I’d actually created that for a charity, not for vanity, that is quite a nice payback.”
He continued: “I took a year off work to do it. It’s been a nice conclusion to be able to show it at such a magnificent stage as Somerset House. Back in 2013 when I came up with the idea for Jimmy, we didn’t envisage that we’d end up there as a finale.”
At the start of the whole process, there was doubt even as to whether it would take off. “No-one’s gonna come to your house”, Hall told Elbank, to which he responded: “They’re gonna have to. If people want to come, they’ll come. If they don’t, the project will take as long as it takes.” Luckily, that proved not to be the case at all and people jumped at the chance to be involved.
As if the charity work of Jimmy Niggles wasn’t touching enough, everybody who came from all corners of the world had a story to tell.
Elbank explained: “There was one man from Italy who had lost his house a couple of years before in an earthquake. He’d been living in a tent for the last two years: a real challenging couple of years while he was waiting for his house to be rebuilt. He didn’t speak a word of English so we were communicating by me speaking ‘pigeon English’ into a translation app and him reading the Italian it produced, vice versa.”
He added: “He sent me a letter about 3 months after our shoot to thank me for kick starting him back into life. He’s since become a model and sculpture. He’s in his mid 40s and he’s a very striking chap. It was a really positive experience for him after his house had been destroyed.”
Then there was Edwin Venn. Elbank travelled to the Bath Beard Championships in September to photograph Venn who was terminally ill with cancer but was still performing as a character from the Wessex Beardmen. “It was a chilling experience”, Elbank commented. “We did his portrait and he died 6 days after that.”
The list of extraordinary stories continues, Elbank revealed: “There was a guy called Alan Jenkins from Dallas who had never left America. He was 31 and he got his passport just to fly to England to do his portrait and Karl Fredrickson from North Sweden took 13 hours to get to the airport via train and coach to fly over to sit for a few hours.”
He concluded: “It was just an extraordinary year, these people did these things just to come and get a portrait done. It was phenomenal.”
“Other than myself? Can I say myself? (Laughs). Obviously I enjoyed the one of myself very much but it’s always gonna be the Jimmy Niggles, Miles, Billy Huxley, Chris Millington, and a good friend of mine Arron Raw who does quite a lot of my tattoos now. He’s from Bolton but he came down for a day. They’re all really, really good. I’m gonna go with Miles. I really like the Miles one. It’s a really strong image, you know. It’s just fucking cool.”
“Frank Moon sticks out for me for several reasons. He’s a very good friend of my older sister. She’s known him for ten or fifteen years and he lives locally to where I grew up. What I love about Frank is, not only has he got the oldest beard in the series (he’s had a beard since he was 20, so he’s had a beard for 55 years) but he’s the most unassuming, lovely chap. He’s a real gentle, lovely character.”
He added: “If you saw Frank normally, he’s got very messy hair, he works outdoors, wears glasses and he’s generally in scruffy clothes as he’s got a load of shire horses and vintage tractors. He’s not vain at all. He has a beard because he likes having a beard. When I approached him to do #Project60 I told him that we needed a mature character like himself: someone who had a beard for beards-sake, not just because it’s a fashion statement. He came over and sat down. I put him in my denim jacket, swept his hair back and he just turned into this Clint Eastwood character. He looked really cool.”
He told me: “The last time anyone took any photograph of me, of any kind, was in 1987… the time before that was at my wedding in 1966”. I’ve now photographed him three or four times. It wasn’t his comfort zone to start with – he didn’t really understand why I was going to all the effort but now he has this amazing confidence in front of the camera, at the age of 75. He’s now got an Instagram account (@thefrankmoon), with over 600 followers, and he’s become this cult figure on social media. He just doesn’t really understand it. He’s not vain at all!”
He added: “For me, just seeing a gentleman at his time in life, taking him into the gallery on the first Saturday of the exhibition, him having one of the hero images above the fireplace, and actually seeing his reaction was just magic. So I’d say Frank. Not that I have a favourite!”
The final two images of Ricki Hall were shot by Sam Dibley in Camden, April 2015.
Purchase the Beard Season playing cards here.