Only Human: How Sisters Sarah J. & Sally A. Edwards Disarm Performers To Create Intimate Art Portraits

Addicted Art Gallery
Sep 27, 2022 11:32AM

Sally (Art Director) and Sarah (Photographer) Edwards; Image Credit: Matt Holyoak / (Arena, BLAG 20)

“Our approach is ‘BLAG’. It’s not just the name of a magazine, it’s our whole ethos; something that naturally came about when we first started,” says Sarah J. Edwards, one half of the dynamic force behind the images that gave BLAG its cult following. This is a rarity. Not just the ability of two young women to build a magazine from scratch, that rivals leaders in the publishing industry, but the ability to offer a point of view unseen elsewhere. Because, as we all know, there’s a transaction that takes place when a glossy features a celebrity: the celebrity gets to promote whatever series, album, tour, tequila, book or bodywear range they’re putting their name to, and the magazine gets to sell copies by making the celebrity the subject of highly elaborate imagery. Then along came Sarah and Sally, bucking the system and stripping it all back.

Obviously, the practice of the big glossy spread had to change anyway, now that people consume a large slice of their pop culture online, and publications need to keep pace with how to exclus-ify - and therefore, monetise - the digital dissemination of information. But what hasn’t been updated, is the propensity for publications to feature celebs in the same old ways: a sycophantic tribute that focuses on the virtue of a subject that really doesn’t need to be elevated to sainthood, because they’re already rich and famous enough as it is; an investigative piece that devotes too much time and energy trying to unearth things that aren’t there in a bid to provide a new angle while furthering the publications agenda of appearing hard-hitting; or a story where the reporter does some sort of activity in parallel with the person being interviewed (golf anyone?), so they can cast their opinion of them after knowing them only a day or two.

This is the antithesis of what British twin sisters, Sarah J. and Sally A. Edwards, achieve in their intimate and up-close portraiture of global performers. And that’s because they’re insiders. “We met some very well-known grunge artists from Seattle and New York when we began and they opened up about how emotionally sick they felt, particularly as a result of how they were portrayed by British music critics. When we started, we decided we didn’t want to go digging. We don’t go in to shooting and featuring performers with any predetermined lines of questioning or expectations. We just go in the room as humans wanting to encourage expression, give people a fun experience and to talk about life,” says Sarah.

Beastie Boys, Say What?, 2004

"We became friends with the Beastie Boys when we were teens and always spent time together whenever we were in each other's cities.

"This shoot took place in Brussels in the basement of a huge venue. Fourteen thousand fans were unaware their idols were goofing off downstairs in what we believe is one of their funniest ever interviews.

“The shoot was equally low-key. We'd somewhat ironically themed the edition 'D.I.Y', and that's precisely how it went.

"We had no lighting down there, so production kindly set up some Mac 5000, which are exceptionally bright spotlights. Money Mark (American producer and musician) put his design studies skills to work, as we got rolls and rolls of aluminium foil to reflect the light. We carried telephone books which were used as weights, and backdrops from a London art shop via Eurostar.

“The shoot was filled with leg-pulling from both sides of the camera.

“It was my first 120 film shoot." ~ Sarah J. Edwards

As the photographer and art director duo who founded BLAG magazine while they were still at art school, Sarah and Sally have become synonymous with culture curation. Growing up in a strict family seeded a wild appetite in both of them, to not only devour art, but to get to know the minds who produce the contemporary ideas that influence and touch us all. They’ve had their fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist ever since, creating, coordinating, and connecting the media to the music industry. And what drives them today is what has been their mission from the start: the desire to cast a more discerning and natural light (literally) on the artists they admire, rendering them more human, and the images more intimate, so fellow fans can feel a bit more seen too.

Amy Winehouse, On The Cusp, 2006

“Amy’s ‘Back To Black’ album was on the cusp of release. I’ve been friends with her publicist for years, and thankfully the timing was right for our Vol. 2 No 7 edition of BLAG. Amy was kind enough to pop by the studio as we were shooting James McAvoy for a cover the same day.

“She had performed on Joolz Holland’s show the night before the shoot. Our good mutual friend Yasiin Bey had taken Sally and I across town in a cab one night to see her perform. He was excited to introduce us after the show. I’ll always remember her huge smile and “’Ello gals!” intro.

“From then, we always had a friendly rapport whenever we saw each other.

“Back to the shoot: I started taking Polaroids and going about things as usual, having a chat. As I pulled the Polaroids back, Amy was delighted. She said it was the first time she liked seeing herself smile in a photo.

“The photos we got have a beautiful, classic look as she was just relaxed and happy and had a few moments of peace.

“She invited me to a nail bar at Selfridges afterwards for the interview. She took my number and said, “we can go to parties and drink champagne.” She also wanted to set up a club with all women DJs and was adamant Sally and I would be a part of it.” ~ Sarah J. Edwards

“At first some bands found it laughable. We’re not reporters. I think I got laughed out of the room by a band when I was a teen for asking talk show inspired questions…but, BLAG outlasted the band.” Sarah explains how things have changed since those early days, and how the work now speaks for itself. “At first, we did a lot of pitching, and I guess when our magazine began to appear on the shelves, other artists and their representatives wanted a slice of the action. Our pictures told a different story. After a while practically everyone we worked with came to us. This industry is mostly based on reputation, and we’ve become known as very creative people who work hard.”

With this pedigree, it’s easy to see why Sally and Sarah are the artists choice. They’re not here to expose. They’re here to support established and edgy stars on the cusp of transitioning from the margins to the mainstream. This trust produces intimate results. “I’ve not met many people who want to dive into a big shoot. At least, not at first. Most usually want to get things over and done with. But with us, they seem to have such a good time, it’s their publicist or representatives who are the ones trying to wrap things up,” explains Sarah. What’s their trick? “That’s just it, there isn’t one. Which I think is a change for the artist. And it disarms them. Sally and I are both very personable and like to treat everyone with the same respect. So, we usually create a very relaxed atmosphere, without hierarchy. We just make sure there’s good music playing, bring a good dose of humour, and then we have a relaxed and fun conversation with the artist, and their team.” And, it’s this rapport between the sisters and their subjects that you can see captured in every one of Sally and Sarah’s images, from Amy Winehouse, to Slash. They say sex sells, but judging by this body of work sincerity has more substance.

OutKast, Joy, 2006

This shoot took place in Mayfair on a hot July day in 2006.

"We did their BLAG cover interview, which was a lot of fun and laughter.

"Meanwhile, there was a power outage in the room we'd set up to shoot. Our assistant had been organising the lights, and everything blew. Thankfully, the photographer after us had arrived early and kindly lent us his kit.

"We played Organized Noize beats. Big Boi freestyled along. We made tea and had a relaxed atmosphere going.

"Questlove believes this is one of the last ever shoots of the duo. I'm glad they look so happy." ~ Sally A. Edwards

View more work by Sarah J. and Sally A. Edwards, represented by Addicted Art Gallery.

Written for Addicted Art Gallery by Skye Wellington, Lens & Pen Projects

Addicted Art Gallery