Matthew Finn’s new book, School of Art, is a collection of photographs taken in 1997 of students at Watford’s West Herts College School of Art
A lot happened in 1997. 18 years of Conservative government limped to a close, Tony Blair and New Labour sailed into power, Charles Saatchi put on his ground-breaking Sensation show at the Royal Academy, Princess Diana died, Dolly the Sheep was cloned, the UK handed Hong Kong back to China, Tiger Woods won the US Masters at 21, and the juggernauts of Harry Potter and Titanic crash-landed into culture.
“It was a pivotal moment in history,” says photographer Matthew Finn. “And that isn’t just me looking back. It actually felt like that when we were there. 1997 was seismic. It was massive. It was a really great time.”
Finn spent much of the year making photographs of a class of 17- and 18-year-olds at the West Herts College School of Art in Watford, and the resulting images are now being published in a book, School of Art, by Stanley/Barker. Just 24, he was of the same generation and mindset as his subjects, invigorated by the political and cultural changes taking place. “We had this new government,” he says, “but more importantly we had the Charles Saatchi effect. He was championing the YBAs, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damian Hirst, people not significantly older than us who we knew were living and working not far away. All of a sudden we had artists of our own generation to look up to – it almost felt like they belonged to us.”
In 1997, art was part of the daily conversation, front-page news, the remit of the young as well as the old. In this atmosphere, the art school was a place of possibility and confidence, and Finn was a first-hand witness. Taking portraits of the students as they worked, smoked, talked, posed and listened to music in the rambling Victorian building on Ridge Street, Finn captured a time of singular optimism and creative liberation – testament to the opportunities ahead that seemed to be there for the taking.
The students exude confidence, personality, their clothes a jumble of branded jumpers, oversized coats, rib-skimming croptops and crushed velvet. Details like Trainspotting T-shirts, stretchy choker necklaces, Pearl Jam lyrics scrawled onto a jacket and a Discman spilling out of a low rise waistband give away the era, but many of them could have strode into the book from a south London street in 2019. “There’s a greater level of performance and confidence in these pictures than I ever really registered at the time,” says Finn. “This was before digital, long before social media. There’s a strong sense of the individual here that probably comes from the naivety of not looking at themselves all the time.”
Today Instagram is ubiquitous, Discmans are obsolete and hope is harder to find. Art as a scene has splintered out of galleries and onto our phones. London remains a dynamic centre for creativity, but Brexit, sky-high living costs, an unclear vision of the future and dire environmental warnings make this a very different world.
“In 1997 the future looked bright and exciting,” Finn says. “In 2019, it feels dystopian. Politically, no one knows what is happening, and perhaps in response, the art world is finding security in the past. The big shows are Hockney, Picasso, and the Impressionists. While in 1997 Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst were cool and disruptive, today they are absolutely establishment. There is nothing wrong with that, but where are the young, exciting 20-year-old artists for now? I know a new moment will happen for a new generation, it just doesn’t seem to be happening as yet.”
School of Art by Matthew Finn is out now, published by Stanley/Barker.