“You hear a lot about people who are beautiful inside and out, but she really is”: Over the course of seven years, the co-founder of IDEA photographed a teenage girl as she navigated the choppy waters of adolescence
Angela Hill, who owns rare books dealers and publishing house IDEA with her husband David Owen, works from a small, book-lined office in Soho. IDEA’s output is so prodigious, one imagines a gallery-style, concrete-floored expanse in Mayfair but instead, their team shares two rooms once occupied by Elton John’s record label. There are – kind of obviously – books everywhere, spilling over tables and out of shelves, as well as a strong smell of mint in the air. After publishing books by Collier Schorr, Willy Vanderperre and Nadia Lee Cohen, Hill has finally released a book of her own work, titled Sylvia.
“It was really daunting,” Hill says of reexamining her work. “Really scary actually!” It is more usual for IDEA to be talking about other people’s work, which they love to do, at length, in emails that are in turns hysterical or touching. Hill lights up talking about Nadia Lee Cohen, for instance, animatedly describing her photographs and the hairdresser the photographer sent her to in LA for a shade of Pamela Anderson blonde (Cohen also wrote the foreword for the book). But when it comes to her own work, Hill is more reticent – which perhaps explains why it’s taken until now for her to put it out.
The book follows its eponymous subject between the years of 11 and 18, photographed for various magazines throughout the late 90s and early 2000s. She’s put some of them on her Instagram over the years, with friends leaving the odd comment asking when she’d collect them for her own book. “I knew I’m not going to take photographs of Sylvia again,” Hill says. “I’ve finished that project … not that it ever started out as a project. But I had more than enough images of her that I was happy with to produce a book. So I said to Dominik [who runs IDEA’s publishing arm] and David, what do you think? I was very conscious of losing the company money.”
Syliva is a gorgeous book, unlikely to lose IDEA money, that unfolds like a book of film stills. It starts at Sylvia’s family home in Streatham, and follows her through various gardens, outdoor spaces and camping trips, whether clad in hiking gear or Balenciaga – a memorable assignment for a Japanese magazine. “If a model starts posing I can’t bear it!” she says. “I just want them to forget I’m there. I want it to look like a documentary.” Hill shoots entirely on film, and admits that doesn’t care about the technical aspect of photography. “Seriously all I’m doing is using the most basic lens, a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera, and my choice of film. I don’t even choose the shutter speed, and I always leave it on the same aperture! So literally it is point and shoot. The only way I can make my stamp is through my casting, and I’m very fusspotty [sic] about casting.”
It was Owen who met Sylvia, and her mum, sat at the dentist. “Thank goodness, I was not with her at the time,” she laughs, “And he was brave enough, thank goodness, to go up to the mother and say, ‘is this your daughter? My girlfriend is a photographer, I think she would love to photograph your daughter!’”. Thus the partnership began, blindly, because nobody had mobile phones to take pictures with, and continued for seven years until her friend and subject became an adult. But why Sylvia? “You hear a lot about people who are beautiful inside and out, but she really is. She’s the most caring, sensitive, kind person.” In addition to that, “I never ever took an ugly photograph of her, because I think it’s impossible to do that.”
Sylvia by Angela Hill is available to purchase from IDEA now.