Photojournalist Barry Lewis is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. From his book documenting 14 years of the Glastonbury Festival ‘Vaguely Lost in Shangri La‘. To see Barry’s body of work click on any image.
In the autumn of 2003 I met Debs Armstrong and the legendary Roy Gurvitz in London. Roy told me about how his ‘Lost Vagueness’ had begun as a “festival-within-a-festival”, five years earlier when he had set up a bar in the Glastonbury travelers’ field. This bar had gradually metamorphosed into an ironic, twisted town on the outskirts of the main festival.
“As the travelers’ field had become more violent and horrible…we had to become more creative and came up with the idea of ball gowns and tuxedos, putting men into women’s clothes… it altered everything, it made everything entirely different… and out of that was born Lost Vagueness.”
And so was born a lavishly decorated vaudevillian city, complete with ballroom, casino and chapel; full of an anarchic population of performers and guests dressed in exotic evening wear.
“This was all sown on a bed of irony, because everyone thought we were hippies and crusties.”
Chris Tofu, Lost Vagueness & Shangri La music director
The following June I arrived in a muddy field, lugging a huge white tent that became a portable portrait studio to photograph the wild and wicked guests.
For the next three years I had my studio open to all, in the middle of Glastonbury’s vaudeville home of late-night excess, in which muddy festival-goers played roulette, donned ball gowns to dance the night away while burlesque acrobats swung from chandeliers.
From the start of the festival we would search out the more exotic explorers we found in the throng: they would then be given a card with the words “YOU LOOK AMAZING!” and be invited to participate in a photographic experience in The White Tent studio. Word traveled and there was a continual stream of people waiting to have their portrait taken. The White Tent offered the sanctuary of a neutral space away from the intense craziness of the crowd outside and became a place for sharing stories and laughter. Each day saw a process of disintegration as mud and rain left their marks on both the people and the pristine white studio…by the end of each day the splattered paper was removed, along with lots of the drugs dropped while posing!
For three years Lost Vagueness and The White Tent studio was my main Glastonbury experience, but sadly it wasn’t to last.
In 2006 rained… and rained, non-stop, for the entire festival. Lost Vagueness finally resembled Waterworld and my last memory in the studio was facing imminent electrocution under a foot of fizzling water!
All things have their time and the many creative people whose anarchic dreams were born in Lost Vagueness were given new opportunities, new fields, by Michael Eavis. It is Michael who can take the credit for enabling these new ideas to bloom and mutate in the following years into new areas of the festival. And so The Naughty Corner came about: Shangri La, Trash City, Bloc 9, The Unfairground, Arcadia and The Common.
“The theme of Shangri-La has continually developed over the last 9 years while maintaining its ethos, sense of humour and commitment to outsider art and performance. We try to be topical – a parody of reality as such, capturing the zeitgeist, showing art imitating life and vice versa but with a new theme emerging each year. The last four have been our own versions of the “Afterlife”: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. We’ve had Corporate, Political and Media Hells, with Heaven as both a spa, and an exclusive gated community. We create an alternative reality for people to immerse themselves in.”
And the experiences … a range of apocryphal tales, drug aided visions, wonderful lies. The best, however, could not have been made up. Finding yourself in a boxing ring, having been married in the chapel of love and loathing; sipping scented tea, having a foot spa and receiving hugs while your smalls are washed in the Laundromat of Love; opening a cupboard door in a body parts shop in a futuristic shanty town to find a passageway leading to a secret rave; lying on lush white carpets in Heaven while marshals are closing Hell as a fire risk. And hearing about the Brexit result in the cold light of dawn….
I never ventured far and rarely visited to the main stages, as the music for me, was more a soundtrack to a life opera, with its highlights in this south-east corner. As the lights and music are turned off in the main festival and the music fades away there is always somewhere to go for explorers of the dark…. you just follow the old railway track through the hazy darkness towards a soft glow of light and an increasing cacophony of sounds.
“… People had incredible, hazy experiences in our mad, late-night bar and casino on the outskirts of the festival, but later, had difficulty remembering where to find it again…”
I expect it’s just the whingeing of an old geezer but for me, apart from these wonderful anarchic pockets, the festival has changed over the last ten years. It’s more expensive; there is less madness, more ecstasy. Many true eccentrics and travelers are being replaced by gap-year students taking selfies and ticking off their band list.
“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
Photographs of 14 years of the Glastonbury Festival
By Barry Lewis