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Skinheads in make-up and other outsiders

British subculture photographer Iain McKell reveals the intimate story behind this archive shot from the late 70s/early 80s skinhead scene

Taken from the April 2012 issue of Dazed, as part of the Last Shot archive series

Iain McKell has been photographing Britain’s subcultures for 30 years, from the seaside resort of Weymouth (his hometown) to the skinhead revival scene in London to fetish clubs, warehouse parties, New Romantics, trance ravers and gangsters.

Rather than simply documenting his subjects, McKell often integrally involves himself in the pictures, manipulating them with his own views or actions. His early work from the late 70s uses a visual language of shadowless and upfront shots to tell an intimate story.

“I was living in Finsbury Park right at the centre of the second wave of skinhead culture in London, around 1979 and 80. I got to know this guy who also lived up there, went round to hang out at his squat where quite a few skinheads lived, and there she was.

The picture was taken in the bedroom of her and a punk girl she shared with. There were lots of different cuttings collaged on the mirror, which was what really struck me about the room: National Front stickers, a cutting saying ‘Boat People Out’, some really far-right stuff. But underneath was a cutting from The Face that read ‘No Style, No Image, No Bullshit’. There is a real conflict between that cutting and what’s above it, which sums up the scene of that time.

“There is an obvious darkness in that photograph but there is also something angelic about her. There is a warmness and a vanity in it – she is allowing me in” – Iain McKell

It was around then that i-D and The Face started, but it was also the period when the MTV-based aspiration to style was coming into its own. It was a time when the attitude to how you dressed and represented yourself was changing. That slogan, ‘No Style, No Image, No Bullshit’, was a very 80s thing. Where does superficiality begin and end?

There is an obvious darkness in that photograph but there is also something angelic about her. There is a warmness and a vanity in it – she is allowing me in. She obviously likes her image and there is a real femininity in that. She looks quite butch with her skinhead and yet in her reflection there is something fragile and vulnerable. At the end of the day, she is just a girl doing her make-up.

The image was shot for a project on the second wave of skinheads. Growing up, I got into the initial skinhead scene, but left it behind when I went to art college. Moving to London, to a big city, I had to find something to photograph I connected with again. The skinhead revival was something I could also approach with a personal view.

That is something that I have continued to do throughout my career. I am not a documentary photographer. I pick up a camera and put it up to my eye, but in a way, I’m actually recording my own experiences. The camera is a way to question my own existence within the framework of being British. I am really talking about how Britain has shaped me personally, through others’ experiences.”