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Owen Harvey ‘People Gonna Talk’
Photography Owen Harvey

Photographing Britain’s 21st century Mods

For the past five years, Owen Harvey has been documenting the characters and clothes of the ever-evolving, yet never-wavering, subculture

Emerging in the 50s as penny-saving youths strove to dress to impress, the Mods began as a movement built on modernist principles. In pristinely tailored suits, anthemed by the likes of The Who and Small Faces, Mods continue to grace our country's nightclubs. Having become absorbed in this now cross-generational subculture, 26-year-old photographer Owen Harvey has spent the last five years capturing its people and spirit. His images are a trompe à l'oeil of sorts, deliberately timeless to reflect the enduring character of the Mods he photographs. Captivated by the people in these scenes, Harvey returns time and time again to lens the people of UK subculture, turning his attention also to London's skinheads in an exhibition currently on at the Metro Imaging Gallery. With the fifth anniversary of his project, an edit of Mods UK is to be released in zine form today, courtesy of YOUTH CLUB, accompanied by a talk from Harvey at London’s Doomed Gallery. In anticipation of this, we spoke with him to discuss his love of the iconic subculture.

In terms of subcultures, what is it that first interested you? And what still interests you about photographing them?

Owen Harvey: I've been thinking about that a lot recently, actually. There was a kid at school who I was good mates with, and he was always quite into the whole scene. He stood out from the other kids at school, stylistically, so I got an interest because of that.

But looking back before that, my Dad got me into a lot of music when I was quite young, he showed me loads of bands, like obviously Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and then more Mod-related bands like The Who, Small Faces, that sort of era. I guess the interest grew from there and then after that I went down to one of the Mod nights and just really, really fucking liked it, to be honest. It was great. Everything was good about it, it was great music, people were dressed really well. It was just loads and loads of fun, and for me, if you're going to photograph something, you've got to be really excited and really enthusiastic about it. It was the first thing I'd seen in a long time that made me feel hugely excited and it had amazing energy, so I just thought, why not? And I haven't stopped photographing it since then.

“It was the first thing I'd seen in a long time that made me feel hugely excited and it had amazing energy, so I just thought, why not? And I haven't stopped photographing it since then” – Owen Harvey

When you're photographing in clubs, do you tend to shoot your friends, do you look out for certain people and certain moments, or is it quite spontaneous and then you look back at what you've taken at the end of the night?

Owen Harvey: I think the style of shooting has changed over the period of time I've done it. There are two ways that I work in this project: one that's arranging for portraits, that's more of a controlled way of shooting and about the presentation of clothes and the people in the pictures. The other way is shooting at the nights, and that's much more about spontaneous moments, it's about the energy and about people looking like they're lost in the music. What I do – I'm not very subtle, as a person in general – is walk around with this huge flash, loiter around on the dance floor and wait for people. Naturally people get really lost in the music because it's so good and they're so involved with it. It’s a long night, so halfway through the night they tend to forget I'm there. But I do talk to a lot of people, and then I'll just pick off moments that I think have the right energy to them. The dancing is all about the energy.

When I first saw your images, I was confused as to when they had been taken and thought they were old photos before I realised what actually was going on.

Owen Harvey: Yeah, it's quite funny when I speak to a lot of people, they're like 'so, have you been in the scene from the start?' And I'm like, 'I'm 26.' But that's great because to me that means that the pictures are successful because that's exactly how I want them to be perceived. I want them to make people look at them twice, and feel a little bit of confusion about them. The reason that they have that timeless feel to them is because the people and the images are influenced by something that kicked off in the late 50s and early 60s, so I want the images to also have that sort of influence.

Do you think the scene itself has remained timeless, or do you think it has changed in some way over time?

Owen Harvey: It's difficult to know because I wasn't there when it was around the first time, but there are a lot of different generations that go to the nights. So there are a lot of the older women and men in their 50s, there are the younger guys who are in their 20s, and then there are even younger kids now who are 18 years old – it’s an ever-evolving thing. You can see stylistically they've got little things that they change, and over time I guess it's adapting. Otherwise, it would go against the whole thing of modernism; it’s about trying to keep it fresh and keep it new.

There's a bit of irony there because they're looking back to something and drawing influence from a time ago, but I think that's what makes it special. For me, the look is very timeless, and it's very cool, but it's also quite fresh because they're always updating little parts. It might be that someone adds a little lapel to their outfit, and one of the older generations might not agree that that is what modernism is about, but the younger generation perceives that in a different way. I think that's why it will keep growing, why it's still relevant today, as relevant as it ever has been, really.

“It was very much about young men and women saving their money and basically trying to look a million dollars even though their payslip might not reflect that” – Owen Harvey

There’s a quote about 'Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances', are there certain circumstances that the Mods feel pressured by or find difficult dealing with today?

Owen Harvey: I don't know about that. Back in the day – as far as I know from doing a project with a huge amount of research – it was very much about young men and women saving their money and trying to look a million dollars even though their payslip might not reflect that. It was about a sense of pride in what they looked like and what they were involved in. Now it's a little bit different because I photograph kids from a variety of different backgrounds. I’m quite good friends with some of them who are from quite wealthy families, and with a lot of the guys and girls who are from what I would class as quite working class backgrounds, if we have that anymore. But I like the idea of that statement, and I like what it used to represent. I'm also very interested in the socioeconomics of it, in how and where you grow up can reflect what you do and what you're part of, and also how your payslip can reflect what you want to be involved with and how you present yourself.

Having worked with other subcultures, do you find that your approach differs, depending on which group it is that you’re photographing?

Owen Harvey: Not so much, really, to be honest, both of the projects started in a similar way. The Mods work was started purely from a personal interest and I wanted to do it, the Skinhead stuff started as a commission, but as soon as I did that I wanted to carry it on anyway because again I kind of loved it. What can be more fun as a 26-year-old, being able to hang around with other people of a similar age to you, photographing them, having fun with them? Also, what they're involved with is exciting to me, and I think it always will be, that's why it's nice to be partly involved. But it’s also nice to sometimes step away from it because it retains that excitement for me. So the approach is always the same, I just go there quite open and quite happy to just hang out and take photos and I think that's how you get good photos in the end because you just hang around and people warm to you – well you hope so anyway!

Are there any other subcultures that you think you might want to photograph in the future?

Owen Harvey: Yeah, there are a few actually. Fingers crossed, if it all goes to plan I'm moving out to New York at the end of August for a few months, just because I want to go out there and maybe make a project out there. I grew up in Watford, so I've always been either on the peripheries of London or in London, I’m very used to the culture and I just want to get outside of my comfort zone. America's not too far outside of our comfort zone, but I want to approach something new and something different. I’ve got a few ideas of what I'm going to do out there but I don't want to say them now in case I change my mind!

What, if anything, do you enjoy taking photos of beside subcultures?

Owen Harvey: The subculture thing I really love, but it's more about photographing people. It sounds super cheesy, but it's about an exchange with someone. I've made really good friendships with people from taking photos, people that I never knew before. That's really what I get from photography, it's always been a super positive thing. I was playing music before I was doing photography and as soon as that finished I really wanted to continue doing something that I could concentrate my energy into. It's a positive thing that I can invest my time in and it's just something that's very enjoyable to me. My thing is people. I think it's actually quite rare to find people who actually like dealing with people, a lot of people keep themselves to themselves, but I really really enjoy just dealing with people, and meeting people and photographing people, to me that is the best part of that, really. 

The 'People Gonna Talk' zine launch and talk will take place on July 5th from 6:30pm – 8:30pm at Doomed Gallery, London