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Photography Iain McKell

Photographer Iain Mckell on the enduring spirit of punk

Sharing a new series alongside archive imagery, the British photographer talks to us about how he found himself at the epicentre of the underground

“I don’t really like the word subculture myself”, says photographer Iain Mckell, as he sifts through the luminous medium format prints seated in his lap. “Subculture somehow smacks of something a bit ‘blockbuster’, I’m interested in the underground, sub-societies, or tribes”. Waving a portrait of two young punks dating from the 1970s, he is in the midst of discussing the two series that will form the crux of his upcoming exhibition The Dark Side of Pink: Re-Psycho Re-Punk, opening at Project Space this week.  

Mckell has a long history of photographing radical culture, instinctively drawn to the site of activity before it explodes into something larger. His early work with Brit cultural movement New Romanticism (namely his 1980s book, The Cult With No Name) got him noticed by the industry, but it was his later and instantly recognisable series “The New Gypsies” – where he documented English nomads in the mid-80s – that really solidified his reputation. With a body of work spanning decades, he has devoutly captured everything from The Peace Convoy of 1986, to Scouser girls and their beloved brows.

His latest exhibition is a continuation of a conversation started many years ago when Mckell was just 19. Images of the punk scene in his hometown Weymouth and London – taken around the time that visions of a rakish Johnny Rotten had grabbed youth culture by its impressionable balls – make up a portrait of 1970s youth during a time of collective angst. Shown in conjunction with “Re-Psychos”, a series described as “prophetic portraits imagining the eco-conscious ‘neo-punk’ of the future” that consists of dreamy portraits of dark masked figures laced with recycled materials and outlined in bubblegum pink. Shown together, Mckell traces a link between the past and present of punk.

Ahead of the show, we sat down and talked about his ‘smoothie’ days (aka a post-football hooligan), the incredible influence Diane Arbus had on him, and his new muses, the neo-native tribe of Tottenham.

You’ve got a long history of photographing British sub-societies and tribes, as you call them, always seeming to catch the pivotal moment before it explodes into a cultural movement. How did you first get into it?

Iain Mckell: It started with the New Romantics. I had recently been made redundant and I was walking down the street thinking about getting a job when I came across a Bowie night happening in this club off Wardour street. Two Japanese girls were dolled up in Vivienne Westwood outside, Boy George was working in the cloakroom, Philip Salon (of the Mudd club) was dancing, everyone was there. I recognised it as the epicentre of the underground and it was about to explode. I came out of the club that night and said ‘that’s it, I’m not getting a job, I’m going to make photography a lifestyle”.

Were you ever a punk yourself?

Iain Mckell: I guess I was punky, but my work was always about the attitude of punk. I mean I did flirt with it, I used to wear eyeliner when I was 18. Before that, I had been a ‘smoothie’, which was the post-football hooligan thing. I’d gone from being a young skinhead to becoming very Roxy music. An old friend sent me a cutting of me from 19 Magazine the other day, I looked like something from the ‘The Damned’. I had peroxide hair and lipstick on, white tuxedo, the works.

“I came across a Bowie night happening in this club off Wardour street... I recognised it as the epicentre of the underground and it was about to explode. I came out of the club that night and said ‘that’s it, I’m not getting a job, I’m going to make photography a lifestyle’” – Iain Mckell

Your work has previously been categorised as social documentary, but I can see these early works have an element of personal reflection?

Iain Mckell: At the time, I was at Exeter Art College. Up until then, I was an angry young man and going to art college was really my salvation. Taking photographs became a cathartic process, it really sorted me out. While I was there, I was drawn to the photography books in the library, particular those of Diane Arbus. The idea that photography could act as a personal diary really took hold of me. From then on, whenever I photographed I felt I was looking beyond the individual and I could see Diane Arbus. I understood the language she was speaking through her imagery, using people as a consistent anthem of her emotions.

I realised Weymouth wasn’t the east side of New York, but it was pretty fucking barking mad in itself. So yes, the images were about my life at that time. I was 19, I was single, I was seeing a lot of the holidaymaker girls. A lot of the women in the pictures I was sleeping with, and the guy on the beach was a tramp I knew well. And Weymouth, being a transient place, meant someone hip would turn up on the promenade in winklepickers and deserved a photograph. So I was capturing the mood, as well at the seaside culture.

Alongside older works, you’re going to be presenting your new series “Re-Psychos”. Can you tell me more about that?

Iain Mckell: The concept of the “Re-Psychos” was conceived as an ongoing performance project by Ellie Walker, a CSM arts graduate I met when my assistant Lily introduced us. She and Lily are part of what could be described as a neo-native performance tribe. Ellie's work focuses on using scavenged materials, from both synthetic and natural origins, and as a collective, it has become a united effort to salvage materials and to craft a new self-identity.

It’s interesting to draw parallels between the two series of photographs, set decades apart. What’s its connection to punk?

Iain Mckell: I think what is so exciting about this new project is realising that I haven’t lost my touch! The analogy between the two series is overwhelmingly the attitude. Punk was a product of an angry generation, there was no future, it was all “fuck the system” and anarchy. At the time, things did need shaking down a bit. Vivienne Westwood said you had to destroy to create, and that rang true.

The “Re-Psychos” connection with punk is obvious when you view it as an evolved form of anarchism. I think they reflect the same attitude yet with a modern, environmental distortion. The 70s punk angsty attitude was very much expressed in a particular style, as well as in influences from music and art, due to the feeling of hopelessness during the socio-economic and political climates of the time. “Re-Psychos” on the other hand is from today's generation that feels voiceless and apathetic in the face of imminent environmental issues.

The artists involved in the project, why did you feel their ethos matched with yours?

Iain Mckell: I think it started with Lily. It’s interesting the way she began to assist me, she rang up out of blue and asked to shadow me. I ended up being introduced to her extended family and lifestyle. The group as a whole had huge expression, a creative synergy, which I felt drawn to photograph. But at the same time, the images transcended a documentation of the performance. The series twilights between realism and something dream-like. We are all artists in our own right, and this exhibition is a direct result of this collaboration.

This exhibition is somewhat of a new thing for you, you’re going to be showing two films alongside work made in collaboration with the artists involved in the Re-Psychos series...

Iain Mckell: Yes, there is going to be two films shown alongside, one is Re-Psychos in the Marshes (2016) and Iain Mckell Live (1984). I’ve also shot Camilla Mason’s sculpture, from a series of six she did. Each totem was emblematic of the real individual behind the mask and represents every exterior mind that has helped influence the idea.

And after the exhibition closes, will you continue to document the “Re-Psychos”?

Iain Mckell: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a long way to go, this is just the beginning of something...

‘The Dark Side of Pink: Re-Psycho Re-Punk’ will be on show at Art Bermondsey Project Space from August 31 - September 30

Mckell will also be exhibiting at Southend Pier as part of Estuary 2016. INFINITY: Iain McKell will showcase a large collection of his early work from the late 70s and 80s, from 17 September - 2 October