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Alexander Atwater: End Frames

We talk to the British photographer on the eve of his latest London exhibition and present a gallery of his Tokyo Rockabilly series

Alexander Morrison Atwater is a well-heeled world-travelling photographer with a talent for capturing mood and presence. Whether he is shooting children in Ethiopian slums, jazz musicians in Havana or riots in the streets of Beirut, he never fails to make the viewer feel as though they are as close as they can possibly be to the subject in the eye of his lens. This month, he presents new work in End Frames at London's Gallery 54 – a show that includes his iconic shots of Tokyo rockabillies jiving, posing and blow-drying their killer haircuts in public. He talks to Dazed about getting under the skin of the futuristic city's retro scene.

Dazed Digital: How did you find out about the Tokyo rockabilly scene and what attracted you to shooting them?
Alexander Atwater: I became aware of them from a picture I came across when I was working at Magnum photos in Paris. I knew if I ever went to Tokyo it was something I had to see. The Japanese have a unique ability to adopt Western cultures and looks and then turn them into something totally Japanese. The Japanese aesthetic is always highly distinctive and the combination of Elvis hair, yakuza tattoos and 50s rock’n’roll was very visually appealing. I’m very easily impressed by a towering quiff – some of these guys bring generators to the park so they can plug in a blow-dryer for their pompadours. That takes dedication.

DD: Why do you think individuals are drawn to identify with subcultures?
Alexander Atwater: In terms of the Tokyo Rockabilly Club, I think it’s a love of the whole rock’n’roll era – not just the music, but also the fashion and the attitude. To some extent, it's also a rejection of traditional Japanese values. Lots of these guys have full-body yakuza-style tattoos and although they may not actually be ‘yakuza’ themselves its a way of signalling their commitment to the Club. Also there is definitely a certain kudos attached to being a member as one gets the sense you have to earn acceptance. I think any subculture offers members a sense of belonging they can't find in mainstream society.

DD: What is your take on Japanese culture and how it differs to western culture?
Alexander Atwater: One moment I remember clearly is watching a platform conductor bow to the bullet trains as they left the train station. This about sums up the difference between our cultures. I can't imagine London underground personnel bowing on the Northern Line. The biggest difference is the role that ritual, politeness and etiquette still have in daily life and interactions. I thin we’ve lost some of that in the west.

DD: What do you try to achieve as a photographer?
Alexander Atwater: A good photograph should say something about the photographer as well as the subject. At heart, I’m a romantic so I guess what drives me is to create images that evoke emotions.Time is made up of moments. I always liked the idea that a photographers life work finally adds up to a couple of seconds. The best photographs are the ones that suggest many emotions regardless of their subject. In a way suggesting everything while revealing nothing. Josef Koudelka is the absolute master of conveying existential truths and notions through sublime, and sometimes abstract images.

DD: What are the most unnerving situations you have ever been in as a photographer?
Alexander Atwater: When I was in Beirut in 2007, I was caught in the middle of gun battle and chased down the street by a masked guy wielding a metal club. Other memorable moments include being punched in the face by an irate hillbilly for accidentally trespassing onto his land. Oh, and there was the time that I was attacked by a bunch of glue-sniffing Arab kids in Jerusalem… happy days.

End Frames exhibits from July 26 – August 1 at Gallery 54, Sheperd's Market, London W1