It’s the summer of 1976 in Weymouth, England, and 19-year-old Iain McKell is working the length of a busy seafront with two cameras strung round his neck. One is for his summer job, which is to sell portraits to sunburnt holidaymakers for £1.50 a print. The other is for a personal project, which now – 43 years later – is on its way to being published as a book, Private Reality: A Diary of a Teenage Boy.
Back then McKell was making photographs of everyone, not just sunburnt holidaymakers, but also friends, family, and the Weymouths. His camera went everywhere with him – to the arcades, the caravan parks, down the pub, and even to the discos. His friends had no idea what he was doing, he says, but then to some extent neither did he. “We were all partying and having fun, but somehow, I had my eye on the prize,” he says.
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“In 1976 the Sex Pistols swore on TV, then The Clash released White Riot, and suddenly the hippies were gone. Everyone had cut off their long hair and made it spiky,” says McKell. “But small town subcultures are funny, it’s not like bigger cities where you effectively have tribes. In a small town like Weymouth, one guy in the group is a hippy, another is a skinhead, and another a rocker. It’s the backwater, and it’s always been behind the times, but within that you get little nuggets of interesting people”.
McKell himself identified with punk, aesthetically but also in terms of worldview. “I flirted with a bit of eyeliner,” he says, “but it was more in the attitude of my images”. He never hesitated to take a photograph and was playful with his approach, for example with his series of images of people watching the sunset from their cars. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he says, describing how he jumped in front of each vehicle. On his last shot a woman came charging out, hitting him with her handbag, but McKell continued to take pictures. “Now that was punk!” he says.
Since the 1980s, McKell has photographed various subcultures in the UK, from skinheads to punks to the Blitz Kids, rockabillies, and gypsies. They all appeared in his 2012 book Beautiful Britain, along with photographs of supermodels, the gentry, squats, and rural raves, covering many eccentric facets of British identity. Most recently, McKell shot project on a community of young women sharing a warehouse in East London, which will be published this March by Hoxton Mini Press as New Girl Order.
But none of these personal projects would have been possible without the many years he spent grafting as a commercial photographer – McKell has shot fashion spreads for magazines such as L’uomo Vogue, i-D, and The Face, produced films for Vogue Italia, and photographed A-listers such as Madonna, Kate Moss, and Lily Allen. But he’s moved away from this work now, moving to east London, building himself a garden studio, and renting out spare rooms to cover his living costs. After 17 years of living in west London and raising his daughter, now 22, as a single dad, he wanted to “focus on me”. “I’ve got a mission, and a project to do, and I want it to be successful,” he says.