Skinheads and Mods, two distinct subcultures, different in many ways, yet united by their non-conformity. One tribe known for their shaved heads and heavy boots, the other for high-end fashion and scooters, not to mention for cutting a serious rug on any dance floor. British photographer Owen Harvey has spent plenty of time with both, capturing the essence of who they are and what they stand for. We spoke recently to Owen about what interests him in taking pictures of different subcultures and if the groups tend to be misrepresented.
The MALESTROM: What was the motivation to start photographing skinheads and mods?
Owen Harvey: 2013 was around the time when I first started to first photograph the Mod scene. I’d seen Ethan Russell’s pictures as a kid, which were shot for the vinyl inlay of The Who – Quadrophenia and they resonated with me. In hindsight, it was probably the first time I began to learn that pictures could be more than just aesthetically pleasing, they could form a narrative and could provoke feeling. I was excited by that and as a big fan of music myself, I started the ‘Mod UK’ work almost as a homage to that. I also had a friend at school who was big in to the mod scene and I always admired that he was doing his own thing, when most were following throw away fashion.
The Skinhead work ‘Skins and Suedes’, I started a little later and I originally took those photographs as part of a small commission. I really enjoyed shooting pictures of the skinhead scene over that first weekend and 4 years later I’m still taking them.
TM: What do you look for when taking portraits?
OH: It’s often about small details and always about building engagement, usually through some form of tension. I find usually the best pictures either come at the start when there’s energy or at the very end when people are becoming tired.
TM: What was the reasoning for capturing your mod images in black and white?
The Mod scene started in the late 1950’s. I liked the fact that people in the modern day were taking their inspiration stylistically from something that had began a long time ago, even though the word mod is short for modernism. Due to this, I wanted to make the images look as timeless as possible.
TM: Was there a degree of trust that had to be built to be allowed to photograph these guys?
OH: I guess coming as an “outsider” in to any existing group, it takes time to be trusted and to become a familiar face. A degree of trust had to be built on their behalf, to understand I was going to represent the subculture they are invested in with respect and also to do it justice through pictures.
TM: What is it about subcultures you find so interesting?
OH: Subcultures tick a lot of the boxes that I’m interested in. I have an interest in politics, socioeconomics, style, music and heritage, all of which can be found within subcultures.
TM: What is it do you think that drives us to be part of these different tribes?
OH: It’s different for everyone, but I’d say some common themes are friendship, exclusivity, comfort and also a human need to invest in and build something.
TM: Why do you think they’ve both endured over so many years?
OH: They have great style, great music as their soundtrack and they are adapting and changing as time goes on, which keeps it interesting. There’s also that interest from a younger audience in their own heritage, looking back at their parents for example and that keeps it going.
TM: Obviously they look and dress differently, but are there commonalities between the Mods and Skinheads?
OH: Yes definitely, essentially Skinhead is a stripped down tougher version of Mod. They are linked in lots of ways, but the most common is their shared love of music and style and an aspiration to stand out from the mainstream of course.
TM: Do you think the two tribes are misrepresented?
OH: They have been over the years. Media outlets are often focussing on negativity, because juicy headlines sell newspapers. I don’t want to talk too much about the misrepresentation of subculture and youth culture, as I’d be here all day and there will always be a keyboard warrior willing to argue with me! Often though, when people think of Mods, they think of the fights on the beaches with rockers and when they think of Skinheads, they think of racism, that is a very blinkered view and that’s down to the one sided representation in the media.
TM: What image are you most proud of capturing of the Skins?
OH: Two of the portraits from the series ended up being shown at The National Portrait Gallery and that was a personal achievement, so I’m proud of those two images. Those two images definitely have that level of engagement that I’m after as well.
The image that I feel most personal connection with though, is most probably the skinheads on the beach, as that was the second day of meeting them and everything clicked in to place and felt very natural. There was a good vibe that day and it felt effortless, perhaps due to the home brewed cider, who knows, but I think the picture has a good feeling to it.
TM: And which of the mods?
OH: Really difficult, as I’ve been taking these over the last five years and different images, remind me of different times for me on a personal level. I would probably answer this question different each time, but today my favourite and perhaps the one I’m most proud of, is the tightly framed dancing torso shot. That was on one of the first rolls I shot and as soon as I saw that shot, I was excited that I may be on to making some nice pictures. It felt like the start of something good.
TM: What have you learned from your time spent in both camps?
OH: I think I’ve learnt a huge amount, both in a social sense and as a photographer and of course those things are interlinked. Also, I should have learnt that I’m not cut out for staying up three nights in a row sober until 6am taking pictures, but I always seem to forget that.