Gavin Watson | Skins & Punks: Lost Archives 1978-1985

book_skins-punks.jpgThese pictures are of an entirely different time and place than the one most of us know.

 

 

 

Vice Books; 142 pages; $40

I began scanning through the pictorial history captured by Gavin Watson in this compilation of photographs without first reading the forward by Shane Meadows or the interview with Watson conducted by Andy Capper. I also have a fair amount of knowledge regarding the origins, development and symbolism of skinheads. To be sure, I have more or less been aware since I first knew of the existence of the skinheads (which would have been around the mid-1980s, or the end of the era catalogued by this book) that the mainstream media is responsible for the myth that they are all racist and homophobic. There seemed to be a few sinister elements that bugged me in the pictures, though, and initially these facts conspired to make me dislike the photographer for political reasons. Then I delved deeper, and reading his comments in the interview and looking a little closer at his art. I often forget in my reading and taking in photography or other forms of art that things which are true in America in 2008 are not always the standard by which we should judge pieces of rhetoric or images from other times and parts of the world.

With this in mind, it is easier to digest photographs of the author, his friends and his younger brother wearing oxblood Doc Martins straight-laced with white in early-1980s England. While those in the know about skinhead culture in the present day United States might see this as a stark statement of allegiance to Neo-Nazism, we must remember that a symbol does not always refer to the same things throughout history. While groups such as the SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) might not be so forgiving of a contemporary wearing similar footwear, it is important to acknowledge that Watson shared his bedroom with about 25 other skinheads, white, black and Asian, while his homosexual older brother trimmed his boyfriend’s hair in the kitchen, and he himself had a biracial girlfriend. Indeed, Watson himself admits, "I wasn’t political at all… We were about as far from right wing as you could get."

The underlying point is that these pictures are of an entirely different time and place than the one most of us know. Their honesty is at once sadly beautiful and endearing, and looking into the photographs, the observer finds him- or herself stepping into them and trying to identify with the figures that dominate them.

What struck me the most was the incredible artistry and quality of the photos, most of which were taken by a teenager with cheap equipment who had no formal training in photography at the time. The reality is that these pictures could only have been taken by such a photographer. Any highly trained artist with a camera strolling into High Wycombe in the early 1980s would have instantly been seen as an interloper Those who didn’t refuse to cooperate altogether would probably have been acting unnaturally or, as the old saw goes, once someone knows he’s being observed, he begins acting the way he thinks the observer expects him to act. The figures in these photos are the artist’s friends. They are his family. They are the people he went to school with and caused trouble with. Around him, they appeared as they truly were and not in false poses or postured affectations. All of their swagger and attitude are real, and it’s been kept for us to witness. | Jason Neubauer

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