Thursday, October 27, 2011

5 Minutes With Iain McKell

IAIN McKELL studied at Exeter College of Art and later moved to London and spent a year photographing skinheads and new romantics. He started contributing to i-D, The Face and Vogue Italia. Nick Knight assisted McKell for his college industrial release which also inspired Knight to photograph similar subcultures.

In 1982 McKell photographed Madonna for her first magazine cover, Smash Hits' rival, 'No 1 Magazine'. At that moment she was completely unknown except on the New York Club Scene - 'No.1' took a gamble and put her on the cover the following week after the exposure of her first hit, 'Holiday' which went to Number One in the British charts and she never looked back.

In 1984 McKell staged a self-curated exhibition in his studio - 15 Westland Place - called 'Iain McKell LIVE'. The concept for the exhibition was to be an artist-in-residence and the public could watch shoots being created as work in progress like an audience. During this show comedians from the British TV comedy 'Comic Strip'- Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Robby Coltrane, Adrian Edmonds and others sat during this performance/photography project. Capturing the attention of the London media ,the show became high profile. The Photographers' Gallery invited McKell the following year to stage 'LIVE 85' at their gallery alongside the group show '5 years of the Face,' in which he was also a contributor. McKell immediately went on to work on advertising campaigns for brands such as Smirnoff and Red Stripe with meetings for these campaigns being held there at the Photographers' Gallery as part of the photographic installation.

McKell carried on photographing for The Observer, The Sunday Times, i-D, L'Uomo Vogue and directing TV commercials and pop promos. In 1995 McKell was singled out as 'most promising new-comer in advertising' by Campaign magazine for Creative Futures Exhibition - as nominated by Malcolm Gaskin. In 2001, McKell staged an exhibition in Brick Lane called 'Then and Now' at Story. Showing three tribes of the eighties - Skinheads/Mods, Clubbers/New Romantics and New Age Travellers.

McKell has gone on to document subcultures that hold a fascination for him - neo gypsies living and travelling in horse-drawn wagons, Thailand psychedelic-trance jungle parties, Wickerman festivals in Scotland, hip hop, rockabilly in the USA, the nineteen-forties swing club in London, 'Lady Luck', new mods and the 'Lewis Bonfire Society' - all of which have been published in i-D, L`Uomo Vogue and The Sunday Independent. This all recently came together in McKell's first published book, spanning three decades of subculture called, 'Fashion Forever,' published by Imprint in Whitechapel.

Q1. What was the first record that you owned that really had an impact on you?

IMcK: Eloise by Barry Ryan. I was 12 years old

Q2. When did you first pick up a camera and what inspired you to start taking photographs?

IMcK: At Art College in 1977 I was 20 year old...Diane Arbus book and a job as a sea side photographer in my home town Weymouth sea front. I had this idea that i could make a visual dairy of my life.

Q3. The New Romantic portraits you recently did for Vogue Italia included Adam Ant, Gary and Martin Kemp, Chris Sullivan, Midge Ure, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan look great. What prompted you to reunify the movers and shakers of the New Romantic movement?

IMcK: It was a commission for L'Uomo Vogue...I liked the idea of getting them all in the same room for a glass of wine and see what happened...

Q4. You recently showed your New Gypsies photographs at the Clic Gallery in New York. It seems that lifestyle of protest and anti establishment living is more relevant than ever. Particularly with is happening in Zuccotti Park at Wall Street and in The City in London. What attracted you to document these Gypsy 'tribes'?

IMcK: Punks in the landscape ..I grew up in Dorset and painted landscapes at 11 years old then in my teens I was a skin, then punk. The horse Drawn are very inspiring way of living leaving no carbon foot print. They are trueley post modern taking 18th century technology and combining with 21st century technology. That's a very interesting look at the future.

Q5. What attracts you to the Rockabillys, Skins, New Gypsies and other street and lifestyle tribes as subject matter?

IMcK: I like counter culture, as the main stream is dull but its not just counter culture that interests me, I like individuals, people with strong souls.
Iain McKell has spent the last ten years documenting the lives of New Age travellers and “Modern Romantics”. From skinheads and punks to Blitz Kids and rockabillies, rarely has a subculture emerged in the last 30 years that hasn’t been captured by McKell, a photographer who combines a documentary style with sharp insight, drawing his viewer’s attention to the different and unfamiliar. McKell first became acquainted with travelling communities in 1986 when he was photographing the ‘Peace Convoy’, the infamous travelling protest group and thorn in Thatcher’s side. “It was punk and anarchy against a landscape of nature and beauty. They were reinventing the British dream,” he explains. In 2001, McKell attended the annual summer solstice, and what he saw was not a ‘hippy’ lifestyle, but a hard-working community that lived in horse-drawn wagons, raised children and lived a simple, nomadic existence. Instantly fascinated, McKell spent the next ten years photographing these individuals, a collection of images that form his latest book ‘The New Gypsies’.

McKell describes his portraits as “shamelessly romantic. My interest is in their faces, their souls and their stories,” he explains. “I wanted to capture them showing warmth and affection.” McKell’s images include shots of adults, children, wagons and “global gypsy” Kate Moss. “I think that gypsy wanderlust is in Kate’s soul”, says McKell. “She wanted to experience the romantic idea of running off with their community.” Through his work, McKell hopes to change the prejudice towards travelling communities. “I want to open up peoples’ minds”, he confirms. “People are scared of what they don’t understand. It comes naturally to me as a photographer to see people for who they really are.”

‘The New Gypsies’ is available now at selected UK bookstores published by Prestel priced £24.99.

All photographs Copyright Iain McKell.

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