revisiting iain mckell's iconic sub culture photo book 35 years later

In 1979 Iain Mckell went out to document the Skinhead scene for a book that became a notoriously difficult to find collector's item. It's finally getting a re-release.

by James Anderson
18 March 2015, 1:40pm

The influential photographer Iain McKell originally self-published his book Sub Culture back in 1979. The stark images inside captured skinheads embroiled in the UK's Two Tone movement of the time - looking well 'ard hanging out in the pre-gentrified streets of east and north London, in Kings Cross squats, on day trips to Southend, and hanging out at Brick Lane's cult style boutique, The Last Resort.

A small number of the books were sold via the well respected Claire de Rouen store in London's West End - eventually becoming highly sought-after collector's items - while the remaining copies nestled throughout the ensuing decades in the archive of McKell (whom, incidentally, Nick Knight used to assist).

36 years later, and with the full approval of McKell, Steve Terry of Wild Life Press is reintroducing Sub Culture in a suitably stylish new format. Ultra limited edition and destined to once more become insanely collectable, copies of the original book have been thoughtfully and elegantly repackaged for the 21st century. i-D caught up with Steve Terry to find out more...

When did you first discover these particular photographs by Iain?
I first caught site of Sub Culture online while researching for books to add to my personal collection. My immediate response was, "Holy Shit! I need this book!" It took five years to track one down.

Were you already familiar with his work anyway?
Not really, but then I saw other projects he had published like The New Gypsies.

What prompted you to want to re-introduce Sub Culture to the public? And how did Iain react to the idea of this project?
I loved the photos myself and felt the work deserved a wider audience. It's a true document of its time. It represents a pure form of self expression. Iain was into it pretty much from the off. I talked Iain through my portfolio and already had a good idea of how I wanted to repackage the 150 archive copies. We put a copy of the original book from 1979 in a custom folder with a new bromide print housed in a screen printed poly bag to give it the feel of a 10 inch record.

Is he pleased with the outcome?
Yeah, he is super chuffed with the new packaging and the amazing response this has had. I set him him up with a Sub Culture exhibition in LA later this year off the back of it.

Which images do you feel are the strongest?
The fave has to be the skinhead shot we used for the cover and print. Nick Knight also used this iconic image of Iain's in his book on skins from 1981.

Is there any knowledge of what the lads in the pictures are doing now?
No, not really, although Iain was a skin himself and part of the culture. He knew some people in the wider Sub Culture set of photos that will get shown in LA.

You've explored various niche groups within the books you have so far published. What motivates you to do this?
I only want to publish what I am into personally - I want Wild Life Press to reflect my interests. I have been offered more commercial projects, but resisted due to the content not really being the right cultural fit.

Do the books find an audience predominantly among nostalgia-ists, or are younger audiences buying them too?
Younger audiences are most definitely into it as well as old school book collectors and people from within the books-specific scene.

Some people claim it's no longer possible for new subcultures to emerge... that everything is too diluted and splattered across the internet to enable anything niche to flourish. Is that true, or not?
Subversion has become more faceless and subtle in many cases. A lot of it has disappeared deeper into cyberspace. I think hackers and hardcore gamers could be counted as new sub cultures for example. Also what about raw foodies or straight edgers? It's still there, maybe just not wearing bondage trousers anymore!

So, why are skinheads such a timeless pop culture symbol?
Skins are symbolic - they drum up an instant emotional response. That response depends on your experience of that movement. Some people are just into the look!

What are you planning to publish next, after this book?
I am working on a few projects right now. The next release will be a book on Fiona Cartledge's much loved stall, shop and club night Sign of the Times, from London in the 90s.


Text James Anderson

Sub Culture
Iain McKell
james anderson
steve terry
wild life press