Beautiful Britain, in all its infinite variations, has been the central character in the work of photographer Iain McKell since he first picked up a camera in the mid-70s. “It’s not a pretty-postcard, chocolate-box-beauty,” McKell explains, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and to me it’s in the gritty underbelly and in the understanding of this.” Photographing a diverse range of subjects – from tourists to skinheads, glamorous night owls, fetishists and travellers – McKell displays the ever-changing and complex landscape of Britain as seen through his eyes and his experiences. Rather than being a voyeur, McKell is an active participant; engaging in the different subcultures and “tribes” that he photographs through his own progression from adolescence to adulthood, “My work is always about the ‘us’ rather than the ‘them’.”
With his book Beautiful Britain released this month and with Britain under the global spotlight for this year’s Jubilee and summer Olympics, we pose a series of Britain-centric questions to McKell…
What… makes Britain such a special place to focus on in your work?
It is where I come from. After all I am British and have a personal view on that.
What… image sums up Britain for you?
The cover picture: Alice Hawkins’ wedding photograph. She is bright and glamorous and a little eccentric-looking in contrast to her family home. It’s that sense of "the end of the pier" melodrama I love. Quirky, strong, sexy, funny, ambitious, arty, kinky, ironic and iconic all at the same time and of course, beautiful. The British have an almost magical quality that is not understood beyond our shores. We’re bawdy, aggressive, cheap and nasty, but I think there’s poetry in that. We are very real and honest about life. As a nation we do it naturally from the heart while others just try to imitate and follow.
"We’re bawdy, aggressive, cheap and nasty, but I think there’s poetry in that."
What… is your favourite British sub-society or subculture?
The “New Gypsy” horse-drawn travellers because they are post-punks who moved out of the cities and joined forces with the hippies born out of British festival culture. They are living a modern lifestyle, combining the 18th century with state-of-the-art 21st century technologies.
What… is your favourite place in Britain?
Seaside towns. In particular Weymouth, as it is my home-town where I grew up. We are an island surrounded by the sea.
What… is your favourite British tradition?
What… is your favourite British past-time?
What… has been your favourite decade in Britain?
The 70s, because of Punk, Joy Division and discovering photography as a Fine Art.
"What… is your favourite British past-time?" "Kinky sex."
What… is the taste of Britain?
Bad taste with a dark side. It is an ironic, twisted, fucked up weirdness that creates a unique flavour and a bit disturbing. (See the first image in the gallery: Weymouth, 1977).
What… is the smell of Britain?
Chips with curry sauce, blood in the gutter on a Saturday night in a small town after the pubs and clubs have shut.
What… word sums up Britain?
Beautiful Britain: Photographs from the 1970s to the Present, by Iain McKell, is out now published by Prestel.
Suggested Further Reading: In Pictures | Ian McKell, The New Gypsies
Text by Lucia Davies