ENGLAND. Bradford. A Teddy Boy combs his hair in the Market Tavern. 1976.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, like Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers, so becoming a member is a gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Chris Steele-Perkins studied psychology before turning to photography. His early work focused on social ills in British cities, at the time working with the EXIT collective. His time with EXIT culminated in a book by the group called Survival Programmes. In 1979, he released his first solo book, Teds, examining the British Teddy Boy subculture of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. After that, Steele-Perkins started to travel more widely, photographing Africa, Afghanistan, and later Japan. A Magnum member since 1979, we talked to him about all that and his obsession with England.
VICE: Your background seems pretty varied, having studied things like chemistry and psychology. Has that informed your work at all?
Chris Steele-Perkins: I’m not sure about that. I was obviously searching for something that I wanted to do, so I started off with chemistry and I soon figured out that wasn't where I wanted to be. Psychology was interesting and fun, but again didn't feel right. It was during that time that I got to working for the student newspaper as a photographer and that kind of got me going. When I finished my degree, I realized that was the route I wanted to follow.
Going back to the psychology bit, it feels like you have a strong connection to the personal aspect of photography. Clearly you're shooting a lot of people, but you seem to really get to the soul of a lot of personal issues. Do you think studying psychology made you more easily connect with people and their plights?
I think that's more to do with common sense, honestly. I could argue that the best connection psychology offered was the fact that it wasn't nuclear physics. It was a relatively easy course, I must say, which gave me a lot of time to develop my photography. I think my interest indeed is, without meaning to sound pretentious, the human condition. How people live around the world and in the world. I was also hugely influenced by the great humanist photographers; Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith, people like that. They were a powerful influence early on, when you’re most influenced.
BANGLADESH. Villagers. 1972.
Your first body of work was focused on Bangladesh, on the poverty and despair you found there. But your first book was about Teddy Boys in England. What sparked that shift away from the third world, back to your roots in England?
The Bangladesh trip was the first trip I went on, and then I didn't travel much for ages. Having always been interested in England, I started on two projects without realizing how big they were gonna get three years down the line. One came out of a project on the Teddy Boy revival I was working on with a writer friend of mine for a magazine. After a night at the pub, we both agreed to stick with it and ended up with a book.
At the same time, I got involved with two other photographers in a little group called EXIT. They wanted to do a project on poverty in the inner cities of Britain so we spent a lot of time in poor, inner-city areas of Britain. That turned into a book too, Survival Programmes, many years later. Books always felt to me like the most satisfying way of producing a body of work.
Yeah, it definitely seems like you more than other photographers I know really gravitate towards making books. What attracts you to the book form?
It's essentially the control. It's great to have a 12-page spread as you used to do in The Sunday Times Magazine, but you also get a whiskey ad in the middle of it and a Land Rover ad at its end. They choose pieces that you might not be too happy with and crop some of them and so forth. A book offers a cause, and if you don't like it it's because I've screwed it up for you. I can't blame anybody else.
I just felt like I wanted to make a statement at times and was lucky to find publishers who went along on that notion with me. Even now with the Internet and everything that it offers, I still feel that the book, which you can take down from a shelf, hold with your hand and sit down with, remains the best way of looking at photography.
Back to Teds, the book has had a second life of sorts as a document that has become influential in the fashion world. What are your thoughts on that?
If it is, that's great [laughs]. It was obviously a social document, and fashion is part of what's recorded in the whole process. It was the clothing, along with everything else of that lifestyle that attracted me to it in the first place.
Afghanistan. Weekly bathing for children in the orphanage in Kabul. 1994.
It seems like much of your work has been created through this deep immersion into the world of your subjects, whether it's squatters in Belfast or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Was that a conscious practice on your part or sheer luck?
It's conscious essentially. If you don’t connect with the subjects of your work, then nobody else is going to. And what you'll end up with is a bunch of sterile pictures.
Your work also seems to balance between reportage photography and personal work and art. I know the Film Ends project was more experimental and it seems your book Pleasure Principle had a bit of your own voice interjected and wasn’t purely subjective. How do you keep a balance between those two?
I've always felt I'm a subjective photographer even though I'm doing a classic reportage. The book I did on Afghanistan, for example, is on one level very classical—black and white—and it's about a war zone. But in fact most of it is dedicated to people going about their ordinary business. The shooting and the hurling of hand grenades is in there too, but in context—or at least my idea of context.
The book to me is quite personal. It included text I've written about experiences I had along the way. I feel like I've always had one foot in the personal thing and the other in the willingness to look at the world out there.
AFGHANISTAN. Taliban fighters move against Masood's forces. 1996.
You joined Magnum in 1979. How did that come about?
Like I said, I had been working on mostly UK-based projects and Belfast was my one of my favorite experiences abroad. After that, I got the urge to see more of the world, and photography is a fantastic way to do that. I met up with Joseph Kudelka in London a number of times and he caught me out of the blue and told me I should submit a portfolio to Magnum. It also happened that I wanted an agency at the time. It all happened quite fortuitously. I had to be voted in like everybody else, but I got a good break and got accepted.
What do you feel might have been the effects on you working with Magnum, long run?
Well, it had a big effect I suppose, because I was pretty isolated in London. I got to meet a lot of people whose work I'd rated and in a sense compete with them during the golden age of magazine photography. The infrastructure to get things published was there, and it was just up to you to take the pictures. Which is what I wanted to do, to be out in the field. It sounds crazy now, but there was a time that I didn't even think about money. I just thought that all I had to do was come up with interesting pictures, and they would pay for themselves. That was an important step for me.
The other thing that proved important was the Magnum archive. The fact that your stuff goes in there and gets recycled and can come back on the cover of a book, for example, means you have yet another possibility of advancing your income. Which obviously frees you up to just do the work you want to do. It's what everybody dreams of, really.
ENGLAND. Sheffield. Phyllis Corker is a centenarian. DOB 3rd June 1907. In her room in a care home.
And you're still with Magnum and still working.
Yes. I am finding it harder to find the money to do some of the stuff I want to do, but the whole point of coming into photography was to do what I wanted to do rather than service other people's needs. That's what I intend to do till I drop.
Tell me about your new project, Fading Light. How did you come up with this subject?
It came out of a little article I read in the newspaper—a statistic about the number of people who were over a hundred years old. The issue of ageing populations in the Western world has been talked about for some time. That piece wrote that in the UK there were more than 10,000 people who were over a hundred years old.
I thought the same. This is a new demographic that hasn't existed on the planet before, and I was just curious to see what these people were like. Also how I would feel about being in their position myself. So I decided to work on this series of portraits and interviews with centenarians in an attempt to document the phenomenon as it is emerging. There are probably 12,000 centenarians in Britain now, and there will soon be 20,000.
It came like many projects do for me. Something tweaks you and you can't let go. I followed that through and got the book published. It's actually not my latest project, that is one on a country of estates—a great sort of English country hall. That's something I've wanted to do for years, but finding the Lord who'd let me run around his place and do whatever I wanted wasn't the easiest thing in the world. I did eventually find a place called Holkham Hall, which is a great estate in Norfolk, and I spent about a year photographing life on it. As part of my broader interest in England.
It seems like you do these bodies of work other places, but you always return to England. What keeps you coming back?
The fact that I live here. I do find England a bit better than anything in this world, which might be partly based on the fact that I am half-Burmese and I wasn't born here, but also kept coming back as a child. Maybe because I did not quite fit in early on. I feel it's always been a place I've looked at from the outside. It's an odd place with odd people, which continues to intrigue me. Whether I'm dealing with the lord of a manor, a 105-year-old lady, or some guy with a funny haircut who's threatening to punch me.
Click through to see more photography by Chris Steele Perkins.