In many ways, we are the pleasure we seek. Our nights out and nights in signify not just who we are, but who we want to be – our era, where we are from and where we are going. As a way of understanding history, pleasure and pastime tell us stories we'd perhaps otherwise overlook: the moments when inhibitions were lowered and people came together. The times the cameras stopped recording.
Well, fortunately, not all cameras. On returning from documenting humanitarian crises in the developing world during the 1980s, photographer Chris Steele-Perkins began taking photos of the English in their downtime. The eventual book – The Pleasure Principle – is his photographic portrait of the nation through its nightclubs, galas and garden parties.
The collection offers a counter-narrative to Thatcher's decade of the individual, instead presenting a country bound by community and ritual. That's not to say the images are without conflict – there are street fights, white-nationalists and bloody noses – but the England on display is a strange, mythological place, full of life and violence. The images cross class and culture – from an Oxford University Spring Ball to the purple-lit pavements of Blackpool – and even features a photograph of Thatcher herself. Yet, the dizzy blend of colour and experience are united by his lens, and the commonality of lowered-guards.
The work has just been acquired by the TATE Museum, so we took the opportunity to speak to Chris about the photos, his memories of taking them and pleasure in England as a subject.
VICE: Would you say the vibrancy of these images reflect the era, or more you as photographer?
Chris Steele-Perkins: Maybe it corresponded with the age I was at the time, and indeed the way society was changing in Thatcher's Britain – to be possibly more brash and vulgar. One of the things that continues to strike me about England in particular, Britain in general, is that it's still a pretty strange place. There's a lot of strange people doing strange things, and I continue to be struck by that many, many years later still.
There's a sort of wonder in the photos. Blackpool, which isn't somewhere we think of as a particularly magical place, does have a kind of excitement to it that it possibly wouldn't be associated with normally.
I'm conscious that some people would want to go out there and just make fun of it, and sneer, which I'm not interested in doing. There's another sort of colour photography as well, which is very graphic, but there's no emotional content in it. It might be graphic, geometric and so on, but it's void of emotion. I feel I'm in a middle ground somewhere with this. I know how to do all the graphic stuff, but I don't want to do it for its own sake. When I'm looking at people I want to have some kind of emotional contact with them.
Do you have particular ways of gaining people's trust? There are some photos which feel like you've captured quite intimate or perhaps vulnerable moments in people's lives.
It's a good question; I don't know if there's a very simple answer to that. People get used to you very quickly if you're relatively quiet, and they go back into their own little world. If you hang out enough, you can kind of start to blend in. You become the photographer, which is a job. It's like if somebody [wears] a white coat and a stethoscope around their neck – you treat them slightly differently because you assume that they are the doctor and they have a certain role to play. I think that's true with photographers as well – a role that was perhaps more trusted at that time than it is now.
There's one amazing photo of the Oxford students who have been hypnotised. Was it a performance? Were they genuinely in a trance?
Well, there's the question. I mean, I don't think hypnosis is a scientifically valid condition. I think it's a sort of suspension of belief that you participate in. You might laugh at a comedian who isn't funny because everybody else is laughing at them. I think the subjects collude in the illusion just to make the party go on.
Which I suppose is a phenomenon that pops up in quite a lot of the photos. Not as explicitly as in that one, but the pursuit of pleasure brings with it a kind of collective loss of inhibition that you see in all this work.
That's the case with the white power kids as well. In a gang like that they can strut their stuff, but on your own, striding through Brixton, you might be a little bit more cautious.
In terms of The Pleasure Principle as a concept, was that something you had in your head when you were taking the photos or was it used to group them retrospectively?
I mean, it sort of popped out as a title, and I thought: 'Yeah, that sort of seems about right.' Sometimes titles are bloody obvious, like if it's the name of the place – Afghanistan, well then there you go. Others try to be a little bit more poetic or allude to what the content is without being dogmatic. I think they're generally the best sort of titles. The Pleasure Principle just sort of hovered into my consciousness and didn't go away.
There's a lot of collective celebration and community that comes across in your photos, whereas the 80s are classically seen as a decade in which social bonds were broken – the decade of the individual.
Thats right, and Thatcher's famous quote, "There is no such thing as society." I don't know how she ever got round to making such a banally stupid statement, but she obviously did.
Do you feel there were many innate English traditions that hyper-capitalism couldn't break?
I think, fundamentally, we don't lose our compassion and humanity except under perhaps the strongest pressures of totalitarian statehood, which put intolerable pressures on human beings. In the pressure cooker of the 80s, they didn't reach that level. There was a level of decency and reasonable community that still continued to function through that period, even though it was being manipulated in a more vulgar way.
The photo of Thatcher in the book; she seems sort of startled, in the swell of a party. What do you remember of taking that photo?
It was the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, which I think I got two frames of. There's a whole press scrum behind me, elbowing to get at her, as it were. Then there's all the acolytes around her and then the security guys, who aren't in that picture, who are busy shoving people out of the way. So, I basically got two photographs and then the press got moved about and pushed around. That was kind of it.
Another one I wanted to ask about was the wedding reception, featuring the Thalidomide survivor. What's the story behind that?
That came from a story I did for the Sunday Times Magazine. They had broken the Thalidomide story in the very first instance, and I approached them on doing something about what had happened to those people, who had grown up, 20 years later. This guy called Richard, who was a filing clerk in a bank, could pick up files with his feet and put them in the third-level drawer in a filing cabinet, which was quite amazing. The woman he married was the nurse who had looked after him some of the time.
There's a photo of a fight in a Camden nightclub, which I thought was an interesting thing to be included in a collection of photos about pleasure. Did the nightclub you were photographing feel volatile?
It's a standard activity of the Brits. Go out, have a few pints and have a fight. It wasn't specific to the 80s, they just did it in different clothing. I think there's always that undercurrent of violence around, especially after a few drinks have gone down. That is reflected in the white power pictures and another picture in the book, which is of a guy with a bleeding nose pointing aggressively at me. So, it's there, but I'm not over-egging it.
I liked that the portrayals of upper-class pleasure also looked as lurid and vulgar. There was no refined versus unrefined. Was levelling experiences across class in the back of your mind?
It wasn't something I was trying to do – it's just how I see it. Indeed, I don't want to sneer at the upper classes any more than the working classes. I might find them both rather strange, but I'm not waving a flag for one or the other. I'm trying to be even handed. Although, it is more difficult to get into the upper class ones, I guess; you've got to have the right key to open the door.
Did you find the people in the upper class situations were more reserved about having their photo taken?
No, I think once you get in you're OK. I got Vogue to write me a letter that I was covering the social season. I bought myself a second hand dinner jacket and that was it: I had my ticket. It was quite straightforward, really.
Would pleasure in England be something you'd maybe photograph again, in the 2010s?
I'm not that keen on going over ground that I've already been over thoroughly. I'm just sort of filling in a mosaic of different experiences of being in England and trying to respond to them in the way I feel is appropriate.
You can see more of Chris Steele-Perkins images of England here.