Photographer Paul Spencer has kept a finger on the pulse of British popular culture for over 30 years. With a portfolio comprising album covers and music journalism as well as fashion and reportage, he is the subject of a new solo exhibition at Rich Mix in Shoreditch. Part of the venue’s Best of British festival, A Portrait of British Sub-Culture presents a vivid selection of faces and places from alternative UK life, covering off-beat rock celebrities as well as nameless outcasts.
Spencer’s portraits capture tension in a way both disarming and iconic. His stark black-and-white images give stars like Morrissey and John Lydon a concrete streetwise presence that often endures in their artistic output and discourse more than in real life – they’re all quite wealthy by now, like many of Britain’s surviving rock rebels. Instrumental to that effect is Spencer’s choice of settings: depicted against the interiors of Filthy McNasty’s in Islington or Ye Olde Axe table dancing club in Hackney, his shots seem to capture those casual moments that later grow to historical significance, of the kind you read about in retrospectives and biographies.
Anonymous strippers and biker communities get the same treatment. Recording famous and infamous alike, Spencer immortalizes not the individual, but the attitude and the lifestyle of rebellion as a choice, not an ideology. Still, the exhibition is of special interest to rock and underground aficionados on account of subjects like Vivian Westwood’s muse Sara Stockbridge and the controversial “British Image No. 1” press photo that earned Blur hatemongering accusations in 1993.
Prints of all the images are available in different sizes and finishes, signed, framed or otherwise, for prices ranging from £300 to £1,600. Parallel to A Portrait of British Sub-Culture, Rich Mix is presenting Ten Men: The Lives of John Bindon, a biographical drama about the actor and music impresario directed by Paul Spencer. Fans also get the chance to sponsor the photographer’s upcoming picture book, Kingdom Come, funded via Unbound and containing all the photos from the exhibition as well as other images from Spencer’s archive.
Paul Spencer: A Portrait of British Sub-Culture. Rich Mix, London. 3 May-3 June, 10:00 until close. www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/a-portrait-of-british-sub-culture
Photos courtesy of the producers