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23 August 2021

Gavin Watson | Skins, Punks & Motorcycles

Iconic 'Skins & Punks' photographer Gavin Watson steps in front of the camera for a chat.

Gavin Watson is one of the most iconic photographers on the planet and also one of the most unique in terms of his work and personality. He’s basically one of us. It’s all about passion, being real, not giving a fuck and doing it your own way. So that’s why we’ve not only invited him to get behind the lens for a load of the editorial features, but we also convinced him to sit down with us and chew the fat. Oh, we should also mention these old B&W photos of bikes are from his archive and never been seen before. So you, reader, have an exclusive on your hands!

So let's set the scene. Mr Gavin Watson, a man whose detailed history of photography includes his books Skins, Skins & Punks, Raving '89, album covers for Plan B and Jake Bugg, ad campaigns for Dr Martens with Agyness Deyn, editorial work in the likes of Vice, Sounds, Dazed and exhibitions of his work everywhere from Australia to Paris. In essence, his work celebrates British Historic Youth Culture and gives a personal insight into people's lives, in particular Skinheads, which was so monumental it became the key inspiration for Shane Meadows directing his iconic film 'This is England'.

With his daughter Kayleigh on duties behind the camera to give him a break (he’s not the kind of man that takes a selfie), we spoke to Gavin at length about his varied forays with photography, bikes, music and more.

Gavin Watson rests on a Mutt Fat Sabbath

So where did his love of photography start? Well, at the age of 14 Gavin walked into Woolworths and bought his first camera with his Christmas money - as your average teenager might. He tells us how he was pleased the new camera he got had a glass lens and so the photos were immediately better than what he was used to seeing which were “literally just blurry pictures with peoples heads cut off at your uncle's house.

“My dad saw something and he decided to invest in this Olympus OM-1 which, looking back, was quite an amazing thing to do with three sons. I just threw myself into it because I just fucking loved taking pictures. No-one ever saw them because I never printed them, just processed them. I enjoyed taking them more than the rest of the process, but I just loved doing them and I thought at the time, and I was right, that it was a really special time."

Gavin Watson stands next to a Mutt Fat Sabbath motorcycle

Gavin didn’t officially start working as a photographer until he was 40, when VICE first published his book Skins & Punks: Lost Archives 1978-1985. “When I did that book it was in every fashion house, people like Terry Richardson had been inspired by it and I knew nothing of it when I was carrying washing machines around when I was on the dole. I thought I had just done a book for some skinheads and I was an old has-been that never got anywhere.“

But that wasn't true, the book had gone out there and been truly influential and no one knew where I was, they couldn't get hold of me. When they did the whole thing blew up and I sort of got turned into a fashion photographer. It’s been a very strange and odd journey.”

What’s amazing about Gavin’s work is how personal it is. In his own words: “Who has a fucking microscopic journey of their life as a young man detailed to such extent? You get up, you get in groups, you forget. Forgetting is something that comes natural to human beings for a reason, you’re not meant to relive every fucking tiny detail of your life.” Case in point are some of the photos pictured from the Watson archive. Gavin tells us how he first stumbled across these old Lambrettas whilst working at a petrol station in High Wycombe, before him and a friend managed to wheel a couple home and do them up before selling to a mod. As you do.

In fact, Gavin’s got loads of stories that roll off the tongue, most of which seem to be documented on film which is handy for proving doubters wrong. When asked about his other motorbike experiences growing up, he tells tales of ‘borrowing’ a mate’s mum’s bike, getting fined by the police for riding without a helmet and once riding down to London for a job on a 100cc Kawasaki: “By the time I was halfway there, I thought ‘I’m never doing that again’ and all day long I’m thinking I’ve gotta ride home too. It was fucking terrifying. That was my motorbike experience and thank god it didn't last long because I definitely wouldn't be here. But I’ve always been a great admirer. I love them, but I can’t ride them because I’m a coward.”

So what does Gavin think of Mutt? “I would get that Fat Sabbath, 100%. I would get that as an old, middle-aged man popping around in my leather helmet and my goggles. I'm a great admirer.” He tells us of countless bikers who have been around him throughout his life.

A young Gavin Watson with an old-style scooter

“I only owned one at 16 and I’ve got those photographs because bikes were such an important thing to teenage kids back then. None of us ever wanted a moped. There was that song by Peter and the Test Tube Babies ‘Moped Lad.” Gavin treats us to a brief rendition of the song before continuing. “Of course all these lads would leave school, get a Honda 50 and be outside school giving it large, but none of us were fucking around with those scooters because it was embarrassing and they even wrote that song about it.”

Conversation returns to the Fat Sabbath, and why Gavin is so interested in them. “I was so shocked when I saw they existed. I couldn't believe that they’re making something so wicked - the sort of thing that my dad used to ride because he had a bike when he was young and he went on his honeymoon with it. So it genuinely filled me with joy that these kind of bikes exist.”

When asked why he thought his work has proven so popular, Gavin replies: “The honesty of it. I don't think it was meant to exist. I think there was narrative, skinheads up against the wall, aggression, punk aggression. You’ve got to be scared of this and we’re going to push the narrative that this is who these people are but mine is just human beings and that wasn’t part of the narrative.” Gavin’s work portrayed skinhead culture in a much softer way. “My photography is quite romantic in its own way. It's not hard, brick walls, angry young people pictures. Parents are there, friends and smiling and girls are laughing and just being young in a horrible environment.” It’s this love for people and the clear trustworthy relationship between the subjects and himself that makes his work so endearing. When asked what piece of advice he would give to young photographers Gavin responds with a simple “focus on what gives you joy”.

Gavin Watson stands outside the Mutt Motorcycles London Store

And how did his friends feel about having a kid around who was constantly taking photographs? “They didn’t give a fuck!” Fair enough. In fact, Gavin insists that he was a trend setter. “All of my friends had some sort of camera by the time I was 16. They all thought they could have a crack at it. The surprising thing was that I kept doing it I suppose. If I saw something and I had my camera on me, I’d take it very fast. It was a very small, very inoffensive camera, it’s like the perfect camera because it’s this tiny, small little thing but with a beautiful lens on - it wasn’t in your face. I didn’t whip out a great big Nikon and start asking people to do this and the rest of it, I’d see something, be in the middle of that conversation, take the picture and just carry on with the conversation or whatever else we were doing.”

In 1989, raving exploded in the UK. Gavin was 23 and, as he put it, he was “old by then” and thought his day of snapping these moments may have passed. “At that age I thought the next step was going to be marriage and kids, I didn't realise that a whole new world was going to open up just as everything else got really shit. It was like a gift from god.” So what were the main differences between the cultures? How did he adjust from being a skinhead to going to raves? 

A Mutt Fat Sabbath ridden by Gavin Watson

“Clothes” is the short answer. “It wasn't much of a difference because I was just surrounded by my mates and my brother who wanted to go. We just grew our hair and wore baggier clothes, but you know you can’t get rid of that ten years of skinhead. It was that divide, either people wanted to embrace it or they didn't and it just wasn't something they were going to get involved in. Me and my brother were always on the more adventurous side. We went to the gigs in London, we actually did stuff and got out there so it was natural for us to progress to that.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Be sure to come back and check out some of Gavin’s excellent photos in future journal posts and keep up with his work on instagram.

Photography by Kayleigh Victoria

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