Skins & Punks
by Gavin Watson

Photographer Gavin Watson made a small sensation in 1994, when a book of his photography titled Skins was published. That book captured the skinhead culture with which Watson was aligned in his hometown of High Wycombe, England.

In the intervening years, Watson never really capitalized on his success. Now, though, he has another book of his work, Skins & Punks, to be released by Vice next month. Culled from a suitcase of pictures that he took between 1978 and 1985 (essentially the span of his teenage years) and that he called the “Box of Death,” the book is an evocative look at working class youth culture as viewed through the lens of Watson’s own experience.

Watson’s work isn’t exactly what you would call professional in respect to technical know-how. Many of his photos seem the products of happenstance, slightly out-of-focus with little regard to color contrast or exposure. But then that only lends to their charms, and besides they do show an instinctual ability when it comes to composition. Shooting his mates and girlfriends, Watson’s sympathies obviously lie with his subject matter, and as such he seems to innately steer clear of turning them into counterculture caricatures. Instead he captures some of the innocence of youth and, to a lesser extent, that same innocence’s dissolution. While on the surface the book may focus on the subculture of the skins and punks featured, it’s subject matter is more accurately things like the discovery of independence and freedom, first love and the many other misadventures of coming of age.

Still, some of Gavin’s best work is the photos of his younger brother, Neville. Already in braces and boots, Nev seems older than his couple handfuls of years. Through the many pics, though, his tough veneer is pulled away to show that he’s still just a kid. In contrast, are the pictures of girlfriend Kelley. Her worldly good looks and blossoming sexuality provide a powerful juxtaposition to Watson’s impish skinhead friends.

The success of Skins & Punks lies with Watson’s capturing of the joyful exuberance of life as a teenager. His subjects are in the midst of exploring modes of expressing themselves, untouched by the impending mores of adulthood. It’s hard not to be reminded of one’s own childhood, especially it it was spent flaunting conventions. Watson was fortunate enough to capture his adolescence with photographic eloquence.
Stephen Slaybaugh