Essays:

> David Arnoff & Jane England: Counterculture Documentarians

Paul Boyling / David Arnoff & Jane England: Counterculture Documentarians

September 2017

The mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s were a tumultuous time, with the rise of neo-conservatism perpetuated by both Reaganomics in the United States of America and Thatcherism in Great Britain. A photographer from each of these countries, David Arnoff and Jane England, set out to photograph the unusual countercultures that were emerging at the time; each overlapping with familiar themes of opposing mainstream ideals through vigorous dissention and burgeoning rebellion.

However, you immediately see a clear class divide between those the two photographed; with Arnoff’s scope covering the younger, more working class rebels, whereas England focused on older, more affluent, upper class liberals she knew personally. Despite this, both studies together showcase a wide spectrum of outcasts and ne’er-do-wells with varying levels of transgression and nonconformity, exemplified by both photographers being outsiders themselves looking inwards. Arnoff moved from Cleveland, Ohio to California as a child but never truly fitted in thereafter (earning a mutual kinship with those he encountered), whereas England came to Great Britain from Australia, and adopted a more immersive, curious fancy to her subjects. Nevertheless, both retain detailed notes and anecdotes recounting their experiences in the back of their books.

Arnoff’s book, Shot in the Dark, truly lives up to its name; a mixture of anarchic live photographs, in-your-face portraits and plenty of ad hoc documentation, shrouded in high contrast and dark shadows. Brash, brooding and possessing unnerving unease, Arnoff’s vision comes across like a neo-gothic thriller set against the contrasting background of the always-sunny California; mirroring the dark side of the City of Angels, where the ghouls depicted revel in their depravity and debauchery once the sun goes down. He ruthlessly documented the rise of the CBGB punk movement – named after the famous bar/venue in New York – with its broad mixture of young, downtrodden beatniks, punks and goths congregating around Los Angeles, California; particularly Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. The book predominantly focuses on repeat visits to infamous bars and nightclubs such as The Roxy and Whiskey A Go Go (with some brief intervals in England), shooting soon-to-be punk legends in their prime; including Patti Smith, The Clash, Blondie, Nick Cave, Lydia Lynch, X and The Damned before moving on to more focused coverage of Ian Dury, Misfits and The Ramones.

One band that Arnoff shows a profound interest in was that of The Cramps. His intimate portraits and live shoots with them specifically – with their vampiric look and their electrifying sound; blending punk, garage rock and rockabilly, precursing the sub-genres “horror punk”, “gothabilly” and “psychobilly” respectively – became truly representative of Arnoff’s overall subject matter, but they also stood independently from it. This soon elevated The Cramps themselves to mythical cult status, especially after Arnoff shot the now-iconic album cover for “Songs the Lord Taught Us”. The further candid shoots with married couple and band founders, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach, also showcases the paradoxical, wry playfulness hidden under the band’s gruff bravado – seen whilst both Lux and Ivy crudely embrace each other on the book’s cover – alongside others Arnoff photographed, including Ian Drury acting like Frankenstein outside Bela Lugosi’s house.

On the other hand, England’s book, Turn and Face the Strange, is a more formal, meticulous examination of free-spirited people and cross-dressing bohemians who transcend “transgender”, whilst not following any certain social anthropology or tabloid reportage. It is simply a collection that highlights the flamboyant campness and louche nature shared by such individuals England had encountered over a decade in London (with some being taken in her native Australia); playing on the eponymous title based on the lyric from the David Bowie song, ‘Changes’.

England’s bohemian milieu also allowed her unrestricted access to photograph the more famous of the eccentric coterie that surrounded her. Influential friends and acquaintances include punk fashion pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Jordan – PVC-clad and fierce, defiantly posing in front of a mural of blitzed Dresden or in their shop, SEX, in Chelsea – to world-famous artists: Gilbert and George mesmerised in dance alongside sly portraits of surrealist icon Eileen Agar and Andy Warhol outside the ICA. Whether it is the upper echelon of society or the truly removed outcasts, England offers a well-preserved, trans-generational panoramic view of British counterculture. A mature, idiosyncratic visual diary of the free-thinking individualism that was ironically clashing with the selfish, materialistic individualism peddled by the then-Thatcherite government; showing that the subculture was more three dimensional, and not just simply a preserve of rebellious youth.

Furthermore, England’s photographs substituted Arnoff’s impulsiveness for a more couth, laid back reportage approach; playing on her formal education in art history and her working as an art curator and gallerist at the time whilst simultaneously studying photography and shooting editorial and fashion for The Sunday Times Magazine. Immediately, you notice that her photos reveal formal artistic and photojournalistic tendencies – strong clarity, soft tones and boasting firm, pre-planned composition. Moreover, the contrast and shadows make her portraits and reportage more like stills from a Golden Age Hollywood noir; a bewildering atmosphere and aesthetic surrounds her subject matter with air of mystery, whether it be a drag queen in a dumpster or a gallerist posing with a bust.

Referencing back to Bowie’s song, ‘Changes’: “Time may change me / but you can’t trace time”, he despondently talks about time being both an innovator and a thief; Arnoff and England have faithfully documented a vanishing era that was continuously changing, evolving and reinventing itself. Their oeuvres – one raw, ferocious and boasting levity, and the other more tranquil, composed and refined with hints of classicism – are both equal products of their time as much as they transcend it. Two collections of photographic memento mori; nostalgic documentations of similar nascent counterculture scenes that eclectically defied the period equally as they defined it.

 – text by Paul Boyling

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Shot in the Dark: The Collected Photographs of David Arnoff
By David Arnoff
Introduction by David Arnoff
“Back Chat” by David Arnoff and Lydia Lynch
“After Words” by John Doe et al.
Hardcover, 186 pages
23.2 x 16.7 x 2.8 cm
ISBN: 978-0-578-16747-3
Sympathetic Press

Turn and Face the Strange
By Jane England
Introduction by Adrian Dannatt
‘Notes by Jane England’ by Jane England
Hardcover, 144 pages
28 x 21 x 2cm
ISBN:1-911164-00-7
Black Dog Publishing

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