photographic index

ba digital photography london south bank university

Karel Polt



Title: Alternative to “subculture” gone mainstream

Artist: Karel Polt
Type: Inkjet photographic print
Date: 2007
Description: …, London. Completed May 2007. Made in response to Anita Corbin’s photographic series ‘Visible Girls’, Girls Subcultures box held at the London South Bank University, London. A series of 2 images.
Subject: …, subcultures
Measurements: …x…
Location: London South Bank University Digital Photography Dept
ID Number: PI-RGSB-KP0001-KP003
Licensing: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales, Karel Polt c/o London South Bank University, BA (Hons) Digital Photography Course, UK

What is a subculture?

Subcultures can be defined only in relation to dominant mainstream culture, which poses itself as superior to the sub-category. As Dick Hebdige (Hebdige 1988) cleverly notes, in our society, youth is present only when its presence is a problem, or is regarded as a problem. To define the “normal” middle-class bourgeois, an opposing lifestyle has to be created, and the Media has taken this part onto itself. Therefore, something called subculture has always been created by the Media, and individuals or groups have followed the trend, living in a rather romantic idea of being part of some “authentic” underground culture.

Most “subcultures” can be described by fashion or music they follow, which has often started off as some reactionary movement, but has later been picked up by clever marketing strategists. As Sara Thornton (Thornton 1995) argues, some movements, like youth club culture, have been completely developed from the beginning as a media marketing strategy. A true subculture would be so inaccessible and invisible, that it is impossible to define it. The moment a subculture movement is discovered and mapped, it becomes a product of the Media, and can therefore not be called as something “underground”.

Background to the project

Anita Corbin produced a set of photographs in 1981 titled Visible Girls. As Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber noted (McRobbie 2000), the objective and popular image of a subculture is likely to be one which emphasises male membership, male focal concerns and masculine values. So instead, Corbin chose to photograph pairs of girls who seemingly dressed similarly and, as the additional cassette tape reveals, listened to same kind of music.

This collection of the early 1980s girls’ subcultures was digitised and put in a contemporary photographic archive on Flickr:

Jill and Friend

The aim of the project was to produce a series of portraits that reinterpret the Visible Girls, setting it in the context of contemporary youth culture. One of the aspects to explore was the concept of lifestyle as a theoretical model. The culture sensibilities of contemporary youth were to be interpreted photographically.

When Anita Corbin was taking her photos, the subcultures, she chose to portray, were very clearly defined and reactionary to mainstream view of “normal”. Since then many of these movements have either died out or evolved into fashionable and trendy mainstream styles.

Reaction to Anita Corbin’s work

Corbin had all the girls in pairs and posing for the camera, showing off their dresscode in front of a distinct background of clubs’ interiors or girls’ homes. All the girls were handpicked, chosen to be the images of the subculture Corbin had in mind. The images come across as imposed stereotypes of the era and romanticising reactionary youth. Most of the styles were created by the girls on purpose and as such it is always a matter of choice, whether to be regarded as “subculture” or not. The only true subculture can be something into which someone is born. These include sexual and racial minorities. Obviously, someone is not part of a subculture only because of skin colour, but it is also not a matter of choice to be black or white, straight or gay. Minority based subcultures are common, because it is easier to bond with people of similar backgrounds and views.

Subcultures of the 1970s have all gone through major changes and they are not so much of a reaction to mainstream anymore, but rather incorporated into mainstream. Greater tolerance towards individuality has helped make minorities visible, acceptable and part of the everyday. One of these minorities is homosexuality. It the 21st Century London, being gay is nothing special on its own. It’s the gay “community” that creates itself in the bars, and clubs, through magazines and TV channels, but is also present in the everyday mass media. In this mainstream gay world, there are people who can not choose their sexuality, but do not feel part of the group. This project’s aim was to identify these people and tell their story – the way they create their own personal sub-group within a larger visible mainstream “subculture”.

Explaining the work

As stated above, the subjects of this project are both individuals who could be part of a larger visible sub-culture, but have chosen to be different. They can be described as minority within minority. That is why they are photographed alone and not in pairs.

Even though the subject knows he or she is being photographed, they can not control the exact outcome. Therefore, the photos captured are un-posed, comfortable and common. They have the notion of truth and are almost documentary style, something similar to work of Estonian photographer Kaarel Nurk who takes photos of his friends and people he meets.

The idea behind placing nine portraits of the same person in a grid of three by three is to show the “real” self of the model. Inspiration to this was drawn from Corinne Day’s portrait of Kate Moss currently displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Since, Kate Moss is widely know through media, the subjects of this project needed to show more individual aspects of their life like clothing, accessories and some background of their chosen place of leisure.


She could be labelled as lesbian or bi-sexual, but she prefers no to identify herself with the mainstream lesbianism. There are no lesbian places in London where she could feel herself comfortable. As such, she has created her own individual style as follows that.

Noëlle is constantly talking, either to someone sitting next to her, on the phone or to herself. She would pause only for a cigarette and a sip of drink. This has been perfectly captured in the set of nine images of her.


He is gay but finds the cheesy-pop Soho and drug-techno Vauxhall disturbingly overrated. Instead he prefers to dye his hair pink and dress in dark. That is his alternative reaction to the minority gone mainstream.

Lee is shy, but outgoing at the same time. His style makes a bold neo-Goth statement, but his manners are quite the opposite. Lee is always happy, always smiling and that can be seen on the portraits as well.

Personal statement

I was positively concerned about the subculture/lifestyle project since the very beginning, as I myself have never defined myself as part of certain group of people. It is possible to put labels on me, but I have never had a need to belong to a grouping. Moreover I have strong opposing feelings towards anything mildly aggressive or violent in whatever way it is manifested as one’s self – behaviour, clothing, haircut, language or any other self expression. Therefore, I have always been a bystander, an observer, who can but construct a stereotype, a myth, a contemporary fairytale. In doing that I modify the “subculture”, I portray it the way I want to see it.

Nevertheless, working on this project has given me an intriguing insight to photographic archives and inspired me to explore my father’s photos from the times when he was my age or younger.

Reference list:

Hebdige, D (1988) Hiding in the light: on images and things London: Routledge
McRobbie, A (2000) Feminism and youth culture Basingstoke: Macmillan
Thornton, S (1995) Club cultures: music, media and subcultural capital Cambridge: Polity

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