The big picture: Yan Morvan captures counterculture in Thatcher’s London

The French war photographer Yan Morvan spent most of the 1970s photographing street gangs in the banlieues of Paris. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, he looked for an excuse to come to London, to get a look at how young people were responding to the new British government. He arrived in November of that year, just as the Jam’s Eton Rifles became the band’s first top 10 single.

Morvan’s photographs from that month, collected in a new monograph, capture that moment when punk in Britain was giving its edge to mod revival culture. They might be subtitled with Paul Weller’s lyrics from Down in the Tube Station at Midnight and the youth-led reaction against National Front thugs “who smelled of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many rightwing meetings”. The mod scooter girls in this picture capture all the creative confusion of that year: the girl on the left, in her dress sense at least, embraces the multicultural Two-Tone message of Rock Against Racism; her friend at the back of the group, meanwhile, wears Vivienne Westwood’s swastika “destroy” T-shirt of a couple of years earlier, the most controversial of her punk shock tactics.

Looking back on that time in London, Morvan recalls that he received a mixed welcome from the kids he photographed. “The skinheads all tried to punch me in the face and steal my camera,” he says. “They didn’t like the French. But the punks were always friendly and funny. They liked being photographed.” His pictures – of the mosh pit at a Killing Joke gig or of rude boys chucking rocks at derelict factory buildings – capture a lot of the violent energy he encountered. “And always at the heart of it all,” he says, “was the incredible wild poetry of the bands and the music.”

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