Fashion and social documentary photographer Iain McKell’s The New Gypsies exhibition opens in New York today at Clic Gallery, with a reception tonight from 6pm-8pm
McKell has tracked and befriended a ‘small tribe’ of New Gypsies for over ten years. But it is 25 years since he took his first series of photographs of the travellers from which they evolved. Six of those images, that he calls ‘the precursors’ in the history of The New Gypsies were to remain with him. Here, starting with the six, his lens captures their personalities, way-of-life and their ideals.
The Summer Solstice in 1985 witnessed the new phenomenon of New Age Travellers in the ‘Peace Convoy’, double-decker buses ‘with Dickensian characters sporting battered top-hats and Victorian frock-coats’ – ‘gangs of urban subcultures let loose in a rural setting’. Margaret Thatcher sent police to ‘de-commission’ their convoys. From those beginnings have evolved the New Gypsies. Now ‘horse-drawn’, the New Gypsies sport elaborately decorated caravans and share a desire for freedom and the open road, self-reliance and a disdain for the trappings of contemporary life.
However, these new nomads are also driven by their desire for sustainability in today’s world; they embrace technology, a grapevine watered by the latest gadgets and solar power. Their roaming existence is probably greener than any other element in society. Iain McKell’s photographs of this new group of itinerants reveal his deep-seated attraction to both the people and the lifestyle, and betray mixed perceptions of a romantic life coupled with a hard one. The women exude a ragged glamour; the male subjects have a harder edge. But every photo is permeated with a wistfulness and sense of being a proud outsider. The journeys of the New Gypsies are built around a yearly map of festivals and celebrations and much of their time is spent poring over Ordnance Survey maps.
McKell’s photographs map the seasons of the horse-drawn travellers’ lives – from primeval celebrations of summer to the interiorised life of wintertime. His portraits often seem like a character from some ancient mystery play, symbolic of a careless purity and oneness with their natural surroundings. An essay by Professor Val Williams, Director of The University of the Arts London Research Centre for Photography and the Archive, places Iain McKell’s photography within the context of his own oeuvre, marrying his skills and disciplines of both documentary portraiture and fashion photography and showing the cross over from the gloss of the advertising campaign to the self-initiated documentary project. Williams writes that McKell “combines the sublimity of fashion photography with the enquiring edge of documentary”.
His The New Gypsies “raises many questions about the borderlines between fashion photography and documentary” and is “a fascinating combination of both ancient and modern – imbued with ambiguous glamour and beguiling characters beyond our own experience.” Ezmeralda Sanger writes intimately about her daily life as one of the New Gypsies – the importance of their horses, their caravans and their music, their constant search for back roads to travel on, and their celebration of the simple life. Sustainability is a constant motif, as well as the rediscovery of everyday magic: “the wagon is the symbol of our ideology. It represents a belief that life can … be colourful and quirky, musical and magical, simple, basic and self-sustaining.”
The New Gypsies, by Iain McKell, with essays by Val Williams and Ezmeralda Sanger is also published by Prestel price in hardcover.
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The Clic Gallery
424 Broome Street New York, NY 10013