Rock Against Racism exhibition uncovers an alternative history of subcultures (3 stars)

Rock Against Racism exhibition uncovers an alternative history of subcultures

Paul Simonon of The Clash / credit: Syd Shelton

Syd Shelton's photographs capture the nuances of RAR campaign

Rock Against Racism (RAR) is the 1970s predecessor for what is today known as Love Music Hate Racism. This exhibition of Syd Shelton's photography made during the five-year period of the RAR campaign gives a personal account of the group's activism as well as showing the social landscape into which the campaign was born.

At a time when the UK was divided along lines of race, class and gender, RAR was a movement unconstrained by these limitations. Musical genres often have blurred boundaries, and so too were the subcultures at the time: racist skinheads danced to Jamaican ska (though there were non-racist 'skins' too), and black kids reached out to punk.

Shelton's most powerful photographs are not of Paul Simonon of The Clash or Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 (though these images too have become iconic), but of ordinary people. What will strike many today is how dedicated Shelton's protagonists were to their look: punk, skin or rude boy, subcultures back then were tribal, and whether or not you had short hair or wore a trilby weren't just hipster fads, but political statements.

In 'Anti-racist skinheads', two working-class kids in Hackney – perhaps 16 or so – pose back-to-back with cigarettes in hand. Their buzzcuts tell us they are skinheads, but a Rock Against Racism badge pinned to the taller one's blazer sets them apart from the nastier branch of the subculture, which is represented by two fierce-looking older boys in another photograph. This time the pose is more confrontational, the hair is clipped even shorter, and the camouflage trousers and Fred Perry polo shirt are a far cry from the rude-boy look that influenced skinheads in the early days.

Over time it's easy for past events to be recounted as simplistic anecdotes, and for whole groups to be tarnished by the actions of some. Shelton's photographs tell a nuanced story that words alone couldn't achieve.

Street Level Photoworks, until Sun 9 Apr.

Rock Against Racism – Photographs by Syd Shelton

Images of cultural difference in the Britain of the late 70s and early 80s.

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