Experimenting, emerging, evolving; the trends and styles of youth culture are in a constant state of flux. With the only consistency being the rapid pace of change, documenting this generation is no mean feat. And yet, that is exactly what the Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive (PYMCA) seeks to do. What’s more, with a client base featuring The BBC, The Guardian, Dr Martens and InStyle, PYMCA are clearly doing it well. Speaking with Jamie Brett, Content Manager at Youth Club, I learn what it takes to write history’s narrative through the capturing of culture.
Grace Carter: Please can you introduce our readers to the Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive – what is it, how did it start and what gap does it fill?
Jamie Brett: PYMCA is a comprehensive archive of photography and ephemera documenting the vast scenes, styles, subcultures and tribes of youth culture history in the UK and worldwide.
PYMCA was founded by Jon Swinstead in 1997 after publishing the magazines Sleazenation and Jockey Slut, which featured photographers whose work was heavily informed by youth culture past and present. As the magazines’ photography archive grew, it began to take shape as a youth culture archive, building rapidly until PYMCA eventually formed.
No other organisation was collecting or preserving specialist youth culture content and today PYMCA continues to grow as the go-to resource for youth culture in the UK and beyond, now 200,000 images and 400 photographers strong.
GC: How are the images sourced and what criteria do they have to fulfil?
JB: We continue to take on a focused yet diverse range of photography, carefully selected to compliment the rest of the archive. We source new photographers through word of mouth or from scouring local exhibitions, likeminded photography blogs and Tumblrs. We love the challenge of keeping the archive coherent and up to date.
For us to represent a photographer their work has to fit within the PYMCA aesthetic, have a strong contagious energy and importantly feel like a true representation of the time, in the moment and generally unstaged.
GC: Can you talk me through some of the sub-cultures that you cover - and how you begin finding and researching them?
JB: We take pride in the diversity of our archive; from the Teddy Boys of the 1950s to the Grime scene and 'Hipster' movement, the work represents the excitement and buzz of these groups and the creative energies that forged them. Some of my favourite obscure 'micro-tribes' in the archive are the surreal fake-tan laden Ganguro Girls of Japan and the the bizarrely gender-neutral Gatecrasher club scene.
We have a broad and passionate range of writers, anthropologists and researchers who keep us in the loop about youth development, write for our website or send us photographs for the archive.
GC: Which is your personal favourite - and why?
JB: It's nearly impossible to decide on a favourite, but right now I would have to say that it's Janette Beckman's punk girls taken in 1979. I just love the attitude and sass that the two girls emanate - it's almost like they're trying not to smile. The image acts as a reminder of the creativity that young people are capable of in the face of adversity and disillusionment.
GC: How would you describe the PYMCA aesthetic?
JB: Our images are taken by photographers who are participants of their scene and it’s this raw authenticity that emanates through the work. Many would describe it as having quite a gritty, street feel – we’re never afraid to show controversial content.
GC: What is the value of narrative to PYMCA?
JB: Narrative is the entire reason that the PYMCA archive exists. Through evocative imagery and ephemera we're able to inspire our viewers on an emotive and nostalgic level - allowing them to apply their own personal narrative to the work.
Though there is a clear trajectory in the way that youth culture tribes have progressed over the years, we often find that the inspiration for one subculture is shared with another. Our narrative is entirely non-linear, often interjected and shifted around or elaborated whenever we take on new content.
GC: How do you believe photographers can enhance storytelling within their imagery?
JB: Many of our photographers do this by developing books and physically curating a stronger sense of narrative within their work. One of our photographers, Molly Maccindoe recently released an incredible book 'Out of Order' documenting the Free Party and Teknival scene during the 90s-00s.
Others use video and spoken word. Photographer Nick Cunard released an interesting series of videos under the title 'Stills, Moving' – there is definitely a transition towards moving image. Working with other artists to create response based material to photography can also be a brilliant way to expand on visual narrative.
GC: What are the challenges of curating together youth culture history?
JB: Keeping up to date with the ever evolving micro-tribes. As the internet becomes the vessel for youth culture, we have to keep on our toes digitally, following the coolest Tumblrs and the most promising young photographers.
When we work on the curation of a project – like our recent three month exhibition at the Southbank Centre, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ - we usually find that our images go hand in hand rather than being curated chronologically. It's testament to the collective energy of our archive that we can place a punk next to a 90s raver and have it feel authentic and coherent.
GC: How do you think generations to come will reflect on our current time in history and the work we're producing?
JB: I think future generations will see this period as an incredibly volatile and conflicting 'adolescence'. With political disillusionment, young activism and the use of technology in connecting young people, we're seeing an incredible amount of change that sometimes feels jarring and awkward.
I think we're moving into more community driven times, where technology will prove an asset but today it can seem that young people are more disconnected than ever. I'm not sure this is the case, and I think young people are better informed and know exactly what we need for a better society.
GC: How do you foresee PYMCA expanding and developing moving forwards?
JB: Since our exhibition at the Southbank Centre, which saw over 50,000 visitors, we have been focusing on the cultural heritage value of our archive and are driving towards our long term goal of developing a permanent museum in London.
We're working on an exciting range of collaborative projects including the upcoming exhibition 'Lost in Music', launching on 4th December with theprintspace.
Words: Grace Carter and Elizabeth Neep
Images source: PYMCA