Andy Ford’s South West Underground project captures the furious energy of Devon and Cornwall’s thriving DIY punk scene, yet he began it with modest expectations.
“My intention was just to get a cool live shot to put on my wall,” says Ford. “I was into the music, so I was going anyway as a fan. It’s one of those things that started to just build and build.”
Ford shot the bulk of the project between 2010 and 2013, at venues like the White Rabbit in Plymouth, the Studio Bar in Penzance, the Live Bar in Truro and the Cavern in Exeter. As a fan and a part of the community, he knew the bands involved, but more importantly he also knew exactly how it felt to be a member of the crowd.
“I think in photography your strongest work always comes from what you’re passionate about,” he says. “I’d been that kid in the middle of a mosh pit. What I wanted when I first started taking these pictures was to try and capture these unbelievable shows and their real raw energy. That’s why kids go to these things. It’s the total opposite of your everyday life, where you’re working at a crappy job or something like that. You can go to this and lose your mind.”
It was also his experience of being a body in the crowd that allowed him to get so close to the action without destroying his equipment. “Touch wood, to date the only things I’ve knackered have been one or two flashes,” he laughs. “You definitely develop your peripheral vision for any bodies coming out of leftfield. I’d go early and scope out a little nook or something I could cram myself into. You develop a sixth sense for someone coming flying over your head.”
Inspired by Glen Friedman’s classic punk rock photography to display his work in black and white, it was only when he began studying at Plymouth College of Art that he began to think of his project as a way of documenting a subculture. “I was looking at a lot of documentary work, and photo books of Teddy Boys and Mods,” he says. “I started to think about my photos from a more cultural perspective, and realised that this DIY movement was an interesting subculture and a reaction against Simon Cowell and the mainstream of 2010.”
This realisation changed Ford’s approach, and encouraged him to shoot the portraits which form his Duct Tape Empire series. “After looking at a lot of documentary work I realised that this, as a culture, was an interesting thing. In twenty years time it could be as interesting as portraits of Skinheads are today. Also, I realised that when you look at all these energetic, violent live shots you might assume certain things about the people in them, yet they’re often vegan or straight-edge, or are parents to kids. The portraits were a way to counter people’s preconceptions.”
Having been a part of the scene himself, Ford is well placed to understand both the quiet home life of his subjects and the cathartic release of the live shows he photographs. “There’s definitely something to do with testosterone and hormones running wild in young guys,” he points out. “That’s the same whether you’ve had a few drinks and are going crazy, or you’re straight-edge. Either way there’s a need for a release.”
Fortunately, his years of experience as a fan have left him able to read a crowd in the way a buffalo understands a herd. “I’d compare it to coming to a big city like London,” he explains. “When you first arrive at Victoria station it just looks like absolute chaos. When you’ve been here for a while you learn how it works. That’s how it feels in a mosh pit. From the outside it looks like pure chaos, but when you’re in it there are all sorts of ethics and a mutual understanding of what it is. It’s a release, but people aren’t trying to hurt one another. It’s a mad modern dance. There’s a tribal edge to it, with a weird unwritten set of rules.”
What stands out about South West Underground, and about Ford’s music photography in general, is his understanding that the crowd are just as important as the band onstage. “I shot this stuff on a really wide lens, so I could be right in the thick of it and still get the context,” he explains. “When you go to an amazing live show, there’s an intensity where it’s on the verge of absolute chaos. I was always trying to find those perfect shots where everything came together. It’s about the crowd, and the energy. The one thing a music photograph shouldn’t be is boring.”
Published in The Royal Photographic Society Journal, April 2016.