Teenage Kicks: A new exhibition in Coventry traces 100 years of British youth culture

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Presenting images, objects and personal stories by professional photographers as well as the public, the extensive show documents lived experiences of young people from the 1920s to today

As a teenager in the early-80s, Normski would walk down his street in Camden, armed with a stack of magazines and a bag of 10 pence pieces. He was headed to the phone box: “my office”, as he refers to it. There, he’d call up photo editors: “Did you have a journalist reviewing the Whitney Houston gig last night? I took some fantastic pictures. Would you like to see them?” Then he’d jump on his bike and rush to the publication’s post room, where he’d drop off a brown envelope of prints and get paid the princely sum of £15 for a quarter page, or £25 for a half page.

This was a time when hip hop, which had burst out of the Bronx a decade earlier, was taking London by storm. Normski’s camera – bought for him by his mum when he was 11  – was his ticket into concerts. Funded by part-time jobs on market stalls and at a record store, he captured a cultural scene as it unfolded around him: the paint-splattered graffiti artists, the gravity-defying breakdancers, homegrown artists like Demon Boyz and Cookie Crew, as well as touring US stars like Dr Dre. Although he studied photography, this world gave him an outlet to hone his craft and kick-started his career as a photographer, DJ and broadcaster.

Crowd at Dingwalls gets bum-rushed from the door before Ultramagnetic MC's hit the stage London 1989. © Normski.
Punk and Skinhead girls at a gig in Hastings, 1981. © Clare Muller.

This path is not dissimilar to other artists whose works feature in Grown Up In Britain, an exhibition of photography and social history produced by the Museum of Youth Culture and currently on display at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry. Bex Wade began their career documenting the LGBTQI+ community that they have been part of for two decades, while Gavin Watson started out shooting the punk and skin subcultures of the 1980s in his hometown in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The same is true of many photographers who have documented their own youth, from Nan Goldin to Ryan McGinley. 

In the show, images by professional photographers are interspersed with vernacular shots, selected from over 10,000 images submitted by the public via the museum’s website. A demarcation is clear – personal snaps are stuck on pin boards, while professional work is presented in black frames arranged salon-style  – but their proximity emphasises the close relationship between them. 

“We started to see the key elements of growing up – home life, first jobs, school – those everyday experiences that give you a sense of self and growing independence”

There is an immersive feel to the exhibition. Drum and bass blasting out; stills juxtaposed with objects and ephemera that bring them to life. A Raleigh Chopper, a minidisc player, rave flyers and metal band t-shirts scatter through the show.

One cabinet exhibits the tools that young people have used to capture and fashion their identities over the years, from disposable cameras to today’s smartphones. “You see the trajectory in the submissions we receive,” says Lisa der Weduwe, Archive Projects Manager at Museum of Youth Culture. “There’s not that much material pre 1960s but from the 1970s as cameras become cheaper, more readily available, there’s more and a lot of portraits made in photo booths just before a night out.” 

While it covers a 100-year timespan, the presentation is not chronological but thematic. Sections are dedicated to the teenage bedroom, Saturday hang-outs and first loves. This was the curatorial starting point, der Weduwe explains. “Looking through the submissions, we started to see the key elements of growing up – home life, first jobs, school – those everyday experiences that give you a sense of self and growing independence. First we looked in our own archive, at the work of Normski or Rebecca Lewis or younger photographers like Aiyush Pachnanda and Ellie Ramsden. And then where there were stories missing, we pulled in photographers who’ve been on our radar for a while like Nick Hedges and Alys Tomlinson.” 

© Neil Massey.
© Aiyush Pachnanda.

The Museum of Youth Culture is currently based in London, but will relocate to a larger permanent home in Digbeth, Birmingham in 2025. It originated as a photographic collection linked to the 1990s countercultural fashion and culture magazine Sleaze NationIn 2015, then called YOUTH CLUB, it staged its first major show, One Nation Under a Groove at Southbank Centre. The aim was to preserve and share stories of youth fashion, music, culture and social movements.

For Normski, the exhibition is about what der Weduwe refers to as “the unifying experience of growing up”. He says: “It’s not about being a professional photographer or an amateur photographer, it’s about being alive and being involved in your life.” Though he’s achieved many things since, those early images only grow stronger. “When I was younger I just couldn’t wait for the next gig to come around, I was busy taking pictures,” he recalls. “But when you’re youthful, you’re part of changes that become global changes. You look back and think, that was my time.”

Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks runs until 12 February 2023 at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.  

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Rachel Segal Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in photography and visual culture, for art magazines, book publishers, national press, awards, agencies and brands. Since 2018, she’s been contributing editor for the Royal Photographic Society Journal, is a regular writer for Aesthetica and author of Unseen London, published by Hoxton Mini Press.