Monday 1st May

| BY Jack Moss

Art Portfolio: Dan Boulton’s No Turning Back

The stark concrete underside of the Queen Elizabeth Centre on London’s Southbank has long been colonised by a rag-tag group of skateboarders who call the graffitied ramps, banks and ledges home, sharing it with the many teens who make the pilgrimage from across the world to skate, even just once, upon its hallowed grounds. But much like the many places that have been sanctuaries at one time or another for London’s subcultures, the undercroft was very nearly swept away by the rising tide of gentrification. Back in 2013, it was to be reduced to rubble and replaced with a shiny row of shops. But thanks to the sheer force of the 17-month Long Live Southbank campaign, it survived.

Not that photographer Dan Boulton could have predicted any of that in 2005, when he first began documenting the lives of the boys who skated there in its heyday, using his 35mm Leica. Nor did he know that he’d still be there 10 years later, the collection of images making up his monograph No Turning Back, Southbank 2005–2015, a portrait of a place and time that is emblematic of British skate culture.

 

Dan Boulton

 

Boulton himself is a skateboarder. Not a professional one, but 20 years after first wheeling around on a homemade board in north London’s Enfield, where he grew up, he must be pretty good. “I skate still, but badly. I can hold my own, just about… ”

Not that it matters. Skating for Boulton was never just about what he could do on a board. It was, for one thing, the reason he first picked up a camera – wanting to photograph the boys he skated with mid- trick and getting the films developed in Boots as a teenager.

But it was also about being an outsider. About not quite fitting in. “When I started I was the sad loner skating on my own,” he says. He thinks it’s the reason most people started back then. “If you had a bit of that darkness, if you were troubled in any way, I think you were drawn to it.”

That darkness, that sense of being outside the system, was something affirmed to Boulton by the pop culture that surrounded him in the late 1980s – he references REM’s It’s the End of the World video, where a young skateboarder sifts through the remains of a destroyed farmhouse, brooding, alone; the album art of INXS; Larry Clark’s seminal lm Kids; those grainy zines that captured black-clad skateboarders in hazy California. “We just seemed to identify with all that.”

And there were skater boys who, like him, would spend every waking hour on their boards. “We became sort of tight-knit as we grew up,” he says. “It’s really funny actually – at the same time I was skating in Chingford, where there was this big ramp, the next park along was where Beckham was doing football practice. Maybe I should have concentrated on football.”

 

DB2

 

He saw the same group mentality when he first ended up at Southbank with the idea to photograph the boys who spent their long days there. This wasn’t just a project about capturing tricks. It was about the moments in between, the camaraderie, the community. As Leo Fitzpatrick, one of the stars of Larry Clark’s Kids, who wrote the introduction to the book, says: “What Dan Boulton has captured in these photos are the moments between the tricks that are just as important… being young and carefree… talking about girls and growing into a man.”

The boys at the undercroft got to know and trust Boulton. Eventually. At first there were some heated exchanges. The boys were suspicious, they hated those tourists that ogled from behind the metal bars, taking pictures. But Boulton had shot for some of the bigger skating magazines, they found he knew what he was talking about. Some would even become friends. And years later, many would turn up to Boulton’s book signing.

Boulton points at the young boy on the cover – shown as if in a moment of awkward movement, his slim frame and baggy white T-shirt set against the graffitied concrete of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. He crops up throughout the book. “I kind of feel like I saw myself in him,” he says. “I couldn’t comment on his background – I don’t know him well – but he was someone who stuck out to me.”

Boulton himself is a skateboarder. Not a professional one, but 20 years after first wheeling around on a homemade board in north London’s Enfield, where he grew up, he must be pretty good. “I skate still, but badly. I can hold my own, just about… ”

Not that it matters. Skating for Boulton was never just about what he could do on a board. It was, for one thing, the reason he first picked up a camera – wanting to photograph the boys he skated with mid- trick and getting the films developed in Boots as a teenager.

 

Dan Boulton 2

 

But it was also about being an outsider. About not quite fitting in. “When I started I was the sad loner skating on my own,” he says. He thinks it’s the reason most people started back then. “If you had a bit of that darkness, if you were troubled in any way, I think you were drawn to it.”

That darkness, that sense of being outside the system, was something affirmed to Boulton by the pop culture that surrounded him in the late 1980s – he references REM’s It’s the End of the World video, where a young skateboarder sifts through the remains of a destroyed farmhouse, brooding, alone; the album art of INXS; Larry Clark’s seminal lm Kids; those grainy zines that captured black-clad skateboarders in hazy California. “We just seemed to identify with all that.”

Boulton flicks to another picture, where an Italian skateboarder is shown holding up a board with the Sex Pistols lyric “Belsen was a gas” spray-painted on it. “I don’t think he really knew what it meant, to be honest,” Boulton says. “But there’s something so good about that image.”

Throughout No Turning Back there are echoes of the men who he calls influences – Clark, of course, David Armstrong, but also Jim Goldberg, who Boulton returns to often over the course of our conversation. He talks about Goldberg’s most famous work, Raised By Wolves, which documents the lives of teen runaways in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the 1990s in photos, films stills and snippets of text. The result is an intimate portrait of a time and place, capturing the raw emotion that is etched out across the subjects’ lean bodies.

 

DB4

 

Boulton’s own work also seeks this kind of intimacy, which comes from a desire to reflect his own youth. A youth that got a bit lost. “I just think a big part of what I’m doing with the photos is trying to go back and maybe get the teenage years that I didn’t quite get.” He pauses. “It’s something that dawned on me very recently, but I’m intrigued by what I missed basically.”

Those missed years have much to do with his mother being diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was a teenager. His own life was put on hold as he looked after her. “Don’t get me wrong, I did the parties,” he says. “But it was always with this kind of knowledge that my mum was gonna die and that the cancer was getting really, really bad, so it made you grow up really quickly.”

It was skateboarding that provided him with escape. Many of the other boys he met along the way came with their own troubles. Boulton points towards a passage from Fitzpatrick’s introduction. “I understand the connection these kids can feel to a place like Southbank,” it reads. “It is their youth… their ‘home’ that they alone built, and a place they go to, to feel alive.”

“Leo’s text is beautiful,” Boulton says. “We were all coming to skate but we all had our issues. We didn’t need to talk about it, but just having good mates that you got into scrapes with, that was enough camaraderie. It helped me get through it all, I guess.”

Now, he has his own children: two boys. On Instagram, he has just posted a picture of the younger one helping him with photo proofs. His older son is more into skateboarding. “He’s gonna be bloody good as well,” he says. He thinks that maybe one day his younger son will be behind the camera, the older in front. He likes having his photo taken. The week before, he asked Boulton if he could be one of his models. He even brought a change of clothes in his bag.

Boulton himself is shooting fashion now. He thinks that’s what he’ll eventually move towards. Which isn’t, when you look across the pages of No Turning Back, a stretch. Clothing plays a huge part – Dead Kennedys T-shirts, hoodies, heavy shoes, or those wide jeans, scuffed and torn at the hem. It helps that, largely thanks to Supreme, Palace, Gosha Rubchinskiy and their many imitators, it’s an aesthetic that has recently reinvigorated men’s fashion. “It’s all coming back, yeah,” Boulton says. “The clothes, the haircuts, the poses.”


Dan Boulton 3


Even the jumper bearing the logo of the 1980s-born, San Francisco-based skate magazine Thrasher that Boulton is currently wearing is now seen on the chests of teens across the world. When once you would have had to send away by letter to buy it, you can now get it within 24 hours from ASOS. Does it bother him that people are wearing the logo now, without having even picked up a copy, or ever known of the mag? “I guess I’m old enough not to worry about it now,” he says. “But I’m sure if you’re young and heavily into skating you’d find it a bit offensive because it’s your culture.”

But it means that Boulton’s own photographic style is now sought after. Eventually, he tells me, he’d like to style shoots, too. To control the whole image. It’s part of his obsession with process and craft. He says he knows what he’s doing. Less-experienced photographers don’t. Well, not all of them. He attributes much of that to his shooting on film, which he has loved since he started taking photographs as a teenager. There’s a need for intuition, the knowledge of how a photograph works.

“I think people are hungry for that again,” he says. “I’m not saying you have to know all about photography and all the skills and f-stops and stuff like that, but to work on your craft a little bit more than just pointing and shooting. I think people have just got bored of that now.”

And looking at the pages of No Turning Back, the analogue film lends the pages that same quality of the photocopied zines that Boulton was originally fascinated by. There is something fleeting about it all, a bit like the moments it depicts. Because while the undercroft has been saved, for now, Boulton sees it as a time that has passed.

“I stopped shooting there for a reason,” he says. “It’s called No Turning Back. I think it’s great it’s been saved but… ” He pauses. “It has changed in my mind.”

See the full story in Issue 45 of 10 Men, FLUID UNIQUE BRAVE, on newsstands now…