Tate Etc

Portfolio I See Our True Colours

The photographer looks back at his book The Pleasure Principle, which captured the kaleidoscopic hedonism of 1980s England

Chris Steele Perkins, Hypnosis demonstration, Cambridge University Ball, from The Pleasure Principle, 1980–9

Hypnosis demonstration, Cambridge University Ball

from Chris Steele-Perkins, The Pleasure Principle 1980–9

© Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

In my early days as a photographer I shot only in black and white and worked almost exclusively in England, mining different photographic seams in an ongoing examination of this endlessly strange and enigmatic country to which I belong. Then, in the early 1980s, I joined the international cooperative Magnum Photos and started to look at the world outside of Britain. Often I was drawn to conflict zones where the fabric of civil society had been shredded – the kinds of extreme places that were so different from my comfortable middle class experiences. At the request of assigning magazines, I also started to work in colour and I soon came to embrace the medium. Whatever else The Pleasure Principle 1980–9 may have been, it was also my journey into mastering colour.

Chris Steele-Perkins, Blackpool beach, from The Pleasure Principle, 1980–9

Blackpool beach

from Chris Steele-Perkins, The Pleasure Principle 1980–9

© Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

In the 1980s I travelled a lot, but continued to photograph England, now in colour and in a more fluid, open way than I had previously. Perhaps my eyes had been reopened by my experiences in the wider world; the work I had done abroad had had a profound effect on me, and if that had changed how I saw England, my country had changed too. It had become more garish – a brasher, greedier place; a place where society did not exist, according to Maggie Thatcher.

Working on The Pleasure Principle, I had possessed no grand plan other than to take another look at England, an idea that was fed by a bewilderment about identity. Everything I shot was of interest to me; everything was grist to my photographic mill. My attachment to the England of saucy postcards, deviant vicars, cross-dressing dames, surrealist humour and whoopee cushions was tempered by darker undercurrents of violence, racism, greed, loneliness and quiet desperation.

Chris Steele-Perkins, British Movement demonstration, London, from The Pleasure Principle, 1980–9

British Movement demonstration, London

from Chris Steele-Perkins, The Pleasure Principle 1980–9

© Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

I continue to document England to this day. Who are we? Who am I? How is this country changing? In response to these questions I am photographing migrant families in London, who come from every country in the world, as seen in their homes. These are the new Londoners, the new English, the new British – and my family is one of them. I celebrate that. The national character is in flux, evolving as it ever has done, and we should cherish this, not fear it.


I have always felt that my purpose as a photographer was to explore the world and tease out a series of singular photographic encounters, and organise them into a narrative that reflected my experience. The history of photography is primarily this. There is no template – each must travel their course, and I have no wish to tell people how they should respond to my work. The introduction I wrote to The Pleasure Principle book is, really, all I have to say about it.

A total of 47 prints from The Pleasure Principle 1980–9 were purchased by Tate with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee in 2016.

Chris Steele-Perkins is a British photographer, born in Burma, who has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1979.

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