Face of a nation: Iain McKell challenges our notions of beauty with his evocative pictures of the British

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Iain McKell has documented the tribes of gritty modern Britain – the skinheads, punks, Blitz Kids and rockabillies – with understated ease. Yet when I go to meet him, I find the photographer in the incongruously leafy environs of Kensington. His house, despite the polite suburban setting, is a seething archive of his work of over 30 years, in which time he has contributed to influential magazines such as Italian Vogue, The Face and i-D.

The open-plan living space, which doubles as a studio, overflows with mementos: a poster commemorating 1984's Iain McKell Live event at the Photographers' Gallery, framed photographs from his Gypsy project and various mood boards. In the middle of the room is a sequinned Union Jack that served as a backdrop for a photo of Ben Westwood – Dame Vivienne's son.

McKell and Westwood used to share a studio in Battersea. While there, McKell developed an aversion for the large spaces of the studio: "because of the isolation". Perhaps the studio's spaciousness contrasted too vividly with the busy Weymouth hotel where he was raised. "I grew up in an atmosphere of buzz. In the evenings people sat down for dinner, there was a bar. My dad ran the bar. It was Fawlty Towers."

McKell loved his childhood but had no intention of following in his parents' footsteps. "I was ambitious. I always thought I wanted a vocation that is singular, where I could be my own man, the boss of my destiny. I think that was the clincher."

Despite his documentary style, the camera doesn't go everywhere with him. Only twice has he attended a happening so rich in aesthetic possibilities that he has been forced to return home to collect his gear: once in New York and another time at a Jeremy Healy warehouse party. At the latter, McKell photographed a boy and a girl towards the end of the party as the sun was rising. "Women never understand that, how difficult it is for guys. Guys have got to do the bloody work, haven't they?" comments McKell on the picture's erotic undertone. "And there he is, sipping his drink. She's offering it up and he's like 'uh-oh'. I like that."

At 19, McKell got a job as a seaside photographer in his hometown. It earned him pocket money, but McKell had a bigger photographic ambition: to create a visual diary. "I wanted to get it all. The rawness of it. I wanted to show it all and be honest," he says. "I wasn't pandering. I didn't have all the baggage, I wasn't precious about money, I was young." At Exeter art college he discovered Diane Arbus, whose work he admires greatly. He came to London and applied to the Royal College to do an MA but didn't get in. "So I think clubland was a way of me finding that sort of social network of creative minds. It wasn't really about getting laid – although that came into it! But ultimately I'd chosen this isolated road of a photographer – I was no longer in the institution of an art college and I found a club that was beyond just partying."

A new book that looks back at his best work, Beautiful Britain, is in no sense comprehensive – there is only one picture of Scotland, for example. "It's about me, isn't it? It's about my work and it's a title. Saying 'Beautiful Britain' suggests a picture postcard. Again, that's a reference to where I come from. Postcard, seaside, that idea of beauty," he says. When his daughter, Jasmine, was born, he left London to immerse himself in his Gypsy project. "It was quality time, running around in fields. I never ran around in fields when I was a kid. With a kid, I could do that – Jasmine was my inspiration for running away from [London]. Gypsy was a way for me to get back to Weymouth, finding a sort of place or realm where I could escape and find myself photographically. To be absorbed, totally absorbed."

McKell's work is suffused with a sense of solitariness. "There's a kind of dichotomy between the isolation and focusing on the poetry and getting down to the work, which is very singular," he explains.

'Beautiful Britain' by Iain McKell is published on 21 May by Prestel, price £24.99

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