THE BROADER PICTURE / Being different and the same

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The Independent Culture
'I PROMISE to serve my God, the Queen and my country, and to obey the orders of my superior officers. I will be proud of my uniform and smart in wearing it, and always do my duty.' You raise your right hand, you make your promise, and you get your kit. Official.

It might be the Hastings Sea Cadets. Or it might be the Birmingham Mirabelle Gospel Choir, or the Amsterdam Magic Stars or the London Guardian Angels (motto: 'Dare to Care') - or any of the thousands of brigades, bands, troupes, packs, armies and other formations open to youth in almost any town in the world. The cause can be military, religious, philanthropic or song-and-dance. But it always comes with a costume, the visible sign that you are in.

The images opposite come from Uniform, a long-term photographic project by Steve Pyke. For the past three years, he has been building up a dossier of these youth groups. Pyke's subject is voluntary uniforms, both words stressed. His focus is not on the professional outfits that go with a job, nor the improvised clothes-statements of sub-cultures. It is the regulation kits of leisure and vocation he is after, of people who have selected a semi-official identity for themselves.

Pyke grew up in Leicester, and never made it beyond the Cub scouts. But the idea came to him on a visit home, when he was struck by seeing again the Leicester Salvation Army band, evangelising in the streets the same as ever, and in particular by its junior members. 'Why is it that in the 1990s, young people should still wish to conform, to join organisations which identify themselves by wearing uniforms?'

Young Leicester Salvationists became the first sitters for Uniform. Then the project grew international in scope. Pyke has already covered Britain, Ireland, Germany and the Benelux countries. He targets a particular region, and hunts out the youth organisations which are peculiar to it. It is a kind of para-sociology. But Pyke's concern isn't with the life and activities of these groups as groups.

The emphasis is singular. He travels with basic studio equipment - a white screen and two big lights - which can be set up temporarily in some convenient spot. He picks his subjects, and values brief encounters. 'I want them in isolation, I don't want them in their normal environments. And I try to catch that first instant, their first reactions to the camera.' The sitter is pinned against the blank background.

The method is an estranging one. It singles out the group member, detached from the group-body. It makes individuals stand up for themselves while showing off their caps and badges. It forces a tension between uniform and wearer, with beguiling mixtures of pride and awkwardness. It also records a phase of life which the individual may well grow out of. Take that photo of the Hastings sea cadet (top, second column). The picture caught the eye of the rock group INXS, and was used by them as an album-cover illustration. And two years after the photo was taken the boy found his former, stouter, seaman-like self exhibited in the windows of the Hastings 'Our Price', and briefly became a local hero.

Photography always loves human curios. It also loves lists: the series, the catalogue, the theme with variations. As Pyke says: 'Photographers are great collectors.' He's already done Philosophers. And he admires August Sander, the photographer who made an extensive inventory of Weimar Republic citizens of every type and class. Sander called it A Portrait of the Age, and it seems to reveal that there was hardly a sane person in all Germany. Uniform likewise displays the infinite variety of these girls and boys and their bands - and within that variety, of course, a certain uniformity of oddness.-

Catholic Girl Guides, Dublin; royalist supporters, Maastricht; carnival group, Berlin; Sea Cadet, Hastings; St Joseph's Gun Club, Maastricht; Guardian Angels, London; Bubo Brass Band, Amsterdam; St John Ambulance Cadets, Milton Keynes; Artane Boys Band, Dublin; The Magic Stars, Amsterdam; Polish Cub Scout, Bradford; Mirabelle Gospel Choir, Birmingham; Salvation Army, Leicester; Boy Scouts, Amsterdam; Sea Cadet, Hastings

(Photographs omitted)