Zeitgeist Images in a Changing World

There are certain images that define a decade culturally, images that sum-up the zeitgeist of that decade. They may not be accurate all consuming reflections of a reality but they do capture something, a small nugget of truth, that becomes the oft repeated short-hand reference point for how things were. My life started in the 1960’s so it seemed to be an obvious place for me to start a reflection on which images I am referring to in that decade before thinking about where we are today.

The image that I always think of in this context for the 1960’s is David Bailey’s 1965 portrait of Michal Caine. A no nonsense, graphic, black and white representation of the class system being turned upside down. A portrait that is in your face, in all senses. East End vegetarian Bailey, with more than enough quick wit, and bravado, had stormed the fashion establishment of Vogue and come away with the spoils. Fellow Cockney, Caine, had done the same thing within the acting profession, keeping his East End accent and attitude, refusing to play the established game.

The image shows Caine in a well cut suit and tie, a cigarette, unlit, hanging from his lips. It’s confident, challenging and direct, just like the decade itself in the UK. Stark, colourless, yet to completely accept that things were changing, clinging to the past but with a cocky attitude towards the establishment and class system.

The 1970’s is harder to choose a single image from, a decade of turmoil and change, that took the UK from student outrage, glam and three day weeks to union strikes and punk. Despite this the image that comes immediately to mind is of someone who similarly spent the decade changing and re-inventing himself. Terry O’Neill’s 1974 portrait of David Bowie with a leaping hound is an image that for me expresses the true nature of the 1970’s in the UK. It contains the schizophrenic nature of the country through that decade. Angry, yet trying so hard to be sophisticated, glamorous and nonchalant.

The image was created as part of a shoot for Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs, and bought two Londoners with equally sharp wit together, both coming out of the Soho coffee bar scene of the 1960’s. I met both and spent time chatting over many hours, and having done so I can see how well they would have collaborated on such an image. Survivors of the sixties music scene – O’Neill had briefly been a jazz drummer – looking for a new visual language for a new decade.

The 1980’s that is most often remembered seems to be defined by a need for excess in fashion, music and consumerism, aspects, for me most clearly summed up by the highly art directed images of Annie Leibovitz. Steve Martin painted as a Franz Klein three-dimensional painting, Whoopi Goldberg falling into a bath of milk, Meryl Streep pulling at the skin of her whitened face, and Sting, naked, caked in mud in the desert. These images speak of an MTV world of bold colour, conceptual ideas and expensive production budgets. Her advertisements for American Express at the time further confirm this connection between photography and finance in the decade of greed being good.

For me the one image that encapsulates the 1980’s is her portrait of the naked Keith Haring in which he has painted the room and himself in his trademark lines, squiggles and babies, in a sense a riff on the Steve Martin image. Crouched ready to pounce, Haring is confrontational, and confident in his stance, nakedness and wire rimmed glasses. A decade that began with Stonewall, and ended with Aids, appropriately represented by New York’s visual street language and personal political standpoint.

The 90’s for me is one photographer and one image, the photographer is Corrine Day and the images are of Kate Moss in 1990 for The Face magazine. I first met Corrine when I asked to see her work, prior to her iconic fashion shoot with Kate on the beach at Camber Sands wearing a child’s feather head dress and little more. Corrine had photographed some bikers in a London pub that had been featured at quarter page size and they had sparked my interest. She came to see me and Kate carried her black, vinyl zip-round portfolio. That sense of naivety imbued the images that helped make both of their names. It was the decade of grunge and the rejection of 80’s excess, and surface glamour.

There was a desire to be different and be true to yourself, a spirit that photographers and friends such as Glen Lutchford, David Sims, Nigel Shafron and Day all promoted in their work and ways of engaging with an industry that had become bloated and jaded.

The post 2000’s seem less defined as decades of cultural change, maybe due to the lack if hindsight we have when we are living through a time of such rapid and dramatic change. Bob Dylan said that he used to care but things have changed. When change occurs at such a pace as we have experienced over the last two decades it is hard to assess the moment, let alone care about something as shallow as a photograph that defines a cultural zeitgeist.

Our cultural zeitgeists now seem to be brand led as the photographer’s principal form of expression has mutated into personal work often self-published or self-exhibited, it reach defined by the reduced size of its audience. The magazine is no longer a powerful tool of mass communication for photography, the album cover has similarly seen its cultural power diminished. Whilst, the online environment provides no curation in identifying images of cultural significance.

The images I have mentioned here will undoubtedly not be your choices and I have not attempted to choose images that record historical or political change. The images I have chosen could be described as throw away, commissioned by magazines or brands, some use the word commercial, I do not. Images that define cultural change and opinions, images of no importance, but of great importance.

Images that now exist on gallery walls and in coffee table photography books, as well as the yellowing magazines they once appeared in, that show us how we felt, how we dressed, what we listened to and what we thought was culturally important within popular culture. They all capture an essence of zeitgeist prevalent at a time that has now become our shared history.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.



  1. Over the same period, i was exposed to British, French and American imagery with American images dominating in the end. As you describe well, the 80s left in our minds the work of American artists and books on my shelf attest to my collection of them. I think though, that French photographers like Cartier-Besson & Doisneau had primed our eyes, perhaps through Life Magazine, ahead of the 60s. I enjoyed reading your perspective of the zeitgeists and could relate. Thank you

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