This is a revenge photograph.
In 1973, photographer Dennis Hutchinson was tasked with taking portraits of Adrian Street for a lengthy piece of editorial in the Sunday People newspaper. He had asked Street to suggest a location, and he said he wanted to be photographed in Wales, at the coal miner’s pit where he used to work as a teenager. He wanted to be shot with his father, who still worked there, and whom he hated.
In fact, he hated all the people in the picture, hated the pit, hated the village. He told Hutchinson, “I want to show them what I’ve made of my life, what I’ve become since leaving Wales.” He’s wearing his European Champion middleweight belt, as though to say, “Look, you peasants, this is what I’ve made of myself. I don’t have to go down a mine every day.” He’s returned as a success; a sort of prodigal son in reverse. This was his calculated expression of his showbiz, glamorous life. He’d clearly thought about this photo for a long time, planned it for years. He’d been biding his time.
The rather classical composition makes this photo resemble a Renaissance painting. When I first encountered it, on the cover of an album by the band Black Box Recorder (an album called England Made Me, which is ironic because the picture was taken in Wales) I found it shocking, but knew nothing about it. At a guess, I assumed it was a publicity image of a glam rock musician, taken at a coal mine. It took me back to my childhood, when the biggest things going on in the country seemed to be industrial strife and glam rock; and here, in the photo, were both. It was only when I saw it again, reproduced at a smaller size in grainy black and white in a book about wrestling, that I began to get a sense of what was really going on here. It had much less visual impact, but I now knew that it was not a photo of a musician, but of a wrestler, Adrian Street.
Street was always keenly interested in marketing himself, in him ‘as a brand’, as we’d put it now. He claims to have been one of the inspirations for the glam rock movement, and apparently he was acknowledged as such by Marc Bolan. Street saw a wrestling match as a kid and thought it was the thing for him; he liked the theatricality. Boxing also has an element of that, but wrestling is neigh on pure theatre. Street was a strong-willed child and he remained strong-willed: driven, egotistical, self-centred and self-aware. He would admit these things, these aren’t criticisms. His first professional wrestling match was in 1957 and from the early 1960s, he started bleaching his hair platinum blond, and wore increasingly outrageous clothes. Even though he was absolutely straight, he realised that his camp yet tough look would be more lucrative, because people would be more interested to see him wrestle. The more outrageous a character you were in the ring, the more successful you’d be. Even if you were a baddie – in wrestling these characters are called ‘heels’, who are ‘scripted’ by the promotors – people wanted to see you lose because they hated you. You got a reaction.
I’ve gone through Adrian’s albums; he’s got a big archive and a lot of photographs are of him looking very dressed up in public places. He’s always ‘on’, always the wrestler, walking around and posing. This photograph is a way of asserting that persona. It’s Adrian showing the men back home what he’s made of his life after he left them. They had all said, “You’ll be back, because you won’t make it as a wrestler or as a bodybuilder. We’ll see you in a few months.” That was in the 1950s, and this photo is of his return, in the wary 1970s, having transformed into this exotic creature. The Sunday People would undoubtedly have had a circulation of millions, and this photo is how he wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.
Street’s father looks quizzical here, and rather concerned. According to Adrian, there was no acceptance whatsoever. His dad made a point of pretending not to be impressed by anything. Adrian would take his parents on what were, in the 1970s, really fancy holidays, to places like Thailand, but his dad would feign indifference. They genuinely didn’t get on. To be as unusual looking as Adrian was, was not to be encouraged. Pit villages were very conservative environments. People with massive amounts of self belief, like Adrian Street, have always had to transform themselves and their lives. In that sense, his is a mythic story.
I’ve called this the most important photograph taken in Britain after the war. I don’t say this glibly, I know it’s quite a claim to make. But to me, it is the perfect summation of the difficulty post-war Britain had to come to terms with being a post-industrial country. A country where the power of heavy industry had diminished, a country that was shifting towards an entertainment and services-led economy. All of the stresses of that shift are visible in this photograph, and all are present in the life story of Adrian Street. In this one image, he personifies the British post-industrial struggle.
In my work, photographs take on all sorts of roles – they are used as documents, serve as reminders, or, as in this case, a source of inspiration. I didn’t take this photograph, but for me it was an entry point; the start of a process that led me, when I realised that the protagonist was still alive, to contact him and make a film about him and this image.
Adrian is a small guy, about the same height as me, and tough as nails. At 73 years old, despite surviving a bout with cancer, he’s still in very good physical condition; you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.
I used to watch British wrestling on television as as a kid – until, controversially, it was taken off air in the late 1970s –– so I would have watched him in one of his estimated 12,000 fights. Street’s no longer active in the ring, he now designs and sells wrestling gear. But I’m still looking at this image. We’re still watching him. And isn’t that what he wanted?
Jeremy Deller is a British multi-media artist. His work often draws upon the cultural and political heritage of Britain. He won the Turner Prize in 2004.