Janette Beckman on What It Was Like to Photograph the Punk Scene

Photo: Janette Beckman

“There seemed to be no boundaries,” says photographer Janette Beckman, reminiscing about her early days shooting the punk scene. “Punk is an ‘irrepressible attitude.’ It brought an anti-establishment raw freshness to music, art and style. It was about change, the idea that people should question authority and do it for themselves.” 

Beckman did it herself, too, and is most-widely recognized for her work documenting youth culture — capturing both the music legends and their stylish fans — in the world of punk, and then later in the hip-hop scene. She landed a job straight out of college in the late seventies as a photographer for Melody Maker, a UK-based weekly music magazine, and in addition to capturing iconic moments backstage on tour with bands like The Clash, she always turned her Nikon (and later, her Hasselblad) onto the punks attending these shows. “I started to shoot [the fans] because it would be at least as interesting, if not more interesting, than the actual bands, themselves. You could be a fan and the next minute you could be in a band. That’s how it worked.”

Today, Beckman lives in New York City and continues to photograph young subculture. Most recently, she visited Caracas and took photographs of Tuki, the latest dance-centered strain of hip-hop. She’s also been shooting commercial work for brands like Kangol and Ben Sherman. In between those projects, The Cut spoke to her about her favorite punk and hip-hop memories, her thoughts on punk influencing high fashion, and her knack for capturing people in their own element.

You became associated with documenting “Youth Culture” in both hip-hop and punk. When did you first start taking these types of photos?
I think it was more after college, probably when I started working for 
Melody Maker. It was just about the dawn of the punk era. They would send me out to shoot bands and there was also a lot of downtime when shooting with a band. So say you go on tour with a band for three days, and you have five minutes to take a picture of the band. The rest of the time I was going around looking at the fans and the youth culture that surrounded the bands.

You’ve shot so many photos for music magazines. What was it like working for them? 
first show I shot, I just walked into a music magazine and I met the editor and she asked, “What are you doing tonight? Want to photograph Siouxsie and the Banshees — so I was like, “Okay!” And off I went. Melody Maker was basically known for covering rock music and I wasn’t really a rock type. I never really liked it! Punk was just starting and I think my whole thing was that I came from this art school background, kind of this rebel art school back in the day. I loved punk, I loved rockabilly, I liked soul music. I liked all kinds of music, but I wasn’t really a rocker. At that time in England, the economy was really bad and that whole “No Future Punk” thing was going on. Kids would come out of school and they couldn’t get jobs. People were rebelling against that.

Did you have a certain punk style?
I wore band t-shirts. And pretty much Levi 501s unless you were going out dancing, which sometimes we’d go to these rockabilly events in a full circle skirt and these vintage stiletto heels. Regularly, probably 501s and sneakers or a Madness t-shirt or whatever band I was into.

What was your shooting style like back then? Were you a shy photographer in the beginning?
I was pretty shy as a person — I was much quieter and I was almost like that kid in
Almost Famous — where I’d be sent on an assignment somewhere and I’d be waiting around going, “Excuse me, Mr. Manager, I need to take my picture for the cover of my magazine.” And they’d be like, “Yeah right, kid. Come back in two days” or whatever. I was pretty shy and I think my style has been pretty much the same in that I’m not that intrusive and aggressive. My style has always been to try and capture the person as they are rather than make them do ridiculous things that they would never do. I hate to sort of say a la Annie Leibovitz, but I don’t do those big organized shoots where you’ve got somebody hanging off a helicopter over Mt. Everest with 5,000 stylists.

The Met Gala’s punk-themed this year. What are your thoughts on punk being linked to high fashion?
I haven’t seen the show, let’s start with that, so it’s hard to criticize it. But they’re coming from a very high-fashion perspective from what I gather. When punk started in the UK, it was a bunch of kids from working class families who could
never afford a Versace suit — they would probably despise that. They were actually just raiding their mom’s closets, going to army stores and buying things from thrift stores, cutting up garbage bags and wearing them as tops. It was the kind of very do-it yourself, make it up as you went along. You didn’t have money, putting everything together and making it work, the whole Doc Martens thing. [The Met Gala] is the antithesis to me of punk. I mean, I totally understand where they’re coming from and I know punk totally affected high fashion, just like Tommy Hilfiger kind of taking a lot out of hip-hop. But both of those cultures came from the street, from working class kids who didn’t have a ton of money. I think the only designer that deserves to be there is Vivienne Westwood.

It’s interesting because there’s always talk of “trickle-down” in fashion, but street culture seems to influence it just as much.
Yeah, I think it comes the other way around. Back in the punk days, in the English punk days, there were so many different styles — there were the mods, skinheads, rockabilly, the ska kids, the two-tone kids, and they all had their own different styles and people mixed up the styles a little bit, but it was often taking working men’s clothing — like suspenders and Doc Martens and mixing them up with other strange things you wouldn’t really wear, like army trousers. Those looks were really made out of economy, I guess, and as a rebellion against that very British things … like the Queen. [

Could you tell me about your hip-hop years?
In about 1982, punk was kind of on the wane in the UK. It had its best years and I was still working for
Melody Maker and there was a hip-hop concert that had come to town, and it was the very first hip-hop concert that had come to Europe. In that show was Afrika Bambaataa, break-dancers, double-dutch girls, scratchers — it was just amazing. And I went to the concert. It was like this whole renaissance, because it was music, dancing, art, the new thing to take over.  I just happened to come to New York at the end of that year for Christmas and it was just all starting to happen here. It was just amazing though because it was kind of like punk for me. It was on the street and people on the train would be rhyming on the train and the trains were covered in art. I got to take the first pictures of Salt-n-Pepa and soon I became the hip-hop photographer.

Were you dressing in a certain style in your hip-hop days?
I had those big, gold earrings. I loved those earrings. And I had a big gold chain. It was fake. And actually, around 1987-88, when I was doing work for Def Jam, they gave me a Def Jam jacket that I still have. It has my name on it and I’m still wearing it and people stop me on the street asking where I got it.

What It Was Like to Photograph the Punk Scene