the photographer who defined punk and hip hop
Janette Beckman was there at the beginning of it all, capturing the raw power and outsider attitude of London's punks in 77 and New York b-boys in 83.
Growing up, Janette always knew she wanted to make portraits, but with her drawing not being up to scratch, she picked up a camera instead and never looked back. From 1977 onwards, Janette immersed herself in the electric atmosphere of London's burgeoning punk scene, shooting the most influential bands on the road and backstage, for cult magazines like Sounds, The Face and Melody Maker. Then in 1983 she travelled to the Big Apple, where she was blown away by the energy and excitement of New York's hip hop scene; the hustle and bustle of break dancers, DJs, rappers and graffiti artists. So she picked up her camera once more and began recording what she saw in front of her. What struck her most were the similarities of both subcultures. Hip hop and punk are two phrases you'd think would rarely occupy the same sentence. Why would they? Punk evolved in the UK during the 70s and was a predominantly white movement that favoured thrashing sounds, safety pins and anything with a metal stud through it, while hip hop was pioneered by group of African American and Puerto Rican kids from the South Bronx. But, actually, the two have always had a close relationship. Born out of disillusionment, they shared the same DIY aesthetic; whereby kids were forced to work with what they had. For punk rockers it was safety pins, for hip hoppers it was fake rolexes from Canal Street, or a trip to Harlem where a guy called Dapper Dan would sort you out with some fake Gucci. It is this similarity which Janette emphasises in her latest exhibition Punk Rock Hip Hop Mash-Up. Currently on show at Punctum Gallery, Chelsea College of Arts, we caught up with Janette to talk over all things subcultural.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
I wanted to be a portrait artist actually, at college I was big fan of David Hockney - I thought my drawing wasn't good enough so I went to study photography at LLC.
How did you get into the punk scene?
One day in 1977 I walked into Sounds with my portfolio. I had never photographed a band before but they liked my work and sent me off that night to photograph Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Roundhouse. I came back the next day with the photos and they gave me another band to shoot. The punk scene was happening all around; my darkroom was on Neal Street in Covent Garden. I started photographing the fans, and the youth culture on the streets as well as the bands.
What made you want to photograph it?
I was fresh out of art school, I was into the music and the youth culture styles: punk, rockabilly, 2Tone, ska, skins. It was a youth rebellion.
Which places would you go to and who would you photograph?
I shot bands on the road, concerts, Rock Against Racism, festivals, marches, I was working for Melody Maker and The Face, they let me shoot anything I wanted. No art direction. Most of all, I loved photographing the fans and the bands backstage.
How would describe the atmosphere?
It was intense, there was always something new happening.
Were you familiar with the punk scenes in other cities?
I would get sent to shoot a band in Birmingham or festival in Scotland and get to see what was happening in other cities that way. We were obsessed with all the new bands.
How did the overall experience differ from that of New York's hip hop scene?
When I saw the first hip hop concert in 1982 it blew my mind. Punk was on the wane and this seemed so new, exciting. Just seeing break dancers, graffiti artists, DJs, rappers, all on stage together - doing something we had never seen or heard before.
Why the change of scene?
I went to visit a friend in New York that Christmas and started to get work. The big American record companies would not hire me because they said my work was too 'gritty' but the small rap labels like Def Jam, Next Plateau and Sleeping Bag started giving me work shooting their bands. They thought it was cool that I had photographs of the likes of the Clash, the Police and Boy George. My street style was perfect for the hip hop bands coming from Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
What was it that struck you most about this scene?
It was in some ways similar to the early punk days. Kids with 'no future' rapping about their lives. New York City was broke but exciting, people had no money. Step outside your apartment, and there were trains covered in graffiti, kids breakdancing on pieces of cardboard, music everywhere. It had the same sort of DIY aesthetic, if you wanted to wear Gucci you went to Dapper Dan in Harlem who printed his own Gucci pattern leather jackets, bought your gold hoop earrings and fake Rolex watches from Canal Street, got a fade for a few dollars from Astor barbers.
Did you ever feel part of either of these movements or were you always an observer?
I was always 'in it'; involved, obsessed. I never thought about that. It's only with the distance of time that I realise I had actually documented two major youth cultures.
What is it about subcultures in general that appeal to you?
I like the spirit of rebellion, and creativity coming from the streets.
What with the rise of the internet, whereby anything underground is immediately assimilated to mainstream culture, can subcultures truly exist in this day and age?
It does seem that subcultures don't have the space and time to 'marinate'. Everyone can access everything immediately. I also think people don't have the attention span anymore; it's information overload.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a project called The MashUp, where we've invited New York graffiti artists to reinterpret images from my hip hop archive and currently collaborating with UK artists to reinterpret images from my punk era. And of course I'm still shooting portraits of artists and musicians and the New York scene.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography courtesy Janette Beckman
CES, Photo of Big Daddy Kane, NYC 1988
Cey Adams, Photo of Keith Haring, NYC 1985