On Saturday, June 9, photographs of London punks intertwined with lacy frocks and Chloe bags as DJs played a mix of first wave punk, ska and dub for upscale shoppers inside the Flair boutique at Fred Segal on Broadway. The event was an exhibit and book signing for British photographer Janette Beckman’s latest project Made in the UK: The Music of Attitude 1977-1983 (powerHouse Books).
“I have all these pictures that I had taken of the bands and the fans,” says Beckman of the book’s beginnings. “I was always quite interested in not taking just pictures of the bands, but also the people who followed them – like the punks, mods and skinheads.” Beckman had accumulated a large collection of negatives, which were boxed up in the basement of her New York City home. One day, she sorted through the negatives with a friend and thought that these photos might in fact make an interesting book. After showing some of the work at London’s Proud Gallery, where several of the pieces caught the attention of the folks from British fashion line Paul Smith, she decided to shop around the photos. She took her portfolio to powerHouse, an imprint that attracted her by releasing the work of hip hop photographer Jamel Shabazz, and a deal ensued. Made in the UK is a collection of Beckman’s early work and a documentation of the people who made and followed British music in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“I really wanted to be a portrait painter, but I wasn’t quite good enough, so I decided to take photos instead,” says the photographer, whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Esquire and Rolling Stone. After studying her art in London, Beckman built a portfolio of work collected through her travels. “I would be in LA and I would take pictures of the old ’50s neon and all sorts of things,” she explains. Beckman brought her portfolio to record label A&M, thinking that her art shots might translate well as album covers. An executive showed a particular interest in a photo of a motel taken at night and asked if she would like to shoot Squeeze. That was Beckman’s introduction to music photography. (Trivia: The photo of the Los Angeles motel became the cover of Squeeze’s single “Christmas Day.”)
At around the same time, Beckman met noted music journalist Vivien Goldman, who was then the editor of British magazine Sounds. Over a cup of tea, Goldman asked if Beckman would like to shoot Siouxsie and the Banshees that night. After that, Beckman began photographing bands for various UK magazines, including The Face and Melody Maker.
One of Beckman’s 1977 shots of Siouxsie Sioux, featuring the punk rock icon dressed in baggy menswear and screaming into a microphone on stage, appeared at the Flair exhibit. This was just one of numerous images of now-legendary musicians available to view and purchase. A pre-Pogues Shane MacGowan stands with arms outstretched in front of a wall bearing the words “Burnt out stars.” A member of Oi! punk band Cockney Rejects shows off a tattoo inked in honor of soccer club West Ham. Paul Weller, then of the Jam and later of Style Council and numerous solo albums, poses with The Who’s Pete Townshend. John Lydon leans up against a television set in his home. Also included in the exhibit were several shots of the Clash, including one of Joe Strummer taken in Milan, which Beckman says was one of her favorite experiences.
However, rock stars are not the focus of Beckman’s series of photos. Most interesting is Beckman’s knack for capturing young people in their element. Although not included in the exhibit, one of the most intriguing images in the book is a crowd shot taken at the Jam’s final concert.
“There’s a lot of hanging around, you’re there for a whole day and you’re always hanging around,” says Beckman of concert photography. “So, instead of looking at the stage, I would turn around and look at the kids…I just turned around and I was standing in that little [space] between the stage and the audience and they all turned around and started waving at me and that’s the picture. There was so much love and enthusiasm and they looked so cool. It’s a little time capsule, I think.”
At the Flair exhibit, Beckman’s fan photography included a pre-teenage boy in Scotland dressed up in mod revival finery, twin rude boys Chucka and Dubem posed side by side, rockabilly youth dancing and loads of mods and punks. Beckman showcases the great care with which these young people fashioned their looks, but the photos aren’t strictly about street style. Underneath the Mohawks and pork pie hats are faces that convey everything from frustration to jubilance to melancholy. Beckman’s book may focus on punk and post-punk England, but her work illustrates the universal sentiments of young people trying to fit into their world.