Janette Beckman has a body of work that will make your mouth water. Growing up in London during the birth of punk – when youth culture mags like The Face and music rags like Melody Maker packaged teen spirit into Barbara Kruger-inspired spreads by the bucketful – the art school debutante shot a lion’s share of talent; from Sex Pistols and The Clash to Blondie and Boy George.
Often turning her camera on the fans as much as the frontmen and women, Janette sought out off-the-wall characters from underground communities and captured them in classical portraits that recalled paintings and sculptures of the past.
When hip hop came along in the early 1980s she rode the renaissance to New York and seamlessly became its visual guardian shooting everyone from Run DMC and Public Enemy to LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim.
Although she has a unique ability to identify a star on the rise and immortalise them in their butterfly moment, Janette never chased celebrity, remaining, instead, fascinated with the attitudes and styles of people on the outside.
Her curiosity led her to East LA in the mid-1980s and the El Hoyo Maravilla gang who had marked territory there.
Elegantly transitioning from publicity pap to public watchdog, Janette treated her new subjects with the same respect, intrigue and classical composure and the resulting reportage is a you-had-to-be-there document of a forgotten place and time.
Ahead of her show Rebel Cultures at the HVW8 gallery, Huck caught up with Janette to find out more about her process and past.
Rebel Cultures features your music and youth culture photography alongside your East LA gang reportage. What are the parallels between rock stars and gangsters and how different are they to shoot?
I’m always trying to seek out rebel cultures, it’s always been a fascination for me. When I was working in London back in the punk days I didn’t realise how rebellious we all were, we were just kind of in it, doing it. And I have to say that’s just sort of how it’s been.
I was shooting stuff for Melody Maker and The Face mostly and I never thought, ‘Oh I’m shooting punks,’ I was just there and part of it. It was just fascinating to me.
Then in 1982 I moved to New York having seen this hip hop show that came to London and I was just so blown away by this renaissance, so I kind of fell into that.
As far as the gang thing, I was hanging out with some friends in LA and saw this magazine article about East LA gangs, but it didn’t have any pictures. So I contacted the writer and got him to take me out there.
And it didn’t seem frightening because I went over there with a box of prints of punks in London that I’d photographed and I was like, ‘These are the gangs from the UK, and I want to take pictures of you guys to show them.’
They’d never met a British person before and they were kind of as fascinated by me as I was of them. And it didn’t seem dangerous really… I wasn’t shooting massive stars, I was shooting up-and-coming stars.
It was just the same doing a portrait of anybody; be it a gang member, or Boy George… I try to always keep it just between me and my subject.
Did you ever sense at the time that you were in the middle of something special and that your work might become iconic?
Back in the punk days I was just in it. I loved the music and the style and the attitude. I would shoot the fans just as much as the bands. I loved the spirit.
England was changing – “Fuck the Queen!” “Get rid of the class system!” – we really thought we were doing something interesting. I think it was more about that. It was about people who didn’t have a lot of money making art.
I wasn’t aware that it was going to be iconic or legendary, or that these people were going to get that popular, I mean rock was still ruling the charts in those days.
It was only later when The Clash started to get really huge that things seemed different. As far as icons and lasting quality, it didn’t really matter.
Do you think of yourself as an artist or journalist?
Well, you know, everybody wants to put you in a box and say what you are and I definitely feel like I’m somewhere in between a portrait photographer and a documentary photographer.
My aim is always to capture that moment in time and that’s partially why I prefer to take pictures outside, as opposed to the studio, because there’s always stuff going on, people walking by, some Deli that isn’t there anymore, or graffiti that’s long been painted over.
I love that documentary aspect to it. And also what people are wearing, especially with the hip hop stuff. People look through that book I made The Breaks like, ‘Oh no way those are the Adidas blah blah blah.’ Haha. It brings back a lot of memories for people. I love that.
I just photographed this guy Dapper Dan, he’s in his seventies now, and he’s probably responsible for clothing half the people in hip hop in the 1980s. He used to print his own Gucci and Fendi fabric – taking the logos and printing it all over leather to make incredible clothes for people like Eric B & Rakim or LL Cool J.
And when you look at pictures of say Rakim wearing one of his jackets you know it’s a certain moment in time. I grew up in London and I was always in the National Portrait Gallery or the V&A, looking at pictures painted by somebody in 1786 or something – just someone tilling the fields with some sheep in the background or whatever, it just kind of gives you a sense of what was going on in those days and I hope my photos will do that for future generations.
Did being a woman affect the relationship between you and your subjects?
Well, not so much in the punk days because there were a lot of women then but there weren’t that many women photographers actually, which was kind of interesting. Back in the Melody Maker days it wasn’t so much being a woman, it was being an art school kid, which they didn’t get.
I’d come into the office in my pyjama bottoms, converse and ‘Fuck art let’s dance’ Madness t-shirt and they’d be like, ‘Forgot to get dressed this morning did you? Hahaha.’ I was a pot smoker and they were all going down the pub with jeans tucked in cowboy boots and long greasy hair. I didn’t fit in.
So it wasn’t being woman, it was just having a different point of view. Which was great because they had a chief photographer and he’d go and shoot Led Zeppelin or whatever and I’d do all the stuff that he didn’t want to do, which was the stuff I wanted to do. It was great!
But when I came to New York, definitely being a woman and coming from a different country was enormously helpful.
I think going to shoot people in hip hop – America’s racism is a strange thing, it’s different from the UK. Most people hadn’t met someone British, because it was really before people started to travel.
We’d just ask each other questions, batting back and forth. They didn’t have any preconceptions about me because they’d never met anyone like me. Being an American white male would have been different.
I remember when Public Enemy were coming round to my studio and everyone was like, ‘Oh, you know they don’t like white people.’ And they came round and they were the nicest guys. I could have been from another planet, as far as they were concerned.
Is there anyone from that era you didn’t shoot that you wish you had?
Prince. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, David Bowie, Wu-Tang, Notorious B.I.G. Jay Z, Generation X, Bob Marley, The Slits. A lot of people from that era. But it was just about being in the right place at the right time.
Always looking for the next thing, which is harder to find now. We love the internet for certain things, it’s really brilliant. But I think there’s so much access to information now that it’s hard to keep things fresh, and that underground element can hardly exist anymore.
Do you think there’s a dumbing down of culture too? So many things that are popular on the internet now are so shit…
I have to agree with you. People send you a link of some bloke naked snowboarding on a tray with the caption ‘epic’ and it has, like, 20,000 hits. It’s almost like anything that anyone does now is interesting – the cult of the selfie.
‘Here I am doing something somewhere, shout out to the world.’ And half of it is not interesting. And it’s not creative… I guess it takes a distance of time and history before people can really look at things properly.
When I was in art school in London there was this book by a German photographer August Sander who just photographed portraits really straight up. Working people, poets, all sorts of people. I fell in love with that book.
I was really influenced by that and I thought it was a real piece of history. I got a lot from him. Still now, I don’t really pose people. I think people get really uncomfortable when you tell them to stand in the corner and put their left arm up.
I just let people pose themselves naturally. I think that’s why photography is such a collaboration between photographer and subject. I try not to make too many plans. And that’s where the documentary bit comes in.
I always want to meet the person where they live or work, where they’re relaxed, walking around, talking to people. You get more out of people that way. And I want to find out who they are, I’m very curious and nosy.
What’s your favourite photo from the show?
The Run DMC picture is really important to me because it’s hip hop and I was such a hip hop head. I got a commission from The Face – they gave me a phone number, I called it up and I think Jam Master Jay picked up and said, ‘Come to this subway stop in Hollis, Queens.’
I remember getting off the train and walking down the street and there they were standing there, in this really nice middle-class neighbourhood with trees and houses, it was the street they grew up on, and it was just a moment in time.
I took a couple of pictures, hung out a bit, talked a bit, took a few more pictures. A lot of people love that picture and I think it’s kinda special, what they’re wearing, the style, the posing, which I had nothing to do with. It’s just about going somewhere totally open-minded and not knowing anything about it.
Also there’s that picture of the three girls from the El Hoyo Maravilla gang series. I love that picture. They weren’t even part of the gang.
One of their boyfriends was in the gang and he called and said, ‘There’s this whacky photographer hanging out in our territory. Come down and get your picture taken.
So they came and they’re standing in front of the car they drove down in and their style is something I’ve never encountered before. They just look so cool.
Dashwood Books published that gang series and it blew up on the internet, and the three women got in touch with me. We started emailing back and forth, I sent them pictures. I had a picture of one of their husbands who’d been killed in a drive-by shooting.
Last summer we met up and they told me ninety-five per cent of the people in the book that I photographed are either dead or in jail. And a couple of them had husbands that had been killed. One of them had two sons in jail.
And yet they were these amazing positive women. I just admire them so much. We were trying to find out when the photo was taken and they were like, ‘Was the car blue or gold because someone was shot in that car and there was blood everywhere and we had to repaint it. So if it was gold it was ’82 and if it was blue it was ’81.’ That’s how they dated things! It’s insane.
What do you find exciting to shoot now?
Well Jocks & Nerds is the best magazine I’ve worked for since The Face. And the thing I love about it is they pretty much just let me do what I want. I say, ‘Oh I found this Harlem bike gang,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’d be interested in that.’
So I go off and spend a couple of days hanging out with them, riding around on their bikes, on the expressway in the back of a truck, on a hot summer day. That kind of thing really makes me happy. It’s just great.
I also do a lot of portraits of musicians and writers and artists for them too. It’s hard to find to a magazine now that will let you do what you want and doesn’t want to send a whole crew of people.
It’s just me with my camera, just going places. And I love that. That’s the work that’s inspiring to me. I’m always looking for, I guess they call them subcultures, but things that are happening that aren’t just about shopping, or celebrity bullshit.
You’re teaching now too, right?
I am yeah. I actually taught this class in Venezuela, in Caracas, and that was amazing. It was right after Chavez died and I wanted it to be about youth culture, but when I got there they said, ‘You can’t go looking for people who are breakdancing by the favela, or whatever, because it’s too dangerous, you could be kidnapped. You can’t take our students to dangerous places.’
But I ended up having an exhibition and a few of the hip hop guys came and they invited us to where they hang out and they have this whole scene and we took the students and it was amazing.
These students had never been out of their protected zone and they went to a place in their town that they never would have gone in a million years and they took amazing photos.
What advice would you give to young photographers?
First thing is you’ve got to go with your passion. If you’re passionate about shooting dogs, shoot dogs. Whatever it is, don’t be discouraged. And try and be open to things. Don’t be scared of approaching people.
I’ve done a lot of street photography and I always go up to people and ask to shoot their picture. Of course, try and be quick, don’t torture the person. Try and quickly get the shot before they change their mind.
Make people feel at ease and treat your subjects with respect. Since digital is free, you can do as much work as you want. And post it. Get a Tumblr or something and get your work out there.
It’s different now. And you don’t need to have a very expensive camera. What’s the point? You can probably get just as good a shot with a cheaper camera, if you’re clever. It’s more about being aware of your surroundings.
Do you feel like the spirit of rebellion is alive and well?
I think it’s somewhere, but I think it’s a bit buried. Because everything’s so consumable now. I think people are really losing their individuality and that’s a shame.
But there are little spots of it out there, and I’m gonna find them. The attitude, and the people, are still there when you get out in the streets. Especially in poorer communities where people really have to mack it up.
I’m looking at this picture of a kid on my wall now, that I shot last summer. She must be about twelve and she’s got her hands on her hips and just has this really punk attitude.
When you’re walking along in a Prada outfit, head to toe, it’s a different kind of thing. And I’m not really interested in that. I guess it’s something you can’t buy. And that’s really it.
Find out more about Janette Beckman.