After living in London in the early ’70s, California native Roberta Bayley arrived in New York in 1974 because it was the only return ticket she could afford back to the States.
Serendipity served Bayley well. She soon met a young musician by the name of Richard Hell and was asked to work the door when his band Television played at CBGB, a new club on the Bowery. Bayley fell in love with the emerging punk scene of the Lower East Side and began working at CBGB five nights a week.
In 1975, Bayley bought a camera and adopted the punk attitude to making art: sheer nerve. As chief photographer for Punk magazine, she would amass a singular archive of artists like Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Blondie, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, the New York Dolls, X-Ray Spex and the Dead Boys, among others.
“Photography is more the eye than the technique,” Bayley says in Beth Lasch’s new documentary short, Roberta Bayley: She Just Takes Pictures. The film provides a whirlwind view of her 10-year career, kicking things off with her iconic black and white photograph of the Heartbreakers, which later appeared on the cover of the seminal punk oral history, Please Kill Me.
“That was right at the beginning: it was the fourth roll of film through my camera,” Bayley recalls. “Photography is pretty easy, you just push that button. I just went with it. I never learned to do any of that [technical] stuff. I learned to use a flash but basically I quit before I learned anything deep about photography.”
Going on instinct, Bayley knew she needed total freedom to create her work. She didn’t want to work in a studio; she wanted to be with the band, not just as a photographer but as friends. As an insider, Bayley got close to her subjects in a way few others could.
“I travelled with Blondie a few times,” she says. “We were the same age, the same level of success – not much. At a certain point, you’re just invisible if you’re always hanging around. ‘It’s just Roberta, what’s the big deal?’”
“That was definitely true at the Ramones session. If I had shown up with all these lights and a makeup person, it would have been a completely different situation. It was like, ‘It’s just Punk magazine – let’s get this over with.’ Sometimes that’s a good thing.”
From the very start of her career, Bayley’s talents were immediately recognised. Her Heartbreakers photos became a poster, her Ramones photo became an album cover, and her portrait of Richard Hell for Blank Generation was chosen by Lester Bangs as the worst album cover of all time in the Rolling Stone Book of Lists. “I thought that was great,” she says with a laugh. “It’s always good to be number one even if it’s the worst.”
Roberta Bayley: She Just Takes Pictures is out now.
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