PhotoSynthesis With Janette Beckman
Janette Beckman has trained her camera not only on musicians from punk rockers to hip-hoppers, but she's also documented the youth cultures that has sprung from those genres, along with several others. In her own words, the world-class photographer takes us though a selection of her breathtaking images of many of the stars of rock and rap as well as displaying the star qualities of their young followers. Full interview below.
Among her best-known photographs are the iconic front covers for the first two albums by the Police, along with portraits of artists from the Sex Pistols to Run-DMC and from Blondie to Lily Allen, among others. From her start at trendsetting British publications such as Melody Maker and The Face, Beckman has placed her work in publications including Rolling Stone, Esquire, Glamour and Newsweek, to name just a few. She currently lives and works in New York.
Billy Idol, 1985: "This is a picture I took of Billy Idol in New York. I think he’d just been busted for weed. I remember I was all excited because Billy Idol was coming to my studio, and he’s really gorgeously handsome, and of course I knew him from the old punk days and I hadn’t actually photographed him before. And he came in, and he was just a wreck. I mean, literally, he was being supported by two people, one either side, kind of like these two bodyguards. They were pretty much carrying him in. And he was really hot and sweaty. He just didn’t look well at all. On the other hand, he was wearing this suit, which was totally rubber, so that might’ve accounted for the sweatiness -- that or drugs. I mean, he could barely stand up. I had this lollipop, and he just went, ‘Oh!’ and stuck it in his pants. I was like, ‘OK, great.’"
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Boy George, 1981: "I was working for Melody Maker magazine [in London]. They had an in-house photographer, and I was the second one, and I was a bit of an oddball at the time. It was real rock ‘n’ roll days, like Zeppelin. I was an art school girl, so I would come in and they’d go, ‘Oh, wearing your pajamas again’ -- I had a Madness T-shirt that said ‘F--- Art, Let’s Dance’ over a pair of pajama bottoms. They’d just be taking the piss out of me, the fact that I smoked pot instead of going down to the pub. There were a couple of writers there after a bit, we got together and we decided that we wanted to change the paper -- always the revolutionary. So this one writer said, ‘This is Boy George. He’s got this record coming out. No, I’m not putting -- whatever -- a poof on the cover.’ We were really insistent, saying, ‘We have to shoot him.’ We all knew him because he used to hang around Covent Garden. And he just looked incredible, and we just knew that he was a great singer, so we insisted that we go and take this picture of him and we got it in. We forced him to put it on the cover and, miraculously, his record came out that week and it went to Number Two on the charts. And they were like, ‘Oh, OK. You were right.’"
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Lily Allen, 2007: "A couple people I know are godparents to her, so I sort of have a connection to her. I knew she was going to play at Webster Hall [in New York]. So I went in the back, and Vivienne Goldman, who is the professor of punk, was interviewing her. So I told her she could post it on the BBC site if she wanted.… She’s this tough little girl. She’s like, ‘I’m gonna get changed,’ and she takes off her clothes right in front of me."
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The Police, 1978: "No matter what I do in my life, this is the thing everybody always remembers me for. It seems to be such a moment in everybody’s lives if they’re a certain age. I’d done some work with A&M, and they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got this new album coming out for this new punk band. Do you want to do it?’ I was like, ‘Yes! Of course!’ So I took all my savings and I bought my first Hasselblad [camera]. I’d just come back [to London] from New York, and I had bought a parachute suit, because it was all the rage in those days to wear American parachute suits. Andy [Summers of the Police] didn’t have one, so I lent Andy my parachute suit, and we gathered in this tunnel. It was just me, the art director and them, and I was trying to figure out how to use my Hasselblad for the first time, and I managed to get this shot, little knowing it was going to be such an icon of history."
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Deborah Harry, 1981: "Blondie was playing in London. I wanted to do a shot outside, but I had to go to the hotel they were staying in. She was just sitting in the window, and I love daylight -- that’s my favorite type of light. She was sitting on the windowsill and I took that picture. A lot of Debbie Harry pictures seem very over-made-up and over-posed, but she just seems incredibly natural [here]. I always thought she was one of the most beautiful women in rock, really. She just looks sort of fragile and vulnerable. She just seemed really beautiful and fragile, and almost breakable to me."
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Mod boy with girls, 1976: "I used to work at this youth club in South London. I was still in college, and I guess I was supposed to be teaching art. And I used to see the kids looking amazing, because it was the dawn of punk. Some of them were punks and some of them were mods. But they were all mates from school. They were about 15 years old. I always have my camera. One day they just turned up wearing all this stuff, and I said, ‘You look great; I want to take some pictures.’ They had a scooter outside, so we just did a whole load of shots standing outside on the street. They’re probably wearing stuff that they borrowed from their mums, because their mums or dads were the original mods [from the '60s], no doubt. And they just looked so cool."
Mods on scooter, 1976: "After I finished college, I was living in South London in Stratton, which is kind of near Brixton. It was really cheap, like five pounds a week. Me and my boyfriend at the time worked in this youth club. It was all teenagers, and the kids just used to turn up looking incredible. They probably got all these clothes from thrift stores or their mums. They spent all their money on the narrow ties and the sharkskin suits, and they just looked amazing. And South London is not that glamorous an area, to say the least. There were some other kids that were punks. They used to come in with their faces painted, you know, swastikas on their faces. The mod revival started in ‘76. It was like, you’re a mod, or you’re a punk. But in the end they kind of all got together."
John Lydon, 1979: "My friend Vivienne Goldman, who’s a pretty famous writer, was writing for Melody Maker at the time, and we were doing this interview with [John Lydon] for this new band, PiL. And she knew him really well, so we went ‘round his house, and he’s just so much attitude. I love this picture. It's kind of rough-looking. You can tell this place was a mess. We were just there for hours and hours, smoking and drinking and hanging out. We decided to go for curry and get a drink from the pub, and we were standing outside this pub in West London, and he said, ‘I need to take a pee. I’m going to pee in this empty beer glass outside on the street.’ It wasn’t the beginning of punk. It wasn’t shocking. You were just like, ‘Well, why? There’s a toilet.’ That’s Mr. Rotten for you."
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Joe Strummer, 1981: "This is probably one of my favorite pictures, ‘cause I was always a massive Clash fan. The Clash were just amazing, and I’d photographed them before. They used to play this place under the railway bridge in Ladbrook Grove, a skeezy sort of club area. And I’d shot them down there. A lot of people I knew were friends with them, but I didn’t really know them. Melody Maker asked me to go to Milan with my friend Paolo Hewitt, who is half Italian and who was a writer. So he was excited. They were playing this stadium, and underneath the stadium they had this series of virtual caves, where they had the dressing rooms for the band. So we go down there, and I want to get some individual pictures before they go on. They’re all smoking hash, and everybody’s drinking. Nobody’s really wanting to get their picture taken, as usual, and I’m just hanging out there and waiting. The band’s gotta go on in, like, 20 minutes, and I’ve gotta get an individual picture of everybody. By this time, everybody’s really stoned -- I’m really stoned. I’m completely blasted, because I’ve always been a bit of lightweight as far as that stuff goes. Anyway, so I just went up to Joe, just said, ‘I have to take a picture of you.’ And he just went like that, and I took the picture. Just in that moment, I knew that that was going to be one of the best pictures I ever took."
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Punk girls, 1979: "These are two girls that were part of a Sid [Vicious] memorial march in Hyde Park [in London]. I think this is a true example of punk style and attitude, and it doesn’t really matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter who you are, you don’t have to be a Size Two, you don’t have to conform to anything. You can make yourself look incredible. I think these two girls are so amazing. They’re fabulous! Look at the eye makeup. I think this one told me that was her mum’s sweater. And the kilt and everything. It’s just like they mixed it up, they threw it together. In our society now, they’d go, 'Oh, these girls are overweight, they should get liposuction.' But they were fantastic girls. In those days, it was very, very different. It’s all about that 'f--- you' attitude, which to me was a great, great thing."
Punk boys, 1979: "This is a picture from Sid Vicious’ memorial march right after Sid died. Somehow or other, this kind of impromptu memorial march got organized. It was just this massive stream of punks, and people were really dressed up. It was incredible. And, you know, there were punks, there were ska kids. Everybody seemed to really love Sid, and everybody was really sad that he died. He was kind of like an icon, like some kind of punk saint or something."
Beastie Boys, 1985: "I took that picture for Rolling Stone back in the day. I had a little studio at the time on Franklin Street [in Manhattan]. They just appeared that day with Rick Rubin, who was working with them. Those were their own clothes. I had decided it would be fun to do that wacko red background. They just walked in and they had all the hats and everything, they just stood there. And I was like, ‘This is perfect. They’re so young and pimply-looking.'"Run-DMC, 1986: "I was working for The Face. I’d moved over here [to New York] by now, and Melody Maker and The Face were using me as their American correspondent, which was brilliant for me. They knew about things that I, even living here, had no idea were even happening. They were like, ‘We’re sending a writer over. We have these four groups we want you to go to Brooklyn and hang out with and take pictures.’ And Run-DMC was one of them. It was the Real Roxanne, Run-DMC, Full Force, somebody else I can’t remember. I took my Hasselblad [camera] on the subway to Hollis [in Queens]. And you’re kind of thinking Hollis is going to be more like the South Bronx, where I’d been many times. One of the guys was waiting to meet me at the station, and they walked me over. I was like, ‘Wow, this is like Hampstead [a posh London neighborhood] or something.’ It’s a leafy, beautiful neighborhood. Nice houses. It was a sunny day. I get there, and the guys are just hanging out by this car on the side of the street. I think this is actually the street they lived on. It was just so beautiful -- the dappled light."
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