After documenting the punk and post-punk scenes in the UK, Janette Beckman moved to New York in time to shoot the burgeoning rap and hip hop scenes, as well as gang life in East L.A. Amy Haben caught up with Janette Beckman for a conversation about working with the likes of Joe Strummer, breaking barriers as a woman in the industry, and her iconic photos of the stylish youth of decades past
British photographer Janette Beckman found her early inspiration in the streets of London in the late Seventies. From the hard-edged punks living on the dole, to the mods with their perfectly pressed suits and scooters. She captured moments that would have been lost in time if not for her lens. Like the Teddy Boys with their “ducks arse” pompadours who fought the punks on Saville Row in front of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s clothing store, Sex. Or the Rockabillies, 2-Tone kids, and the raging skinheads who rounded out the UK version of the Warriors-esque youth subgroups. Some of these kids shared pints together but, for the most part, they stuck with their own tribe.
Janette lived in a South London squat where she could be near all the action. She was young but motivated, which attracted the interest of music magazines like Sounds and Melody Maker, where she began her career. Her very first assignment was to take photographs of the haunting Siouxsie and the Banshees for a story by famed editor and journalist Vivien Goldman.
This is obvious in a shot of a young man spraying graffiti on a wall, her camera just behind him. What I love about Janette’s early work was not only the unique characters and gritty surroundings engulfed in black and white frames but the very ease of the moments. She was like a fly on the wall. You can almost smell the cigarettes burning in the room where Johnny Rotten was leaning on a TV set casually talking to friends or hear the Cockney accents calling out to each other in a photo of a group of punks at Sid Vicious’ memorial march.
In 1982, Beckman moved to New York City where her assignments changed from punk rock to hip hop, as she shot up-and-comers like Salt-n-Pepa and L.L. Cool J. A genre change turned out to be a good move as these acts became omnipresent just a few years later.
Janette’s bravest work was her immersion into the East Los Angeles gang El Hoya Maraville. Unbeknownst to her, the gang was involved in a turf war while she was shooting them. While taking photos of gang members spray painting graffiti, a group of cops ran after them. She found herself hiding in a closet until they left. A member’s mother hid her there to protect her from the trouble of association.
The Riviera Bad Girls were a group of attractive, thin-browed chola girls who brought a toughness to their unique street style. Janette snapped a photo of these ladies leaning up against a car which had just been repainted to hide bloodstains. She was accepted by these kids. Her absence of fear and exotic British accent made her a desired companion among the gang.
You can find her work on record sleeves and album covers by The Police, the Go-Go’s, Grandmaster Flash, among many others. I had the pleasure of speaking with her recently about working with Joe Strummer, breaking barriers as a woman in the industry, and her iconic photos of the stylish youth of decades past.
PKM: Tell me a bit about your life growing up in London. What inspired you to become a photographer?
Janette Beckman: I always knew I wanted to be an artist. As a kid I liked going to museums and galleries. I wanted to paint portraits so I went to art school. After a year, I transferred to the London College of Communication to study photography. In the evenings I worked at a youth club in South London, teaching art to the local kids, punks and mods, who soon became subjects for my photos. I was living in a semi-squat with other artists, we were obsessed with music and making art, I was always taking photos. One day I walked into Sounds, a weekly music paper, with my portfolio and showed it to the features editor, Vivien Goldman (now Professor of Punk at NYU). She commissioned me to photograph Siouxsie and the Banshees who were playing at the Roundhouse that night. I had never photographed a band before. I came back the next day with the photographs and got another assignment on the spot. Soon I was photographing two or three bands a week for magazines like The Face and Melody Maker.
PKM: I read that you shot Ministry during their photo shoot for their first album, With Sympathy. That is one of my favorite albums. How was working with Al [Jourgensen] and the gang?
Janette Beckman: I photographed Al Jourgensen for a Melody Maker story. He was wearing a serape cape, we walked around, chatting, looking for the perfect spot to take the photos, he was a quiet thoughtful guy.
PKM: Were those rude boy twins in your shots in your book Made In The UK? Who did you get along with more: the punks, rude boys, or mods?
Janette Beckman: The rude boys are known as the “Islington Twins,” a.k.a. Chuka and Dubem. I met them when I was teaching photography at a college in Clerkenwell, I came out one day and saw them standing in the yard. They were dressed identically, they looked so cool, I asked to take their photo. The photo ran full page in the first issue of The Face and a few years later it was a 12-foot-high photo in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
I loved all the different youth cultures of the time. I photographed Rockabillies, skinheads, ska kids, 2 Tone fans, punks and mods. The fans and the bands as well. I travelled to Milan to shoot the Clash, went on the Seaside Tour with The Specials, photographed Paul Weller (including shooting the Jam’s last concert), documented music festivals, rockabilly weekends. the Blitz Club and kids on the street. It was an amazing time to be in the UK documenting the music scene.
PKM: How was it shooting for Melody Maker and Sounds back in the day?
Janette Beckman: I worked at Melody Maker from 1977-1982. The chief photographer was Tommy Sheehan, he loved rock and got the trips to America to shoot Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Since I was the second in line, I was assigned to shoot the up-and-coming Punk, 2 Tone, Mod and New Wave bands which I loved. I was a kind of art school misfit at the office, one of only two women working there, the journalists were mostly guys who liked hanging out drinking at the local pub, which was not really my scene.
PKM: Joe Strummer flexing is a stunning shot. What was it like hanging out with him?
Janette Beckman: I went to Milan to photograph the Clash in 1980 for Melody Maker with the writer Paulo Hewitt. We were meeting the band before the show at the venue, a bicycle stadium in town. We found them in the ‘dressing room’, a cave lit with a few bare lightbulbs below the stadium. By the time we arrived the band were pretty stoned, the atmosphere was intense, they were about to go on stage, and we had to get our story and photos. Paulo started interviewing each band member while I got individual shots of everyone. I asked Joe if I could take his portrait, he just looked at me and flexed his muscle. Five minutes later, I followed them on to the stage, they were greeted by thousands of their fans holding up Bic lighters, screaming for the band. London Calling was already a huge hit and people were calling them, “The only band that matters”.
PKM: What initially inspired you to move to NYC?
Janette Beckman: In 1982 I was assigned to photograph the first ever Hip Hop tour to come to London. I decided to go and photograph the ‘New York City Rap Tour,’ artists at their bed & breakfast spot behind Victoria Station. In the lobby I met these amazing-looking people and started taking photographs of them. I had no idea who they were, but their style and attitude was so different from the British punks. That afternoon I took portraits of some of the legends of hip hop culture: Africa Bambaataa, Futura, Dondi, Rammellzee, Fab Five Freddie, Grandmixer DST, the Rock Steady crew. The show in the evening blew my mind, everyone was on stage together, graffiti writers, DJ’s, rappers, breakdancers, double dutch girls all performing, making art, it was brilliant! The story ran with my photos in Melody Maker later that week, the journalist didn’t agree with me, he thought Hip Hop was, “A passing craze like skateboards”.
A few weeks later, I went to visit a friend in NYC, and never left.
The show in the evening blew my mind, everyone was on stage together, graffiti writers, DJ’s, rappers, breakdancers, double dutch girls all performing, making art, it was brilliant!
PKM: You shot the record sleeve photo for the Go-Go’s single, “We Got The Beat.” It was just announced they are being inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How was your experience shooting them?
Janette Beckman: I became friends with the Go-Go’s; we did a lot of shoots together. They were always so much fun to work with. I am so happy they are getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The first all-female band to write their own material and play their own instruments. I saw them play at Summer Stage a couple of years ago and they were great.
PKM: Salt-n- Pepa’s song, “Push It” was ranked one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone. I love your shot of them in 1987. It definitely defines the style of the time. They were the first feminist lyricists that I ever heard as a young person. How was that experience? Did you see them blowing up in the future?
Janette Beckman: I met Salt-n -Pepa before they even had a record. We spent an afternoon hanging out on the Lower East Side taking photos for a British teen magazine. They asked me if I would take photos for their first record. That led to many shoots, including the classic 1987 shot. To me they were female power, answering the boys who were rapping about the girls ‘around the way’ with a female point of view with songs like ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’. We did the 1987 photo shoot at my studio, they arrived wearing those ‘8 Ball’ jackets (years later I found out were made by the one and only Dapper Dan), hoop earrings, gold chains and spandex; they looked amazing. We had a great make-up artist, Byron Barnes, on set, and we just started taking photos, having a good time. We had no idea that that those images would become iconic or that the band would become legends. Or that Hip Hop would be bigger than Rock n’ Roll.
PKM: Tell me the story of the little boy with a gun. His expression exuded the gruffness of a construction worker four times his age. Very cool.
Janette Beckman: I was working for Rough Trade Records, they asked me to take a photo for the Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers who were releasing their album, Inflammable Material. I wanted to find a kid on the street who would express something about growing up during the ‘Troubles’ in those violent conflict years in Belfast. I was walking around the streets of South London looking for a kid to photograph. It was past 6 pm and dark when I walked into the council house estate just south of the river and spotted this boy in his school blazer; something about him seemed just right, he pulled out his toy gun and I took the photo with my Hasselblad, using flash, I maybe shot 12 photos of him. The photo was used on a 7” single and a poster. His mom called the record company, we didn’t have permission, no model releases back in the day.
We had no idea that that those images would become iconic or that the band would become legends. Or that Hip Hop would be bigger than Rock n’ Roll.
PKM: Did you have a hard time getting established as a woman in the industry?
Janette Beckman: Working at Melody Maker from 1977-1982, it was male dominated rock n’ roll office, they didn’t really understand my ‘artsy’ sensibility; in retrospect, I think I had to deal with a certain amount of misogyny. Things that would now be called out were just accepted as a part of the business. All I wanted to do was photograph the bands and the scene so I ignored all the bullshit. When I came to NYC in 1983, I started working for the upstart hip hop labels and Paper magazine. Being a British woman was actually an asset. People did not travel so much in those days and they didn’t know what to make of me. Going to the Bronx to photograph rap artists, they were intrigued by my accent and wanted to know why I was there. It started conversations which led to trust and collaborations.
I started working for the magazines like Glamour and Nickelodeon, the photo editors were all female, they liked working with me. We were all about getting great portraits with no stress, collaborating to make it happen. I started shooting celebrity politicians, sports stars, writers, and actors.
In 2012, I became the NY photo editor for a British style and culture magazine, I could pitch stories I wanted to do like the ‘Go Hard Boyz’ Harlem bikers, the new jazz scenes, rodeo cowboys, etc. In recent years I started to work for Interview magazine and did campaigns for brands like Levis and Dior.
PKM: What other photographers and artists inspire you?
Janette Beckman: Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, Jamel Shabazz, Martha Cooper, Danny Clinch, William Claxton, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark, Jim Marshall, Steve Shapiro and so many more.
PKM: Do you have any exhibits coming up or new books?
Janette Beckman: Yes, I have a book coming out in November: Rebels From Punk to Dior. The book covers my four decades documenting rebel cultures, from punks to Hip Hop, East LA gangs, bikers, portraits of artists, writers, musicians, street portraits and fashion from Dior in Paris to Levis in Bed-Sty, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
*Janette Beckman is represented by the Fahey Klein Gallery.