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Capturing the Outliers of Society - In Conversation With Janette Beckman - Widewalls

Being on the front line of hyper-energized times, Janette Beckman documented the birth of not just one transformative musical subculture, but two. An acclaimed British photographer, she began her career at the dawn of punk rock working for influential music magazines Melody Maker and The Face, capturing the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash.

After moving to New York City in 1983, she became drawn to the underground hip-hop scene, capturing a prolific catalogue of burgeoning hip hop legends, from RUN DMC, Slick Rick, Salt-N-Pepa, Grandmaster Flash and Big Daddy Kane to LL Cool J, a young Queen Latifah, and Afrika Bambaataa. Having a disarming personality and a true fascination with rebel cultures she photographed, Janette created a compelling and honest document of turbulent times. She is represented by the Fahey Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.

Some of her best work will soon be published in one of the most complete anthologies of it kind. Titled Rebel, from Punk to Dior, the book summarizes in more than 240 pages and as many original photographs, the spirit of a generation that made history and continues to influence the world of fashion and the international collective imagination. 

We had a chat with Janette to learn more about this upcoming publication but also about her practice in general. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, she talks about capturing punk and hip-hop cultures, her approach to portraiture, youth rebel cultures today, and much more. 

From Punk to Hip Hop

Widewalls: You captured the emergence and development of British punk and the subculture which surrounded it in the 1970s and 80s. Could you tell us something about this moment in time in the UK?

Janette Beckman: Growing up in England we had hundreds of years of the British class system, the monarchy and upper classes ruling the country. In the 1970’s the economy was terrible, there was severe unemployment, people were desperate. The Conservatives government in power was shutting everything down. We hated the government then Punk came along and shattered all of that with a "fuck you" to the Queen and country. We needed a change.

For the first time British youth were rebelling.The Sex Pistols God Save the Queen came out in 1977 with lyrics that said: "There is no future in England's dreaming…. there's no future, no future for you."

Just out of art school I started documenting the rebel culture that was happening all around: Punks. Mods, Rockabilly, Skinheads, 2 Tone and Reggae bands. I was working for Melody Maker, a weekly music paper shooting two or three bands a week. My photos of the fans, kids on the street, were being featured in The Face magazine which was the first style and music mag to come out in the UK.

England is very embedded in tradition. I was very attracted to punk  – I thought it was going to change the country.

Widewalls: After moving to NYC in 1983, you began photographing the underground hip-hop scene and its pioneers. What do you think is the common thread between these two subcultures?

JB: New York in 1983 was a city with crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, drugs and rising crime. Like the UK, a new generation of young people had found their a voice and created Hip-Hop culture.

The 'Golden Era' was authentic — it came from the streets and people’s hearts. Everyday life was so tough, as described so vividly by Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five’s song The Message:

"Broken glass everywhere.

People pissing on the stage, you know they just don't care

I can't take the smell, can't take the noise

Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice

Rats in the front room, broke dudes in the back

Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat"

Times were hard, people decided they were going to express themselves through art and music and do things their way. Graffiti kids stealing out of their parents’ house at midnight, to go to a train yard to paint a train. Rappers writing poetry in their bedrooms, practicing on the streets to get tapped to rap on stage., DJ’s scratching and spinning, B Boys practicing the art of breakdancing, Dapper Dan making his own Gucci clothes up in Harlem. The creativity was coming from the streets and the community. 

Capturing the Outliers of Society

Widewalls: Your works are characterized by distinct honesty and realness. Could you tell us something about your working process and your approach to portraiture?

JB: All my portraits are a collaboration between me and the subject. I do not like to pose people. I am always trying to capture that moment in time. I love photographing people on the street and in their own environments, capturing the feel of the day, the sneakers they are wearing, a sign in a deli, a passerby, a car on the street can tell the story and help create that moment in history. Studio portraits are great too, they can be very intense, my portrait of Andre 3000 is a great example of the subject and the photographer forming that brief intense relationship with no distractions. 

I am a believer in working on your own projects regardless of whether you are being paid or not. During the pandemic lock down, I felt compelled to document the Black Lives Matter protests, It has always been important to me to document history as it happens.

Widewalls: You continue to document the outliers of society, from Manhattan-based dirt bike gang and an illegal girl fight club in Brownsville, New York to the hard-nosed rodeo riders of the River City Rodeo in Omaha, Nebraska and the Black Lives Matter movement. Why do you think it is important to tell these stories?

JB: I want to open eyes to the way communities live. People live in their own "bubbles" unaware of what is happening down the street let alone the rest of the world. It is important to tell these stories. For instance the "Go Hard Boyz" Harlem dirt bike riders were formed to keep kids away from drugs and give them a purpose in life. They are all about community. The rodeo riders are the same, they compete across the country from state to state, risking lives. The East LA gang I photographed seemed like a family to me, they looked out for one another. I think it is important to see the good in people.

Widewalls: Your new book Rebels, From Punk to Dior, spanning your forty-year-long career of photographing rebel cultures, is coming out in October. Can you tell us more about this publication?

JB: Rebels, From Punk to Dior is a 240 page monograph telling the story of my journey over forty years of taking photographs. Starting in the late 1970’s, it documents the British punk years, Hip-Hop’s "Golden Age", portraits of artists and creatives, the Mash-Up, gangs, street portraits, protests, Dior, Levis, Dapper Dan Gucci and more. 

I am honored to have some wonderful quotes from the likes of Sting, Salt-n- Pepa, Slick Rick, Maria Grazia Chiurri and Dapper Dan. We are hoping to make the connection between rebel street cultures and fashion.

As DonLetts said: "In England, where I come from, fashion and music go hand in hand."

Published by Drago, who are famous for their art books, the book will be available in October 2021. 

Widewalls: Your photographs are also featured in the recent publication "The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap". How did this collaboration come about?

JB: I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute some of my Hip-Hop photographs for this beautiful book, designed by my friend Cey Adams. 

I was one of a handful of portrait photographers documenting Hip-Hop in the eighties. I photographed so many  artists at the start of their careers like Run DMC, Salt-n-Pepa, KRS-One and LL Cool J for magazines in the UK and small record companies like Def Jam and Sleeping Bag. 

I was documenting the birth of a culture, a small underground scene that had time to marinate and grow in a time before MTV, the computer and social media. Now over thirty years later, my photographs of Salt-n-Pepa, Run DMC and LL Cool J are in the permanent collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Museum of the City of New York. Who could have imagined that Hip-Hop would be bigger than rock music?

A Prolific Career

Widewalls: It seems that rebel youth cultures are much less visible today than they used to be. How would you compare today’s rebels with those in the 70s and 80s? What do you think has changed in the social circumstances?

JB: Actually I think social media has changed everything. If you know which feeds to follow you can see rebel youth cultures around the world, rappers in Africa, punks in Russia, fashionistas in Tokyo, skateboarders in California, it is all there on Instagram, YouTube, Tic Toc etc. in real time.

Widewalls: What are you most proud of in your career so far? Also, are there some shoots that stuck with you?

JB: Recently brands that I only dreamed of collaborating with are a validation of my early years. 

Dior hired me to shoot campaigns "punk style" in Paris and London.

Levi’s commissioned me to shoot their 2018 worldwide campaign at a Hip-Hop style block party photographing breakdancers, DJ’s, double dutch girls, graffiti artists and models on the street. 

I have always been attracted to cultures and people who are passionate about doing things their own way regardless of society rules. I am proud that I have been able to follow my artist passion no matter what. 

Some of my favorite shoots are Run DMC and posse in Hollis Queens, the Hoyo Maravilla East LA gang photos, the Black Lives matter protests, a day with Keith Haring in his studio, the MashUp collaboration with New York graffiti artists reinterpreting my Hip-Hop photos and the Clash.

Widewalls: What’s next for you? Can you reveal some of your future plans and projects?

JB: in the works is a solo exhibition to go with the book at the Fahey Klein Gallery in Los Angeles in Spring 2022; a series of portraits of legendary women rock-n-roll artists; and Cafe Royal book about the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2012.