Punk to Dior
Janette Beckman’s photographic monograph honours the rebels shaping culture from the fringe
By J.L. Sirisuk
29 November 2021
It’s under the watch of an unprejudiced eye that the most honest tales are revealed. In her first monograph entitled Rebels: From Punk to Dior, we are witness to four decades of Janette Beckman’s profound work. Throughout her iconic career, Beckman has made a powerful impact on culture by placing a steady hold on society’s gaze, lovingly steering its focus onto the narratives of those molding culture from the margins of society – those with a vivacious beat of rebellion pulsating through their DNA. From the punks, mods, and skins of London and the pioneers of the hip-hop scene in New York, to the intimate portraits of those involved in the gang wars of East LA in the 80s, Beckman has managed to penetrate any sense of posturing to capture trust and openness in her subjects.
“Photography gave me a tool to approach people in the street and talk to people, to overcome my shyness and find out about their lives. It was a great thing, and I think to this day there’s nothing else I would rather be doing,” shares Beckman, who has made her mark in art, photojournalism, music, and fashion. From Salt-N-Pepa, The Clash, Run DMC, Blondie, campaigns for Dior, Gucci and Levi’s – she has documented the trailblazers of culture. There runs a consistency of honesty in her work, an unveiling of the grit, and a gentle spotlight on the beauty of imperfection. With the release of her monograph and an accompanying exhibition at Fotografiska in New York, we speak to Beckman about photographing London’s punks, gang turf wars in East LA, and what it takes to be a true rebel.
J.L. Sirisuk: Let’s jump back in time. How did the environment that you grew up in shape your views of the world and your creative approach to it?
Janette Beckman: I grew up in a suburb of London and my mum was kind of artsy. They sent me to an artsy school from the age of three to seventeen and that helped shape me a lot. We used to go on vacation to France and go to museums, so I generally saw a lot of art – school trips to the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I knew that at some point art was in my future, and it was an interesting time to grow up in England. You know, it’s a very old country and we have a class system in place. I was definitely a middle-class kid, and it’s a thing where you know your place. I was always fighting against that kind of order of society. I went to art school and wanted to be a painter and draw like David Hockney – he was the flavor of the moment at the time. I was living in a squat in South London and drawing all the time, and for some reason just didn’t think my drawings were good enough and switched to photography. When I came out of college, the punk thing was just starting to happen and you’d see punk kids on the street just looking so different. It was a rebellious time, and the country didn’t have money; there really was no future. When you heard Johnny Rotten singing No Future, he wasn’t joking, that was the truth and we were fighting against the order that had been in place all those years. I got a job teaching at a college where Johnny Rotten had just left, I was teaching dark room practice and showing them things like Diane Arbus, things they had never seen before.
JLS: Was that in the late 70s?
JB: I would say the mid-70s. I was fascinated with photographing kids on the street. One day I came out of teaching and there were these two kids standing against the wall in the playground, and I took a picture of them. I had my camera of course, and I started talking to them – they were identical twins, The Islington Twins. I’m friends with them to this day, which is incredible. That photo I took was maybe one of my first street portraits and it became kind of famous. It ran in the first issue of The Face, a full page, and they got a little famous and a few years later it was twelve foot high photo in the Victoria & Albert Museum in a show about style. That really started me off on photographing kids on the street, and street culture and rebel culture.
JLS: You captured the emerging scene of punks in London – and then you went to New York. What can you share about photographing the burgeoning world of hip-hop?
JB: I walked into a music paper, showed my portfolio and the lady that I met there, Vivien Goldman, was like, “Oh, go photograph Siouxsie and the Banshees tonight” – so that was the start of me photographing music. I’d always loved music, so I worked for Melody Maker and The Face from late ‘72 to ’82. In ‘82 I went to photograph the first ever hip-hop show to come to Europe. We didn’t know what hip-hop was, at that point punk was kind of on the wane and there was something different happening. I went to meet them, they were staying in a bed and breakfast near Victoria Station and I went down there to meet this hip-hop tour. I’d never seen people like that before – they were so positive and they looked amazing, they had this incredible style and I hung out with them all day. Then we went to the show at night and they were all on stage together, there were people doing graffiti, there were breakdancers, people rapping, DJs, all happening at the same time. It was really a mind-blowing experience for me – it changed my life. The people I photographed that day at the bed and breakfast became the grandfathers and grandmothers of a whole pop culture: Futura, Rammellzee, Dondi, Africa Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, The Double Dutch girls, the Rock Steady Crew.
A couple months after, I was going to visit a friend in New York, so I came over here and all of this stuff was happening all around. The trains were covered in graffiti, I was staying in a downtown loft full of artists and I started photographing the hip-hop scene. The British newspapers I worked for knew I was here, so they started saying, “There’s this new group, Run DMC, here’s a phone number. Go out to Hollis and take a picture of them.” I’d call up and it would be Grand Master Jay’s mom’s house. Jay would say, “Come meet me by the Hollis subway station.” I’d go on the train with my Hasselblad camera, meet Jay and he walked me down the street and there was Run DMC standing there with a bunch of their friends, and I took a picture of them. That picture became one of my most famous pictures. It was an incredible time to be in New York, there was so much going on. The city was vibrating. I It was just very vibrant and alive, sort of different from London where the punk scene was all about “fuck the system” and “we hate England, we’re depressed.” New York seemed more like “we’re angry, and we’re going to tell our story, but things are gonna get better.”
JLS: And it was such a different time before social media. There was more mystery and you were the lens into people’s worlds and their vibes.
JB: A lot of times I didn’t work with an assistant. I would just go with my camera and meet somebody. Because I wasn’t from there, I think it really helped being a woman. They didn’t have a preconception about me and we would just find out about each other. I really feel like my whole thing about capturing people and their culture is you want them to be authentic. I know it’s an overused word but I want them to be who they are, not who I think they are. This involves respecting people, trying to gain their trust within a few minutes, and capturing that moment.
JLS: In your book Rebels: From Punk to Dior, we see four decades’ worth of your work. This includes a period spent in LA. Being from LA, I used to hear stories about the gang wars of the 80s – how were you able to gain access to this world?
JB: It was really crazy because I was staying in LA with a friend. I was photographing a lot of the music scene and the LA Weekly came out with a story about this gang, the El Hoyo Maravilla gang, and for some reason I was really obsessed. There were no pictures, but it was interesting to me that there was this whole other culture going on in LA – there were the punks, there were Beverly Hills and all these different things, but here was something else happening. So I got in touch with the writer and he offered to take me out and introduce me to them. I go out there with him and there was this park called Hoyo Maravilla which means “marvellous hole.” It was basically this dusty park with a big wall of graffiti and that’s where the gang used to hang out. That day I brought a box of photos of English punks and mods and skinheads – people from England. I was like, “I’m a photographer from England. I photograph these gangs in London and I’d really love to photograph you guys and be able to show people in London what your lives are like.” For some reason, they seemed to accept that as a concept. I rented a car, and I would just go there every day for a month and hang out in the park with my Hasselblad camera and see who came. It was the summer, it was super hot, super dusty and there were always helicopters flying overhead. One kid asked me if wanted to go hang out at his mom’s house, so I’d go over and hang out with them and get pictures of them riding their bikes or they’d introduce me to their girlfriends. One time I was over in that part of East LA and they were doing graffiti on the wall when the cops came and they hustled me into their mom’s house and wanted me to hide. We hid upstairs because the cops were going to come and arrest us – me included, because I was there. Basically the mom fended off the cops and it was all good, but that was my only interaction with the police in LA. One of my favourite pictures is of the three girls standing in front of the car.
JLS: Ah, The Rivera Girls, I love that one.
JB: I love that one, too! These are just three girls that are friends with the gang. I found this out later because I published a book with Dashwood Books about the gang and it went up on social media in 2011, and the girls – ladies by now – saw the pictures and got in touch with me. I went to LA because I was having a show there in 2011 at HVW8 Gallery on Melrose and so I got together with them at the Homeboy Café. We were talking and they were like, “Yeah, we’d heard there was this crazy English lady coming down to the park to take pictures and we were just curious, so we came down and met you.” They were saying to me, “What colour was that car when you took the picture?” and I was like, “It’s black and white film, I don’t really remember.” They said, “If it was blue it was ‘83 because somebody got shot in the car and we had to repaint the whole thing.” This is how we were dating the picture – it was so crazy and they told me that 90 percent of the guys I photographed were either in jail or had been shot and killed. I found out a lot that day because not being from LA, I had no idea how dangerous it really was. I didn’t see guns, I wasn’t asking to see guns. When I had the show at HVW8, I invited those girls who are now ladies and one of them works at the DA’s office, one of them is in Human Resources and the other works in Homeboy Rehabilitation, so they’ve all done really well. It was so great to see them and be honoured that way.
“One time I was over in that part of East LA and they were doing graffiti on the wall when the cops came and they hustled me into their mom’s house and wanted me to hide.”
“You just need to be open and walk the world with your eyes open.”
JLS: Not only have you captured raw images, you’ve also done work in the commercial world. Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior described your photos as “narrating a female solidarity beyond stereotypes.” That really struck a chord with me because I see that throughout your work. How would you describe your photography in terms of what you bring to campaigns?
JB: Maria Grazia is an amazing woman and a strong feminist – I was so honored to work with her. I couldn’t believe the first time she brought me to Paris, it was for her first collection and we had this interaction where I arrived and had to go to a meeting with her. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be there for exactly, but I knew I was going to be taking photos. She said, “Janette, what do you want to do while you’re here?” – and it just popped into my head: “ I want to photograph the making of the clothes and putting together of the show, like I’m documenting backstage at a rock concert. I’m going to do everything in black and white.” She said, “Okay. Do what you want,” and gave me an All Access Pass. I spent a week photographing twelve or fourteen hours a day. One minute I’d be getting the tailors making clothes and the ladies sewing on sequins. I’d be photographing models waiting for their go-sees smoking cigarettes in the garden, and celebrities talking to Maria – the whole making of this collection. She brought me to London to photograph her collection on the streets where I’d photographed the punks years before. I’d never worked with a huge crew like that, so the most challenging thing was trying to get models not to pose as models but to be authentic like, “You’re a punk, you’re dressed really beautifully, but you’re a punk and maybe you’re a little bit angry, maybe you’re pissed.” They have their model pose, and trying to get them to be human beings was challenging. But I did it and that was an incredible experience. Maria [Grazia Chiuri] likes to collaborate and she let’s you do what you do, which is amazing. I’m really thrilled that she can see that energy through my photos.
JLS: Something that’s been consistent is your ability to capture the spark of rebellion in your subjects. To you personally, what does it mean to be a rebel?
JB: It means you walk your own walk, and you just do your thing’, as they used to say. Don’t be put off by people telling you it’s not the right thing to do, or that your work isn’t good. If you believe in it, you should follow your passion. A lot of people in these communities don’t come from wealth, they might have little to work with. Someone like Dapper Dan, for instance, I was lucky enough to photograph his Gucci collaboration. He always wanted to wear designer clothes and didn’t have the money, so he just decided to make his own Gucci clothes, that to me is very inspiring. There was no prescient for that and it was a hard road. Sometimes the road is hard and there’s no easy way. Sometimes as a photographer I had money, sometimes I haven’t, sometimes it’s a struggle but I’ve always felt that my path was clear to keep photographing. That’s all I ever really wanted to do.
JLS: Your work definitely encourages people to carve their own path and dig into honest stories.
JB: Thank you. I’m glad you think they’re honest. I always go with an open mind. Quite often I don’t do a lot of research because I want to see what’s there. I don’t want to read someone’s opinion, I want to just feel it when I’m photographing, and I think that helps the authenticity and honesty. You just need to be open and walk the world with your eyes open – see amazing things and meet amazing people. You just don’t know what it’s going to lead to, that’s a really beautiful thing.