13 October 2022
By Graeme Campbell
The Outliers and the Mavericks: Janette Beckman
Celebrated photographer Janette Beckman tells SLEEK the many tales of her impressive career and how these stories have shaped her understanding of identity.
Many scholars claim that national identity is a malleable phenomenon dreamed up to serve at the whim of a nation’s needs. For British people, this idea came into sharp focus during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the Eighties. As the island’s Empire faded, economic rot eventually took hold. In reaction, the Conservative government upped its jingoistic rhetoric, making allusions to historical glories – often cringeworthy – in what has been described as a kind of “national rebranding”.
Celebrated photographer Janette Beckman left the UK for America in 1983 – four years into Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher’s controversial 11-year reign as prime minister. In that time, she has watched governments fall, royalty pass and the Island leave Europe from afar. Beckman, meanwhile, took up American citizenship to vote for Barack Obama in 2004. So, what does the notion of Britishness mean to her identity in 2022?
“I mean, I don’t really think of myself as either [American or British],” says Beckman, talking over the phone in New York City. “When I was in art school and Punk was taking off, you didn’t have to identify and say exactly who you were or what you were. That said, I still have the accent and people always describe me as a ‘British’ photographer.”
In her early New York days, Beckman’s outsider status as a young woman with a foreign accent served as a tool for breaking the ice. “When I’d go out to the Bronx to photograph, say, the Ultramagnetic MCs, they’d be like, ‘Well, you ain’t from here.’ It would be a really useful thing because it starts a conversation.” From The Clash and Sex Pistols to hip-hop pioneers such as Salt-N-Pepa, Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C. and Afrika Bambaataa, Beckman’s career work is a documentation of society’s incendiary rebels. Beyond the music lies even grittier subject matter, from tracking down Mexican American gangs in East Los Angeles in the Eighties to, more recently, hanging out at women’s fight clubs in Brownsville. Situations where a person with even the most dulcet Albionic tones could wind up in trouble should they make a verbal misstep.
“Brownsville was one of the scariest shoots I did,” explains Beckman. “We were locked in this giant garage with pit bulls tied up in the back – it’s sponsored by the local drug dealers, so there were a lot of shady characters in there. But once you decide you’re going to do it, you can stand there being scared, or you can go out to the most badass-looking group of guys and go, ‘Hey, can I take a picture?’” Some people might see such an approach as naive, but perhaps the world would be a better place if everybody operated with a little less judgment. “People were being killed in [the LA turf wars] on a daily basis, which I didn’t know at the time,” says Beckman. “I was just fascinated by [the Hoyo Maravilla gangsters] and who they were, what they wore, and what they did during the day. We took pictures for a month. I’m a big believer that if you treat people with respect and share things with them, it works. It just works. It’s a great way to learn about the world, that’s for sure.”
If getting up close with America’s underbelly brought some jittery moments, Beckman’s fashion forays have led to a different kind of nerves. Having first worked with Dior in 2017, she now describes women’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri as a friend. “She’s a very big feminist, punk fan and she likes working with women.” Naturally, she first received the call while covering a festival in a “dodgy Detroit neighbourhood”, but still found the experience of a Sunday morning campaign shoot with models in London charmingly more daunting. “I had like four assistants, which I never have,” she explains. “It’s freezing cold and there’s 30 people watching you from behind. It’s a scary moment thinking that you could mess up.”
Fashion and music have always been inextricably linked, but as someone who has served at the vanguard of the West’s most explosive youth culture for so long, I’m keen to know Beckman’s thoughts on when it started to shapeshift so quickly. In her day, subculture tribes were identified by their band tees and DIY style, but now a lot of kids express their world outlook through conglomerate-owned brands – be it Balenciaga’s dystopian irony, Prada’s clinical futurism, or Gucci’s la-la-land nostalgia. Sometimes all at once. Then, almost overnight, the needle shifts to something else.
“When I started with hip-hop, for example, it was all little small labels that, you know, didn’t have a lot of money,” says Beckman. “People didn’t know who Run-D.M.C. was when I took my picture of them. Same thing with Salt-N-Pepa – I photographed them before they even had a record contract. But in the Nineties, bigger labels like Sony and everybody realised they could actually make a shitload of money from these bands. They started signing them, and then they started trying to control them more. That seemed to speed things up. Then came the internet and mobile phones. I mean, you know, that’s just the way the world is – things are moving faster and faster. In a sense, that’s okay. Gen X, Gen Z and whoever else have got to have their own thing, too – we had ours.”
Beckman’s “ours” differs from that of contemporary generations, given how it unfolded in real life. The metaverse, NFTs and crypto are essentially science fiction compared to the viscerality of the punk and hip-hop movements, yet both engender a similar anti-establishment ethos in the people who take part in them: that same desire to change something and bring some kind of fairness because the status quo is rewarding the few rather than the many. She sees unity in any kind of counterculture.
“Punk and hip-hop are so enmeshed because they’re both about taking a stance against what’s going on – there’s no jobs because the economy is shit, as many people are finding out today,” says Beckman. “When Johnny Rotten sang ‘No Future’ he wasn’t joking really. NWA sang ‘Fuck the Police’ because cops were stopping people of colour on the streets for no reason, and still are today.” Beckman was on the front lines documenting the Black Lives Matter movement, as she was with the likes of Occupy Wall Street. “These people are the true rebels,” she adds.
As our conversation begins to wind up, we come back to the matter of identity. Beckman is a true renegade force of our times, but it feels reductive to apply any kind of term to her character, be it American, British, feminist or whatever else. She just is. A proverbial global citizen who has made it her life’s work to document the outliers and the mavericks.
“Identity is a huge thing now – everybody has to identify – and it’s kind of anti the way that I grew up,” says Beckman. “When I was at a show, you could be whoever the fuck you wanted to be. You were accepted, you know, everybody loved you. Look at Bad Manners, with three teeth missing. It was the same with Siouxsie Sioux, where people said she’s trying to look like a boy. She’s not. She’s just Siouxsie Sioux. I think the whole identity thing puts people in boxes,” she says, before adding after a pause, “I’m not a fan of boxes.”
As featured in SLEEK 74 – IDENTITY. Available in print and digital here.
The British-born photographer Janette Beckman began her career at the dawn of Punk Rock working for music magazines. She shot bands from The Clash to Boy George as well as three Police album covers. Drawn to the underground hip-hop scene, she moved to New York in 1983 and photographed pioneers Run-D.M.C., Slick Rick, Salt-n-Pepa, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J and many more. Her work has been shown in museums and galleries worldwide. Beckman continues to chronicle subcultures.