Documenting Punk: ‘On shooting The Sex Pistols first gig at the ICA and more’
2016 marks 40 years of punk. PUNK London: 40 years of subversive culture is a program of exhibitions, lectures and events around punk, backed by some of London’s leading cultural organisations.
To celebrate this, McQ spoke to Sheila Rock, Don Letts and Pam Hogg, who all contributed to punk’s movement in London and abroad.
Jeannette Lee, Sheila Rock and Don Letts
Sheila Rock is a photographer known for her large archive of punk photographs from the 70s and 80s. Her latest exhibition at the CHELSEA Space, ‘From Punk to the English Sea’ (28th September – 28th October), showcases a series of new and archive portraits, featuring the female punk icon Jordan (Pamela Rooke), who played a key role in London’s punk movement.
She was the muse for artists such as Derek Jarman and became well known for her association with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX – a boutique on the famous King’s Road. Rock hadn’t seen Jordan since the late 70s and they met for the first time in forty years for the exhibition. New portraits of Jordan were also commissioned to mark the occasion.
In 2013, FirstThirdBooks published PUNK+, a document of London’s 70s punk scene featuring works by Rock. Exhibitions followed in London, Berlin and Paris and in 2014 the project embarked on a global tour to Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Photographer Sheila Rock moved from the United States to London in the 1970s.
Just after moving to the UK, Sheila introduced her then husband Mick Rock to the editors at Rolling Stone Magazine and he was asked to shoot and interview several artists for the magazine. David Bowie was one of them.
Within the year, Mick was asked to join David Bowie’ s Ziggy Stardust tour as his personal photographer and together they travelled throughout America.
‘We ended up meeting the Ramones, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith’s band and I thought, something incredible was happening.” Shortly after, Rock found herself amongst the biggest UK punk icons and bands such as the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux and the Clash. ‘I was just at the right place at the right time. “
The Clash at the ICA – Esther Dior and Joe Strummer
Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1976
Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1976
Sid Vicious – August 1978
After the Bowie tour, Sheila returned to the UK whilst Mick stayed in the US. ‘I was on my own and ended up walking on King’s Road. I went down to ACME clothing (the iconic shop managed by Donn Letts, which provided clothing to many reggae and punk musicians) and met the ‘Don’ of ACME Don Letts. ‘Don was full of stories and introduced me to everyone from Billy Idol to Siouxsie. I always had my camera on me and I just kept taking photos’.
Contrary to what some might believe, the young punk icons (some exceptions!) were very welcoming. ‘It was very organic and everyone was very awkward in their coolness, no one was famous at the time’. Rock doesn’t believe a movement such as punk could emerge today. ‘Everything has become so public and readily available and there’s a general sameness today. Punk wasn’t about that. It was much more radical. You could be part of it but it was very much a secret. There wasn’t a thing such as Instagram.’
Rock was always attracted to outsiders and mavericks and believes her attitude helped her to gather the now iconic punk images. ‘I was never part of a tribe, I just floated around and picked people I wanted to hang out with.’ Her tenacity to keep going made her witness and shoot The Clash’s first gig at the ICA. ‘I asked their manager Bernhard Rhodes whether I could shoot them. It was so easy – I just went around and shot their portraits. I was quite bossy!’ They used one of the images to announce their first gig at the Roxy, but the next time Rock planned to shoot them, they weren’t there. ‘I remember there was another band called Subway Sect, really young boys, still in school. And I thought, I have travelled halfway through London so I’ll just shoot them.’ The band has become a cult band ever since and Rock’s images are probably one of the few images ever taken of the band.
Rock was one of the very few women in punk at the time. She believes this strengthened her position as a photographer and made it possible for her to be accepted by so many musicians and now punk icons. ‘I was pretty easy going and knew with people like Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols (now John Lydon) when to stop and know my time was up.’
While working on the images over the years, it never occurred to Rock that she was documenting an important part of history. ‘Time has given a gravitas to the images.’
Rock has a large archive of unused images both of the punk movement and many classical musicians. Does she regret not being able to shoot anyone? ‘Yes, Barry White! He was so over the top and funky, I think he would have made a great portrait.’
Rock has one rule: ‘I had to be somehow into the music or look. That’s why I never shot heavy metal. Apart from one time. I was asked the day before to wear a skirt on the day. Of course I didn’t.’
Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and John Lydon
John Simon Ritchie later known as Sid Vicious
Tracey O’Keefe and Debbie Juvenile – Generation X gig. December 1976 | Sharon Hayman
Rock’s exhibition at the CHELSEA space runs till 28th October.
For more information on Sheila Rock and the exhibition please visit: