As a child growing up in London in the 1960s, Janette Beckman visited the National Portrait Gallery. Entranced by the portraits of people from distant times and places, she instinctively knew that’s what she wanted to do. “I was always fascinated by people,” she remembers. “I’d see them at the bus stop on the way to school but I was too shy to talk to anybody, so I’d stare at them. My mother would say, ‘Don’t stare,’ but I couldn’t help myself.”
Drawn to the irrepressible expression of style, character, and personality, Beckman forged ahead with her dream of becoming an artist. In the early 1970s, she enrolled at Central St. Martins to study art while living in a semi-squat in Streatham, South London, with her classmates. “We lived on four floors, shared a bathroom, and there was no heat — but my rent was only £5 a week,” she recalls.
Beckman’s foray into photography happened by sheer serendipity. “We would sit around drawing each other endlessly,” she says. “My dear friend Eddie was a fantastic artist; he could draw as well as David Hockney. I would look at his work, then mine, and realize I was never going to be that good. When the end of the school year came, I had to decide what I was going to do, and I thought, I’ll try photography.’”
I Fought the Law
After enrolling in photography school, where she was just one of three women in the class, Janette Beckman quickly realized she didn’t want to learn by instruction — she wanted to do it herself. Determined to chart her own path, Beckman gave herself portrait assignments, and only went into class to learn the things she needed to know, like how to make prints.
“I was in my really rebellious stage,” says Beckman, who followed this guiding light throughout her career. Her love for subversives, innovators, and activists is collected in the new book, Rebels: From Punk to Dior, which brings together four decades of photographs celebrating artists, musicians, and movements on the fringe that have redefined mainstream culture and society.
Beckman’s photographs have played a seminal role in these seismic shifts — one so undeniable that institutions are finally taking note. In a truly full circle moment, earlier this year, the National Portrait Gallery acquired four Beckman prints of British musicians including the Specials and Laurel Aitken as part of “Inspiring People,” a major curatorial redevelopment project to represent cultural and gender diversity across both sitter and artists.
By the time Janette Beckman graduated college in the mid-1970s, England had fallen into dire straits. The economy had collapsed and racial strife was reaching a fevered pitch, while IRA bombs caused rampant destruction. “When Johnny Rotten sang, ‘No Future,’ he meant it,” Beckman says of the Sex Pistols’ song, “God Save the Queen,” which made it all the way to Parliament for a discussion of whether it met the grounds of the Treason Act.
As a new wave of punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash began to emerge from art schools, they confronted the ethos of British life, thumbing their nose at notions of class and propriety. Decorum was out and destruction was in. Polite society was about to get the shock of its life when Steve Jones cursed out host Bill Grundy on live television. “The Filth and the Fury!” the Daily Mirror memorably raged on its front page to what now seems fairly mundane.
But in the mid-1970s, the punks, mods, skinheads, and rockers that caught Beckman’s eye were the beginning of a massive revolution in music and style. “I had a little darkroom in what is now Covent Garden around the corner from Melody Maker,” she says. “On the block was the Roxy, a famous punk club. I used to see people hanging out wearing garbage bags and bondage pants, army surplus and safety pins.”
Impressed, Beckman began making portraits of people she encountered on the street, which offered the perfect counterpoint to her burgeoning career as a music photojournalist. Following the D.I.Y. ethos that guided her life, Beckman decided she wanted to photograph musicians for Sounds, a weekly music magazine. “I walked into the office unannounced and said that I wanted to see the photo editor,” Beckman remembers.
Vivien Goldman — now is known as the Professor of Punk — was then working as a features editor and looked through Beckman’s portfolio. Liking what she saw, she gave Beckman a job: shoot Siouxsie and the Banshees and Spizz Oil at the Roundhouse that evening. Beckman took the gig, knowing she’d never shot live music before but confident she’d be able to figure it out. After she made the photos, she hightailed it back to the darkroom to print and delivered the pictures the next day.
Rock the Casbah
Both Janette Beckman and Vivien Goldman decamped to Melody Maker, the UK’s premier weekly music magazine. “There were two or three women on the entire staff,” Beckman recalls. “Once again, it was mostly blokes, the kind that used to go down to the pub and get pissed. They would tuck their jeans into cowboy boots, not in a cool way.”
Beckman, ever the rebel, would show up at the office in a t-shirt, pajama bottoms and Converse sneakers. The male photographers reveled in the established acts, flying on private planes to see Led Zeppelin perform. “They would throw the crumbs, like, ‘Oh Janette, there’s this punk band called Adam and the Ants. You can take a picture of them.’ It was great for me. Vivien and I did a story on Johnny Rotten after he left the Sex Pistols and started PiL. I went to Milan to photograph the Clash,” she says.
“I didn’t get paid a lot, maybe £50, but I didn’t mind the work. I loved to run around with the band for two days, come back to develop the film, edit from the contact sheet, and make prints. I’d be up all night listening to music on my huge boombox, drinking cappuccinos, and eating cookies and chocolate. The illustrator next door would bang on the wall and I’d go over to his studio, smoke a joint, and go back to work.”
In December 1982, Janette Beckman flew to New York to spend the holidays with some friends, fell in love with the city, and never left. “I loved the energy, the music, the style, the streets, and the fact that people would talk to you,” she says with a laugh. “New Yorkers are very open and out there – unlike English people. You could live in a small town in England for 10 years and people might nod to you but here they all want to be your friend. In New York, you could be really down on your luck but still have the sense that something could change and things could get better.”
Indeed, anything is possible as Beckman would soon find out. After having success in the UK shooting the music scene, including photographing a couple of album covers for The Police, Beckman began visiting music labels hoping to get work. “I had my portfolio with the Clash and Boy George, and thought I was headed for the big time, flying around in private jets photographing the likes of Madonna,” she says.
But the gritty glamour of rebel culture didn’t quite jibe with the art directors, who were looking for fantasy, illusion, and airbrushed perfection. Once again Beckman found herself aligned with the upstarts. Hip Hop, which started on the streets of the Bronx was making its way downtown — but the record labels weren’t ready for the new style and sound of Black America. To fill the void, independent labels like Def Jam and Sleeping Bag began popping up, signing a new slew of artists who were in need of record covers and publicity shots. Beckman was just the woman for the job.
From Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” to Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car,” Janette Beckman was a singular force helping to craft the look of 1980s America. She shot New Edition’s “Candy Girl” and the B-52’s “Love Shack” — not to mention countless editorials for ultra hip magazines like Paper and The Face. You could be eating Sunday brunch, paging through the Daily News Sunday Magazine, and come across a Janette Beckman spread featuring photos of Keith Haring.
“I like people who follow their passions and their beliefs no matter what, whether that’s the Go Hard Boyz, a dirt bike club based in Harlem and the Bronx or the El Hoyo Maravilla gang in East L.A. Whether it’s rodeo riders or the cast of Pose, it’s like a family. I like sitting down with people and having amazing conversations. These people have been doing their thing all their lives and so have I,” Beckman says.
“Sometimes you get recognition for it and sometimes people tell you what you’re doing is rubbish — but you have to keep doing it. For me, photography is an obsession and an addiction, perhaps. Sometimes you have money and sometimes you don’t but you just keep doing what you do. There’s no choice in the matter. You can’t help yourself.”
Rebels: From Punk to Dior is published by Drago, 60€.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.