“Her portraits prove that attitude never dies.”
—Vivien Goldman, Punk Professor, BBC America
As I enter her working loft home, one of the few left from the affordable days of SoHo, Janette Beckman is paging through a compilation of her work pausing for a moment for a quick gaze on the Sex Pistols shot in large dumpster in London, she remarks in her smoky English accent, “Johnny Rotten said; “ You don’t write a song like ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race, you do it because you love them.” She looks up and laughs with contentment. Janette loves rebels with a cause and without. Subcultures who have made their lasting impression on the world as voices of a generation. From the 60’s, Mod to Punk to Hip Hop to the Gangs of East LA, Janette has captured what feels like a lifetime of emerging cultural movements and icons. She is wistful as we talk, reminiscing on days past when “going viral” only pertained to the flu, and the creative economy was fueled more by angst than dollar signs. “Being “sponsored” used to be considered lame, and counter to the culture,” she said, “Now I have to look much harder to find the rebels. But I know they’re there,” she smiles, and I know I’ll find them.”
CHRISTINA LESSA: Was music your original passion in terms of your photography?
JANETTE BECKMAN: Yep, I always loved music and the rebellious innovative art, style and culture that surrounded it. I’ve been lucky enough so far, to witness a few different creative Renaissance periods through Mod, Punk, and Hip Hop.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’re from London originally. Did you go to art school there?
JANETTE BECKMAN: I grew up in London, North London, and I went to this kind of elementary artsy school called King Alfred School. I went to the same school from the age of three to seventeen. They had science and stuff, but I wasn’t very good at that. I always knew I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to go to art school. My Mom was like, well, you have to do secretarial courses. You never know what’s going to be useful. So I was forced into doing that when I left school. I was the youngest in my class and the smallest in my class, and I was pretty shy. Because I was there for such a long time, when I left school I decided I didn’t want to be that shy, shrinking, type of person. So I changed and blossomed, and eventually I actually got to go to art school, which was pretty cool.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Who were you listening to back then? Did the Beatles have an impact on you?
JANETTE BECKMAN: Growing up in London, it was a thing, you either liked the Beatles or you liked the Rolling Stones, and of course I gravitated toward the Rolling Stones, because they were rebels. I remember watching them with my mom, and saying, “they all got their A levels Mom, these are smart guys.” and she said, “but they don’t talk properly and they’re rough, you know, their hair’s not combed,” I’m thinking.. no, those are the greatest guys. So, I was a big Rolling Stones fan. And I had a cousin who was a year older than me, that was really into Pink Floyd and all of that stuff, and he disappeared off to South America leaving all his record collections. So I inherited them and I got to listen to all of that rock stuff. I was a massive Motown fan. All along I really always loved soul music, this was of course in the 60s, and soul was huge, and in London. I remember when, the Motown people came and we just thought they were so amazing. I would always be down at Woolworth’s getting the latest 45 of Diana Ross and the Supremes or whoever it was.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was it like making your way as an artist in London in the 60’s and early 70’s?
JANETTE BECKMAN: I came out of art school and I’d been at Saint Martin’s, which is like a really good art school, and then I went to London College of Printing to do photography. I was living in sort of a squat in South London at that point and I was very loose, and, you know, pretty much pot smoking, whatever. A squat is, was, a house basically where you lived illegally, but in the house that we had, we lived sort of legally, the rent was, like, $8 a week. So, there was a bunch of us art students living there and it felt like kind of a crazy time. I started working in the local youth club teaching, which was great. I was teaching photography to kids and teenagers. And that’s when I first started to photograph the Mods. Because during that time in South London, there was a big Mod culture. Kids would turn up wearing shark-skin suits and girls wearing dresses with their mom’s pearls and I got to photograph them. So I started photographing all the kids that came to the school. It was really a youth club. And I was also teaching at this place that was a secondary school. Johnny Rotten had just left there. It was that kind of a more creative school. One day, I came out in the schoolyard and these two guys were standing there and, they were an eyeful. Twins! I think their parents were from Nigeria, and they were the sharpest dressed people I’d ever seen in my life. I had the first camera that I had just bought with me. “Can I take a picture?”, I asked. A few years later that ended up being a full page in the first issue of The Face Magazine, and then a few years after that, it was a 12-foot high image in the Victoria and Albert Museum, at an exhibition about style. So, that picture became iconic, and it was, pretty much the start of my documenting style. And then, around 1977, I walked into this music paper called Sounds with my portfolio.
I met this editor there, Vivien Goldman. And she said, “I like your work. What are you doing tonight, can you go photograph Siouxsie and the Banshees?” I got sent to go photograph Siouxsie and the Banshees. I’d never photographed a band in my life before. I came back with the shots and she’s like, these are good, here’s another job for you. And sooner or later I was working. That was the start of my music career.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Can you talk a little bit about the early period of Punk as a class revolution?
JANETTE BECKMAN: I grew up during the hippie years and the Punk years and it was all about revolution and change. They have this whole class system in England, and the Punk years just changed everything. They overturned that whole system, and I was part of it. I think that started my whole rebel culture attraction. At that time it was right around ‘76, ‘77. Punk was just busting out. Punk, you’d see kids with giant mohawks walking in the street, you know, safety pins and kids walking around in union jacks, dressed in garbage bags, and just the whole style and docs and everybody was buying stuff from Army and Navy, and you know nobody had any money, and it really was a kind of dark and dreary time in London. Everybody was broke, there were no jobs for kids, and the economy was terrible and, you know, it was pretty kind of hopeless if you were a teenager coming from a working class background because up until that time British society was pretty strict. In the UK, you’re born in the working class, you stay in the working class. You’re born in the middle class, that’s where you are, or you were upper class, in which case you could become a member of parliament or work for the BBC. And I was middle class and I was an art school student, so I was already rebellious, but kids were actually starting to protest and say this isn’t right. And, you know, giving the finger to the Queen and country and the way things had always been in England. That presiding society, people were just fed up with it. So, that was all busting out and all its amazing music was coming out. Crazy stuff, you know, and people jumping on stage and spitting, and all of that. And the great thing about Punk music was you didn’t have to be a brilliant classically trained musician or anything. It was almost like you couldn’t play an instrument but you could jump up on stage and be a punk. I got a job actually with a friend of mine who had been in college with, and we were assigned to photograph this new great group called the Sex Pistols. We just spent the day with them kind of walking around London. They’d jump into a dumpster, we’d take a picture of them. You know, they’d be like, “Oh, what should we do? Push an old lady off a bicycle?” I mean, they were trying to be rebellious but in kind of a goofy way. And then we got to photograph them practicing in Tin Pan Alley. You know, they were great. They were really great. It was just a fun day hanging out with the Sex Pistols. Nobody knew what was going to happen, obviously, what was going to happen to Sid and so on. Later on when Sid died, I got to document the Sid Vicious memorial march, which, just took over the whole of London. It was this huge mourning, I can’t remember what year it was, 1980 or something, and it just dramatically showed how Punk had taken over the whole place, because there were masses of Punks, and Rock a Billy kids and Teddy boys. Everybody came out for Sid when he passed away. So, you know, we didn’t know when we were doing those initial photos what was going to happen.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So how did you make the transition from London to the US?
JANETTE BECKMAN: I’d been working for Melody Maker, I guess for about five years by then, around 1982, we kind of knew Punk was on the wane, and, you know, the blitz kids were coming in, the new wave, and the first ever Hip Hop show came to London. And it was the most amazing experience. I got the job to go and photograph them and I went to the hotel and hung out with them during the afternoon. And they were graffiti writers and D.J.s and double-dutch girls and break-dancers. And it seemed like this whole Renaissance, and it just kind of blew my mind. The show was so incredible. And it was Bam Batta and Futura, also Fab Five Freddy was there. I mean, it was just an incredible review. And that Christmas, I ended up coming to New York to stay with a friend that I’d met in art school. And I was suddenly immersed in all of it… the kids rhyming on the street with beatboxes, trains covered in graffiti, kids selling mix tapes on the street.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What year was this?
JANETTE BECKMAN: Christmas of 1982, it was an amazing time to be in NYC. I was living on Franklin street in a loft, the windows faced the alley of The Mudd Club. Everything was happening around, it was really exciting. It was the Hip Hop thing and the Punk thing. And I was just kind of in the middle of it, surrounded by artists. Of course, Franklin street in those days wasn’t Tribeca. It really was a deserted area. It was the same feeling that I’d felt in London at that time where the economy was really terrible. Kids were actually giving a voice to the voiceless. Kids rebelling and saying there’s nothing for us and we’re going to talk about it, which felt somewhat shocking at that time. You had people like Slick Rick telling stories, which was shocking to the rest of the population. People always think America, the American Dream, the streets are paved with gold, but for once it seemed to be people describing how they weren’t paved with gold. And, you know, it was kind of dark days, but it was amazing; it was an amazing creative time. Recently I’ve come to document a lot of graffiti artists, and hearing stories about how if you were a graffiti artist back then, you were 15 years old, you’d have to go to the paint store, steal the paint, go to a train yard in the middle of the night, climb illegally into the train yard, and go paint the train illegally in the pitch black, but you want to do that because you’re an artist. I mean, it’s very inspiring in a way. And I think bad economic times inspire people to reach further, don’t you?
CHRISTINA LESSA: Yes! Not only with the economy, humans are always changing and evolving and the artists’ work acts as the proof. It always starts with the artists, hard times fuel creativity and these creative movements force change. It’s exciting to hear first hand accounts from someone who’s lived through so much change.
JANETTE BECKMAN: Yeah rock bottom, change in general, it makes people very creative. And if you don’t have anything, you create your own reality. It’s the same thing with the punks. They didn’t have money so they were wearing garbage bags. And here, you know, people are stealing paint to make art, you know, or stealing electricity to play music on the streets. People became a lot more politically aware, because you kind of realize after a bit that things have to change and unfortunately politics seems to be the way things will change, which, I guess is how come we all voted for Obama? After Bush had been in for two terms, I think people were really fed up with it. I know that I myself became a citizen specifically to vote out George Bush, and it worked I think. When things get really bad, people start rising up. That’s a great thing. Art is obviously always at the forefront of that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: This is why arts support is so crucial.
JANETTE BECKMAN: Art school is free in England. It’s so wrong to me that all students here are in such a bind to follow their path financially. It’s so, so wrong. In a certain way money and Art, I don’t know if they really go together. I missed a couple of years, but when I got here in 1982, Hip Hop was really fresh and it was coming from the street. It was coming from the hearts of kids who had something to say. Of course people wanted to make money because they have to live, but it wasn’t just about making money.
I documented hip hop from, like, ‘82 to ‘91, and just around that time, I felt like things were really changing. It was a lot more about money and a lot more about big business and record companies coming in and huge amounts of money being thrown at certain artists. It kind of changes the whole feeling of it. And it’s the same with art these days. I think there’s a huge resurgence actually of street art right now, which is great, but unfortunately in the higher art market, there’s all these investment bankers who will only by a piece of art if they know that it has a certain value, if they know somebody else has just paid $200,000 for it. Then they’re going to pay $300,000, and people don’t buy art because they love it. They’re buying it because it’s worth money and they can resell it, which, to me is so totally wrong. It’s just coming from the wrong place. I mean, artists are important and having the opportunity to develop your art, it saves so many people’s lives. I know a lot of artists personally who come to me with stories of, “I was a junky and, you know, I discovered photography and it saved my life.” There are many, many stories like that.
I just was in Omaha at this residency there, and as part of it, I did community practice. We went to North O., which is the African American community there; I think it’s one of the poorest communities in the country. We’re trying to give out cameras to have kids document their daily lives, we were working with a spoken word person called Felicia Webster who’s amazing. I think it’s really important that people reach out to poor communities and get kids to do art, to express themselves. I think if you grow up and you don’t see much future for yourself, being an artist is an incredible thing. It can help you. More money should be put into the arts.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s fantastic that you were able to cover the Punk/post- Punk scene on both sides of the pond. London straight to NYC! New York has become so polished. When I moved here for college, I bought back my own stolen bicycle at Astor Place. That was back when 42nd Street housed only karate and porn movies. Anyone that has moved here post 2000 has no clue..JANETTE BECKMAN: I used to, back in the day, really love going to Times Square. You’d see like a couple of movies for five bucks and you’d get a take-out chicken and eat it in the movie theater and there would be rats running around, but it was great. It had a great gritty atmosphere. I think it’s lost a lot of its flavor. But then it’s strange because I have a lot of friends coming from Europe, actually my friends’ kids who are now in their late 20s, come and live here and love it and think it’s the most exciting place in the world. So maybe, although things change, things also develop and it’s not always a bad thing. And in NYC, the cool thing is that there are always new neighborhoods to discover. So it makes people creative in some ways. That’s a good thing.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What were some of your first US assignments?
JANETTE BECKMAN: When I first moved here, all the British magazines that I’d been working for, like the Face and Melody Maker, they all found out I was here and being Brits they’re so on the case, they’ve got to shoot the latest band before anybody else. So I get this phone call going, there’s this band called Run D. M. C., and I’d never heard of them. And they were like, they’re in Hollis, so here’s the phone number, it was way before pagers or cell phones–just call. And I called this number, and I think it was Jam Master J.’s phone number, so I call up, he’s like, “Yeah, come to the train station, Hollis.” And I didn’t know if Hollis was going to be like the South Bronx or what kind of neighborhood it was, but I had my Hasseblad, which was kind of an expensive camera, which was probably the most valuable thing I owned, ever. I get on the train, I go to Hollis, I come out, and there’s Jam Master J. waiting for me outside the train station, oh, you know, we’ll just walk down the road here. And I was shooting for the Face Magazine. I had my camera ready and loaded and Hasseblad is 12 shots, so, you know, you’ve got to be more careful, it’s not like these days with digital where you got hundreds of shots. And I walk around the corner and there’s this tree lined street, and a bunch of guys just hanging around, you know, in the street and I’m like, okay, hi. And they’re just standing there. I take the shot. I took maybe five shots, and, it was a real hang out shot. And I feel like, maybe one of the greatest pictures I ever took in my life, to be honest. Just because, they’re not styling, they’re just hanging out, they’re hardly posing. It was just a kind of sunny day with dappled sunlight in Hollis. It’s really simple. And I kind of love that about it. And when you look at that shot now, just even the styling alone, like, people look at it and go, oh, yo, that’s those a Adidas sneakers, no laces and look the Kangol hat, and Gazelles, it’s just so much that moment in time, which I think is something I’ve always tried to capture in my photos.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Did you ever break through to American Rock and Roll, Top 40 Celebrities?
JANETTE BECKMAN: Funny because when I first came to New York, I had done two Police covers, I had a lot of record covers, you know. I had so many bands, The Undertones, Boy George, pretty much everybody from the punk era. I’d already shot The Clash. I knew who Annie Leibovitz was, and I thought, I’m going to come here and kind of get a lot of work like A. L.. So I started going around big record companies like CBS. and so on with my portfolio, I could not get work. Nothing. I couldn’t understand it. They said, we like your stuff but it’s too raw. It’s too, you know, it’s – we use air-brushing here, and in your pictures you can see zits on people’s face, their hair isn’t combed–it was punk. It was lucky I loved hip hop because, I started to work for all the little labels which was great. But as far as shooting big artists, I couldn’t get it. Sooner or later my portfolio was full of pretty much rappers. I’d go back again and some of them were huge. I had Run D. M. C., I had L. L., I had Salt-N-Peppa, and I went back to the labels and they’re like, oh, now you’ve got too many black faces, we can’t show this to rockers. It’s just so strange, the perception here. It was really foreign to me. I think — that was probably in the mid 80s, mid to late 80s.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s over now. Diversity is the norm. It’s come full circle.
JANETTE BECKMAN: Yeah, it’s come full circle. It was very interesting. I had no idea that you guys had black charts and white charts, which was just a totally foreign experience to me. But as far as my own work now, it’s definitely come full circle. A brand like Kangol will call me to do their campaigns, specifically because I have pictures of L. L. Cool J. and Run D. M. C., and I think I get a lot of brand work for that. Or somebody loves my Punk pictures. So it’s actually great. So all the kind of things that were actually considered no-no’s back in the day are finally being seen as important from a perspective of history. And I’m actually getting work from that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Photography has changed so much. It’s become the ultimate manipulation between Photoshop and product placement. You don’t see many documentary style photographers anymore.
JANETTE BECKMAN: Well, back in the day, you would just go and photograph a band and there were no stylists, there was no hair or make-up, there was no manager breathing down your neck, or even art director. You’d just get sent off, you know, go and meet so-and-so on such and such a train platform. And take a picture. And I feel like every day people get up every morning and they pick out what clothes they’re going to wear. I guess I decided to wear this T-shirt for you guys, specifically, and it’s important it kind of expresses who you are. When stylists come, we love them and they’re bringing some 5,000-dollar coat for you to put on. That’s cool too for a magazine like Interview, it really works well, but if you really want to do a portrait of something, I personally think it’s better not to have stylists. In all my portraits, people just turn up as they are, which to me is great. It’s part of your expression. All those kids that I documented back in the day, the punks and the hip hop kids and the mods and the Rock a Billies, that’s now history, it’s 40 years later…30, 40 years later. I’m not really a big fan of selfies either, for that very same reason. Everybody’s got to look fabulous and say, “here I am at such-and-such a concert with my beautiful friends smiling and looking perfect, and I got shopped out my zit that I had on the end of my nose.” I mean, people are just erasing all their character, I guess.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What do you think that’s a result of a desire for perfection?
JANETTE BECKMAN: I think it’s a result of magazines, women’s magazines. You go to a newsstand and you look at magazines, and men’s magazines. You look at the covers, all the faces are the same. They’ve erased everything. People don’t have lines. You’re supposed to be 70 years old and you’re supposed to look like you’re 20. It’s ridiculous. I think it’s, like, role models are just completely wrong. And I personally don’t believe in perfection. In fact, I don’t even like perfection. I don’t like perfect-looking people. I find it very boring and bland looking. So, you know, for me it’s just kind of ruining the whole documentary aspect of what I do. And I feel it’s very important that we should document life as we know it. I grew up looking at paintings from the 17th century, 18th century, portraits of lords and people working the field and that. That’s how you knew what was going on back in those days. People are just going to look at photographs, of our time and think, everybody just looked like plastic Barbie dolls. Everyone is afraid of aging.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Dying and aging…
JANETTE BECKMAN: Yeah. I know it’s really a shame. And, you know, people aging, that shows what your life was.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Who do you think the rebels, the creative heroes are right now?
JANETTE BECKMAN: It’s a difficult question. I think any artist who’s pursuing that — people who are pursuing their passions, to me, are heroes. And that’s really important. Whether that passion be, you know, you’re a painter or you’re a writer or even a scientist–all sorts of things. People who just are going for what they do. I mean, last year I went for jocks and nerds to photograph this, this group they called the Go Hard Boys. They ride dirt bikes in New York City, which is illegal. And, sorry, I just said that. They’re a bunch of guys that are trying to keep kids off the street and they’re passionate about their dirt bikes. And that, to me, is an incredible thing, that they’re a group of guys, they’re anti-drug, and they live to ride. And I think that’s a great thing. I think it’s the passion.
I have a lot of respect for a lot of up-and- coming artists. Right around Christmas- time I shot Angel Haze for Out magazine. I have so much respect for her. She’s out about everything in her whole lifestyle, and she’s a really strong woman. She’s got her whole career in hand. And she’s 22 years old. I think she’s really amazing and her work is amazing. That black synagogue song is just mind blowing. So, you know, people like that now, they might be my heroes. There’s a lot of them coming out. One of the photographers I think has done amazing work and is a cultural hero of mine is this photographer Jamal Shabaz. He was a guy who, back in the 80s, worked as a corrections officer, and on his way to work he would shoot. He had like a Polaroid camera at one point, I think. He would shoot people that he bumped into on the street and a lot of his friends. And these photos were published in this book back in the day, and it’s just an amazing document of, you know, teen street life from that era. And I just admire him so much and he’s still doing what he used to do. He’s still documenting people. He and I talk a lot, because we have a similar kind of aesthetic about when you approach people on the street, you treat them with respect. I was with him in Prospect Park last year because I was doing a portrait of him, and he goes up to people and he’ll say, “I’m Jamal Shabaz, I want to take a photograph of you. I see greatness in you.” I mean, who can resist that. You know, that’s like the most beautiful thing to me. I mean, I’ll go up to somebody and go, “Hi, I’m Janette, I’m here in Omaha, Nebraska, and I’m doing a portrait of the people of Nebraska, you’re amazing.” It’s a similar thing and that’s how you get people to give you something. You have to give them something and respect is, like, I think the number one thing. You always thank people after you take their portrait, and let them know that no matter who they are, you feel that they are important. Respect is everything.