BY MIN CHEN
Sheila Rock lived through British punk’s heyday—and has the pictures to prove it. In her archives are photograph after photograph of the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, John Lydon, The Clash, Malcolm McLaren, Chrissie Hynde, and their ilk, caught in kinetic ascension. Some mug, some pose, some hold your gaze, but all are singular. If anything’s on display here, it’s the self-determined individuality—expressed through fashion, color, sheer verve, and bold-faced confidence—that defined that DIY scene. “Punk was the beginning for a lot of people,” says Rock. “None of us really knew about photography, writing, graphic design… we were just trying things out.” And she’s speaking from experience.
In 2013, the photographer dropped PUNK+, a visual documentation of her many adventures through English punk—what she called “a great and positive time.” The following is an excerpt of my chat with Rock (published in ZIGGY in November 2014) on the occasion of the book’s release, where she shared how punk made its mark on her and how, through her lens, she left a mark in return.
How was it like putting together PUNK+?
Because I’m a self-taught photographer, it took me a long time to really feel like a photographer. Because I’ve never assisted anyone, I didn’t have that period of gaining a level of confidence. There was always this insecurity that the photographs wouldn’t come out right, but I just kind of went for it. So when I looked at the pictures, they were kind of good, but I could hear myself saying, “Do you really think so?” I was suddenly back to feeling insecure about the work, and yet people who didn’t live that time were going, “These are amazing.” And the way that the book’s structured gives this sort of flow of the time, and so it’s made me, not necessarily proud of the pictures, but it’s made me look at them as historical. I was there; I had lived it. But when you’re living it, you don’t know it’s important at all. But I guess I had a sense that it was important enough to put it away and leave it all in a box as opposed to throwing it away.
What was it that drew you to the British punk scene?
It was just visually exciting. I knew because a year earlier I was in New York, and Mick [Rock, Sheila’s then-husband] and I went on the first Bowie tour and travelled around America. I was introduced to all these really crazy, mad people. There was a lot of money that was spent on creating this sort of mystique around Bowie, and it’s well-deserved because he is so incredibly talented, but this amazing cast of characters was part of that too. And they introduced me to the New York punk scene, which was a little bit more sophisticated than a lot of the English. But the English punk scene was different: it was more working class, it wasn’t so art school-based, but it was more visual. Even though I wasn’t a photographer per se, I had a camera and I just started to photograph it.
Were there some people or bands that were particularly great to photograph?
Well, The Clash was amazing to photograph because they looked so cool. If they walked in now and you asked them to stand against a white wall, they’d just look like a rock band, a cool rock band. There were other people who were great musicians, but didn’t have the visual finesse and you’ll be struggling to make them look interesting. But what’s amazing is that a lot of people in bands, certainly in England, have a very strong fashion sensibility. They kind of look either rock ‘n’ roll, or a bit edgy. They’re not oblivious to style. Music and fashion in England have always been like a marriage.
And what was John Lydon like to shoot?
He was always very nice to me. I mean, I think he could be very unpredictable and I always felt that he could just get up and go at any minute. But he’s wonderful if he gets into it. He’s not stupid; he knows these photographs will enhance his image. His fashion sense was so incredibly original, and he’s cheeky, a little mad, and so photogenic. If you egg him on, he can go over the top and you’ll get some really good pictures.
What do you hope people will glean from your pictures?
Well, I hope when people go through them, they’ll feel inspired. They’ll see a time in youth culture in history, even though it’s Britain. In England, even though it’s sort of outwardly conservative, it’s also inwardly eccentric, so they kind of encourage that or like that individuality. It’s about being yourself and expressing yourself.
That’s punk, though: having that self-belief to go ahead and do what you want to do.
That’s the main thing, believing in yourself. It’s hugely romantic, the idea that you have a dream and you just live it. You try. If you sit at home and wait for the phone to ring, you’re just waiting for something and it will never happen.
That was definitely true for you.
Yeah, it certainly was my beginning as a photographer. I also met some incredibly individual, maverick characters that have formed who I am today. It’s an interesting tribe to be part of. I’ve never been a punk, but I like that sort of spirit. But if punk means being individual, then I guess I can say that I am punk.