Bikers, rappers and rude boys: the photographer at the heart of subcultures | Photography
IIt was the tension between Janette Beckman’s shyness and her curiosity for people that helped spark a career as a subculture photographer. “I realized that having a camera allows you to go to strangers and say, ‘Hi, I’d like to take a picture of you,’” she says. This epiphany sparked a 45-year adventure in street photography, documenting the punk and two-tone youth of 1970s Britain, the birth of hip-hop in New York, Latino gang members in Los Angeles, the bikers in Harlem, rodeos, rockabilly conventions and events from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.
As we speak on a video call, Beckman, 62, shows me around his home studio in New York City, right next to Bowery, where the famous CBGB punk room was located. There’s a Salt-N-Pepa snowboard, a painting by Keith Haring, and gold records from hip-hop stars Dana Dane and EPMD. On a strip of wall, hang a selection of images of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, “for a book,” she says. And on another are pinned a wide selection of his images, for his monograph Rebels: From Punk to Dior.
There are so many familiar plans. Salt-N-Pepa in 1987, sassy in leather and bling; Salt writes in the book that Beckman captured “the essence of who we were then, dynamic young women on a mission to conquer this male-dominated genre called hip-hop.” The Beastie Boys posed in a comedy group in 1985; Ad Rock writes: “Janette is like a mind reader… Her work is an OH-SHIT! after the next one. LL Cool J wears a Kangol hat and carries a boombox on his shoulder. De La Soul met on its own land on Long Island in 1990 – as DJ Maseo puts it: “Janette caught us being us.”
Beckman has a knack for making his subjects unveil their souls as if it were an act of defiance. “You develop this intense relationship with your subjects very quickly, or that’s what I’m trying to do,” she says. “I’m the antithesis of someone like Annie Leibovitz, who would have 20 assistants and take the subject to the top of the mountain or fly a helicopter overhead.” Beckman likes to keep it simple. “Rather than getting into a preconceived idea of who the person is, I don’t want to know too much because I want them to tell me who they are.” She captures the attitude, she thinks, seizing “a moment between ‘the pose’, when the subject has a chance to breathe and be himself.”
Beckman’s fascination with portraiture began young. “I grew up in London,” she says, “I spent a lot of time at the National Portrait Gallery. And I was watching people on the bus to school, trying to imagine what their life was like.
She started her art foundation course at Central St Martins, aspiring to be the next Egon Schiele or David Hockney. “I lived in this semi-squat in Streatham where we all drew ourselves, and all we cared about was art and music.” But she didn’t think she was good enough and enrolled in what was then the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication), “to do photography, as another way of doing portraits”.
She quickly became obsessed with early 20th-century documentary photographer August Sander. “He was documenting people on the street,” she says. “These are just really simple portraits. One of Beckman’s most enduring images is of British Nigerian twins Chet and Joe Okonkwo – who danced on stage with Madness and rose to local fame in London for their sharp looks and lively conversation. Taken in 1979, it was featured in the first issue of Face magazine. “This is my tribute to [Sander]”she said,” because it’s a very simple portrait, but it shows who these people are. “
The Face, in conjunction with rival style magazine iD, helped pave the way for street style photography, and the editors gave Beckman carte blanche. “They would send me to an illegal boxing club in South London, or maybe a rock festival in Loch Lomond, where I could go and film the fans as well as the bands and they would do broadcasts of all the fans. This allowed me to document all these cultures of young people.
In 1982, Beckman moved to New York. “Punk was on the decline then, and there was that Thatcher-era attitude, ‘everything is crap in England’.” And she had discovered hip-hop. “There was something about the energy that was so different from London. It was exciting. “
The first hip-hop tour had come to London a few months before it moved. The stage was inundated with DJs, rappers, graffiti artists, breakdancers and double Dutch girls, who worked out two-string jumping routines. “It was a moment of rebirth for me,” she says. “Unfortunately, the writer didn’t think so. He wrote something like, “This rap is a fad, just like skateboarding” – it was hilarious. He didn’t know he was reviewing some of the godfathers of rap; Fab 5 Freddy, Afrika Bambaataa, graffiti artists Futura and Dondi, and DJ Grandmixer DST.
In the early 1980s, New York was recovering from near bankruptcy and undergoing an incredible cultural renaissance, from Bronx hip-hop to the downtown arts scene. Beckman lived in Tribeca, which was then “a deserted warehouse district.” The famous Mudd Club, where Fab 5 Freddy taught Debbie Harry to rap, was just around the corner. “It was really great,” she says. “And it was dangerous.” Naive and cheeky, she wandered the Bronx or traveled to the West Coast of the United States to hang out with the gangs of LA, looking for interesting characters.
Hearing about these adventures reminds me of my own road trips to the United States, where my friend and I often found ourselves in strange backwaters that we had been warned against, to be greeted with kindness and curiosity. Beckman nods in recognition. “I think I have a lot of respect, because I’m British, I’m a little woman with a camera, not intimidating. So people trusted me. You really are an outsider on someone else’s land and they somehow respect you for being there and not being afraid.
In recent years, Beckman has been asked to train her lens on high fashion. In 2019, she photographed Dior’s fall collection in London’s Kentish Town, against the walls where she had once immortalized young punks. Dior’s artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, asked her in 2016 to document the creation of a collection in her Parisian studio. “I went to the tailors and watch people sew sequins, models smoke in the yard and dress, and rows of shoes,” Beckman recalls. I ask if photographing the fashion world was less authentic than street photography, but she describes the work as “gritty, dirty, rather than superstar. These worlds seem so glamorous, but behind it are workers trying to create glamor. ”
Most of Beckman’s old hangouts in New York City have long since been gentrified and clad in homogenized hipster veneer. When it moved to its current address in 1996, it was “industrial, with parking lots and a lumberyard, a plumbing supply store.” Now it is “really chi-chi”. Meanwhile, the internet means that barely a new trend among young people is identified that a major brand is exploiting it for viral marketing content.
But Beckman doesn’t think all of this marks the death of subcultures. She mentions the black punk scene in Brooklyn, as documented by her photographer friend Destiny Mata, and says “there will always be subcultures. There will always be people with new ideas, regardless of their age and wherever they come from. She concedes, however, that the internet can wrest emerging cultures from their communities too soon, so that they “don’t have time to marinate.”
But Beckman continues to follow his nose and that often takes him away from coastal towns – at the Black Bikers Club in Omaha, for example, or speedway races in Indiana. In 2017, after Trump was elected, Beckman launched a three-year project called I Vote Because, for which she traveled across the swing states of America to take portraits and encourage people to register to vote. . “You have amazing stories from people in five minutes,” she says. “It was a dream job.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of underground activity in New York City, from illegal girl fights in Brooklyn to a biker group in Harlem (also illegal) called the Go Hard Boys, who made a big splash. exception to their non-photography rule for Beckman. The bikes – as well as an affiliated dance school – are a diversion of drugs and other bad influences.
She remembers the first time she photographed them in 2008: “I was driving in the back of a flatbed truck on the Bruckner Freeway with these people cavorting around. It was dangerous, a little crazy when I think about it. But I was so happy.
Rebels, From Punk to Dior by Jeanette Beckman is published by Drago at 60 €
A legend on this coin was corrected on December 1; the Specials were photographed in Blackpool, not Southend.