Spilling out into the street, Sheila Rock’s PUNK+ launch at fashion emporium Browns late last week, was a delightful melting pot of Fashion, Music, and Photography. Bringing together Fashion and Music, two elements integral to the punk movement, Rock’s new limited edition photobook with its bewitching visuals, documents the height of the punk era.
Entering Browns and making my way upstairs (but not before picking up a glass of champagne, of course!) I was pleased to see a smattering of Sheila’s most recognisable work lining the stairs. As a photography student, I was thrilled to see Sheila’s early photojournalistic work being honoured in such a way. Examining the prints, as final adjustments were being made before the public launch, it was striking to see the sheer amount of recognisable faces Sheila worked with in such a short period of time. Some young faces such as Sid Vicious, The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Susie Sioux went on to become the stuff of punk legend after working with Sheila.
Sheila, born in the USA and educated in both Boston & London, has been living and working in London since 1970. Her work has been featured in publications such as Time Magazine, Elle and Rolling Stone and she was creatively influential in her time at The FACE magazine. Sheila has exhibited worldwide and her work is held in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery. Having been an admirer of Rock’s work since discovering her botanical studies, I would advise that you check them out as they are beautiful studies of light. I had no real idea what to expect of the woman often dubbed a ‘living legend’.
Having portrayed so many seemingly erratic personalities, I was led to wonder if any of this had rubbed off on the photographer herself. As Sheila welcomed her guests, such as The Clash legends Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, it struck me that she is a natural observer. What a revelation, a photographer who observes. Sheila’s passive calmness and seemingly adaptable attitude is perhaps one of the major factors in her success. Describing Sheila as “self-effacing but sweetly persuasive” in the preface to PUNK+ Nick Logan, editor of THE FACE magazine, offers insight into Sheila’s approach in a way only a close colleague ever could. Cleverly facilitating people in becoming an image of themselves Sheila captures what Logan refers to as ‘style’ – refining her subjects into images that portrayed the pinnacle of what they wanted to personify.
Flicking through a copy of PUNK+ it is immediately noticeable that it is a well-designed photobook. Its purpose is to display images and it does this beautifully. It doesn’t attempt to cram every page with excessive descriptions, and allows the imagery to dominate whole page spreads. Areas of negative space contrast and allow for peaceful reflection on images that demonstrate a turbulent yet exciting time of the dominance of youth.
Through the first four segments of Punk + (Fashion, Crowd, Scene & Music), Sheila examines her own visual documentation of the factors which combined to form the Punk movement. Beginning with the emergence of a ‘new and revolutionary’ fashion Sheila documents the emporiums which evolved from little known havens of punk idealism to the go to boutiques for the punk ‘look’. Showing how the Punk movement influenced a generation, her next analysis lies in the individuals who as part of the crowd were a “catalyst for social and cultural and political change.” Addressing the scene and music last, Sheila recounts the live punk music scene that was restricted by local councils after the Sex Pistols infamous swearing on live television and how she gained access to their private rehearsals to take some of the most iconic music imagery of the period.
Opening her concluding chapter to PUNK+ Sheila tells us that “Punk was over”, before showing how the ethos of Punk evolved into new styles such as New Wave, Goth and New Romanticism. It had become mainstream and this led to the influences of Punk that we can still see today in fashion, music and even the art world. Ending with a photograph of John Lydon looking a little lost after the chaotic time that was the Punk movement, PUNK+ led me to inquire what the legacy of Punk has done for my generation. Thinking about this I was reminded of seeing The King Blues perform ‘What if Punk never happened?’ – as played out in the song which imagines a punk-less world – “with no punk rock everything went unchallenged.” Punk changed the cultural landscape of Britain and kick-started a youth culture of self-expression that we take for granted nearly forty years later.
For more information & to see a preview of the book visit First Third Books. Sheila will be holding a live signing, alongside Don Letts & Jeanette Lee, as well as a Q&A session at Rough Trade East on the 29th May, which I recommend as one not to be missed.