Janette Beckman's portfolio is almost as intimidating as the subjects she's photographed during her long career. Beginning in the '70s, Beckman documented British punk culture for The Face and Melody Maker, photographing The Clash, The Ramones, The Specials, and other big names in the scene. She also focused her lens on the skinheads and rockers that made up the crowds at punk shows, capturing an entire counter-culture as it unfolded in the underbelly of the country.
In 1982, Beckman moved to New York, where she shot hip-hop greats like Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC, Salt’ n ‘Pepa, and Grandmaster Flash. Her photograph of EPMD ended up on the cover of the duo's Unfinished Business and became a visual staple in hip-hop history.
Leaving New York for California during the summer of 1982, Beckman traveled to East L.A. to photograph the area's gangs. A white girl from London, Beckman never considered herself to be particularly brave, just naive—and lucky. Throughout her career, she has been able to act as an impartial mediator, documenting communities known for violence, and coming away with only photographs.
Now the legendary photographer is continuing to search for rebel cultures. Working for the magazine Jocks & Nerds, she has traveled to Harlem, New York to photograph the dirt bike gang known as the Go Hard Boyz. Beckman just opened a show called "Rebel Cultures" at L.A.'s HVW8 gallery. We stopped by the photographer's studio to talk about her impressive career and what she plans to do next.
Photographs by Liz Barclay
Photography is really a collaboration between yourself and the subject.
What attracts you to subcultures?
I grew up during the hippie years and the punk years. 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.
Then I came here, and hip-hop was happening. It was the exact same thing. It’s a culture coming out of the streets, people who didn’t have money, making stuff for themselves. I think it’s taken all this time, especially for hip-hop culture, to actually be appreciated. Now I’m still looking for rebel cultures.
What are you doing now? Are you still photographing hip-hop culture?
I basically do portraits. I shot Dillon Cooper recently. I’m so used to hip-hop and not having stylists, like back in the day. The fabulous stylist came to the interview with this giant rack of clothing and like 50 different pair of shoes, and he's an 18-year-old kid from the street.
I used to work for this weekly music paper called Melody Maker. You would go on tour with a band for two days, and you would have five minutes to get the cover. There was never a stylist or art director or assistant. It would just be me and my camera bag. I’m still like that.
How were you able to break into these subcultures without asserting yourself onto these groups?
I really try not to. Last year a friend told me about the Go Hard Boyz. It’s like a dirt bike club in Harlem. She gave me a phone number, and I just called the guy. It turned out to be the CEO of the bike club. He’s like, “Come up and talk to me.” They’re suspicious, so I brought this magazine [Jocks & Nerds] and went up to Harlem. We really got along.
I’m just very curious about stuff. I’m not about posing people or making people do stuff they don’t want to do.
Have you ever felt in danger when you were photographing?
I ended up doing a shoot with [the Go Hard Boyz] last summer. I was in the back of a Ford F150 truck, the flatbed, bombing along the expressway, which is completely illegal already, with all these guys doing wheelies, and I’m leaning out the window. Shea, who’s the CEO, asks, “Janette, are you okay? Isn’t this scary for you?” And I’m like, “You have no idea how happy I am. I’m just in my element.”
I guess I don’t really get scared. I got a little scared when I documented that Brooklyn girl fight club just because we were locked into this cement garage. The whole set up was so crazy. It was at night, in the middle of Brownsville.
They have this huge security lady searching everybody, and when everyone is packed in there, they lock the door, and then the fights start. There are some really interesting Brownsville characters in there. It was a little scary. I just thought, "Well, I’m in here now with my camera," so I just started going up to people.
It sometimes seems like you need space and time for pictures to actually breathe.
I've heard people describe you as "disarming."
I’m pretty friendly, and I’m also very interested in everybody and what they do. I’m very chatty. Photography is really a collaboration between yourself and the subject. It’s not my place to force some weird idea I may have come up with.
You’ve documented these groups that eventually became mainstream, like punk and hip-hop. Are you always searching for that next rebellious movement?
I think it’s important to document it for history. It’s strange, because a lot of the things I’ve done in the past, they get more important as time goes by.
I have this one picture of EPMD from an album cover. People love this picture now. At the time, I was just documenting what I saw. I never thought it was going to be an icon.
I just found that Keith Haring picture. I photographed him in 1985 for a cover of a magazine. I didn’t tell him to put the brushes like that. It’s such a rebel look. I may have said, "How about sitting over there where you’ve got all your paints?" But that would be about it. People love that picture now. It sometimes seems like you need space and time for pictures to actually breathe.
I don’t really know what the rebel cultures are now, and I have to look harder for them.
Do you ever think what you’re shooting now is going to take on that kind of iconic status later?
Yeah, I do. I just shot Gay Talese, who’s a really iconic writer. He’s an older guy, really snappy looking.
He archives all the books he’s worked on. He’s got these files, and he's covered them in collages of things to do with books. It’s pretty incredible. I was looking at him archiving, and I was thinking, "Is this picture going to mean something?"
Where do you find rebel cultures now?
Things like gangs, these bikers, people who have their passions. It’s hard to see what rebel culture is now. There’s still music, of course. I think maybe people who are trying to do things that aren’t directly connected with making money.
But not a place like the Coachella music festival. That doesn’t seem rebellious anymore.
I think people being passionate about what they do and thinking for themselves is almost a rebellion now. I went to Governor’s Ball, because I was shooting a Kangol campaign. Everything’s sponsored. Everything’s about money. Before, in the early days, being sponsored by somebody was considered very lame and counter to the culture. I don’t really know what the rebel cultures are now, and I have to look harder for them.
These dirt bike riders, the Go Hard Boyz, they’re doing something they love. They make their own bikes. They probably can’t afford to get Harleys, so they’ve got dirt bikes. That’s rebellious to me. They’re very passionate about it. They’re learning tricks. They’re riding through the Bronx.
I guess street art, too, to a certain extent. Good street art is definitely part of it. I’d love to find the next thing. I’m always looking.
Is the Internet diffusing these subcultures?
I think it really is. Someone sends you a link to something on YouTube, and it’s a naked guy in England going skiing on a platter in the snow. It’s not really that interesting to me. I’m still looking for something that signifies originality.
I think the Internet’s kind of ruined it all.
[Jocks & Nerds] sent me to Viva Las Vegas, which is the biggest Rockabilly Festival in the world. It was really fucking amazing. They had guys there from East L.A. who are probably gangbangers. They have the most beautiful cars, and they’re sitting out there with all their tattoos. That to me is interesting. That’s kind of a subculture. I think the Internet’s kind of ruined it all.
Did you ever think you were being brave, like when you were shooting the gangs in East L.A.?
Not at all. I was just fascinated by the whole lifestyle, being in L.A. in that hot, arid area with helicopters buzzing overhead. One day, one of the guys took me to his house to meet his mom. They were doing some graffiti on the wall outside the house. Someone called the cops, and his mom had to hide me in the cupboard because she didn’t want me to be arrested. In the end, everybody just calmed down, and nobody got arrested, but it was really crazy for a minute. I’m out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t speak Spanish. But nobody pointed a gun at me.
There are guns and violence, but this is America. It’s always been like that.
Was it your decision to go to East L.A.?
I wasn’t even hired by a magazine. I just wanted to do it. A lot of these subcultures are about family. It seems like they’re about gangs and violence, but I think they’re a lot about family and a lot about misfits finding a place to hang. There are guns and violence, but this is America. It’s always been like that.
For instance, Shea from the Harlem bike boys grew up on that block. His mom had 18 siblings or something, so everybody is his cousin. We’re walking around 145th street, and he’s like, “Oh Janette, I want to introduce you to my cousin.” He’s related to half the neighborhood. I think it is about family and about making something. You don’t need millions to do it.
Even the East L.A. gang culture. You’re a little kid, you’re looking up to your big brother whose got this whole posse he’s hanging out with. It’s about misfits trying to fit in and trying to take care of people. Not to compare it to religion, but some people go to church to find a family, and some people form gangs. If it wasn’t for the violence, it would be a really good thing. If they could put that energy into something really good, it would be amazing.
Were you ever worried about romanticizing the violence in your images?
I don’t think there’s a lot of violence in my images, to be honest. I really avoid those pictures where someone’s pointing a gun. I have that one picture of Johnny Rotten, but he’s grinning from ear to ear and holding a rifle. And I’ve got a picture of Slick Rick holding a gun to his head, smiling from ear to ear. I don’t romanticize violence. I try to look for the good in people, rather than the bad. Luckily for me, I haven't had to dodge bullets, so far.