“I was just a girl with a camera” is not how you expect the photographer behind some of the most iconic images of the UK Punk scene to describe themselves, but that’s how Sheila Rock, now internationally renowned for her photographic work that spans genres from music and fashion to portraits, commercial and fine art, describes her early days taking pictures of the “interesting people” she happened to meet on London’s Kings Road in the 1970s.
Some of the photographs she took during this period are currently on display as part of the exhibition Sheila Rock: From Punk to the English Sea, which opened last month at Chelsea Space, alongside a selection of the most recent photos she has taken along the English coast.
We spoke to her in the run-up to the exhibition, and Rock was happy to talk about the chance meetings, serendipitous connections and, above all, hard work that have driven her varied and successful career.
Arriving in the UK from America in 1970s, Rock’s introduction to music and photography was through her then partner Mick Rock, whom she accompanied on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, with which his photos are now synonymous.
“It really opened my eyes to music and a whole different sub culture” she said of that time. “I was always interested in the arts but it was as if I had been thrown into this mad, glamorous, colourful world! It suddenly seemed possible to live an artistic life and not be part of the ‘beige brigade’. I was just along for the ride – I didn’t take a single photo on that tour. I hadn’t yet thought of myself as a photographer.”
It was enough to open her eyes to the UK music scene, however, and once back in London she took her Nikkormat 35mm camera to the west London street that was to become famous as the home of the early days of punk: “I started seeing some extraordinary people on the King’s Road – it reminded me of what I’d seen in New York, but the sub-culture here was so much more exciting to me, so flamboyant!”
Documenting the scene led her to photograph bands including the Clash, Johnny Rotten, Siouxsie Sioux as well as some of the faces – and outfits – that were regulars at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwoods’ “intimidating” shop, SEX. Here she took some of the best-known photos of model and actress Jordan whose style and looks made her one of the most recognisable punk icons.
“I met Don Letts who introduced me to London characters and mavericks. A few people I met in New York came over with the Patti Smith band and invited me to see a ‘new band’ called The Clash at the ICA. I was so overwhelmed by what was going on I started taking photos – and they used one as the poser for their first big gig. One thing leads to another…”
She continued: “I had a friend, Carol McNichol, who was living with Brian Eno at the time and designed costumes for Roxy Music. I took pictures of her work and a magazine used them. I thought ‘hey, I got 50 quid for that!’”
It was these photos of the scene in its infancy that introduced her to photography, and this, along with a combination of financial incentive and the “ego boost” encouraged her to learn more about the craft, and take it further. “I learnt so much of what I technically know from the technicians at the lab.
Because of my enthusiasm and approach, they would loan me cameras and give me lenses to test things out.”
However, she credits her real introduction to professional photography to Nick Logan, founder of cult magazine The Face, who liked her ideas and so commissioned her for stories from the publication’s start.
She was mainly shooting bands and musicians, and says this was key in encouraging her to come up with new ideas and to use different techniques such as cross processing and experimenting with lenses. “The challenge was to make images of the people in bands match up with the exciting music they made, to create a mood and express that, visually.” But, more than this “it was also about learning patience and discipline.”
The skills she developed here alongside Logan and graphic designer Neville Brody were fundamental in what was to come, but by the late 1980s she was ready to try new things. “I decided I didn’t want to do any more music – I was so serious about not being pigeonholed that I even stopped listening to rock n’ roll.”
The next decade saw her focus shift to dramatically different areas, from editorial work in fashion and classical music to advertising and commercial: “I thought, no more bands – I want to work for Marks & Spencer!” As her portfolio expanded, so did the commissions, taking on portraiture and working for magazines including German Vogue and Time. Then, in the late 1990s she decided to do her own work, getting away from the now familiar environment of the studio and back out into the world.
“I decided to do a set of pictures outside, in natural light, to focus on something totally different that I couldn’t control” she recalled. “I tried to work in a more spiritual way.” This led to a series of photographs of horses, shot in summer, and a book of pictures shot during trips to a Tibetan monastery in India in winter, both of which were projects borne of personal passion but which have also seen commercial success.
“It’s only now that I’m older and have all this experience that I feel able to trust my instincts” she said, reflecting on the subjects that have caught her attention since the decision to concentrate on her more personal work. And it’s this instinct that brought her to the English coast, the other subject explored in her Chelsea Space exhibition.
Her fascination with the sea was developed on trips around the country while working on other commissioned projects. Visiting coastal towns including Weymouth, Blackpool and Whitby she was drawn to the seaside, but found that it was only in the more marginalised places that she felt like the work she made was saying something interesting.
“I felt really inspired when I went to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. The people there were kind and open – and dancing on tabletops which is something I had never experienced before, especially being American.” The resulting series shot during these visits to seaside towns became the book Tough and Tender, many photos from which will feature in From Punk to the English Sea. These dignifed and stoic portraits reflect a quiet politics, documenting subjects and environments on the economic margins of the early 21st Century.
“This show is not just about punk – Donald [Smith, Director of Chelsea Space] didn’t want that” she explained. “I thought that it would be nice to show the beginning of my work alongside the most recent project. To me, both the punk photos and these are all about the English.”
Central to the installation will be a series of new portraits of Jordan, commissioned especially for the exhibition and helping to trace the line from those early shots through to the present day.
The new portraits came out of an idea to re-photograph women in punk. Indeed, many of the exhibitions celebrating the 40th anniversary of punk rock in 2016 have displayed a tendency towards depicting this movement as a largely testosterone fueled tribal youth culture. Rock’s photos, however, are more reflective and capture some of the more gently subversive aspects of punk culture, through attire, environment and attitude.
Initially not keen to publish a book of the punk photographs at all, Rock was encouraged by Fabrice Couillerot of First Third Books who saw the photos and thought they told a different story from the popular narrative of the time. Instead, the photos celebrate the creativity of the young people involved and the ways in which clothing, fashion and individuality became important in the movement. For Rock, Jordan was an important figure in this way. “She was so visually strong and really represents the time for me, more so than any one band or person.”
Jordan, whose real name is Pamela Rooke, is from Seaford in East Sussex, and famously made the train journey from her home on the coast into London every day to spend time at the epicentre of the punk scene. The inclusion of the new portraits in the exhibition provide another link with the coast and draws a subtle connection between the works that will be on show.
For Rock, all of the pictures in the exhibition are trying to reveal something about the integrity of the human spirit. “I hope that I managed to capture the beauty and character of those people I photographed. I envision them as larger-than-life in the gallery – for me it’s about the strength of the British.”
Shortly after the exhibition opens, Rock will head to the US for a year where she will visit family and explore the potential for some new photographs. However, she is keen to make clear: “My heart is in England. And I think a photographer’s best work is the thing they love.”
Sheila Rock: From Punk to the English Sea runs from 28 September – 28 October at Chelsea Space and the private view takes place on 27 September, 6 – 8.30pm. For more information, visit the event page.
Sheila Rock’s book PUNK + is published by First Third Books, and Tough & Tender is published by Kehrer Books.
All images by Sheila Rock and © Sheila Rock Photography