Sheila Rock is a photographer who I have been fascinated with down the decades. Born in the USA, she was one of the key photographers who captured the heroes and heroines of the British punk scene that features in her latest book, PUNK+. She continued to hang out in London in the 1980s and became an influential contributor to the style magazine, The Face. Throughout her career she has worked in fashion, music and portraiture, reportage and editorial. In 2004 she collated a collection of her photographs of Tibetan monks into an exquisite book titled Sera. Whatever her subject – flowers, punks, frolicking ponies or a tattooed teen – there is a bittersweet purity about her work, especially true in her black and white images. Photographs from her back catalogue currently appear in the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition at the Met in New York and will feature in an upcoming exhibition devoted to punk photography at Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio space in Belgravia. No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones…
IRW. How did you come to start taking photographs?
SR. I’ve always had an interest in the arts and photography in particular. I inherited a Nikkormat 35mm camera in my late teens. I photographed anything and everything then. I have an inquisitive mind and have a ‘let’s do it’ attitude. Basically I am self- taught.
IRW. One of the most fabulous things about punk was the amount of women who were crucial to the scene – Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up, Gaye Advert, Jordan and Vivienne – and better still how diverse they appeared. Did this attract you?
SR. Punk was not sexist. The early years of Punk were about individuality and self-expression. It was a time of experimentation and creative energy. The women involved in Punk expressed this. I found Patti Smith inspiring. NYC Punk was more Arty and her image as a Punk poet was alluring and attractive.
IRW. How have you found being a woman working in the world of rock music?
SR. I have never felt that being a woman photographer in the music business was unusual although there were not many women shooting bands then. It was an opportunity to expand your creative talents while working together with interesting musicians. Either the quality of the music or the artists themselves inspired me.
IRW. You have the best name for someone in your chosen milieu – you were married to another great photographer Mick Rock who brilliantly documented the scene around David Bowie – were you part of that world?
SR. Yes, I was married to Mick Rock. I helped him get an assignment with American Rolling Stone because a friend worked as an editor there. Mick is talented and smart so Rolling Stone liked the articles he was producing. I remember listening to Hunky Dory and thought it was the most inventive music and Bowie was a photographer’s dream. He was into mime and Lindsay Kemp and cross-dressing then. I encouraged Mick to do an article for Rolling Stone on David. We went to his house for the day and met Angie Bowie too. David and Mick got on brilliantly. Both great conversationalists and intelligent and interested in similar books. They became mates and the rest is history. I went on the first American Ziggy Stardust tour. It was over a couple of months and we travelled coast to coast and were part of an incredible group of colourful and eccentric people. I met Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cherry Vanilla. I’ve always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. I’ve drifted along and have had some amazing experiences. I feel quite blessed.
IRW. Punk is often painted as destructive and nihilistic but personally I found it a powerful creative force, very emboldening. Would you agree?
SR. Absolutely. The first wave of Punk was exciting and a powerful creative force. I would never be attracted to negativity.
IRW. Your punk photographs have a totally relaxed mood about them. How easy was it to document this crazy moment? Did you become part of the scene?
SR. I saw that something exciting was happening in Chelsea. There was a different way of thinking and being. It was provocative. I became friendly with Don Letts and Jeannette Lee, John Krivine [founder of the BOY boutique], Peter Christopherson (Throbbing Gristle), John Harwood (artist), Jon Savage. I was never consciously in a ‘scene’ and moved seamless through this Punk time as I did with other areas that interested me which have no relation to music or attitude. I was a young person interested in photography but had no real expertise. I just photographed what was around me. I was a recorder of time. I had no agenda or particular career aspirations. It’s me ‘drifting’ again, but not in a mindless way.
IRW. I like how your pictures document the look of punk before it became commodified. Did the DIY aspect appeal to you? Did you dress punk?
SR. I never dressed like a punk, except I’ve always loved Black. I never worn outlandish makeup or had spiky hair. I probably owned a black motorcycle jacket and wore this with black jeans. I’m American so the beatnik look felt more comfortable to me. I was, of course, attracted to everyone else who was more courageous and adventurous in clothes style. I didn’t feel I needed to wear ripped clothes or dustbin dresses, but I loved the customised look that other people embraced. Youthful discontent is very romantic.
IRW. What prompted you to make the pictures into a book? Did you interview the subjects?
SR. PUNK+ came about by accident, or you can say it was fated that I met the French designer/publisher, Fabrice Couillerot, and he in turn, introduced me to Sarah Simonon. They both encouraged me to show my archive of Punk to them. I had everything in a box at the end of my garden. The box was called ROUGH. It was their idea to conceive this book but the structure was collaborative. It’s been very much a team effort. I never realised that these photographs were interesting. Fabrice’s editing and design have made me look at the photos in a different way. I can see that it was an exciting time and I had documented punk’s early genesis. When the images were selected and we found a structure for the book, I felt it needed some words, although it is a photo book primarily. There were no interviews as such. There were conversations between friends or acquaintances from 37 years ago. It has been fun reconnecting. The idea of putting everyone together was an idea that I hope works. What was interesting to me was everyone had deep feelings about the time. We saw it as an opportunity. There were no exceptions.
It was important for me to do a positive project.
IRW. I love that your PUNK+ looks like an old notebook. Did you have a big say in the art direction of the book?
SR. Fabrice owns Firstthirdbooks and had designed and published his first independent book on a cult band called Felt. The look of the book was the template for my PUNK+ book and other interesting titles that will follow. He is interested in the mavericks of the world. I loved the simplicity of the design and his use of space. He respected the photographs and allowed them to breathe. He wanted to book to look good. A lot of earlier Punk books look cheap and throw away. PUNK+ feels like an important document.
IRW. You have moved between music and fashion – I guess they have always been inextricably linked – but do you prefer either? Do you have to approach each through a different lens?
SR. I’ve become a professional photographer and have a varied portfolio. Of course I love fashion, but sometimes the emphasis is unattractive. It is enjoyable when you are allowed to be playful and imaginative and create new worlds or beautiful women. But as I get older, I think I prefer portraiture. It’s more interesting to try to capture something that is the essence of the sitter. As you know, every job is different and so is the approach. But one tries to give something special each time.
IRW. You tend to work mostly in black and white. What attracts you to the medium?
SR. Black and White is deep. It doesn’t dazzle you with COLOUR so you go to the heart of the place or person.
IRW. At the start of the punk scene there was little division between bands and fans. Did you enjoy the camaraderie of that environment?
SR. Yes. A big soup.
IRW. Did you like the music? Which bands did you listen to personally?
SR. I liked the inventiveness and energy of Punk music. I was keen on the Clash. They had good songs. They had Style. They were a great Punk band and later became a great rock n roll band. I love their version of Police and Thieves. BOOM. I liked Paul Weller’s music too, although he might be classified as a borderline Punk. He was there during this time so I have mentioned him. He clearly was a great singer/songwriter. I guess I prefer more melodic music.
IRW. Is there a difference between taking an action shot at a gig and a posed portrait? Do you have to approach each differently?
SR. Shooting a live gig is exciting, but I think I was not very good at this. I am small in stature so could never get the best shots. It’s about anticipating the right moves that will make a great picture. It was a disadvantage that I am only 5 feet 5 inches high because I couldn’t see the stage like the other photographers who were generally male. Posed portraiture is more comfortable to me. I’m a quiet and considered person so the environment in a studio or location is better suited to my temperament. I think I can be quietly persuasive in these situations and can give direction clearly.
IRW. There is an exciting diversity to your archive – from the images of proto punk rockers to your photographs of horses or Tibetan monks – and yet there is a sensitivity and intimacy that seems to run throughout. Is this something that you find has come naturally to your work?
SR. Thank you for your kind words. The way I approach the work is just an expression of me. If I am sensitive and capture some sort of feeling, then the experience has been a success and I am happy.
IRW. Oddly your photographs of horses remind me of the wonderful cover of Patti Smith’s album of the same name. Are you a fan of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe? Who are your other photography heroes?
SR. Actually I am NOT a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe. He produces strong and provocative photos to be sure, but I don’t see the sensitivity. His subjects shock and I think that is an easy way to make a photo stand out. I prefer a more honest voice. I love the American photographer, Bruce Davidson. His photographs of Harlem in the 1960s made a big impact on me. I also love the exquisite lens of Irving Penn and the dynamic photos of Klein. He shoots great fashion and reportage photos out of focus but with amazing spirit. I went to see the exhibition of photographs of [Sebastiao] Salgado. Astounding.
IRW. You were a major contributor to The Face magazine. How did you become involved?
SR. Being at the right place at the right time again. I met Nick Logan and Neville Brody before the genesis of The Face. Nick is a hugely creative editor and gave me a go. I wouldn’t be a photographer without him giving me a chance.
IRW. You have contributed to the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What do you think about punk now being feted in a museum?
SR. I think it’s interesting to highlight counter culture in a main establishment like the Met. What has come along that has been as exciting and as revolutionary as Punk? Nothing. It was short lived but hugely influential and it’s good that it is being recognized as this huge influence. I’m sorry I have not seen the exhibition, but I have some photos in the catalogue and an image of Debbie Harry in a Zandra Rhodes dress with safety pins has been made into a fridge magnet. Funny, eh?
IRW. Do you have a favourite punk moment?
IRW. Do you have a punk heartthrob? I have always been rather smitten with Paul Simonon?
SR. Undoubtedly Paul Simonon is cute.
Photograph of The Clash by Sheila Rock, 1976.
PUNK+ is available from http://www.firstthirdbooks.com