If you believe the likes of Joe Corre, aspiring pyromaniac and offspring of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, then punk is long dead with its cold fingers still clutching a fistful of safety pins. Despite this, several historical and cultural institutes are holding celebrations to mark 40 years since the designated inception of punk – the release of Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols. The repercussions of the anarchic music phenomenon are still observable today, through fashion, art and politics, and of course, contemporary music.
An offshoot of the Punk London programmes displayed across the capital this year, the latest exhibition at Brighton Museum brings dynamic images from the front line of punk to our seaside city. Always acknowledging alternative lifestyles and social history, the Museum’s exciting exhibition entitled ‘Photo-Punk’ gathers 40 photographs from two music press photographers, Ian Dickson and Kevin Cummins. Both were leading photographers in the early days of punk, and captured iconic images of bands for publications. The powerful images selected for display include onstage performers, moodily posed bands and candid shots of audience members, plus a spattering of familiar faces comprising a who’s-who of punk. The two photographers were based in London and Manchester respectively as punk bands began to appear more frequently on the scene.
The display’s preview evening included a Q&A with Dickson (who shot for Sounds) and Cummins (who shot for NME), and was chaired by music journalist Simon Price. Despite working for so long in the same field, the two had never actually met before the preview evening! Though NME was slower to pick up on the punk scene, Sounds magazine spearheaded early coverage. Dickson, a Glaswegian self-taught photographer, began his career in 1972 in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne where many bands began their tours, meaning Dickson was well placed to capture the energy of a band’s first night. He later moved down to London where his experience gave him an edge over the many other aspiring photographers, and prepared him for punk gigs. In a time before photo-pits, the press photographer needed to be amidst the middle of the audience in order to get the best shots. Cummins studied photography at University, and gravitated towards punk for its refreshing contrast to the self-important, formal concerts at the time, describing punk like an art school movement. He covered bands in the North-West (as London journalists never wanted to travel further than Watford), and was one of the only photographers at the time who documented the Manchester punk scene.
Both photographers provided a unique perspective from the centre of a burgeoning scene as observers rather than participants, and elaborated on some of their iconic shots with anecdotes and backstory. Dickson recalled his first punk assignment (a Sex Pistols gig, no less) and was instructed not only to capture the band’s performance but also to photograph the striking individuals in the audience. It was through snapping shots of interesting strangers that he unintentionally captured candid images of Billy Idol, and Sid Vicious chatting with Vivienne Westwood. Cummins described creating making up stories and fictitious bands to mess with the London-based publishers, and trying to get Ian Curtis’ bandmates to stop making him laugh so that he could get the perfect moody, introspective pose.
The Q&A event attracted a varied audience, though of course there was a particular prevalence of black leather, coloured hair and silver studs, attesting to punk’s lasting stylistic influence on people of all ages. Cummins commented that most punk gigs were small intimate events with fewer attendees than present that evening, and even then they were nowhere near as uniquely dressed.
Many over the past 40 years have dismissed punk as a shallow style or overly focused upon image, but one of the striking aspects of the images on display is that many of the punks shown were not actually dressed as radically as genre’s mythology had led me to expect. The photographers explained to bear in mind that punk was not an overnight movement, and that in most of the photographs it appears that the crowd and bands simply hadn’t figured out how to dress yet. Instead, the photographs communicate that the punk experience was about far more than buying overpriced ripped rags from Seditionaries; for the fans it was the attitude, the exciting new energy, and the desire to rebel the norm within their own means.
The candid and compelling images still retain the life and energy captured 40 years ago, presenting subjects who were totally unaware of the enduring impact their music would have today. The display is free with museum entry (which is free anyway for Brighton & Sussex University students!) and will be open until 5th March 2017.
Whether your fingers are still stiffly held against the establishment, or whether you agree that punk is dead, these 40 photographs provide an illuminating look into the movement of the moment.