Photo-punk: 40 images from the birth of UK punk by Ian Dickson and Kevin Cummins
I attended the photo-punk photograph exhibition for two reasons; firstly, nostalgia. I was a fan of punk music. Being at university in London between 1977 and 1980 allowed me to see a lot of punk bands live. Secondly, I wanted to get myself out of my comfort zone. My favourite art has always been painting and sculpture. As much as I am interested and like photography, I do not yet really know enough about it as an art form. I wanted, therefore, to try to view these photographs in terms of ‘art’.
As the description from the Brighton Museum explains (see fig. 1 above), the photographs were taken by Kevin Cummins and Ian Dickson. The shots ranged from bands at gigs, through photo shoots of the bands (refer to fig. 1 again for a shot of The Clash) as well as the fans (at gigs and as portraits). Most, if not all, of the photos on display were intended for publication in the music media of the time, all of which were printed.
Whilst looking at the photographs it did quickly occur to me that there is likely to be a huge difference in photo-journalism and specifically the art of photography. I accept that there is an art to photo-journalism, but the journalistic aspects must surely place particular demands on the photographers. In that respect the visit satisfied the nostalgia but not so much the art appreciation!
Three photographs stood out for me, all of them shot when the bands were playing live. I will look at them in turn.
Fig. 2. Ari Up of The Slits (1977)
Such is the power of her stance, her hair moving and mouth open, that you can almost hear Ari singing. The composition of the photo is simple but effective too, with her dominating the photo and the stage. The real interest for me, however, is almost historical. The way she is dressed captures both the provocative nature of the bands and their look in general, but specifically the real sense of a woman making her own decisions about how she was going to appear on stage. The photo captures that sense of something new and raw, that punk music encapsulated for us who were around to see it.
The contrast in the light on Poly Styrene’s outfit and the drummer in the dark behind her, has the same effect as that of Ari Up’s photo; namely the spotlight is figuratively and literally on her. Poly Styrene’s twisted form suggests action, work, effort almost pain. But the photo shows us that she is wearing braces on her teeth, which gives her an unexpected sense of youth. In fact this was another feature of the punk bands; they were typically comprised of much younger people than the established “big” bands of the time.
Another fascinating action shot. The composition of the photo suffers a little from the position of the drums immediately behind Paul Weller. But such is the power of his guitar playing that this doesn’t detract from the sense of energy in the photograph. In common with the other two photographs, relatively small details of the outfit tell us something of the times and the person. His hair, shoes and the cut of his jacket and trousers reveal his interest in Mod culture.
Given my comments above about photo-journalism, I wanted to contrast the three photos above with a photo from someone who is not so concerned with the journalistic aspects of photography.
I find this photograph particularly fascinating. In the first three photographs above, there was a need to take the shots when the opportunity arose. Freed from those bounds, this photograph is very much shaped by the photographer not the subject. The woman’s stare into the camera hints at a sense of privacy disturbed. Her hands don’t hold the man. The fingers of one hand are almost rolled into a fist. The two poses are static; there is no intent to show movement whatsoever.
The composition is very interesting too. The shrub is in focus but behind it nothing is in focus. There are roofs and so there is some sense of housing nearby. Do they live there? We do not have a true sense of place for this couple. There is a fence visible around some sort of green surface. Are they outside their school or college? This separation of the couple from place hints at a possible separation of the woman from the man.
We the viewers are therefore, presented with an intriguing puzzle; have we interrupted a show of affection or are we witnesses to the end of a relationship?
Although the exhibition didn’t particularly satisfy my desire to look at the art of photography, I consider the three photos above to be fine examples of the art of photo-journalism at its best.
I look forward to start exploring photography in more detail later in the course.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Photo-punk. (2017) Photo-punk: 40 images from the birth of punk by Ian Dickson and Kevin Cummins [Advertisement] At: http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/brighton/about/brighton-museum-past-exhibitions/past-exhibitions-2016/photo-punk/ (Accessed on 18 April 2017)
Figure 2. Dickson, I. (1977) Ari Up of The Slits [Photograph] At: https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/10/21/1287659733994/Ari-Up-performing-with-Th-002.jpg?w=700&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=08d85ea71520c72a791caa9049a7136f (Accessed on 18 April 2017)
Figure 3. Cummins, K. (1977) Poly Styrene [Photograph] At: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/540502392765299037/ (Accessed on 18 April 2017)
Figure 4. Dickson, I. (1977) Paul Weller of The Jam [Photograph] At: https://www.proudonline.co.uk/p/353/ian-dickson (Accessed on 18 April 2017)
Figure 5. Pannack, L. (no date) Untitled from the Young Love project [Photograph] At: https://www.laurapannack.com/young-love/ (Accessed on 18 April 2017)