The Double Lens: Janette Beckman and David Corio at Morrison Hotel Gallery
Published March 10, 2011
“We’ve known each other for years, back since the punk days,” says photographer Janette Beckman of fellow Brit shutterbug David Corio. “We weren’t great friends back then, but we’d see each other everywhere.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s the two worked in double-helix formation, shooting for rival music newspapers Melody Maker and NME, respectively, out at the same clubs (Hammersmith Odeon, The Roxy, The Mudd Club) and neighborhoods (The South Bronx, Alphabet City, East London), shooting the same punk and hip hop musicians (The Ramones, Africa Bambaataa, Blondie), for years. A glance back at that synergistic era, Catch the Beat: The Roots of Punk & Hip-Hop, bows tonight at The Morrison Hotel gallery on the Bowery.
“Just recently we realized, ‘Oh my god, we were at the same Ramones concert. You’ve got Dee Dee, and I’ve got Johnny.’ Or he photographed Debbie the day after I photographed Debbie, so we just thought it would be an interesting show,” adds Beckman, who started shooting musicians after studying at Central Saint Martins and the London College of Printing. “I wanted to be a portrait artist, but I wasn’t a really good drawer or painter.” Luckily, she found her niche behind a lens, and after living through and documenting the birth of London punk, she moved to New York in 1982 (Corio came across the pond a decade later) to capture the early kings of hip-hop. As such, the serendipity behind the 70-some shots in the show provides a great dialogue between two distinctly different perspectives of the same subjects and events. Take Beckman’s more ethereal image of Dee Dee Ramone jumping in the air, legs behind his knees, at a 1979 Hammersmith Odeon show, while Corio’s shot of Johnny on his knees wailing is pure raw energy. “David has a lot more live photos, he’s a lot taller than me, so I never felt quite able to push myself to the front to get some of those pictures,” she says. “He has a lot of really good action shots and quite close-up portraits, but I have a lot of portraits on the street done with the local environment all around them.” Though you’ll find Beckman’s shot of John Lydon alone with a rifle, Slick Rick rocking a champagne bottle and a Fendi satchel before a white backdrop, and Boy George lying against a wall (which she willed onto the cover of Melody Maker the week before “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” topped the charts), the textural richness in her photos aren’t a result of any real staging. “I’m sort of the antithesis of Annie Leibovitz,” she says, preferring to capture “a moment in time,” like Run-DMC hanging out in a yard in Hollis, Queens, The Freshmen standing with some Lower East Side kids on Avenue A in 1988, a thugged group shot of Boo Yaa T.R.I.B.E. on an L.A. rooftop, or The Police inside a tunnel near London’s Waterloo Bridge, which Beckman shot with a Hasselblad paid for with her entire life savings at the time. Luckily, it made the cover of their 1978 debut Outlandos d’Amour (one of three albums she would lens for the band, the latter being their Greatest Hits that was done in separate locations for Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland because by then “the band wasn’t talking”). “It’s not like going into a war zone or anything, but you just walked into it and documented what you saw. In some ways both David and my pictures really were documents of what was going on, because we didn’t airbrush out anything: Debbie looks as beautiful as she does because she was just so beautiful in those days,” says Beckman about the sans-stylist-and-retouch era. It’s a far cry from the polished campaigns she does today for Schott, Kangol, or the classical musicians of New York’s Concert Artists Guild, but they do share a stylistic link to her shots of punk, skinhead, hip-hop and mod fans back in the day. Corio, too, has made a similar divergence, going from iconic shots of Bob Marley and U2 to haute couture, Mayan ruins, and mummies. But as Beckman notes, “It’s just real people and real environments. It’s all connected somehow: one big, huge, full circle.”