photographer sheila rock chats her transition from punk to seaside promenade

The view through Sheila Rock’s lens has always been a mixture of tough and tender. The evocative grit and gloss of her signature was not only seminal to the punk scene but spanned numerous musical genres, fashion, fine art, portraiture and most recently….the seaside.

Leather studded, razor sharp, oil slicked, pierced, rough and ready. Rock’s standout ability to bring you up close, and illustrate the most intimate and delicate side of her hardest subjects speaks volumes.

From the time she hopped on a tour bus with Ziggy Stardust, to arriving in London in the 70’s documenting the punk scene from the streets, the shops to the spit stained floors of the ICA. Rock continually let her curiosity and organic talent for portraying people lead the way.

“I was just a young girl with a camera. I had no experience, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never seen anything like this before, nobody had seen Punk before. No one had any money and you had all these incredibly creative people making something out of nothing. I was walking around and taking pictures because I was so intrigued, and fascinated. I was so drawn to something about the English sensibility. The strength, the flamboyance. The attitude of the scene."

Jordan

"I don’t know why I took this shot. It’s from the inside of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex. I wasn’t commissioned or anything. I think I just had my camera and walked in or maybe I asked her before? I’m not sure exactly. Jordan had the most amazing image. She was a little like a female Leigh Bowery. I don’t think she thought of herself that way and it’s only until recently that she’s being celebrated as the visual icon of Punk. In those days no one was really photographing Punk, there were some music photographers taking shots of the bands but very few, if any taking the style and the people shots. It was so free. Taking photos, having your photo taken and being a creative. People were never thinking ‘what am I going to get out of it’ or ‘how can I promote myself or my image."

Jordan Sex

"I took this photo sort of the same time as the other one of Jordan inside. I just thought a shop named Sex was so amazing and so I asked Jordan to step outside. I walked halfway across the Kings Road and stopped between all this traffic. Just as I turned around there was this man, this typical 1970’s man and he’s wearing flares. I don’t know where he came from?! Whether he came out from that door or he was walking? But he stopped and looked at her and it was just one shot. This shot. I think I maybe have 2 or 3 more after he left but that’s it."

Chrissie Hynde

"In the 70’s we were all so poor, nobody had any money. I had no idea that all those people I was meeting  like the boys in the Clash, the Pistols, Chrissie Hynde would become so famous! We all were kinda struggling you know to do something creative, or learning how to perfect our craft. When I met Chrissie she was writing part time for the NME, struggling to learn how to play the guitar, working as a Saturday girl in the shop SEX. This particular shot, which is now considered to be pretty rare is from a rehearsal of Moors Murderers. Chrissie was just the bass player and Steve Strange was actually on vocals. They were only together I think 4 or 5 months, I’m not even sure they played a proper gig. Now she’s a rock icon! It’s amazing!"

Snapping some of the earliest shots of the Clash, the Pistols, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Blondie, and Paul Weller before launching her very successful career at The FACE; Sheila Rock carved out a formidable photographic archive of music legends that many could have happily retired on. But something wasn’t right.

“I shot almost every major act in the 80s and built this hugely impressive Punk archive. I didn’t even really have a portfolio yet, but magazines and bands would call up wanting me to shoot for them because they thought I was cool and liked my style. But at the end of the 80s something didn’t feel right anymore. I realised I had become a better photographer. I became technically better, I felt more confident. Whereas before I didn’t really known what I was doing... now I felt ready and I wanted to do different things. I wanted to shoot a ballet dancer, or a writer or an opera singer, but no one would give me a job!  I was completely pigeon holed. I was flirting in one area but shooting myself in the foot with the other. The only way to change this trajectory of me only working in the music business was to get out of it! I didn’t listen to music for like 10 years, I missed the 90’s! I completely missed them!"

Despite missing out on the heaving mosh pits of 90’s grunge, Britpop and a hundred obligatory sing a longs to Wonderwall, Rock made it out even stronger the other side. Shooting for German Vogue, Elle, Architectural Digest, the Telegraph, Times, Royal Opera, Royal Ballet, and Barbican among numerous other commissions, and major fashion campaigns. And whilst global exhibitions of her punk and music work still storm ahead it’s her newest project photographing the English seaside for her book Tough and Tender where her heart truly lies.

“Initially I didn’t see the connection between my punk photographs and my shots for Tough and Tender. It was a very organic book. I started doing one thing and it evolved into something else. It was a journey, a bit like Punk was. The grittier places always have more soul I think, and it was visiting these places and meeting these often profoundly poor people that were so joyful and appreciative and really making do with not very much that really reflected the Punk era for me. When I arrived in London in the 70’s very young, with no money, surrounded by all these other brilliantly creative people with no money with such a sense of character and this string resilience."

Angel

"This was taken in the Isle of Sheppey. A small island, just off the coast of Kent. She was part of a hen party and everyone was dressed up. All of her friends were in costumes, someone was dressed like a baby and she was dressed like an angel and I just thought she had this amazingly craggy, hard face and to be in this very delicate costume on the beach, you know that was very interesting."

Leopard Print

"There’s something punky about this shot. I photographed her and her mother in Sheepy. Her mother has this amazing eyeliner that’s sorta like something from the 70s.There was so many interesting looking people there. The more working class places I visited, the more heart and feeling I was getting from my pictures. The more middle class my photos were, or the more gentrified the areas were that I visited, I just found they didn't say anything, it was sort of bland. I really wanted to portray my vision or rather my interpretation of how I see the English seaside. I don’t know if it’s that I’m girl that I have a more romantic sensibility but I found a lot of poetry as I went along, and I felt a lot of heart to the people that I met. When British people look at these pictures I think it resonates with them, because most people in England have gone to the coast when they were a child and I think I sort of nailed it. The thing that brings people back time and time again."

Sheila Rock’s Books
Punk + is available by First Third Books www.firstthirdbooks.com
Tough & Tender is available via Kehrer Verlag www.artbooksheidelberg.com
www.sheilarock.com

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