Punk's lasting influence showcased in Stonington photography exhibition
When photographer Sheila Rock came to London in the 1970s, she arrived just in time to capture on film the seminal moments that would come to define punk music as a cultural movement: she was there when The Clash held one of their first performances at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1976; when Pretenders founding member Chrissie Hynde shredded the guitar during their first band practices; when young London punks, with buzzed haircuts, went to those underground shows; and when a young Billy Idol was first coming onto the scene as part of Generation X, before he recorded “Rebel Yell” or “White Wedding.”
“It was everyone’s formative time. And no one knew what they were doing,” Rock says in an interview in Setra Artes Gallery, the new Stonington-based art space opened by Monika Agnello that is currently hosting a show of her photos. “No one was famous. No one had any money, and yet a whole movement was created that was individual.”
“None of us had any idea what it would become,” she says.
From Bowie to The Clash
Rock, who recently relocated to the Stonington Borough after living in London for the last 40 years, is a well-regarded photographer who has dabbled in everything from fashion to portrait photography over her decades-long career. Her work has been featured in London’s now-defunct Face Magazine, British and German Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Time Magazine, and Rolling Stone, among many others. A number of her portraits are held in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and she has displayed exhibitions of her work globally. Her photographs showcasing London’s punk scene were her first experimentation with the art form — an explorational moment in her then-budding career where she keenly captured a portrait of the time in all its uninhibited abandon.
Though Rock initially moved from Boston to London in 1970 after growing up in Chicago, she briefly left London in the early ’70s to travel with David Bowie during his first U.S. tour promoting both “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and “Aladdin Sane.” Her husband at the time, Mick Rock, now a famous music photographer, was documenting Bowie, allowing Sheila to be part of his entourage.
It was through this experience that Rock says she was introduced to rock and roll and the idea of “trying to push the envelope out about other creative disciplines.” Bowie’s musical style, though categorized as glam rock, paved the way for punk’s inception through his groundbreaking sartorial choices and stage performances, she says. “He didn’t just play guitar. He wore flamboyant clothes, and he was experimenting with his own sexuality. He was miming on stage. … No one was doing that at all.”
So when she stumbled on The Clash in 1976, she felt a striking energy similar to Bowie’s.
“I remember when they played at the ICA,” Rock says. “And I thought, ‘Whoa, this is different. This is exciting.’ There were all these people walking around wearing these clothes that no one else was wearing and that they made themselves, which is what punk has become famous for.”
Inspired by that sort of overdrive energy, Rock stayed after the show and met guitarist and vocalist Joe Strummer who then introduced her to the band’s manager, Bernard Rhodes. Rock later arranged to take photographs of the band in their office/rehearsal space.
“That was when they were still dressing themselves, before they hired a stylist,” she says, commenting that their shirt patterns paired well with the posters on the wall. “It seemed to be provocative, and so I just shoved them in a corner and positioned them.”
“But I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she admits. “… On my contact sheet, I have pictures of Joe more in the corner. So I must have, at some point, decided to draw him out more. (Photography) is something where you need to be sensitive to the mood. Or sometimes it’s just an accident. You could be standing next to something, and you go, ‘Oh, stand here.’”
Reminiscing about the scene
Naturally, Rock started mingling with other players in the “very small” scene. She reminisces about her friendship with Billy Idol, for example, and her memories of Siouxsie Sioux, lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees (whom she photographed several times, showcasing the singer’s evolving style).
She remembers Pretenders frontwoman Hynde, whom Rock describes as someone “obsessed by rock and roll” even when she didn't know how to play guitar.
“When I met her, she worked as a Saturday girl in the (clothing) shop Sex and was doing one-off articles for the (New Musical Express). She wasn’t singing yet at that time … but she is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
She also remembers photographing Debbie Harry, lead singer of Blondie, explaining that, after quickly photographing Harry on the roof of a building, she asked if the singer would have time for another photo shoot later that week. Harry agreed, and the two planned to meet in Rock’s London apartment.
“She had brought a bunch of clothes and happened to have a leopard-print dress that matched with my leopard-print curtains,” Rock says. The results are striking portraits of a blonde bombshell on the precipice of stardom.
“Everyone was just a young kid, just showing off and exploring themselves,” she continues. “And I was doing that, too, through my photography.”
If you go
Where: Setra Artes Gallery, 11 Grand St., Stonington
When: Through Sept. 30: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun. and by appointment.
Contact: (774) 319-6144, www.setraartes.com
Limited edition prints are on sale as well as Rock's book "Punk +," a deeper photographic exploration of the London punk scene. All books are signed.
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