British photographer Janette Beckman began her career working for influential music magazines Melody Maker and The Face, shooting bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. As punk subculture yielded to no one, Beckman used her camera to document the transformative musical scene around her. Inspired by the authenticity of punk rock, she moved to New York City in 1983 and became drawn to the underground hip-hop scene, capturing a prolific catalogue of burgeoning hip-hop legends, from Run-DMC, Slick Rick, Salt-N-Pepa, Grandmaster Flash and Big Daddy Kane to LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and Afrika Bambaataa. Beckman’s disarming personality and fascination with rebel culture created a compelling and honest body of work featuring empowering moments in music history.
Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles is exhibiting Janette’s iconic photographs reimagined in a mash-up series curated by Cey Adams, along with a selection of her historic works in an upcoming exhibition. The Mash Up features Beckman’s celebrated hip-hop portraits individually painted, drawn on and/or collaged by New York graffiti legends like CRASH, FUTURA, LADY PINK, QUEEN ANDREA, REVOLT and ZEPHYR. This strong series has also been collected in a new book titled The Mash Up: Hip-Hop Photos Remixed by Iconic Graffiti Artists.
PRØHBTD spoke with Beckman about the upcoming exhibit and her practice, and she discussed the similarities between punk and hip-hop, her collaboration with graffiti artists and how she approaches portraiture.
After capturing the rise of British punk and the subculture in the 1970s and '80s, you moved to New York, where you first documented the hip-hop scene as early as 1982. Are there common threads to these two subcultures?
I think the common thread is the poor economy and people whose voices had previously been unheard finally expressing themselves.
When Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols sang “No Future,” his generation had little hope of getting a decent job, the U.K. was broke and punk bands were all about that. They came from the working class and out of art schools with no money. They dressed from thrift stores and army surplus and sang about their lives.
When I arrived in New York in 1983, I saw a similar thing: New York was also broke, kids had little chance of getting a good job or even an education. They started to express themselves with music, rapping, graffiti on trains. When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message” in 1982, it was considered the first hip-hop song to provide social commentary about the lives they were living. “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat”—that was New York in the '80s. Living on Avenue B in the East Village, those lyrics were always running around in my head.
How did your collaboration with some of New York’s finest old-school graffiti artists come about?
The idea was conceived and curated by artist Cey Adams in 2014. He asked some of his famous graffiti friends to draw on my old school hip-hop photographs. We had a show in my loft with 10 artists, and the project just grew.
Each piece speaks the same language with its own unique voice.
Each artist was asked to choose a photograph from my archive, and they were given an 11x14" print to reinterpret. There were no rules. They used spray paint, acrylics, collage, markers, whatever they wanted, to make their own pieces of art. We also asked them to say why they chose that particular image. Their artists' statements are such an important part of the project.
You've met many of these artists as they were starting to write on the streets and subways. What was it like during the formative years of the movement?
My first encounter with graffiti was back in London, working for Melody Maker magazine. I photographed an artist called Ali spray painting a New York City scene for the cover of our magazine. A month later, I photographed the first ever hip-hop tour to come to London. On that assignment, I met and photographed FUTURA, DONDI, Rammellzee, Fab 5 Freddy, Bambaataa, GrandMixer DXT, the Rocksteady Crew and more. I didn’t know who they were, but I loved what they were creating. Moving to NYC in 1983, the trains and the walls in the neighborhood I lived in on the Lower East Side were covered in graffiti. I was lucky enough to spend the day photographing Keith Haring at his studio for the Daily News Magazine in 1985. I went to shows at the Fun Gallery and Gracie Mansion and met the artists there.
This series has been published into a book now?
Cey Adams, my co-author, and I wanted this book to showcase the artists, their mash-ups, their own work and my portrait of each artist. There is so much history of hip-hop culture in this book: musicians, graffiti and photography. Over the last four years, this project has been shown in Paris, London, Geneva, Reykjavik and more. People love it. We are thrilled to have it in a beautiful book.
Your images capture honest and genuine moments, bringing realness into your work. How do you approach your portraits?
My portraits are always a collaboration with the subject. I like to photograph people in their own environments, on the street, at home, usually without stylists or grooming.The portraits are also a document of the time. My photograph of Run-DMC and posse in 1984 in Hollis, Queens is a great example. They are standing on the street where they lived with some friends, wearing Kangol, Adidas, Cazal glasses—it is just a moment in time. It was one of the first shots I took that day and is still one of my favorite images.
Throughout your work, you continue to document a society with the raw power of their attitude. What draws you to these subjects?
I have always been drawn to rebels, ever since I went to art school. Being a part of the U.K. punk era and then coming to NYC to photograph hip-hop, I am attracted to people who think outside the box and who, with little resources, make "art" out of their lives.
What’s in your creative future? Any plans?
We are planning a book tour, panel discussions, murals and educational programming around the history and culture and looking for support to fund this.
I have been working on a project called I Vote Because to get out the vote in the midterm elections, and I'm excited to see the photographs I shot on buses and billboards in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Jacksonville and upstate New York. I just came back from Milan, working on a project with Fiorentini+Baker taking portraits of “Extraordinary People” who wear their shoes. Next stop, London.
The Mash-Up exhibition will be on view at Fahey/Klein Gallery from October 11 until November 24.