Punk Photography or Three Chords and A Message

The essence of punk to me was always a sense of doing. To try without fear of failure, to use whatever you could beg, borrow or steal to make something happen, to have your voice heard. Fanzines were the epitome of this mindset. Handwritten, stapled, opinionated raw messages from the underground that took publishing and made it available to the untrained.

I was a little too young for punk at age thirteen in 1977 even though I was in London and on the King’s Road most Saturdays. I was however the perfect age to be part of the post-punk revolution within the creative industries in London in the early 1980s. As young art students at St.Martins School of Art we were filled with enthusiasm and energy, but broke. I couldn’t afford a camera, film or processing, photocopies could be accessed through the library, but were out of my price range. The £27 I received each week from my Saturday job had to pay for my weekly room and board. I used a bicycle to travel from Surrey to Covent Garden each day.

I am not asking you to get the violins out I am just outlining a reality. Nothing was easy.

Today, the tools I wanted then are available to most. Sharing platforms are free to all and unlimited image making is a given. Printing, typesetting and distribution are no longer financially unachievable thanks to online platforms and Adobe and Microsoft software.

The tools we wanted are now available. We can make music, broadcast, publish, and communicate globally. Our photographs can be seen across the world. This is big stuff, however, photographers my age seem to appreciate this more than those digital natives for whom all of this is an expectation.

Not only do they appreciate it more but they also seem to be doing more with these tools. As a teenager I was in a band that gigged regularly even though I couldn’t play the bass guitar slung around my neck. Incompetence did not stop me. I had a message and I wanted to share it through the words of The Cramps, The Dead Kennedy’s and Iggy Pop.

Photography today could embrace that punk spirit. The tools are available if the spirit is willing.

Unfortunately, I fear that everything has become safe and not safe in a good way. An obsession with technique, equipment, post production and digital perfection has seen a rise in images of conformity. Images more concerned by replicating a dominant aesthetic or subject matter than pushing the possibilities of the medium. During punk and post-punk it was important to have something to say. How you delivered that message was up to you, there were no rules of engagement, no unacceptable approach.

The vast amount of work I see today is introspective and seems to have lost that need for a message wrapping itself up in a web of influences that seem to suffocate individuality. This is a shame.

I believe that photography should say something, it should have a reason to exist. It should push boundaries and challenge the viewer. For this to happen the photographer has to be an original thinker, both in instigation and practice. Pretty pictures are fine, but they act as lift music to lull the viewer into a sense of lethargy. Punk woke up the masses, it challenged the musical form, inspired collaboration and was fun! Maybe it’s time for a bit of that punk spirit to infuse the photographic world. 2, 3 4…!

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

6 comments

  1. My reference to instagram gatekeepers and influencers is because Instagram is presently a dominant force in photography and has some significance for who is getting noticed. As you say there are other channels and means, self publishing books, getting published, exhibitions etc.. But they are all tough nuts to crack. My point when responding to your piece is that there are always conventions and dominant groups who decide what is worthy and what is not and that existed in the late 70s punk era just as at has at any other time. Punk was very fashion and image conscious and was very unsure of its political or cultural stance at the time, with a few exceptions such as Joe Strummer, Polystyrene and The Ruts and Stiff Little Fingers. There has been so much attributed to and overlaid onto the punk that it’s myth is more than it’s reality ever was at the time, in terms of cultural significance. Punk really found its cultural significance through its later allegiance with reggae and the Rastafari concept of Babylon hence the Ruts song Babylon’s Burning. Stiff Little Fingers covering Johnny Was by Bob Marley and aiming the lyrics at The Troubles is another example. Donn Letts played a major role in all this as you know and has made a couple of great documentaries on the subject.
    30 odd years ago I taught photography at Soundwell College and Watershed in Bristol. I had some old fully manual cameras and HP5 film for the students. Some of the work produced with relatively little technical skill was fantastic, straight from the eye the heart and the head.

  2. Totally agree, Grant. There is still a punk attitude simmering out there – I worked with a great new project featuring a revamped old band just the other week on PR images, Satan’s Rats (around in the 70’s), now featuring Puss Johnson of Pussy Cat and the Dirty Johnsons, now of course, renamed Satan’s Cats. As I reach FMP on my MA Photography at Falmouth, I’m considering a documentary project on this particular counter culture, not in a nostalgic narrative, but intrigued as to how the punk/rebellion message is encoded by the new wave of artists and scenesters and decoded by a new younger audience. As we can so easily and regrettably draw such clear socio-political parallels from now to that time, I’m wondering if this research could even extend into a Phd.

    Thanks for your ongoing inspirational bulletins.

  3. Hi Grant
    I was 12 in 1977 so like you more involved with post punk and new wave music than punk itself. My main genres were 2 Tone and reggae. I agree that music was often made with basic knowledge ,skill and equipment and that in some cases there is presently an overemphasis on equipment and so called visual perfection that detracts from the end product.
    Despite social media and other platforms of mass communication of music and visual art it still remains the case that for your art to reach a significant or wide audience it is as necessary now as it was in 1977 for the so called right people to champion you or big you up. I once had a photograph liked by 5000 plus people on Instagram. (It was on my old account that got hacked). It is a portrait I made of a Nuturei Karta Ultra Orthodox Jewish man who I met on a Palestinian Solidarity march. I entered it into an exhibition and comp run by Lens Culture and it got a lot of love. It also got a lot of hate from Jews accusing me of Anti-Semitism because Nuturei Karta are anti-Zionist Jews. Anyway my point is that the highest likes I had previously was 110. The portrait that got 5000 plus was no better than my other work but this time I got bigged up by influencers and movers and shakers. In 1977 it may have been Malcolm and Vivien who decided if you were worthy or not these days its gate keepers on social media. It all amounts to the same thing. I have just published my second photobook. Its called The Woods . I have had some very positive feedback and hope to get more and sell more copies soon. If one of the industry gatekeepers or players notices it and bigs it up I may well sell out in a day or two. Fingers crossed. Thanks for the excellent podcast.

    1. Thanks for the feedback and information. I don’t agree however about gatekeepers on Instagram there are many others you can approach

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