When trawling through the punk archives, it soon becomes obvious, that apart from the records themselves, the real stand out items are the photographs. Usually shot in black and white, because colour film was more expensive, the pictures often include incidental items like littered streets or shop fronts, they record the way it was. These photographs take us up close and personal towards the centre of action, 99.999% of which, we did not ever actually see. Without these images, we can only imagine how someone, or something, or somewhere looked. While the bands played, and the audience danced, or when this band met that band backstage, or when they were just hanging around waiting to sound check… who was there clicking the shutter? Punk girl photographers like Roberta Bayley, that’s who.
Roberta Bayley was born in Pasadena, California and after moving to New York City, she worked as a door person at CBGB’s, thus befriending many of the leading musicians on the early punk scene.
Roberta, on the door at CBGBs by Godlis
“I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and came to New York City in the spring of 1974. I had been living in London for two years. New York seemed very alive after that. The city was bankrupt, rents were cheap, and poverty fuelled the imagination. Originality flooded the streets. On the music scene, glitter and glam were fading. Everyone was looking for something, the next thing. To be it or see it. And then, suddenly, there it was. In January of 1975, Television’s manager, Terry Ork, asked me to work the door at CBGBs on the Sunday nights when the band played. It became my job for the next few years, as more and more bands came to play.”
In November of 1975 she bought a Pentax Spotmatic and began taking pictures of all the very different bands in the CBGBs circle, and quickly progressed to being the staff photographer on Leg McNeil’s groundbreaking Punk magazine. She claims that it was there that she “learned the true meaning of creative insanity”.
“I didn’t buy a camera until 1975, and I don’t know why they had any confidence in me, but The Heartbreakers asked me if I would take their picture, those were the blood pictures that appeared on Please Kill Me, and literally that was the fourth and fifth roll of film through my camera”.
As someone who was close to many of New York’s emerging bands, like Blondie, Television and Richard Hell, many of Roberta’s photos have more the mood and tone of a family album rather than the sort of glossy record company spreads which, by the mid 1970s, were the record industry standard. Roberta’s photographs, on the other hand, weren’t staged in the same way, the bands were just hanging out, and because she was also a friend, they were relaxed around her and trusted her.
Probably her most famous photograph, is the one that graces the front cover of the first album by The Ramones, which was originally shot for Punk magazine, and was never intended to be used for anything other than the magazine feature,
“The Ramones didn’t know it was going to be their album cover, I didn’t know it was going to be their album cover, nobody knew so I think that took a lot of the pressure off. Sire records had hired a “professional photographer” and paid them a lot of money, to shoot the Ramones and everyone involved hated the pictures, so then they were in a panic…”
As a frequent flyer around Blondie, Roberta also notes “you can never take a bad picture of Debbie”
Between 1976 and 1980, Roberta documented almost everyone, both in the US and on trips to the UK, including Iggy Pop, Blondie, Richard Hell, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols on their final and ill-fated tour of the States, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, The Ramones, Nick Lowe, The Damned, The Clash, The Dead Boys and The New York Dolls.
“By 1980 everything had changed. I’d pretty much photographed everyone I had ever wanted to photograph who was still alive, and I was in serious danger of losing my status as an amateur. I put away my camera and disappeared. These photographs are my record, the evidence of what was.”
Roberta has since released many books of photographs, continues to show her work in exhibitions, and has even guest lectured at events – including this one at the Annenberg Space for Photography in June 2012, which you can watch HERE
And you can see more of Roberta’s work at her website HERE