Roberta Bayley reigns supreme as one of the principal photographers who served as a significant visual chronicler of the punk rock music movement that lasted from the mid-70s up until the early-80s. Bayley worked as a door person at the legendary CBGB’s where she befriended the scene’s most significant figures. Among the punk music artists she has photographed are Iggy Pop, Blondie, Richard Hell, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, Joe Strummer, The Ramones, Nick Lowe, The Damned, The Clash, The Dead Boys, and The New York Dolls. The chief photographer for Punk magazine, Bayley’s photographs have appeared in countless publications including Blank Generation Revisited: The Early Days of Punk, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and CBGB and OMFUG: Thirty Years from the Home of Underground Punk, among others. Bayley co-wrote the book Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography with Victor Bockris, and is author of Blondie: Unseen 1976–1980. Her photographs have been exhibited in such major cities as New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Austin, Paris, Portland, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Mexico City, and Pittsburgh.
Bayley discusses her work, The Heartbreakers, 1975, and The Ramones, New York City, 1976, selected for publication in Who Shot Rock & Roll by Gail Buckland (Knopf, October 2009, $40).
The images Gail selected for the book, The Heartbreakers and The Ramones, are among the most iconic images of punk. Your personal history, working at CBGB’s and photographing the artists (your friends) at the dawn of their careers, put you at the eye of the hurricane (a position I, and many others I am quite sure, look at with envy and awe). Your work is as essential to the scene as the music itself. What did these pictures mean to you when you made them, and has that meaning changed over time, as the photographs have grown into icons?
Roberta Bayley: I made the Ramones image for a shoot for Punk magazine. It was never meant to be the album cover, so there was no pressure on me. John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil were there and we knew the Ramones so it wasn’t a high stress session. The Ramones record company, SIRE, had already hired a “professional” photographer to shoot the album cover but the band hated the photos and were desperate enough to call me! I was paid $125 for that image and one other to be used for publicity—take it or leave it. I took it. As soon as it was released I knew somehow that it was iconic. Over the years many people, especially in England, told me they were “gobsmacked” seeing the cover, and bought the record just because of that image. There has never been another image of the Ramones that captures that particular perfect moment.
The Heartbreakers “blood” photo is completely different in it’s origin than the Ramones image. This image was taken from a session that was (literally) the fourth roll of film through my camera! It was taken in my then-unfurnished, brand new apartment on St. Marks Place (where I still live). The blood concept was Richard Hell’s, taken from the product used to simulate blood in 50s B-movies (it was actually Hershey’s syrup). The photo was used for a New Year’s Eve poster with the phrase “Catch Them While They’re Still Alive”—playing on the band’s reputation as heavy drug users.
The Heartbreakers image did not become “iconic” until it was used for the cover of Please Kill Me in 1996. That book was issued in England, France, Germany, Japan, and Finland, and is still in print. So the image has become associated with that classic book about punk.
I have always loved the dirty glamour, casual formality, and inescapable individuality your subjects exude. As much as these two images were photo shoots for the bands, there’s nothing contrived about these images. Whether it’s Joey Ramone’s smirk or Johnny Thunder’s bravado, the images feel like they are playing to you, connecting to you, rather than to the camera. What was the energy on these shoots, and how did your personal relationships affect your connection to them?
The people I photographed back then were people I knew, and had known, for a few years. Most of them (all of them?) were not experienced in front of the camera, nor was I experienced behind the camera. We were all winging it. I had a natural talent for relaxing my subjects. Also I worked quickly. Most of my subjects didn’t really love the photo experience. They were musicians and not models. So I tried to relax people, take the photo and end it. I’m sure there was also an element of flirtation involved, which is part of relaxing your subject, along with humor.
Punk came out of NYC at its grimiest. How did your work reflect the times you were living in (and by that I mean, how did you make a living being a photographer in NYC back in the 70s)?
I had no idea that New York was at its nadir when I arrived in 1974. I had just arrived from London and New York seemed vibrant and fabulous to me!
I did NOT make a living as a photographer in the 70s! I always had another “day job.” Until 1978 it was CBGB’s and then I worked for Blondie for a year (for $150 a week!). It was only in 2004 that I quit my various day jobs and have made a living solely from my “art”!
You describe working at Punk as a form of “creative insanity.” Can you add to this, I am curious as to how the insanity nurtured and impacted your work?
John and Legs were both a few years younger than me, and they brought a lot of originality and enthusiasm to what they were trying to do with Punk. They didn’t break the rules so much as they had no idea there WERE any rules! Plus there was zero money, which always fuels creativity. Hey, the magazine’s original headquarters was called “the dump” and it was. Three of them lived there and there was no shower. They used to go over to Nancy Spungen’s to bathe. The most fun came out of the “fumettis” which were like movies or comic books in still-photo form. We tried to shoot “on location” as much as possible but if something didn’t work out John could always draw in the special effects later. It was damn good fun and everybody on the scene wanted to be involved. We got people to do crazy things in the name of “art.”