Grey Matters: Janette Beckman on Mastering Monochrome
Call to mind any black and white photograph of fresh-faced (well, sort of) punk or hip hop legends and there’s a good chance it’s a Janette Beckman. LL Cool J, Boy George, Sid Vicious and Run-DMC all found themselves in front of the iconic photographer’s lens at some point, more often than not right as their careers — and respective scenes — were kicking off and steering the course of music history.
As a master of black, white and grey area for decades, Beckman’s sneaker contemporary can only be New Balance’s 574. The 80s sneaker can chop up greys with the best of them, so we laced Beckman in a pair and asked her to lead us down memory lane.
Some of your most iconic imagery is black and white. What does the grey scale offer that colour doesn’t?
I’ve always loved black and white. It has a simple, classic feel that colour doesn’t. Maybe because many of the photographers I have always admired shoot mostly in black and white – Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, William Klein, Jim Marshall, Danny Lyon. Most images look strong in black and white.
If you had to choose colour or black and white only, which would it be?
Black and white! Photographing digital these days I usually go straight to Adobe’s black and white feature to check if it makes the image stronger.
Why do people view your work as iconic?
When I photographed bands like Run-DMC, Salt-N-Pepa, Boy George and The Police, they were mostly unknowns starting out; they were all at the beginning of their careers. It’s the historical context that makes the work 'iconic' now.
Have you seen a change in people’s attitude to being photographed?
Definitely. When I stop people on the street to take a portrait, they have their 'selfie smile' ready. The spontaneity has gone; everyone wants to look perfect.
Are you a nostalgic person?
Nostalgic? Not really, though I do feel really lucky that I was able to document two of the greatest music movements — punk and hip hop. I guess I might be nostalgic for the purity of those times.
As a photography teacher, what do you notice is hardest for students to grasp?
They typically struggle with the fact that they have to shoot all the time and create a body of work. It is simply not enough to have four great photographs and a lot of Instagram followers.
For many, the first stop when sharing images is social media. You’ve taken globally recognisable and infinitely repurposed images; do have advice for photographers trying to preserve ownership?
I think you have to understand and accept that once you post an image on social media, anyone can steal it. Many of my images have been stolen and used illegally without permission. One artist illegally used one of my photographs to make hundreds of large silkscreens to be sold for $15,000 each! Maintaining ownership sadly requires lawsuits. Syndicating with a reliable company is useful.
You’ve seen a lot of rising stars. Have you learnt how to pick them?
Sometimes it’s just a feeling. I just photographed a group called Brockhampton and I think they’re going to be huge. They have their look, personalities, music and social media totally down and their stage show is amazing.
Are you following any nascent subcultures or new movements?
I’m always looking for new subcultures, people who are doing things outside the box. I’m currently working on a series about independent women artists for a show called 'Then She Did.’
Has your work ever got you into hairy situations?
One time I was documenting an illegal girl-fight scene in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Local drug dealers sponsored the fights, and we were locked in a cement garage with hundreds of guys. There were pit bulls tied up in the back — no way out, very intense. I thought ‘if someone gets mad and has a gun, we’re all dead.’ I was scared but there was nothing else to do but talk to the guys and start taking photos.
Do prefer the independence of freelance or the security of working for someone?
I have worked freelance all my life. It’s difficult because you never know when or if the next job is coming. Your income is totally irregular and there is no security. However, you have your independence. And although I may work way longer hours than the nine-to-five folk, I’m doing something I love.
Photographs of Janette Beckman by Gudrun Georges.
The 574 is available from New Balance online and in-store.