In Shakespeare’s time, the word “punk” was a crass synonym for “prostitute.” Centuries later, the word evolved to refer to the proudly degenerate youth culture that cropped up in New York and London. Sporting Kabuki-ish makeup, chains, slashed T-shirts, and safety pins, the in-your-face aesthetic was reviled by the mainstream. Punk style would eventually become co-opted by big couture designers like Jean Paul Gaultier–and showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where “Punk” was the theme of last year’s Met Gala–but here we get a look at the origins of the movement in all its glory.
From 1976 to 1977, while they were photography students at London’s Polytechnic Institute, Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon took black-and-white photos of the London punk scene in the heyday of the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees. First exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery in 1978, these photographs are now featured in Punks, a new exhibition at London gallery IBID Projects, and in a limited edition monograph just released by GOST press.
In these flash-lit photographs, Londoners mean-mug in (now infamous) London clubs like the Roxy and Charing Cross. “The street and the clubs are the stage upon which the everyday is transformed into an expressionist phantasmagoria,” Knorr and Richon write in the book’s introduction. These photos celebrate the original pantheon of femme-punk icons (not Avril Lavigne): Femme Ari Up, Laura Logic, Palmolive, Poly Styrene, and Siouxsie Sioux.
Swiss-born Richon is now a professor at London’s Royal College of Art and Knorr, born in Frankfurt and raised in Puerto Rico, is a photography professor at the University for the Creative Arts in Surrey. “Our starting point was to get away from the candid photography strategy of the invisible hit-and-run photographer, as well as avoiding the rough, grainy picture associated with that way of working,” they write of this project. “We chose a direct confrontation with our subject. This is why our pictures are posed, affirming our presence instead of eluding it. We attempted to achieve such a formal approach in order to emphasize punk symbolism and to make it more readable.”
The symbolism isn’t exactly hard to read in the first place (a leather jacket scrawled with “Destroy London,” swastikas drawn onto foreheads), but the subjects’ posturing makes these photos even more carnivalesque. Punks is on view at IBID Projects in London until February 22nd. The monograph is available from GOST Books for $40.
[All images from PUNKS by Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon © Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon courtesy of GOST Books.]