Images of Johnny Rotten resting against a chimney stack, and Toyah Wilcox springing from a coffin feature in a new exhibition of photos taken at the height of the punk craze in 1970s London.
Photographer Caroline Coon snapped most of the big British punk pioneers back in the day — behind the scenes, staged, and with more candid off-the-cuff shots too. Now, she has worked with The Centre for British Photography in St James's to dig into her back catalogue, dust off old negatives and recall this anarchic era with her show, Nothing to Lose.
Says Coon: "In 1976, I saw the Sex Pistols perform their second gig and immediately I recognised a galvanising new expression of sub-cultural revolt. Urgently I upgraded the Kodak Instamatic I used for my painting to a Nikon F2 SLR. As the early days of the dramatic punk scene evolved — created by bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and The Slits — I photographed and interviewed musicians and fans."
Most of the photos here eschew showing the bands on stage; instead we get glimpses of Mick Jones from The Clash and Mykaell Riley of Steel Pulse protesting with plaques outside the National Front's headquarters, and film director and DJ Don Letts (a constant on the punk scene at the time), filming during the Rock Against Racism concert of 1978 in Hackney's Victoria Park.
Not all photos have aged well, with the exhibition including reminders of the fascination with fascist ideologies harboured by some of the punk scene. Siouxsie Sioux is photographed loitering outside Oxford Street's 100 Club wearing a swastika armband; described by the singer as an alignment with Nazism as an act of rebellion, and garnished with The Banshees' antisemitic song lyrics.
"It was not until the early 1990s, when people began reconsidering and recognising the significance of punk," says Coon, "that there was a new demand for my photographs. Unfortunately, the darkroom where my films were developed had moved and many of my negatives were lost. The photographs in this exhibition, some from negatives and others restored and printed from scratched contact sheets, are a glimpse of what has survived from this revolution moment."
The images have been organised by Coon into three exclusive box sets (there will be just 10 made of each for sale), but those who don't have £5,000 to spend on one of these can go and see around half of the entire collection on display at The Centre for British Photography, for free. Be quick though — like the punk movement itself, this show doesn't last long.
Nothing to Lose: The Punk photographs of Caroline Coon, The Centre for British Photography, 17 November-17 December 2023, free.