Punk London is marking the 40th anniversary of punk with a year-long programme of exhibitions, gigs and films exploring its legacy. To mark the occasion, celebrated photographer Sheila Rock talks us through the punk era from beginning to end

Punk always was one for a party. After all, the movement saw an era of rebellious freedom, revolutionary style and music promoting free expression. Britain was taken over by underground parties and positive anarchy. It seems only fitting that Punk London is marking the 40th anniversary of punk with a year-long celebration through exhibitions, gigs and films exploring its continued influences.

One woman who documented the entire movement – so much from the inside that it wasn’t even something that she realised she had done – is Chiswick-based photographer Sheila Rock.

Chiswick-based photographer Sheila Rock

Chiswick-based photographer Sheila Rock

‘I didn’t have any formal training. I was young, with a Nikkromat camera, and I just saw something extraordinary on the King’s Road and started to photograph it,’ says Rock. As organic as the first rumblings of the punk movement, Rock had started what was to become an incredible photographic documentation of the entire scene in London.

Having had the chance to go on the Bowie tour with her ex-husband and well-known rock photographer Mick Rock, she ‘saw the beginnings of New York punk from Richard Hell to Debbie Harry. They were this little tribe. Something was going on and I thought: “this is amazing”,’ explains Rock.

Punk in London

Rock returned to England and met Don Letts, ‘now a very famous video maker and expert on punk, but he was just the shop manager at that point’. He introduced her to the scene and to Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol before they were famous.

‘Within months, they started to change. It was an evolution and it only seemed to be happening on the King’s Road. They didn’t have venues so people congregated in shops like Sex and Boy. They opened The Roxy, which was the first punk venue,’ explains Rock. ‘Bands were able to expose themselves now as punk – everyone dismissed them as not being able to play anything, it was all about the energy and what they looked like – the general vibe.’

It was the photos that Rock continued to take that made up her popular book Punk +, which is a ‘documentary of the raw images of a time when no-one really knew what they were doing.’ The reaction to the book was immense, and clearly shows the nostalgic impact that punk still has on people.

‘Everyone remembered the early wave of rebellion that they wanted to express in a time of Margaret Thatcher,’ says Rock. ‘The English are the English and are creative, so they worked against society because they wanted something else.’

Debbie Harry is beautiful to photograph

Debbie Harry is beautiful to photograph

A defining moment in her time shooting punk is hard for Rock to decipher, perhaps due to the sheer amount of incredible people she has photographed, many of which weren’t famous yet. ‘They were innocent. We were all children fumbling around, trying things out,’ she says. ‘Even when something was interesting, we never knew whether it was good or not.’

She goes on to explain the way in which punk produced one-off mavericks, using Chrissie Hynde as an example. ‘I liked photographing John Lydon. The way he puts himself together is innately stylish and he’s an original. He hasn’t sold out. ‘I was a fly on the wall and was in the right place at the right time,’ she continues. ‘But it was Face magazine that started my career.’

Rock found herself moving away from punk photography and started doing portraiture and fashion. ‘I photographed Bowie with Mark Bolan, and Debbie Harry is beautiful to photograph,’ says Rock. ‘In England punk wasn’t sexual, but she manifested sex and she was the only one who did. She was nice too!’

Punk’s legacy

‘Modern culture doesn’t have true punk. It’s not got the integrity any more,’ says Rock. ‘It’s a marketing tool for young people to associate with being rebellious or cool – so it still has a place and it’s not bad, it’s just different.’

But as someone who witnessed the raw movement at the time, she is amazed by the impact and momentum that is still here now: ‘The fact that 40 years later the British Library and the Barbican are throbbing with memorabilia is amazing.’

For Rock it’s a world left far behind. Having retreated from the hubbub of Notting Hill Gate to the village haven of Chiswick, she pours her heart into projects that really touch her – as can be seen in her most recent work, Tough & Tender, which focuses on the lost British seaside.

Likewise the punk ethos of the raw, spontaneous promotion of individual freedom and being ‘in the moment’, Rock continues to work this way but maintains that punk was left firmly in its moment. It’s all about wonderful memories and nostalgia with this anniversary…

Punk+, £49, is published by First Third Books. Rock is part of a punk exhibition at the British Library from 13 May – see more at bl.uk

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