Tony Cearns caught up with Sheila Rock ahead of her exhibition “Tough and Tender” as part of LOOK/15 Liverpool International Festival of Photography.
Your photographic work of the punk music scene here in England established you as an influential photographer obtaining widespread international coverage. Vogue, no less, reported on your fly-on-the-wall images of the London punk scene as, “so beautifully raw and utterly compelling.” From such a successful start to your career, how difficult was it for you to avoid being narrowly defined as “a music photographer”?
I started my career working in the music industry. The early punk photos were taken with no idea that I was documenting some important cultural movement. I was working in an innocent and free way. I was not a professional photographer, learning my craft as I went along. I was just an inquisitive young girl with a second hand camera.
One thing led into another and I had the good fortune to meet Nick Logan – The most creative editor I have ever met who took risks. He gave me a platform to work and to be recognized.
The Face magazine was an important and innovative publication. I subsequently flourished and this opportunity and association established me as a photographer.
I hate the idea of being categorized, so in the early 1990s I made a conscious and concerted effort to move into other areas of photography. It was, to be honest, hard to do this in the UK. English commissioning editors and art directors wanted me to shoot music personalities. I was very successful throughout the 1980s working for record companies & music magazines but this seemed to prevent me from expanding my portfolio.
I decided I needed to explore other creative possibilities. Jo Clarke, a very good advertising agent, took me on her books even with a slim portfolio of work. She believed in my potential and I started to do other work outside of music.
I had to go to Milan, Italy to escape the tag of “music photographer.”
I found a very prestigious agency called Studio Immagine. They represented such luminaries as Helmut Newton and Wayne Maser and the great Sarah Moon at one time. They took me on and I went to see magazines and started to shoot Fashion and Advertising. I am still with them today, although the name has changed to Carla Pozzi Agency.
Not doubt, my London agent, Terri Manduca, has been instrumental in establishing my career beyond music. She is sensitive and has clarity of vision. She has been particularly supportive of my personal work that nourishes my soul. I think she gets the best out of her stable of photographers because she loves photography and supports her photography family in all good ways.
Working for the West End Theatre and fashion shoots for design periodicals and magazines and Advertising jobs have propelled me from music photographer to Professional Photographer.
Your exhibition here in Liverpool, “Tough and Tender” looks at the character of the English and their seaside towns. Photographers like Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr, Homer Sykes and Daniel Meadows have chronicled the English at the seaside with a touch of irony and sarcasm. Others, such as Iain McKell, find squalor and decay.
Your photographs come from a very different perspective, perhaps because they are portrait-based. There is resilience in the people you portray and a sense of proud acceptance, but some sadness too. People stand upright, unabashed, looking directly at the camera. “Tough and Tender” is indeed a very apt description of how they come across. The images stay with you, imploring to be revisited.
A great strength of these photographs is that they tend to pastiche rather than to parody. They celebrate rather than mock. Tell us about the background to this work and how you chose to take this approach? Did you have a clear idea before you started, or did the idea slowly emerge as you immersed yourself in these seaside towns?
Tough & Tender has been a project over several years. Initially exploring landscape photography and also working in parts of England while doing commercial jobs gave me an opportunity to explore. In all the years of living in the UK, I never really visited the seaside except for Brighton and Southwall, on the Suffolk coast.
The journey has been a “slow burn” and the more I travelled along the coast, the more the coast began to draw me back.
Coincidentally a book by Paul Theroux called Kingdom by the Sea, was recommended to me. It was very interesting and I loved the idea of travelling around England. It has been a revelation for me.
It was much later that I began focusing on Portraiture. I found the experience moving. The juxaposition of Facescape and Landscape and the romantic atmosphere of these beautiful & faded Victorian resorts was alluring. The people I met were indeed “Proud” and “Beautiful.” I saw a poetic , melancholic , sad, proud England by the sea.
Unlike the other photographers you mentioned my vision has always been empathetic. I did not take an “approach”. I see life and people in a positive way. Places like Sheppey and Canvey Island and Blackpool are special places.
Your portrait work is exquisite. It was once said, “to understand the soul of a horse is the closest human beings can come to knowing perfection,” and indeed I get a real sense of this from your portraits of horses. Looking at these photographs, I sense an engagement and understanding with them. Likewise your portraits of well-known public figures are warm and so life affirming.
A strong sense of connection must have been present to have taken these photographs. Tell us a little about how you approach portraiture.
You are very kind. Thank you for these words.
It’s important to me to try to get to the heart of my subject – to find an emotional connection. Strong portraiture does not have to be controversial or shocking. It’s catching an inner quality or a moment that counts. It’s about being sincere and honest.
If a portrait allows you to go deeper and capture the spirit of a person I think it is a much subtler experience but also much more profound.
Whose work do you currently admire and why? Aside from the influences in your formative years, which photographers most influence you now? What is it about their work that you find so powerful?
Three American photographers are important to me, but sadly no contemporary photographers, except for the English/German photographer, Julia Fullerton Batten who has quirky ideas that are dreamlike and charming and Fun.
- Irving Penn whose photographs are exquisite and are the bench mark for Fashion & Portraiture.
- Bruce Davidson is a Big favourite and his work has always inspired. He has an empathetic eye and expresses the best in humanity. His Harlem photographs caught my eye when I was a young girl and they resonate and are strong in a quiet way. His photographs stand the test of time.
- Saul Leiter. He is a new discovery. I saw a beautiful book published by my publisher, Kehrer, about this East Village American photographer. His colour photographs are painterly. His work is poetic and expressive.
What advice would you give to young photographers just starting out who are serious about making a mark as photographers?
Start an idea and explore the possibilities. It’s the creative process that is forever fascinating and challenging at the same time. The end result is important but the journey is possibly what counts.
You have used the full range of camera formats during your career, from 35mm, through medium format Hasselblad to Sinar and 8×10 Polaroid. Accepting that each situation merits a particular approach, this aside, do you have a preference?
I miss Polaroid 5×4 film and the beautiful images that came from working in this slow & considered way. So I love 5×4.
I love analogue black and white film. Ilford HP5 is a great film.
I have a 35mm Hasselblad XPAN that I bring with me on trips.
I used a Mamiya 7 for Tough & Tender when I could get a more reportage feel but still the quality of a medium format.
I own one digital camera, a Leica. It’s great and I should do more on it.
How has your approach developed in recent years and how do you see it developing in the future?
One’s work always evolves organically. I learned my craft by trial and error.
You are always trying to find your ”style” or “voice”. I think it’s important to experiment and not be lazy. Keep trying different things as One’s Natural View comes through in the end. The camera and Oneself merge. It’s a continual process and hard to define in words. It’s ever changing and a surprise.
As a self-taught woman photographer, the early days must have had its challenges. Do you think it has got easier for women photographers in recent years?
There were few Women photographers working when I started. I think there are many interesting Women photographers now doing wonderful work.
But Photography in general has changed. Everyone can be a photographer and the iphone and instagram and the computer age have fuelled this change.
It’s good, I think, that people are opening their eyes and looking at the world.
What are you currently working on Sheila?
The process of producing a book has been all consuming. Tough & Tender is newly finished and the launch exhibition in Liverpool is the first time many of the photographs will be shown.
I am excited about visiting Liverpool and being part of the Festival. I have another exhibition in Berlin at the Johanna Breede Photokunst from June 19th to September 4th.
I am hoping to show “Tough & Tender” in Paris in the autumn but this is not yet confirmed.
Also last year I had the good fortune of promoting my PUNK + book, a document of the punk years, throughout China and Japan for several months. Smaller Punk exhibitions are planned throughout this year in England.
I need some space to think about my next project although there are ideas brewing…..
I have photographed hotel rooms with my Digital Leica just for fun. It’s the same melancholic feeling that one experiences when travelling alone in foreign lands. I find this feeling of aloneness intriguing and empty rooms haunting.
Sheila Rock’s Biography
Sheila Rock was born in the USA and educated at Boston University and the London Film School. She has lived and worked in London since 1970. She became an influential force shaping the look of creative magazines like The FACE magazine.
Her successful career covers a wide spectrum; photographing for the entertainment and music industry, the West End theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Barbican and also advertising and design agencies and periodicals. Her editorial portrait and fashion work have appeared in numerous magazines, including: Time Magazine, Elle, Glamour, Rolling Stone, Architectural Digest, and the Sunday Times.
Her book, Sera – the way of the Tibetan Monk – published in 2004, accompanied several exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery, London and the Palazzo Bricherasio Museum, Turin, Italy and The June Bateman Gallery, New York City. The Wereld Museum in Rotterdam exhibited the Sera Portraits in 2006.
Images from the Sera series are in the permanent collection of the William Benton Museum of Art in Connecticut, USA. The Houston Fine Art Museum has acquired a Seascape portrait for their permanent collection.
Punk, a document of punk from 1976-1980, is her second book and was released in 2013.
“ Punk + “ had exhibitions in Tokyo and China, Singapore and Taiwan throughout 2014.
Fine Art publishers, KEHRERVERLAG, are publishing her Tough & Tender portraits in the summer of 2015.
Her celebrity portraits form part of the public collection at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Private collectors and Ralph Lauren Polo have a number of her Horse Portraits world wide.
Social Media and Links
Sheila Rock’s photography can be seen on her web-site: www.sheilarock.com
Sheila’s agent, Terri Manduca, can be contacted on her web-site at the address: www.terrimanduca.co.uk
Sheila’s FB page
Kehrer books can be found at: www.kehrerverlag.com
I wish to thank Sheila Rock for sharing her time and insights with me.
Interview © Tony Cearns
Photographs © Sheila Rock