It's 1976, the club is dark and packed out. Sweaty bodies push and pogo toward the stage in a heaving storm of beer, piss, and spit. From underneath a raincoat Jill Furmanovsky fires two shots. Flashgun in hand she lights up the whole front of the stage, blinding Sid Vicious then taking off back through the crowd, not even a hundred percent sure she got the frame.
One of the earliest and most renowned female music photographers, Furmanovsky's output speaks for itself. From Bob Marley, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, and Miles Davis, to James Brown, Zeppelin, and a hell-raising stint as the photographer at London's legendary Rainbow Theatre in its most hedonistic prime, Jill's list goes on.
This month Furmanovsky is celebrating the 40th anniversary of punk by digging through her prolific catalogue of work. Putting together an exhibition combining the visceral anarchy of her favorite (many never before seen) frames with a selection of rare memorabilia, album artwork, and clippings.
Broadly stole some time with Jill at the opening of Chunk of Punk—in London's sedate Barbican library of all places—to discuss some of her messiest standout moments.
BROADLY: What was the first punk gig you shot?
Generation X at the Central London Polytechnic in Red Lion Square in December 1976. I actually photographed The Ramones a few months earlier - in July of 1976 at the Roundhouse—but didn't know they were punk at the time!
You would often wear a raincoat when you were taking photos at gigs! What was the wildest show that you photographed?
Yes I did! Especially at places like the Roxy! In terms of wildness; the band Slade comes to mind. At the Rainbow there was so much pre-pogoing and jumping up and down I thought the balcony would collapse! Madness were wild, their fans would go ballistic. Also the Clash at the Rainbow when the audience tore up seats and threw them on stage. It was a total guessing game as to what you had actually got back then till the film was processed - but all the better for it!
You wound up designing a lot of the album artwork…
When punk came along my B&W in photography and training in graphics came in useful. I designed sleeves for Step Forward Records, Deptford Fun City Records and Illegal Records—Alternative TV, The Police and [I] also shot cover photos for three of the Buzzcocks albums.
The punk scene was full of all these ferocious characters like John Lydon and Sid Vicious. Was there a favourite in there to shoot?
When I photographed Sid Vicious as you described—snatching a shot with a flash gun and retreating quickly—that was mostly because I was genuinely afraid of him! Ha.
Morgan Webster of Menace is lesser known, but he was a great subject to photograph, he has two pictures in Chunk of Punk. I also loved shooting the Undertones, Debbie Harry of course, Joe Strummer, Paul Weller. The Ramones—very exciting to shoot. A much later punk figure was Liam Gallagher—he had that 'don't care' attitude down to a T.
Did you plan on becoming a music photographer?
I remember going to a Led Zeppelin concert in the early 70s and thinking how great it would be to somehow be involved in rock music but I didn't know how to get there… In the end it just happened. My early exploits with the college camera collided with an opportunity to take pictures in the Rainbow Theatre in 1972 and I never looked back.
What was it like to be a female photographer in the 60s and 70s?
On the whole it was probably advantageous to be a woman. I was less threatening than a male colleague when the musician was preening himself in the mirror or something like that! But that's not to say the combination of being young and female wasn't challenging at times. You had scary newspaper editors to negotiate fees with, tough managers for access, press agents who were often heavy drinkers, and roadies who treated women like groupies. I coped with the latter by dressing in baggy black clothes and flat shoes—that put them off to some degree.
The punk scene, as well, gave me so much confidence. I had only ever trained a couple weeks in school as a photographer back then, and I was working with these very big bands like Led Zeppelin and Floyd and I really didn't know how to deal with them until after I'd been in the punk scene.
What repercussions did that have on your career?
Punk gave me confidence. I'd really only studied photography two weeks or so in college and I was working with these big bands like Led Zeppelin and Floyd. My first on the road job was at the age of 19 with Pink Floyd. I thought I'd gone to heaven! But I didn't really know how to deal with them. After punk that all changed.
Is there anyone looking back that you didn't get the chance to photograph?
There are a few regrets: David Bowie at the Rainbow in 1973 is one. I shot pictures of him but suddenly a bodyguard jumped off the stage and ripped the film out of my camera! David had his own photographer at the time and it wasn't me. I sadly never got the chance to shot him again. I am still waiting for Bob Dylan to call…
What do you think it is 40 years on, that keeps people so fascinated with the movement?
The spirit of irreverence to authority of any kind—and the 'can do' attitude—of punk lives on because it's so delicious!
Chunk of Punk is at the Barbican Music Library in London from March 2 to April 28.
Johnny Rotten and Johnny Ramone in 1977. Photo by Jill Furmanovsky.