Rare photos of London’s subversive punks

Written by Ananda Pellerin, CNN

It’s been nearly 45 years since Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon first exhibited “Punks,” their photo series capturing the style and sensibilities of young people who were part of the 1970s London punk scene.

Fully immersing themselves in the nightlife that was a huge part of that subculture, the duo drank, smoked and danced with club kids at some of London’s early punk clubs like the Roxy, the Vortex and the Global Village — dim, loud venues more suited to midnight meet-ups than flash-lit photoshoots.

“These were very cramped spaces and very dark,” Knorr explained at her east London studio. “We could barely see through our lens — we didn’t know what would come out. One person would take the photograph and the other would do the flash. Then we would swap around.”

Knorr is a German-born American who grew up in Puerto Rico while Richon is Swiss. They first met in 1977, and between January and March of that year, they carted their cameras to shows, catching now-legendary bands such as the Clash, the Slits, X-Ray Specs and Siouxsie and the Banshees along the way.

But their gaze was not on the stage. “We were interested in the audience, not the performances as such,” Knorr said. “The concert-goers knew we were there, and they were performing for us. We saw it as a collaboration with them. There was a lot of play, it was definitely fun.”

“The whole thing was really DIY,” she continued. “There was a mix of working- and middle-class kids, and some posh kids, they were all camouflaged. Some kids came from the suburbs. They would arrive in their ordinary clothes then pull their gear out of a black sack: torn-up clothing they made themselves; they’d use marker pens to write on them. Nothing was really purchased as such. One had ‘Destroy London’ stenciled on a leather jacket, that’s one of my favorites.”

The dress code was no code. Ties and dress shirts were mixed with chains and dog collars; safety pins stabbed through noses and earlobes. “The piercing that’s all so common now was more surprising then,” Knorr said. “One of the young men pictured even has a condom hanging down from his ear. And he’s wearing a mesh shirt and a corset meant for back problems.”

Karen Knorr & Olivier Richon, New Order, Sprueth Magers 2019 - 08 - Roxy

“Roxy” (1976) Credit: Karen Knorr / Olivier Richon

“Some people looked more like they were from a 1950s French film, with their striped shirts and sunglasses,” she continued. “And suddenly there would be someone with more thrift-shop style.”

“Punks” features a significant number of portraits of women, whom Knorr said were visible on the scene, as strong female role models on stage and on the dance floor. She remembers it as a time of increased liberation for women.

“I was really interested in the presence of women,” she said. “They changed the music industry at the time — Patti Smith and Debbie Harry were both influenced by punk. We photographed Ari Up from the Slits and (German punk singer) Nina Hagen as part of the series. In the clubs the guys obviously occupied a lot of space. But women were there too.”

Alongside slogans and declarations, political symbols were applied to clothes and skin with seeming abandon. Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, the Union Jack and Catholic crosses were all commonly found on patches or other accessories. The proliferation of swastikas, worn on shirts, jackets, and painted onto legs and faces, is also captured.

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“Kings Road” (1976) Credit: Karen Knorr / Olivier Richon

“They were using them as symbols of provocation,” Knorr said. “To provoke an older generation. They wanted attention. It was a masquerade. Every time they went out they dressed differently, an anarchy symbol, then a swastika. They were shifting all the time. This was not the same as the skinheads. But it has always put people off about the series.”

The attitude of the punk movement still has significance now. “London was the hub for subculture and style,” Knorr said. “That’s what’s so extraordinary about the city even to this day. There are still people who experiment with fancy dress and subversion. It’s part of the culture here.”

“New Order: Art, Product, Image 1976-1995” is on at Sprüth Magers in London until Sept. 14, 2019.