Sheila Rock exhibition showcases punk in pictures

exhibition celebrates work of music photographer Sheila Rock
Star in focus: Sinead O’Connor

Type the name ‘Sheila Rock’ into Google and you’ll be met not with images of the slight, dark-haired legend of music photography, but her even more famous subjects.

The American-born, British-reared photographer is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the punk rock scene, charting the development of both the movement in Britain and personalities such as the Clash, Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols.

A career spanning five decades provided more than enough fodder for Picture This, the Barbican Music Library’s new retrospective of her work, but curator Michael Southwell isn’t surprised when even fans of the movement have to look twice at the byline. “Sheila’s photographs may be more recognisable to many people than her name,” he says.

“In fact, she has been responsible for some truly classic images, especially, her album covers. Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby helped launch his career, and Debbie Harry’s cover shot for the Blondie Denis single is particularly memorable.”

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Debbie Harry for the cover of Blondie’s Denis album. Image: Sheila Rock

Debbie, all leopard print and cheekbones, is one of many highlights of the exhibition, which includes a wide variety of artists, examples of Sheila’s work for album and vinyl 12” record releases, and publicity shots for renowned London music institutions including the Barbican and the Royal Opera.

Introduced to the world of music photography by her ex-husband, rock photographer Mick Rock, Sheila became highly influential in crafting the image of the punk and post-punk scene, accompanying David Bowie on his American tour during his Ziggy Stardust period and helping shape fashion and music monthly The Face.

Picture This also features her images of U2, Sinead O’Connor, and celebrated pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. It follows on from the success of last year’s Chunk of Punk exhibition of archival images by Rockarchive founder and world renowned music photographer Jill Furmanovsky, who performed the necessary introductions.

“[Sheila and I] met up and sorted through her vast selection of works, and having photographed musicians and performers since the early 1970s, there was a large selection to choose from – and from right across the board of the musical spectrum,” Michael says.

“Although Sheila often exhibits in galleries in the UK and around the world, they are often themed, for example, Punk, so the library recognised this as an ideal opportunity to showcase a retrospective of her work in music. “It will certainly bring back vivid memories of key moments in music over the last four decades.”

Picture This is on at Barbican Music Library until 4 July.