Just out of her teens in 1977, Virginia Turbett had never used a proper camera. So, a crash course the night before was enough for her photographing debut, snapping the Sex Pistols for Slash Magazine. Obviously, it was a suitable place to start a career creating imagery of from the music, subculture, and social movements of Britain in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Virginia was helpful to give us an insight into her career.
Your teenage years were spent soaking up the musical output from the late 60s and early 70s that included Lou Reed, the Animals, and of course David Bowie. But it was the 1977 shoot of the Sex pistols that kicked off your photography career. Tell us how that happened.
I was twenty and living outside Guildford. A friend of my boyfriend and mine had just come back from Los Angeles and been involved in starting Slash Magazine out there with Claude Bessy, Philomena Winstanley, Steve Samiof and Melanie Nissen. His punk name was Harry Slime and became the UK correspondent for the magazine. He had contacted Lisa Anderson in the press office at Virgin and an interview with the Pistols was arranged to take place at TVI studios behind Tottenham Court Road, London in June 1977. He asked me if I’d like to go along to take the photos while he did the interview. I had never used a proper camera so the night before my boyfriend gave me a crash course on his Mamiya 35mm and that was it. I didn’t even know how to change the film so had to go to a camera shop on Tottenham Court Road to ask them to do it for me. I photographed the Pistols in the dressing room, during the takes for the video and afterward at a pub over the road where we did the interview
The Sex Pistols, 1977
Your musical taste seems to encompass most progressive genres, so I imagine you embraced the punk explosion.
I did. There was Bowie, Roxy, Alex Harvey and the American scene of Iggy, Velvets, Patti Smith etc. but much of the UK music scene was horrendous and very precious about itself so punk was such a vital and exciting reaction to dominating prog rock and the mostly boring and formulaic gig scene.
You quickly found yourself in amongst the music explosion of the late 70s and early 80s, that saw Punk, Post Punk, New Wave, Two Tone and Reggae all together making British music a worldwide phenomenon. Those must have been heady days for you.
Yea, they were. I had come from being a fan from the age of 9 (The Monkees) and my first gig was at 12 years old. To find myself travelling up and down the country and even going abroad (I’d only been out of the UK twice by the time I was 21) was incredibly exciting with lots of pinch me moments when I found myself hanging around backstage or on busses with my idols. There was so much amazing new music emerging up and down the country so to be going out to talk to the bands, the independent labels, the fans and visit the clubs, the garages, and the front rooms which were all integral to the new ethos was extraordinary and I feel very fortunate that I got those opportunities.
In the way of both cause and effect, the energy and activity of the bands was mirrored by the political and social changes taking place in the UK at that time. They were in most cases inseparable, so it was inevitable that you would be reporting on the socio-political stories as well.
I started out as a photographer, with a crash course in darkroom, on a left-wing political paper but at the same time I was working alongside a new, young journalist on Sounds so from the off both roles were integrated. The Sounds journalist (Gary Bushell) also came from the political left, so we covered Rock Against Racism and 2-Tone for Sounds while I was also photographing marches, riots and stories about immigration, workplace exploitation and social injustice for Socialist Worker. COULD
Pete Townshend at Rock Against Racism
The music images, by night, of the late 70s and early 80s depict crowds with happy faces as they took in the sights and sounds of the bands. On the other hand, those photos by day of factory closures and deprivation were a complete contrast. How did you manage that and how did it affect your work?
Both those things were true, and, in many respects, one fed the other. Young people were going straight on the dole from school whilst watching the ‘jobs for life’ that their parents and grandparents had taken for granted rapidly disappear so there was a lot of fear and anger about what the future would look like for this generation.
People will always take the opportunity to have a good time no matter how dire their circumstances – look at the theatre groups, poets, musicians and artists performing in Syria, Ukraine and Gaza encouraging and supporting people in the most dire of circumstances to express themselves through art and music, acknowledging that both fear and euphoria don’t have to be endured in isolation.
There were areas of the country I visited in my work for SW and Sounds that were a shock to me coming from a not well off, but middle class, upbringing in the south of England. I had never seen anything like the poverty I came across in Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool. I’d never been into a predominantly Asian workplace and seen sweatshops in action just around the corner from where I lived in Hackney in 1978. I photographed among communities whose existence was threatened by closures, job cuts, poor housing, and racism. The National Front were holding election rallies in areas of the country deliberately provoking local, multi racial populations, leading to riots, hundreds of demonstrators injured and in Southall, the death of Blair Peach. These events were a catalyst for many to get out and express their anger, fear, strength, and solidarity through music and produced extraordinary and historically important collective and individual performances. Rock Against Racism and 2-Tone were positive, political, and fun: young, and not so young, people came along to the gigs and sang and danced their hearts and legs out for a few hours and, hopefully, went home feeling less isolated and powerless in the world.
The Funeral of Blair Peach
Without fear or favour is there one band image that you would like to talk us through?
A difficult question. This isn’t necessarily my favourite, but I like my photograph of Frank Zappa for a number of reasons. I’d taken myself to New York for a few days with nowhere to stay and nothing lined up to do so I called Jane Freidman, publicist, but more importantly she is ‘Sweet Jane’ of Velvet’s fame. She said, “I’ve got a press conference with Frank in the morning, why don’t you come along.” Frank Zappa was promoting an Edgar Varèse retrospective conducted by Joel Thome.
During the press conference I decided to take photos that featured only his nose, moustache, and most of his heavily badged leather jacket. One of my things was to always print the whole 35mm frame, not to crop so I always intended that this photo be unmistakably Frank, but not a portrait in the strict sense that a portrait should have eyes…. it kind of worked and luckily, I did take a couple of full head shots but they’re mostly a sense of someone who is instantly recognisable and so incredibly famous he doesn’t need eyes!
When the press had left, Jane introduced me to Frank who responded with: “There’s only one people I hate more than the English and that’s the French” Jane asked if I’d like to go to lunch with her and Frank, in his limo, to the Russian Tea Rooms (incredibly expensive restaurant) on Central Park. I had loved Frank Zappa very much in my early teens and listening, very stoned, to him was part of my formative years so I found all this to be quite unbelievable on many levels.
Frank Zappa, New York
And the same goes for an image from the socio-political landscape of the time
When I was making the Glasgow book for Cafe Royal a few years ago, I re-visited those negatives for the first time in over 40 years. For a long time, I considered my early photography to be just that, but now I can see that it has a value as documenting social history. So much of the city I photographed has been demolished, gentrified, re-purposed and not always for the better I would guess? I was particularly struck by the toddler playing on the rubble of tenements all by himself, collecting broken wine and whisky bottles and drinking the dregs of them. I can’t remember if I had concerns for his safety at the time, I hope so, but it’s a sight that I think we would be unlikely to come upon in twentieth century Britain without social workers and police quickly swooping. I received many comments about this little fella, and I wonder myself what became of him, did he have a good life or be ok in the world?
We are sure that managing and protecting your incredible archive keeps you busy enough. But with so much going on in the world and with a feed of new music as well, is there a part of you that wants to jump back in there?
I’d give anything for a time machine to take me back to a 1973 Ziggy gig or another night down the Roxy. I don’t get to many gigs these days but when I do, I am reminded that it’s my church and feeds my soul and I really should be seeing more live music.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up.
Open to offers, please.
You are from a generation that experienced the excitement of picking up fresh vinyl. We imagine you have an extensive final collection. Is it something that you continue to add to?
Sadly, I sold most of my vinyl a few years ago and regret that. I have kept a small, security, collection but there isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think ‘I wish I still had….’ I think that answers the second part of the question – I buy one or two new releases a year on vinyl.
Please share with us a rundown of your top 10 vinyl.
Oh crikey, I haven’t planned this so it’s going to have to be what comes out of my head today:
1. Hunky Dory- David Bowie
2. Ziggy Stardust-David Bowie
3. Roxy Music first album.
4. Horses – Patti Smith
5. The Crack – The Ruts.
6. The Idiot – Iggy.
7. The Velvet Underground- The Velvet Underground
8. Contemporary Guitar Sampler – various artists
9. Do Wah Diddy – Manfred Mann.
10. Queen – Queen
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Virginia now works from her home in South Devon selling her extensive and unique archive and contributing to publications, films and TV, exhibitions and record covers all over the world.
You can purchase the photographs directly from Virginia.
Links for Virginia Turbett
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Copyright Notice: all images created by Virginia Turbett are subject to UK copyright legislation.