Punk-Era Photographer Dishes on Shooting Sid and Nancy

Photographer Steve Emberton on shooting this famous photo of Sid and Nacy: "We knocked on the door but nobody answered. I knocked a bit louder and still nobody answered and I was beginning to wonder if it was going to happen at all, and I knocked really loud and eventually the door opened and it was Sid and he didn’t have a shirt on or anything. He was just dressed in his leather trousers and he was standing at the door and he let us in and I thought, 'Oh this isn’t going to be much fun.'" Only it was.
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Photographer Steve Emberton on shooting this famous photo of Sid and Nacy: "We knocked on the door but nobody answered. I knocked a bit louder and still nobody answered and I was beginning to wonder if it was going to happen at all, and I knocked really loud and eventually the door opened and it was Sid and he didn’t have a shirt on or anything. He was just dressed in his leather trousers and he was standing at the door and he let us in and I thought, 'Oh this isn’t going to be much fun.'" Only it was.
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A portion of the Met's upcoming Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition, which was unveiled to press today, will include photography from the original punk movement juxtaposed with the designer fashion those images inspired.

Online fine art photography gallery Rock Paper Photo, whose clients include several rock 'n roll photographers, put us in touch with one of the photographers whose work will be featured: Steve Emberton. Emberton told us The Met selected his most iconic work: a black and white photograph of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen handcuffed together, and possibly other photos, though the agency couldn't confirm which ones made it in.

The photo is not only Emberton's most famous and frequently used work, but also one of the most famous images of the doomed couple, period. It was taken in England just a couple of months before their deaths and has covered everything from magazines to bedroom walls. Emberton tells us the surprising story of how that photo came about, what he thinks about the Met exhibit, and more.

How much forethought was put into what the people you were photographing during that time would wear? How important was it to look 'punk'? I wasn't involved in trying to create images; I captured images that were there. There were a lot of people that were influencing how they dressed and the bands obviously played a big part in that and what they wore on stage obviously influenced their fans and so the whole thing came from there; but as a photographer, it wasn’t a matter of me going in and saying, 'I think you should wear this and wear that and we’ll do a fashion shoot.' I went out and photographed people and these people happened to be musicians who were into punk music at the time, which was an alternative thing at that period. Some people loved it; some people hated it. But youth being youth, they always want to have something that’s different and at that time it was punk.

Can you tell me a little bit about the shoot with Sid and Nancy? What were they like? When I was asked to do it, the truth is, I wasn’t overly keen. It was a very strong possibility that it was going to be aggravating, so I can’t say I jumped up and down with joy at the opportunity. But, when you’re covering for a magazine or a newspaper, they ask you to do something, you tend to do it. I went along with a journalist from the paper [Record Mirror].

We booked a time for early afternoon at Sid Vicious’s apartment, which was in Maida Vale in London and when we got there, we knocked on the door but nobody answered. I knocked a bit louder and still nobody answered and I was beginning to wonder if it was going to happen at all, and I knocked really loud and eventually the door opened and it was Sid and he didn’t have a shirt on or anything. He was just dressed in his leather trousers and he was standing at the door and he let us in and I thought, 'Oh this isn’t going to be much fun.'

But, when we got inside, Nancy came out of the bedroom sort of blurry-eyed and this was the afternoon and they’d obviously both just got out of bed to answer the door. Sid had a half empty bottle of vodka in one hand, so they’d been drinking, but the thing was that once we got inside and got chatting with them and I told them I wanted to take some pictures, they both really rose to the occasion and they were brilliant to work with. They were very cooperative and keen to be photographed and really got into it and I ended up really enjoying the shoot and in those days it was all film: I shot two rolls of film in black and white. They were used as part of a feature on the front page [of Record Mirror] a couple times and a lot of pictures were used inside and they were also used in lots of other ways. It was a few months later that they went to New York with Nancy being killed and eventually Sid dying. Those pictures became very much in demand at that time and are still today--they’re still published in magazines and newspapers and on TV and stuff, so I’m very pleased I turned up there that day.

Did they seem to care much about what they were wearing in the photos? I think that’s just how they were. I got them out of bed. Sid wasn’t wearing a top or anything and the handcuffs--which I think were not there just for decorative purposes; I think they were a part of their sexual preferences--they were quite happy to involve those in the photographs as well. It was only the front room of Sid’s apartment.

Sounds absolutely nothing like any fashion shoot we've ever heard of. What do you think of what the Met's doing? I think it’s a good thing. I think whether people like it or hate it, [punk] has played an important part of our culture, particularly in music and I think it’s had a strong influence on a lot of fashion. I did a punk exhibition about a year ago at a gallery here and people came to me and told me that’s how they grew up and that was their era and it very much influenced their hairstyle, the clothes they wore, the jewelry, everything. I think it’s good that somebody as influential as Vogue and the Met should allow the people--probably the ones that were involved in it--to come and enjoy the occasion and also to maybe open the eyes of people who never really knew anything about it before.

Click through for more photos, courtesy Rock Paper Photo