Despite taking one of rock’s most iconic photographs, Roberta Bayley insists she didn’t plan it.
“They thought, ‘It’s just the girl who’s on the doorstep of the club – what’s the problem? “”, Bayley tells penta about the 1976 cover image of the Ramones’ self-titled debut album. “The shoot was for Punk magazine [where Bayley was photo editor]. The record company had hired a professional photographer, and apparently the results were terrible. They were desperately looking for a photo. So they used mine. I won $125.
Decades later, this image is a highlight of “Punk Is Coming,” an exhibition of 50 photographers, filmmakers and artists that Bayley co-curated at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Westport in Connecticut. “I made the decision to include all female photographers, which immediately eliminated people who had participated in all the other exhibitions I organized,” says Bayley, 72. “And that led me to seek out people I didn’t know, even though I knew their work.
Featuring photographers like Sheila Rock and Pat Ivers, who documented club culture from the 1970s to 1980s, the show spotlights artists from all genres, including Robert Mapplethorpe’s film Patti Smith. Always moving and paintings by rocker David Johansen.
Raised in Marin County, north of San Francisco, Bayley immersed herself in that city’s psych-rock scene before decamping to New York in 1974. “I used to take pictures of the Beatles on our TV screen at home,” she recalls. “A friend took me to see the Rolling Stones, and I realized you could actually take pictures of people themselves. That was my education.
After a stint in London, where she worked briefly for Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren, Bayley returned to New York, “taking some money from CBGB, the only club where punk bands could play,” says- she. She also became a trusted documentarian from an intimate, then obscure, background. “There were about 25 people in the stage and in the groups. We all knew each other. It worked in my favor, especially with the Ramones.
While she’s mostly put her camera down these days, Bayley is regularly the subject of gallery exhibits, where her prints sell for hundreds of dollars. “I also have a license agreement in Japan. I have a small rent. And I’m happy,” she says.
Bayley shared some of her favorite things with penta.
My favorite of all my photos is… my favorite is the one that makes the most money, like Andy [Warhol] used to say, facetiously. It is therefore the image of the Ramones. But this image is also the basis of my career. If I had never taken these photos, this would not have happened.
The last trip I took was… in Berlin, where I lectured at the Ramones Museum in June 2019. It’s a small museum, but fantastic, and run by a really smart guy. Everything is perfect, and each Ramone has his own room. It’s something like US$6 to get in, and it’s a lifetime membership.
The places I take visitors to in New York are… [Italian stalwart]
Il Buco at 47 Bond Street, my favorite restaurant. It is only 8 blocks away. But I haven’t had many visitors since before Covid. I used to go to Cafe Orlin in Piazza San Marco but that closed even before Covid. When they opened [in 1981], no one had a cappuccino. It was before Starbucks.
My favorite camera is… once things went digital, i never took a good photo. I even invested in a digital camera with a viewfinder that simulates a “real” camera. It was US$2,500, and I never used it.
That said, I like the Sony RX 100, but I don’t shoot as much anymore. It’s small, but has a Zeiss lens and can shoot in very low light conditions.
A place in New York that I miss is… Save the robots. Milk bar. Club Kiwi. Continental. That’s when they had real after hours clubs. I loved these little places. You realize the floors are unfinished and you are walking on cement. It was the kind of place where it felt like a fight could break out at any moment.
The book I’m reading right now is… It took me a while, but I just finished Paul Gorman’s
[biography] The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren. It’s 800 pages, a very good read and very well documented. I met Malcolm in ’73. We knew each other. He was a really interesting person. There was a bit of craziness in there, especially towards the end.
My favorite Ramones song is… Blitzkrieg Bop.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.