Punk lasted in the UK for little more than 14 months, between 1976 and the Jubilee Summer of 1977. Thirty-five years later, in another Jubilee year, how might we regard the intense, chaotic, moody, surreal, futuristic-yet-Victorian aesthetics of the movement? In answer to this question, photographs taken at the time by Simon Barker, also known as Six, go a long way to articulating the ways in which a phase of youth culture attained the impact of a manifesto – while never quite losing the cool allure and faintly slapstick temperament of its confrontational amateurism.
Despite or perhaps because of its brief springtime of largely pantomime anarchy, punk can be seen in retrospect to have held a mirror up to the expectations of many whom it touched. To some, punk was primarily political in its energy, carrying class war or a reclamation of the Situationist desire to 'wreck culture' to the brutalist Britain of the pre-Thatcher 1970s.
To others, it was an avant-garde fashion parade: a damply British reclamation of the Zurich Dada or the Ballets Russes. And to yet others it was the gleeful desecration of rock music's Church of Authenticity, in which had been worshipped the sanctity of the Blues. Speaking with Malcolm McLaren – arguably punk's architect – shortly before his death in 2010, the case was put more simply: if punk could lay any claim on historic status, he said, it would best be remembered as "like doing the Twist in a ruin".
All of these definitions have iconoclasm and confrontation at their heart, and also the causes of youth and newness. And from this, punk acquires a further definition: that in its games with acceleration and deceleration, in its perverse fusions of tradition, English quaintness and science-fictional strangeness, it appeared to confront the stagnation of cultural consumerism – by describing, in a language of self-parody, the notion of modernity itself reaching critical mass and unsurprisingly imploding. Hence, perhaps, the slogan above the door of the SEX boutique at 430 King's Road in Chelsea: 'Modernity Killed Every Night'.
For Howard Devoto – co-founder of Mancunian punk pioneers, Buzzcocks – the question was more emotional: the movement had been a device for "trouble-shooting modern forms of unhappiness". While for the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, in his uneasy punk fantasy Jubilee (a non-punk film that included some punk people) the violence of punk was artistically related to both the lineage of Leftist cinema and the neo-Romantic 'Englishness' conjured up in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Simon Barker was a key witness and participant within the immediate pre-history and originating energy of punk. His photographs share with Nan Goldin's early studies of the New York and Boston sub-cultures of the 1970s, a profound and joyously audacious sense of youth going out on its own into new freedoms and new possibilities.
In this, Barker's photographs from this period capture a moment when the tipping point between innocence and experience has yet to be reached. The model and sub-cultural celebrity Jordan, for example, is photographed as a self-created work of art – her features resembling a Picasso mask, her clothes more post-war English county librarian. The provocation of her image remains untamed and unassimilated, nearly 40 years later; and within her surrealist pose there is the triumph of art made in the medium of sub-cultural lifestyle.
Barker/Six was a member of the so-called 'Bromley Contingent' of very early followers of The Sex Pistols and the retail and fashion work of McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Other members would include the musicians Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin, and the writer Bertie Marshall, then known as 'Berlin' in homage to the perceived glamour and decadence of the Weimar republic. Originating from suburbia, but all determined to leave its security as soon as possible, the Bromley Contingent became the British sub-cultural equivalent, in many ways, of Andy Warhol's notorious 'superstars' – volatile, at times self-destructive or cruelly elitist, but dedicated to a creed of self-reinvention and personal creativity.
It is this creed, as opposed to the swiftly commercialised music of punk, that Barker's photographs from the period anatomise so well. At once intimate and forensic, austere and camp, documentary and touchingly elegiac, these photographs capture a milieu experiencing a heroic sense of being outsiders – a condition that has always been the privilege of youth, and which has long claimed many victims in its enticing contract with the thrill of taking an oppositional stance.
It is difficult to understand, in 2012, quite how outrageous the first generation of punks appeared to be; their clothes and hairstyles provoked not simply shock and disapproval, but genuine hatred and even violence. Jordan, famously, would commute up to her job in McLaren's shop on the train, in full make-up and customised bondage outfits – her demeanour more prim than neighbourhood threat. The collision between a rather archaic, comedic English quaintness, and the front line of a sub-cultural avant-garde, was typical of the internal contradictions upon which early British punk appeared to thrive.
The sites of punk's war with the world are now well trodden, and histories proliferate – most particularly in an oral and anecdotal form. There is the sense that punk was a moment of raised consciousness for those who were caught in its cyclone, and as such the movement has become both a rallying point for a generation and a subject of historical fascination. How might the image-satiated consciousness of our late post-modern lifestyle rediscover the cold bright sparseness, dereliction and decay that comprised both the inspiration and the host environment of punk's aggressive modernity? Simon Barker's photographs from this period are a rare and intimate account of punk's ability to mint newness. They are also, in their way, classic portraits of youth – adventures close to home, and the cool stillness of seeming to live beyond the end of history.
'Punk's Dead' by Simon Barker is published by Divus. An exhibition of Barker's punk photographs will open for a month from 7 June, at Divus Temporary, 4 Wilkes Street, London E1. For more information, visit punksdead.com
'Michael Bracewell: The Space Between – Collected Writings on Art' is published by Ridinghouse