Rock'n'roll free spirits

A new exhibition charts the turbulent life and times of The Libertines. The photographer Roger Sargent tells Charlotte Cripps why the cult band are the real deal
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The Independent Culture

A week ago, Roger Sargent took the latest in a series of photographs that over the past two years have documented the life and times of the cult band The Libertines, and more specifically the troubled Pete Doherty. "It was a bit upsetting, because he is not well in any shape or form," says Sargent, referring to Doherty's well-publicised and ongoing battle with drug addiction. In one of the photographs (a publicity shot for the band's forthcoming single and album), Doherty stands alone, looking painfully thin, under a railway arch near Brick Lane. It's a fitting image of isolation: the rest of the band have now resorted to tough love with the guitarist, who recently walked out on another attempt at rehab - this time in Thailand.

The Libertines' guitarist/vocalist Carl Barat has told Doherty that he must be drug free before he will be allowed to return to the fold. "It's unwise to have him in that sort of environment if he has any hope of getting clean," says Sargent. The photographer has been a personal friend of The Libertines ever since he started documenting the ups and downs of Britain's most turbulent band at their first gig, at Cherry Jam, a venue in Paddington, London. Before this, Sargent spent a decade taking pictures of Oasis, culminating in his first exhibition in 2002. "I was going to jack it all in," Sargent says. "I was disillusioned with the whole British music scene, but when a friend took me to see The Libertines, I was like, 'I have to do this band.'"

The Boys in the Band, at Proud Galleries in Camden, is an exhibition of some 150 photographs, many of which haven't been seen before, documenting The Libertines story. The word is that the band will perform at the opening. "Doherty may even turn up," says Sargent, who is to sell a number of prints relatively cheaply, at £90 each, believing that, "it is important that fans can afford to buy the pictures."

In 1997, Sargent lived in Holloway, coincidentally below a flat shared by Doherty, Barat, Scarborough Steve (the band's former singer) and a prostitute called Sacha - "they caused quite a racket". But it wasn't until he first shot the Libertines in 2002 that he connected the band with his former neighbours from hell. "This is the first frame of the first Libertines shoot," says Sargent of a photograph of the band sitting on Doherty's bed at the Albion Rooms, in Bethnal Green, where Doherty and Barat lived together. "The Libertines claim to believe in a bohemian lifestyle, but their flat looked like it was styled by Mötley Crüe. It was a tip," says Sargent. "I was even a little dubious about whether to drink my cup of coffee. There was not an inch of floor space that wasn't covered in drug paraphernalia and wine bottles, and when their water was cut off they filled the toilet cistern with Evian water," remembers Sargent.

"But it is amazing how every one of them has changed over the past two years. Carl has age in his eyes because he has been through so much," says the photographer, who characterises Barat and Doherty as being "as close as lovers". He pauses at the classic "red tunic" session taken in 2002. "It was a time when the band were filled with optimism, before the first album, Up the Bracket, came out. They stole the red jackets from a market in the East End - "They only cost a fiver," says Sargent. "You can't plan an iconic picture."

Then there's Doherty with a girl in the tour bus on the band's first big British tour. "Well, actually, he had smuggled six girls into his own little bedroom on the bus," says Sargent. "He is mischievous. They travelled from Wolverhampton to Scotland, locked in the room for eight hours, hidden from the tour manager because they would not have been insured to be on the bus. When the tour manager caught Pete sneaking them off, Pete said to him, 'Well, imagine my surprise...'" One picture depicts a group huddle, which the band do before every gig, "jumping up and down holding each other."

Another more troubling photograph is of Doherty kissing a girl, with the self- inflicted scars on his chest clearly visible. Then there's Doherty rubbing his eyes and looking like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, standing backstage at New York's Bowery Ballroom during the band's first visit to the US. "He had just played to a packed audience,"says Sargent. "Damon Albarn was there. He was trying to give them fatherly advice, telling them they loved their fans too much and should be nastier."

"I have been blessed," says Sargent of his photographs. "You could not have four better-looking guys in a band if you dreamt it up. Usually these exhibitions are a retrospective. I am glad to be doing this before they split-up - rather than when their greatest hits album comes out."

Roger Sargent's exhibition 'The Boys in the Band' is at Proud Galleries Camden, 10 Greenland Street, London NW1 (020-7839 4942), 24-25 July. The exhibition is supported by Sony Ericsson