Pennie Smith, The Clash and that (Im)perfect frame

It really forced home that sometimes the imperfect and the serendipitous capture works so much better than the over-composed, over edited image.

I love my music. I'm the guy that retained my vinyl; albums, 7" singles, 12" singles, they're all still with me. One of the jewels in the crown has to be my bought on release, London Calling by The Clash. At the time I don't think I thought about how influential the album would be, I was just enjoying the musical journey and deepening my social conscience.

An image of Paul Simonon in the back of a car
An image from The Guardian interview with Pennie Smith. Photo by Pennie Smith. Paul Simonon in a quieter moment.

The Guardian recently published an interview with Pennie Smith, who became the go-to photographer for The Clash. Yes, it's the 40th anniversary of the albums release and that cover, however, the article gave great insight in to how Pennie Smith worked. As a photographer, I was really struck by the fact that Smith isn't really in to rock music, it's all about the human connection. And so it was with The Clash,  “We had the same brain set,”  she says and that says it all for me. When you really feel a link with the person you're photographing, images come naturally.

The iconic photograph of Paul Simonon smashing his bass in spontaneous rage was as a result of Smith not being on the same side of the stage as usual and of just instinctively taking the shot, even before focussing (remember this was before auto focus).

An image of the London Calling album cover
Pennie Smith's iconic image of Paul Simonon, part of the Guardian interview with the photographer.

 The shot that Joe Strummer chose for the cover of London Calling was imperfect yet perfection. It really forced home that sometimes the imperfect and the serendipitous capture works so much better than the over-composed, over edited images we now routinely see. It's rough, gritty, in the moment and wonderful storytelling. One really poignant comment was how Simonon gave Smith his watch after the gig.

"its glass face now shattered. He knew the strap on her own watch was broken and he thought she could replace it with his. She still has the watch today, its hands frozen at 10 to 11."

The moment Smiths image that was named by Q magazine, back in 2002 as the greatest rock’n’roll photo of all time was frozen in time.

Smith also commented on her work with other performers and bands, mentioning that some we simply too stiff or like behind a glass wall, making it impossible to really engage with. The Clash however, were "tactile", had "better shapes". Smith still has a preference for photographing bands like that.  “They’re usually slightly artsy, definitely non-conformers. I just need some emotion.” I can really relate to this. I've found great enjoyment working with performers or anyone that's super-expressive. It's also interesting to note that despite her long and successful career, sometimes even the best struggle to build rapport with their subjects. Great learning.

The Clash: London Calling is at the Museum of London, in the UK from 15 November 2019.






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