“Private Image” Goes Behind the Scenes of Public Image Limited

In January 1978, the Sex Pistols finally imploded on stage, with Johnny Rotten calling out the words that would speak to the world for decades: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

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Then he dropped the mic and walked away. Later that same year, Rotten reinvented himself, resuming use of his government name (John Lydon) and creating a new band, Public Image Limited (PiL), with childhood friend Jah Wobble on bass, former Clash guitarist Keith Levene, and drummer Jim Walker.


Lydon, knowing the nature of the game, approached Jeanette Lee to become the non-musical member of the group—to play the media, as it were. Lee, who went on to become the co-director of independent music label Rough Trade Records, took over the publicity, promotion, and general administration for the band. She also purchased a Polaroid SX-70 camera and took a series of behind-the-scenes pictures that have just been published in Private Image, a limited edition from IDEA.

Private Image takes us back to London, circa 1980, when the punk scene as undergoing a massive transformation with the birth of the New Romantics in the nightclubs. Youth culture was entering its baroque period, becoming far more flamboyant and eccentric than the pared-down punk scene had been, both in fashion and the sound.

PiL embraced the changes and aligned themselves with the post-punk experimentalism that revealed the evolution of Lydon’s style, as he was the only original member of the band to remain in the group throughout its 14 year history. Lee’s photographs take us back to the early formative years as a softer, more succulent and lush energy came into play.

“Jeanette is one of the few people who really understands how pop & creativity work,” Jarvis Cocker writes in the foreword of the book. “This its about a certain combination of certain people in a particular place & time. That it can’t be recreated or rehashed or trotted out on the Heritage Circuit. You can’t learn it from a book. But you can be inspired by a book. You can look at these pictures & see people living together, working together, exploring together, experimenting together. Where does the play end & the work star. Can anyone tell? Is there a difference?”

For all intents and purposes, I think not. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius wisely observed, understanding that human nature requires us to commit our energies in the service of the greater good. And when we align that with our own passions and talents, our purpose is served: we have holistically aligned ourselves with our highest vibration.

In this way, Lee’s photographs are timeless evocations of living in the moment and being true to ourselves, feeling the spirit of the time and allowing it to pass through us. Her brilliance was in her ability to delve into the private realm, to reach into the sacred space of intimacy and keep the secrets that she discovered there. And so it is that these photographs can finally be seen, decades after they were made, when they surpass the sentimental goopy soup of nostalgia and simply become portraits of a people in a time and place that resonate all the more in light of where we have come since they were framed.

All photos: © Jeannette Lee, courtesy of IDEA.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.