Cynthia Connolly: Photographing D.C. Punk’s Salad Days

Vivien Greene, Toni Young, and Giovanna Righini
Published  October 2015

Banned in D.C., a book of photos documenting Washington D.C.’s early hardcore scene, has only grown in significance to me over the past 15-plus years that I’ve owned it. I grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs and moved to Mount Pleasant, a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood in D.C., as soon as I could. It was the early 2000s, and while the local scene remained extremely vibrant at that time, there was also so much nostalgia in the air. Dischord celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2002 and Mark Andersen’s book Dance of Days was published a year later. Back then, I was not as surprised by the contents of Banned in D.C. as I should have been. It might’ve been one of the first punk photo books I ever owned, really, besides Glen E. Friedman’s Fuck You Heroes. I didn’t at all realize that the photos in that book told the story of a truly unique and diverse scene that stood apart, by leaps and bounds, from any other punk or hardcore scene in the country.

Vivien Greene, Toni Young, and Giovanna Righini

Vivien Greene, Toni Young, and Giovanna Righini

In 2006, I started a zine called Shotgun Seamstress that is by, for, and about Black punk rockers. The zine acted as an antidote to my experience of being one of the only Black kids around at any given show. By this time, I had moved to Portland, Oregon. I relied heavily on Banned in D.C. for zine image fodder and had so much to choose from. Everyone knows Bad Brains were an all-Black band from Washington, D.C., but most haven’t heard of Skeeter Thompson of the band Scream or Toni Young of Red C and Peer Pressure. At the time, the Dag Nasty record, featuring Shawn Brown, wasn’t available, but I knew he existed because of Banned in D.C. In the second issue of Shotgun Seamstress, I wrote an article based on a photo in the book of two Black guys holding a poster for an upcoming show. The bands listed were Trouble Funk, Government Issue, and Grand Mal. I don’t know who Grand Mal is, but Trouble Funk was a Black go-go band and Government Issue was a white hardcore band. The fact that a show like that had happened blew my mind and inspired me to write about go- go music as Black punk or D.I.Y. music. It helped me envision what a truly inclusive scene could look like. When I started running low on images to use from Banned in D.C., I would comb through punk book sections at Powell’s or at the library and found the same old shit over and over again. The Sex Pistols, the Ramones, CBGBs, Blondie… not a Black face in sight. It took me years to appreciate what a rare gem of a book Banned in D.C. actually is.

A few years ago, a photo show called “Hard Art” came through New Orleans. It showed the photographs Lucian Perkins took of a trio of Bad Brains shows in D.C. in the early ‘80s. Some of his photos are included in Banned in D.C. I went to the show armed with my zines. I explained to Alec McKaye, who was touring with the exhibit, that these photos were immensely important to me and told him to pass the zines on to the Banned in D.C. photographers. They made it into the hands of Cynthia Connolly, who was kind enough to write me a letter, and we’ve been in touch ever since. Cynthia is a photographer who compiled the book along with Leslie Clague and Sharon Cheslow (of ‘80s D.C. all-girl art punk outfit Chalk Circle—a band I wouldn’t have discovered without the book). She had just moved from L.A. to D.C. when she started documenting the local scene. I am impressed at how strongly she felt about the importance of representing women and people of color within the scene at such a young age. Beyond all that, though, Banned in D.C. is an exciting portrayal of classic ‘80s American hardcore: Teen Idles, Artificial Peace, Void, Minor Threat, Faith, Bad Brains—giving Ronald Reagan the finger just a mile or two away from the White House itself. The seventh edition of Banned in D.C. was made available this year. I had the chance to interview Cynthia, who will be gracing New Orleans with her presence later this month.


 

When you began taking photographs of bands and the scene around them in the early ‘80s, did you have the idea that what you were documenting would have lasting historical significance? And was that your primary way of participating in the scene at the time?

After going to punk shows in L.A. and then moving to D.C. when I was 16, I saw a difference in the two scenes. LA was large and dispersed, as was the scene. You eventually became friends with people who might have lived 50 miles from you, but you had a connection and it was through the music. In D.C. the connection was the same, but there were much fewer people involved and that made me feel more connected, and a participator as opposed to a spectator. Since I tried being in a band, and was instantly frustrated by relying on two to four other people and coordinating schedules, I decided early on that I wanted to have a participatory role, but in a form that was independent from being in a band. I tried helping in zine making, but then again, really wanted to be on my own. So, I borrowed a camera and started taking photos. I was just going to art school, so I could use the photo lab to print photos there… The Banned in D.C. book has some photos by me, but my role in the end was to come up with the idea and make the book. In the end, yes, I did see something that I thought was special and needed to be documented.

 

Briefly,  how did you, Leslie Clague, and Sharon Cheslow meet and how did Banned in D.C. come to be?

I met Sharon Cheslow in probably 1982 or ‘81 and I met Leslie a bit later. I moved to San Francisco in February 1986 and lived there until about August ‘86 working on Maximum Rock‘n’Roll. There, I lived in the house where MRR was housed and worked closely with Tim Yohannan and Martin Sprouse.  Martin and I, at some point, created a photozine by a photographer named Murray Bowles. It was doing that zine layout that I realized that a book on the D.C. punk scene should be made. I also wanted it to not be on newsprint because that would deteriorate over time. I had saved quite a bit of money at this point, just working here and there, for the purpose of one day “doing a project.” I saw Ian [MacKaye] and Jeff [Nelson] produce records and sell them. I wanted to do that but something different. The book seemed like the natural thing to do. I graduated with a BFA in graphic design from the Corcoran in 1985 and knew how to produce a book. I knew people would buy it. Well, at least the people around me.

 

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Rites of Spring

Talk a bit about the other contributors to the book. Lucian Perkins, who put out Hard Art in 2013, and Glen E. Friedman are two notable ones.

When I approached Lucian Perkins, he was an award-winning Washington Post photographer. He was surprised I would be interested in them and told me the prints were in a closet or somewhere and would take a while to find. He didn’t see the value of them as we would. He is an incredible photographer and printer. He printed the photos that I used for the book and they were stunning 11×14 prints. I met Glen Friedman in 1982 and we bonded on the fact that we were both from the same area in Los Angeles. It turned out that my brother and he traded Hot Wheels in the ‘70s! I had no idea! We became really great friends—talking about music and taking photos. I really admired his skate photos and saw him take more and more punk photos as I knew him. He was one of those photographers (like my other fave, Pat Graham) who were in the music and got it and knew how to find the perfect moment to express in a single image what the hell was going on at that moment. So stunning.

 

Banned in D.C. has always stood out to me among other punk photo books because of its documentation of Black punks and women in the scene. You’ve told me that you intentionally made women in particular more visible in the book. I definitely see the value of that because those images have personally been very empowering to me, but do you think that in a way, you portrayed the scene in a rosier- than-realistic way?

This was not rosier-than-realistic at all. I made sure the women were represented, as they were behind the camera. Also, as far as Black punks, it was the same thing. They were there, and even though there was a lot of racial tension in D.C. in the ‘80s, we had a lot of friends who were Black and white and we got along. I wanted to be sure to show that because it was real and fun and it was one of the many aspects of that scene that pulled us more together as a group. We rode on a wave of intellectual expression that was rare and beautiful. This is why the book had to be made.

 

Toni Young is the only Black woman I’ve been able to find in ‘80s hardcore and I found out about her through Banned in D.C. Would you talk a little bit about who she was?

Toni! I miss Toni. Strangely, I can’t remember where she was from, but she was there. She was not angry as some people were. She was extremely nice and funny. She loved to laugh and joke around in a great, positive way. She was a great bass player. She died suddenly in about ‘85 or ‘86. This is why the first book is dedicated to her. I didn’t want her forgotten. So even in the new edition, the only extra photo includes her. There are a lot of people who miss her and her spirit and heart. She had a strength that no one else had and in a way the soul of an older person. Additionally, there were other Black women, but not in the book.

 

This is the seventh edition of Banned in D.C. You mentioned that you had to basically reconstruct the entire book from scratch. Sounds extremely tedious! Talk about what the process was like for you.

The process was tedious, but I didn’t do most of it! I actually never thought this book would happen again, as it is almost harder to copy and make the book over from scratch matching the original layout than it is to just make a new book. Erik Denno, a friend of mine, Photoshop genius and layout guru, matched it nearly to the T. I am forever grateful to him, and anyone else who is psyched about the book being around should also be grateful to him. It simply would not exist if it weren’t for him. He did most of it. We batted that thing back and forth for like three years.

 

antigravity_vol13_issue10_Page_17_Image_0002Why do you think it’s important to keep this book in print?

I only think it is important as long as people think it is interesting. It illustrates a movement that was honest and had a vision of creating a community. We were all looking for something different in our lives and found each other. I think this is common still and as long as it is common, and the music can be heard and is significant to others, it should be here to share. I find it a joyful story of life and not being scared to live life. We are only here once.

 

What impact did publishing Banned in D.C. have on your art career? Do you think punk helped give you the courage to put your art out there?

Yes, it did… I started creating my own artwork/photographs that were not music-influenced or themed and pushed them out into the public eye using the same tools, as those were the ones I knew. It was not the same tools that were used in the contemporary art world. As a matter of fact, they didn’t care about what I was doing in D.C. in the art scene at the time I started (early ‘90s) so I went outside D.C. and toured my photos like a band. Each venue was a month, not a night. This was before and during and after the World Wide Web was established. I had a lot of fun making postcards and fliers and individually telling people about the shows I was doing. I did a sticker of art show dates that I would stick in bathrooms at rest stops across the U.S…. I learned more and more about community, people, and that in the end, that is what it’s all about: art, books, people, everything. I also want to point out: if something didn’t work I always tried to use it to my advantage and move ahead to do something else. Like someone didn’t like my artwork here, so I moved it elsewhere… Toured it like a band in Europe too: got a Eurail pass and traveled on the train with my photos in a box! You can do anything you set your mind to. If that doesn’t work, be flexible and do something else. I learned this in punk and it is the best tool in the box! No one can take that away.

 


Cynthia Connolly will be hosting a slideshow and book signing at The New Orleans Community Printshop & Darkroom on Wednesday, October 28. For more info, check out cynthiaconnolly.com

 

 

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