Brooke Smith | photo by Eric Schwabel

A Colorful Love Letter: Brooke Smith’s Visual History of New York’s mid-1980s Hardcore Scene by Daniel Makagon

Mar 16, 2023

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

One of the great things about contemporary punk is that the music is ubiquitous. Every day new records are released, and new songs are shared globally through YouTube or Bandcamp. And a punk can arrive in most cities and find a space where bands play or where DJs spin punk records. These positive features of this unprecedented access to punk music might be balanced with the sense that nothing new is happening. Subgenres seem to be fixed and bands often follow a similar trajectory: release a digital demo, follow with a cassette, make a 7”, and then break up.

Perhaps, this current context makes the historical moments appear to be more special, times when something new seemed to happen constantly. Proto-punk from Detroit, San Francisco’s first wave of eclectic punk, the emergence of hardcore in Southern California, and the advent of matinee punk shows in New York all happened within a decade. Records and old zines help tell the stories of these bourgeoning scenes. And so do photographs. Brooke Smith’s Sunday Matinee documents the mid-1980s hardcore scene in New York City. Her blend of color and black and white photos captures the bands and the energy of shows at CBGB and the Ritz. Perhaps most importantly, she documents a range of punks living their everyday lives, forming friendships, making a scene (in all senses of that phrasing), and figuring out how to be punk rockers. The photos are aesthetically engaging and work together to tell a story about a unique time and place in punk rock’s interesting history. Brooke shows how punk culture is deeply tied to the music, but the culture thrives because of the people who make their scene.

Brooke Smith | Courtesy of Brooke Smith

Daniel: Let’s start by talking about how you discovered punk rock.

Brooke: I was an outcast in my hometown. I didn’t really relate to anyone, but I listened to a lot of WFMU radio. Originally, I was listening to bands like The Clash, Gang Of Four, Echo And The Bunnymen, and all that.

I grew up about a half hour north of New York City in Rockland County. I would take the bus into the city. I would go downtown and just kept walking east. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking, “I gotta go east.” And then I met some people, and they took me to a matinee. That was it. I just thought, “Okay, this is home. This is where I belong.” This was probably ’83 or ’84. I think I was around thirteen or fourteen when I went to that first show. You had to be sixteen to get into CBGB’s matinees, but I guess the girls looked older.

Daniel: Or they just wanted girls in there to diffuse some of the testosterone. [laughs] You said that you didn’t connect with other people in your town. None of your friends in high school were into punk or alternative music?

Brooke: I mean, there was one who went the sort of Duran Duran route. “Bye.” I do have a friend to this day, my best friend since kindergarten. She would come along with me, but only to a point. Then she’d be like, “I’ll catch up with you later.” My siblings could have been influencing my choice in music, but they were definitely not into the music. [laughs]

Daniel: Had you been to other shows before you found out about the matinees? And were you aware of hardcore as a punk subgenre before you went to your first matinee?

Brooke: I saw all those bands I mentioned earlier. I went to the Peppermint Lounge. I saw Alien Sex Fiend at Danceteria and Lydia Lunch. There was a guy who would wear a saddle on his back. He wasn’t a musician, but I remember him very clearly. I never made it to Max’s Kansas City. It was already closing. Later, I also went to Great Gildersleeves. It was near CBs, on the Bowery.

I think I also heard a little bit of hardcore on WFMU, but I can’t say what it was exactly. I think my first show was The Mob and Cause For Alarm. Like I said, once I went to the first show, that was it. “This is my place. This is my music.”

Frenchie Da Skin | photo by Brooke Smith

Daniel: Can you talk a bit about settling into that scene? Did you feel like you were an outsider or was it easy to make friends?

Brooke: I feel like I integrated immediately, and I don’t think it was the same for everyone. I guess I’m lucky. I remember; we were on The Phil Donahue Show. It was because there had been an article written about “the hardcore kids” in New York magazine. They chose to use this girl from Long Island, who was definitely not part of the scene. She definitely got hazed a bit. Everybody was like, “Why is she in the article?!”

I guess maybe it was my early acting skills that allowed me to integrate. I don’t know why it was so immediate. I just recognized my people.

Daniel: These things seem to be tied to a combination of who you are, dumb luck, and who else is around. If you’re an outgoing person, that helps. But then, do you start a conversation with someone who introduces you to ten other people right away? That’s the dumb luck part and also meeting someone who is interested in building community. Did you arrive on the right day when some of those people were there?

Brooke: Exactly. And I would say that my closest friend that introduced me to everyone was good to know. He sold pot to everybody around. So, that was the perfect place to meet people. Just hang out in his living room and everyone came through. [laughs]

Daniel: Were you already making photos before you started photographing the scene?

Brooke: It was the only class I liked in high school. I liked art in general, but that’s about it. Once I was in the dark room and taking photos, I was happy. It was always people, though. I was interested in portraits or taking photos of my friends. We used to have smoking areas in high school. When I tell people about this today, they’re like, “What?!” I remember taking a lot of pictures in the smoking area and then printing them in the dark room.

I brought my camera with me to the hardcore shows. Almost right away. And that was also another way to get in, going back to your question about integrating. People needed pictures for flyers and other things. Also, [laughs] you could take a picture of someone you thought was cute, and then: “Oh, I took these pictures. You want to see them?”

Daniel: Photography was a way to participate.

Brooke: I was very insecure and somewhat damaged, so even if I wanted to be a singer in a band, there was no way I was gonna do it. The camera got me right up close and still hid me. It was the best of both worlds. Like I said, it became my whole world. I thought something really amazing was happening, and I wanted to capture it. I am really into verité. I’ve made a couple of documentaries. I didn’t release them. But I like that fly on the wall thing, capturing unique behaviors and these characters who were people who really felt like my family at the time. They were used to me taking pictures, which was important. Other people would come by CBGB and try to take pictures of us, and we would make them pay money or just be like [flips off an imaginary camera with both middle fingers].

And then the bands… It’s funny because I just photographed Agnostic Front and Sick Of It All at the Roxy. It was so hard! I couldn’t believe it. And this was digital. It was really just the fast action and the low light, you know. I definitely shot a lot of shows that did not come out. I didn’t like using flash. I tried it and it didn’t work for me. I tried faster films like 1000 ASA, but I just ended up sticking with the 400. I just kept practicing and kept trying because I wanted to be able to get the moment. I saw the Bad Brains and have watched a lot of videos on YouTube, and I don’t know if anyone really captures HR. I never got a shot that captured that energy. But that was what I was into: trying to capture unique moments.

Daniel: Shooting film meant you didn’t have the option to make hundreds of photos each night. Can you talk a bit more about how you made choices about shooting bands or documenting a given day more generally?

Alexa Poli-Scheigert | photo by Brooke Smith

Brooke: I mostly focused on people. I really loved these people. Maybe it’s me looking back, I’m not sure, but I just thought they were the coolest and they were the center of everything for me.

Daniel: Did you exclusively shoot at the matinees, or did you shoot at other times and in other spaces?

Brooke: I was constantly shooting. While hanging out in Tompkins Square and on the street. There are photos in the book that were taken in front of the Pyramid Club. I was actually on ecstasy, as were two of the people in the photos. [laughs] And there was some hanging out at night, too. Wherever we went, I photographed, including squat hunting, looking to see if this building was going to be viable to live in or not. And it wasn’t. [laughs]

I also shot in other places outside New York. I once drove the Cro-Mags to Canada on tour and I shot up there. And I shot in New Jersey, Connecticut, the 9:30 Club down in D.C. I always had my camera with me. Kind of like people have phones now. It’s funny; I’m not as compelled now, because maybe everyone has a phone. I’m not sure.

Daniel: Closely analyzing photos when putting together a book is obviously very different than looking at photos to see what you have or to share with friends. When you considered the photos that would make the book, did you notice a development of your skills and your eye that would connect with becoming more immersed in the punk scene? And did you become a better punk photographer—whatever “better” might mean for you?

Brooke: That’s a really interesting question. I never thought the photos were a big deal until more recently. I appreciate them a lot more now, composition-wise. And there were definitely people who were better subjects. When I first found this box of photos twelve years ago, a friend just happened to be there. I was moving, or something, and he was like, “Oh, my god! These are incredible.” Really? I thought maybe it was just nostalgia but the more I looked at them, I thought, “They’re not bad.” Maybe it’s that thing: when I was young, I didn’t really like myself as much as I like myself now.

Daniel: Getting older brings levels of confidence and comfort but also new forms of self-criticism.

Brooke: Yeah. But I guess I got the hang of shooting shows. I started to figure out the best place to stand at CBs and I started to experiment based on where the light was coming from. So, I think I did get better as I went on.

Daniel: As we already talked about, shooting film limits the quantity of images versus shooting digital. However, shooting a lot means it’s hard to keep up with developing the film, looking closely at the negatives, printing, and then assessing the prints. I think about the street photographer Garry Winogrand. A substantial amount of undeveloped film canisters were found when he died.

Brooke: I had a lot of negatives. I’m someone who shoots a lot. But I waited until I saw something that I wanted to capture. There are people who just shoot everything. “Yeah, cool, one of these have got to be good.” That has never been my approach. I would mostly let the negatives pile up. Photography was expensive. If I was going to get the photos developed and not do it myself, because I wasn’t so great at developing, I needed the money.

It’s funny because now, as an actress, no one shoots film anymore and I feel like people are lazier. They’ll say, “Okay, just keep it rolling. Let’s go back to one.” I’m like, “No. We need to learn… we need to have this down and then we shoot it. The stakes have to be high.” Sometimes I really wish it was still film we were shooting. I really do wish the stakes would be higher, whereas nowadays it’s just… I don’t know, it kind of waters down the process a little bit. I’m not sure. I’m thinking out loud.

Daniel: Let’s jump back to the scene at that time. ABC No Rio started a matinee series as well. I want to say this was after the time you were hanging out at CBGB, but that ABC No Rio scene was a direct response to the culture and violence that seemed to surround the scene at CBGB. Or this is how people have narrated those scenes. I wasn’t there. You said you found your family in the hardcore scene, but what was your sense of the violence and the nuanced approaches to scene building?

Brooke: I left before it got super-violent. I also went to ABC No Rio. When I think of the people who I knew who volunteered there, there were definitely more peace punks at ABC No Rio.

Daniel: What was the impetus for drifting away from the scene?

Brooke: It was very specific and also traumatic. My little brother died when he was sixteen and I was eighteen. He was in an accident while surfing. This was 1986 and I remember feeling, “Ohhhhhh, I think it’s time to grow up.” I still went to shows and hung out until I was about twenty, but I felt like I needed to figure out what I’m doing and get on with my life. I had been a little reckless [smirks].

L to R: Brian Howard, Petey Hines (Murphy’s Law/Cro-Mags), "Batmite" Brad Davis (Warzone) | photo by Brooke Smith

Daniel: You’ve talked about weed dealers, ecstasy, and being reckless, but there was also this influential straight edge scene developing. How did you negotiate these different ways of being that seemed to exist in the same spaces but were obviously at odds?

Brooke: It’s so funny, I talked with Toby Morse (lead singer, H20) this morning. I’m so excited because I stopped smoking weed. It’s been a month. I’m on a tolerance break, or whatever. He was like, “Oh, my god. Listen to you. You sound amazing.” Anyway, I just remember thinking that it’s a lot of boys; they’re all from Connecticut and New Jersey. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they seemed very athletic. And there was this kind of extremism to the straight edge scene. Celibacy. And it didn’t feel real woman-friendly. So, it wasn’t really my scene.

Then there were the Krishnas. I kind of understood some of that myself since I was a vegetarian. But when my brother died, I just remember thinking, “Okay, this asshole over here is a vegetarian, so he’s going to heaven. But my brother ate hot dogs when he went to Fenway Park and so he’s not?” I just thought, “This is insane.” The hypocrisy of it was a little intense. There were definitely straight edge bands that I really liked: Youth Of Today, the Gorilla Biscuits.

Daniel: As you started to move out of that scene, where did you direct your attention and was photography still part of your everyday life?

Brooke: Yeah, it definitely still was and is even today. It’s funny, people who’ve known me my whole life, some of them are surprised I was so in the scene. Since the book has come out, people have said, “I know you went to CBs but…” I guess I didn’t explain it well or show that it was really my whole life at that point. It’s interesting that the book comes out and there is all this reminiscing and looking back, but maybe that just happens. My daughter is twenty, so that’s wild to think she’s the same age as I was when I stopped hanging out.

But to answer your question, I started focusing on acting. I definitely brought my camera with me. I shot on the set of my first movie, The Moderns. It was easier in the early days. Later on, still photographers would be like, “Hey!” But I have incredible shots from Silence of the Lambs, of Louis Malle and throughout the Vanya on 42nd Street project. Criterion Collection put some of these photos in their release of Vanya. Also, I’m a big traveler, although I’m out of money now. [laughs] When I was a big traveler, and I will be again hopefully, my approach felt the same in a weird way. I don’t know how to articulate it, but even if I’m shooting… My daughter was riding horses a few years back, and I would just get right in the ring, get right up to the fence, and try to get it.

It’s funny, at concerts I really feel weird about it. Maybe because I’m a performer now, but I just think how sad to look out and see a whole sea of phones. I understand the desire, obviously, to try to capture it, but I do think that people aren’t necessarily in the moment; they’re not experiencing the moment.

Daniel: Especially if they’re making a video with their phone. As you just said a moment ago, your photos were used by Criterion Collection. Now, so many bands and artists seem to understand the importance of documenting what they do and holding onto the stuff that artists used to toss—setlists, tour itineraries, photos, and videos. How often does anyone look at the videos on their phone from a show compared to watching something released by the band?

Brooke: It’s funny. I’m a big Nick Cave fan and have been forever. I’ve been guilty of shooting a little video. Him coming over and me being like, “I don’t have a camera; I’m not like these people.” [laughs]

Sunday Matinee by Brooke Smith

Daniel: Returning to the book, you said that you found the boxes of photos. What inspired you to move the photos from those boxes to publication?

Brooke: Like I said, I think it was twelve years ago that my friend Chris saw them. I was very surprised at how excited he was, and he said, “Can I show these to a curator friend of mine?” I didn’t even really know what that meant, but I said, “Sure.” And then this guy, Tim Barber, in New York said he was curating a series of shows and asked if I wanted to have a solo show in New York. I mean, “Yeah!” I did a show at the Primary Photographic Gallery on Chrystie Street. It was really fun because all the people came who are still around. Then I was approached by two separate publishers. One was a big one, but it felt really corporate and kind of weird. They didn’t really understand what I had. And then there were these two guys from Radio Raheem. They put out records and have done some books, so I thought, “Alright, I’m gonna go with these guys.”

Then, about physically making the book. I always thought if I was gonna do a book I’d have some big table, I’d have all the photos, and I could kind of figure it out [uses hands to show how photos could be laid out on the table and moved around]. And it so wasn’t that. Anyway, then COVID happened, and that’s when I finally was like, “Okay, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna choose the photos and come up with the flow of how they go.” Then I decided arbitrarily at the beginning of 2022 that I was gonna release it by the end of 2022. I started reaching out to do publicity so then it had to happen. [laughs] But it’s hard. I can’t tell what it’s going to look like in print when I’m looking at images on my monitor.

Daniel: Absolutely. Can we jump back to something you said earlier about the flow? I’m interested in what you wanted to see take shape.

Tommy Carroll of Straight Ahead and Alexa Poli-Scheigert | photo by Brooke Smith

Brooke: A lot of the photos were in photo albums. I took them all out and selected the ones I thought were the best. I could see that there’s some kind of arc here, a story or a narrative of some kind. I opened with a shot of New York, how it looked then. The first shots I selected were in front of CBs, and introducing the main characters: Alexa, my old roommate, still my friend to this day, is one person we see. And then I thought, “Okay, we should go inside now. Let’s see some bands.” I saw a lot of Agnostic Front shows, so I started with them. I didn’t want it to be a day in the life because it wasn’t that. The Bad Brains shots are actually from the Ritz, and it was a night show. I didn’t want captions. I don’t like a lot of words in photobooks. I don’t even look at them. I just want to look at the photos; they should speak and tell the story. But I did rip off Glen E Friedman with the index in the back, putting the little photos in case you’re wondering who is shown in the photos.

It was tricky to figure out which bands had to be included and which bands I had to lose because there wasn’t enough space. Of course, there were photos that stood out. There was a band called Straight Ahead. I have photos that capture such a powerful intensity on Tommy Carroll’s face, the lead singer, and I thought that these gotta be in there. It’s hard to describe the process. Am I describing it? I’m not sure.

Daniel: [laughs] Well, it is hard to describe creative activities, especially when, as you said, powerful photos can speak. Yes, I think you’re very clearly describing the decisions. You were guided by a desire to include engaging photos that worked together to tell a story about this scene at unique point in its history, based on an energy or a feel for the individual photograph needing to be in there.

Brooke: I also wanted to show us “hanging out”: walking around, everybody in the streets, and then going back to a show.

Daniel: To go back to the flow, yet again: People think about sequencing in different ways. Some folks might think about a photo on page four, for example, that leads into a spread on pages five and six, and then what comes out of that spread on page 7. But other folks will think about how a photo on page four and a photo on page thirty-five are connected. The photos on pages five, six, seven, et cetera, get us from page four to page thirty-five and a reader will feel how the sequence stitches together the images. When you sequenced the book, were you thinking about flow at that level?

Brooke: I think now I could say that. [laughs] But I don’t know if I was strategically doing that. Even the cover. I wasn’t sure that I liked it, but now I love it. Throughout the process, I would say, “Oh, no. This doesn’t go here,” so I was thinking about what went with what. I didn’t want a lot of photos of the Cro-Mags together. I needed to sprinkle them throughout the book. Also, people’s lives were changing. People have babies and there are photos of those babies.

I also started thinking, “Okay, maybe I should ask some people to write some things.” I had a friend of mine, KT, write about how it wasn’t just a boy’s club. And I had another friend, Olivia, write something about how we met. We disagree. She says I hit her with my car. I feel like I would remember that. But then she described everyone in the car and I thought, “Oh, god. I guess maybe I did.” I mean, “hit” is a strong word. [laughs]

Also, I shot a lot of color photos, so I thought about the use of those photos and the black and white pictures.

Daniel: That’s interesting from a few different perspectives. Color was a lot more difficult to process and then there is this general sentiment that black and white is somehow the “authentic” choice for documentary photography.

Brooke: [laughs] Those were the photos I paid to process. I also felt like, aesthetically, color captured the energy, the life of it. The scene was alive and felt colorful and the photos felt alive. I didn’t know there was a narrative about documentary being black and white, so I guess I wasn’t caught up in that narrative. [laughs]

Daniel: Ignorance is bliss in most parts of life.

Carl Demola singing with Underdog | photo by Brooke Smith

Brooke: Yeah, I think I’ll probably go back to the weed after this. But there were small things I was always trying to capture, like how Carl Demola from The Icemen danced. I have this photo of him when he was singing for Underdog at CBGB. And it’s so hard to catch that stuff.

I also photographed a pool party at my house. Warzone played that party.

Daniel: You got into the scene when you lived at home with your parents. How did your parents respond? Bringing punks home for a pool party forces them to experience punk in a different way compared to you going to the city to see shows.

Brooke: It wasn’t received well. [laughs] I don’t think my mom minded much. But my dad… He was a journalist, and he kept saying he had friends who were cops who would talk about “the things that happened at those places” [says this last part using a grumpy and stern “dad voice”]. And now I’m a parent, so I sort of get it.

Daniel: I don’t know how often young punks used the prevalence of straight edge as a selling point.

Brooke: I should have gone for that, right? It was still a little too early. Yeah, they didn’t love it. My mom did this thing, which I tried to do as a parent because I realized how brilliant it was. She would always say, “Well, I know you’re pragmatic, so you’re gonna make the right choice. I know that.” And when I found myself in certain situations, I’d be like, “Hmm.” She’d kind of appear [using her hands above her head to represent this kind of imaginary guardian angel]. “Okay, maybe I better make the sensible choice here.” But I have realized, and part of what I’m trying to write about in another project, is the fact that there weren’t words back then to help us explain the traumas that we all came from. It’s definitely the common denominator. One hundred percent. Either their parents were drug addicts or alcoholics, or they were sexually abused or physically abused.

I’ve really been thinking a lot about being in a pit: how intimate it is, and how dangerous and physical it is. And yet I chose to be there; it was a way of learning to kind of trust. We all knew each other. There was no separation between the audience and the performers. None. So, I feel like looking back, being involved in that scene helped me grow up a little bit to get ready to do it myself, whatever that version of doing it myself was going to be.

Daniel: To extend that last point, you have described explicitly and implicitly a process of becoming, to get a little existential. You talked about how the death of your brother focused your attention on becoming more of a grown up, broadly speaking. And your discussion of your photography improving in different ways reflects your development as an artist. Do you think your involvement in the hardcore scene impacted your work after this time period?

Brooke: The first thing comes to mind is that when I get off track as an artist, it’s when I don’t do it myself. As an actress, I’m involved with a collaborative artform. I can get swayed into, “Oh, it’s a big TV show and everyone watches it, and I should do it because of X, Y, and Z.” That’s usually when I get into trouble. Making the book reminded me: do it yourself. The stuff I love, people did it themselves. Nobody’s going to give you the money, so you have to find a way. I love Cassavetes. Everybody references Cassavetes. But I love him. When I saw those movies, my life was changed. I was like, “Okay, this can happen.”

Then at an aesthetic level, I think with the photos in the book and the photos I take now, they are raw and emotional. There’s some kind of emotion that I’m trying to get to. I also think the photos are always truthful. There’s no bullshit.

Daniel: I want to ask an extension of this last question. As I’m sure you know, there are a range of historical photobooks that have been released recently. Old punks, young punks, and even people outside punk scenes are curious about the visual history of punk. Where do you place your photos? You mentioned earlier that you were worried that maybe the photos resonated with your friend Chris because of nostalgia. I know this is a tough question because in some sense I’m asking you to be boastful, to praise your own work, when most of us would prefer that someone else offer up the kudos. [laughs]

Amy Keim of Nausea and her baby Nadia | photo by Brooke Smith

Brooke: I think the book is intimate. It’s a love letter to these people. I want to celebrate them. I would reiterate what we discussed before: it also the color. It is kind of a unique thing, huh? I know there are people who shoot color. I really like BJ Papas. But she feels more professional than me. [laughs] And there was Amy, who was the lead singer of Nausea. She’s in the book quite a bit. I think Amy had the best pictures but, unfortunately, they were all burned up in a fire.

From a historical perspective, it’s just a bummer that you can’t be a young artist and live in New York. I mean, how could you afford it? When I go to New York now I have a hard time with Manhattan, a real hard time. So, to repeat myself, I think the book is intimate; it’s a portrait of a group of people in an exciting place at a unique time.