Rob Coons | photo by Jennifer Hofmann

A Punk Life in Stages: How Rob Coons Jumped into Punk Photography by Daniel Makagon

Apr 12, 2022

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Rob Coons is a lifer. He discovered punk as a teen in the early 1980s and was quickly hooked. Rob became immersed in various scene-building activities, especially in San Francisco: hosting radios shows for Maximum Rocknroll, helping run Blacklist DIY mailorder, and volunteering at Epicenter Zone record store and community space. Living in the Bay Area for nearly three decades has offered a lot of opportunities to participate. But Rob’s story also includes an interesting twist. For someone so involved with punk media production, Rob only recently started making photographs. During the past few years, his work has garnered a lot of positive attention. Rob’s black and white photos document the fun, the chaos, and communal energy of contemporary punk shows. It was exciting to talk with Rob about his life in punk and his goals for his photography.

Krimewatch at Humanist Hall, Oakland, CA 6/18/18 | photo by Rob Coons

Daniel: How did you discover punk?

Rob: I grew up in Richmond, Ind. A smaller to mid-sized Midwest town. Fortunately, we had a college radio station at a liberal arts college in our town called Earlham. The girl who I was dating at the time, brought me a cassette tape. She’s like, “I was listening to this radio show last night and they played the craziest songs.” I think the very first punk song I ever heard was Circle Jerks “World up My Ass.” Then something like Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” She just thought it was the funniest thing in the world. But that was my first exposure to punk and then I started listening to this guy’s show on WECI religiously.

There weren’t very many punk rockers in town. I actually met the two punkers, a brother and sister, and it was really amazing introduction because even in Richmond, Ind. they were doing zines. Touring bands were staying at their house. I remember I went over there one time and Impulse Manslaughter was at their house. It was just mind blowing. [laughs] The brother started making me compilation tapes of songs from the P.E.A.C.E. compilation and Not So Quiet on the Western Front.

It’s also really important to mention that this radio show was playing MRR radio occasionally. So, not only was I getting the standards, like Code Of Honor and stuff, but suddenly I was, very early on, exposed to international hardcore. It was a very quick ramp-up. That was probably 1985. Then I saw my first show around ’86. There were no shows in the small town, but I lived near Cincinnati, Ohio. It was an hour, hour and a half away, so we would drive to a club called Bogart’s. My first show was D.R.I. and Doctor Know. It was the most insane introduction: there were a million stage divers; bouncers losing control of the crowd and just giving up; and the front of the stage was wood, and the audience was starting to rip off the front of the stage. Bogart’s wasn’t just a grubby, dirtbag punk club; it was a legit place.

Daniel: Did you meet the people who did the radio show?

Rob: I have a funny story. The guy’s name was Jay. He was obviously a little older than me since he was in college. He was a super cool guy. Total punker guy: punky shirts, the whole nine. He had a little punk band going at the school. I never saw them, but he was definitely trying to get something going. I actually called so many times with requests… I would literally call him with fifteen songs: “Can you play ‘I Shot Reagan’ by Suicidal Tendencies?” and whatever else was on the list. He said, “Why don’t you just come on down to the station when I’m doing the show?” So, I went down, and I was never invited back. [laughs] I sat up on the on the desk behind him and I flipped some sort of switch and shut down the whole board. Everything stopped: record players, the lights went out. It took a long time for the system to reboot, and he had to call these people. He didn’t say, “Don’t come back,” but I felt really bad after.

Daniel: How did you find out about the bands that made up the long list of requests?

Rob: A lot of it was from continuous listening to his show. I would hear things I really liked. Also, there was a record store in town. They carried just a few punk records. The first punk record I ever bought was Raw Power, Screams from the Gutter. That was followed closely by Dead Kennedys, In God We Trust. Then listening to the show all the time I was able to get a string of songs that I loved. I didn’t really have a lot of exposure beyond that, other than my two friends and that radio show.

During my first year at college at Indiana State in Terre Haute I went to a record store and bought some records. This guy was like, “You look like somebody who might be interested in the zine based on what you’re buying here.” He handed me a copy of Maximum Rocknroll. It was the November, 1986 issue. That record store was well stocked with lots of punk and was a really big eye opener for me. But then I felt like I had to get out of Indiana. And I had a chance to go to the big city of Chicago to go to school.

Crowd shot at as Witless plays, Hunan Homes Restaurant, San Francisco, CA 2/26/22 | photo by Rob Coons

Daniel: Chicago had a very active scene at that time. Did you start to integrate quickly?

Rob: Oh yeah. I dove right in headfirst. I immediately started going to shows, started hanging out in the punk scene. I lived there from ’87 to ’90. During that time Belmont Street was the hotbed for hanging out, places like The Alley (a general alternative shop: clothes store, headshop). I started going down there, started meeting people.

And there were a lot of clubs at that time in the city: Club Dreamers, The Exit. There was a guy, Matt, who booked Dirty Nellies out in Palatine and McGregor’s in Elmhurst. I was fortunate because I had a car. A lot of shows were in the suburbs, so I drove everywhere and went to as many shows as I could. And then… This was kind of eye opening. I became good friends with a bunch of Polish punks. The reason I say they’re Polish is important because they opened my world up to the early, mid, and late ’80s Polish punk scene. I started buying all those records. It was really cool and eye opening, and it happened really fast.

Daniel: Do you play music as well or have you been in bands?

Rob: I don’t, no. I’ve never picked up an instrument of any kind and I’ve never tried to do vocals or anything.

Daniel: I asked that question because you’ve been involved with punk for a long time. Very few of the people I have interviewed for this series play music. Photography was a creative way to be involved in a punk scene.

Rob: I phrased this to somebody the other day: I’ve always been a watcher, not a player. Of course, I’ve always had my finger in a pie in the punk scene. I first started working at Maximum in the early ’90s when I first moved here. That was very time-consuming. I also started at Blacklist Mailorder for a little while, but then we ended up closing Blacklist. I also worked at Epicenter Zone for a long time, until that was closed down. In hindsight, there was so much stuff going on that I don’t have any recollection of ever even thinking about taking a photo despite loving photography.

Daniel: That’s a good transition to talking about photography. At what point did you start making photos?

Rob: I’ve always enjoyed the visual arts. I go to museums all the time and I really like to observe and soak in the art. With that said, I didn’t own any sort of proper camera other than a weird little point and shoot that I would use occasionally. Then about six years ago I had a little extra money. And I should say that I’m really into nature; I do a lot of hiking and outdoor exploring. I bought a camera to start doing some nature photography with no intention really of taking it to a show. But I was still going to shows actively and so I thought, “Maybe I’ll take my camera to the show,” but I was really freaked out about using a flash at the beginning. I shot without a flash, and I ended up being really happy with some of the photos I took at the first show. From that point, I would occasionally take the camera to shows. This went on but then I started taking it more and more, which went on for about a year. No flash. In dark clubs it’s very, very difficult to get a decent photo without flash.

I started talking to a lot of my friends who were in bands and asked, “What’s your feelings on using flash?” It was a resounding, “We don’t care,” and, “I’m too busy playing or concentrating on if my sound is right” or this or that. They don’t even notice, so I started to feel more comfortable mentally about taking my flash to a show. Then I tried it, and everything changed in a weird way overnight. I looked at the photos and they were a thousand times better than anything I had taken without a flash. I just I took off from there.

Daniel: This is only six years ago?

Rob: A little less than six years ago I started taking photos at shows. There’s a couple of really important things to note about me taking photos at shows. I love it, but ultimately seeing the band takes precedence. The camera is an extension of my experience. Pretty much since the very first show I went to I’ve been an up-front person, meaning the band is [uses his hands to signal that the band is only inches away from him]. That’s where I feed off that energy. It wasn’t like I suddenly got a camera and moved to try to start working my way up front. I was always the guy who would get there thirty minutes before the first band. I would lock in my spot and stay there the whole show. But now I have a camera in my hand.

A lot of times I’ll be at a show, and I’ll just be too busy head banging or rocking out to get a shot, but that’s okay. I think it’s really important to note how important it is for me to not lose sight of why I’m there in the first place. The most important thing is that I want to enjoy myself and enjoy the music. If I get some good photos along the way, that’s a really cool thing. If I miss a bunch of shots, and I don’t get anything good, that’s okay, too. Whenever someone approaches me and asks: “What are your pointers on taking photos at shows?” One of the very first things I mention is: “Don’t spend so much time trying to get the shot that you’re actually missing the essence of why you’re there in the first place.”

Hide at the Elbo Room, Oakland, CA 11/19/19 | photo by Rob Coons

Daniel: How would you describe your style and the types of photographs you try to make?

Rob: I think it’s important to mention how essential Murray Bowles was to who I am as a photographer now. Back in the ’80s, when I first saw If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pit, Murray’s photozine blew my mind. I still look at that zine and I’m like, “Holy shit. These photos are insane.” Of course, I saw Murray’s photos over the years, and many other classic photographers. When I started editing my personal photos, I immediately went to black and white. On rare occasions I do color, but mostly if there’s something really essential in the photo that I feel like needs to be colorized, meaning if someone has a really cool colorful outfit, amazing colorful hair or makeup. Probably ninety percent of my photos are switched to black and white. I love a good action shot, so I am always deep in the action. Maybe like five percent of the time I’m looking through the viewfinder on my camera, so all my photos are taken blindly. I’m looking at the subject but I’m not looking through my camera.

The point of all these things is that I had been editing photos, posting them online, and then I just had this revelation: Holy shit. I’m trying so hard to be like Murray Bowles. I didn’t even realize I was doing that. It’s crazy. The essence of his style and the way he shot at shows. He very rarely looked through the viewfinder. He was always swinging that arm around and trying to get a great angle on the shot. I’d see him at shows doing that and I guess it was all this kind of subconscious thought process. Little did I know how influential he was to who I became as a photographer, especially in my editing style. Despite seeing Murray a million times, I never actually met Murray. I try not to have very many regrets, but I wish I could have told him, “You are the game changer for me.”

Daniel: You mentioned your editing process. Can you zoom in a bit and talk about the work you do with the photos?

Rob: I use Lightroom. Obviously, I flip everything to black and white unless, like I said, it’s something special and colorful. I even do daytime photos in black and white. I just think with my aesthetic they look better. Also, I like a tight crop. I feel like that brings out the emotion or energy I’m trying to capture. I want someone to look at my photo and feel the photo, if that makes any sense. I’m trying to capture a moment of energy, emotion, or passion to give the viewer something exciting: someone’s screaming, jumping, or whatever they’re doing. And honestly, I just think it looks cool. I try to really zoom in on that and try to bring that essence out. This is not a criticism of any photographer, because everyone has their own styles, but I feel like sometimes if I’m looking at someone else’s photography it’ll be an entire band shot and there’ll be like one person over here doing this incredible thing. But it’s lost because the photo is an entire band shot. I would have edited it so differently. Again, to each their own; it’s not a criticism, but it’s just how I view things.

As far as editing beyond the crop, honestly, other than flipping it to black and white and shuffling a couple of settings, I try really hard not to smooth things out. I might enhance the whites or something to make the photo a little brighter. I don’t want to over process my shot and make it look weird. If there are imperfections in the shot, especially with people… I’m actually really cautious about photos that I post. I don’t ever want anyone to look at the photo and go, “Man, I look like shit.” I still get that, but I always try to make people look their best. I have a lot of cool shots of people doing really cool things, but they look ridiculous, at least in my eyes. And I always equate it to: if somebody posted a picture of me that looked like that, I’d be so mad. [laughs] A lot of thought goes into that. I’ll even check in with my wife sometimes: “Do you think that’s appropriate? If that was you, would you be upset?” Maybe someone’s shorts were a little too short or something in the picture. And there’s nothing exposed. If something was exposed, I would never post a photo like that. But I don’t want to post if there is something uncomfortable. I’m super conscious of that stuff.

Daniel: I want to jump back up to our discussion about photographing at a show. You said that you rarely look through the viewfinder. In theory that process is going to produce a lot of images that are out of focus, you miss what you wanted to capture, someone is cut in half, et cetera. When it’s time for you to edit, do you find that you’ve got a lot of images to work with or do you end up deleting most of the photos?

Blu Anxxiety at the Elbo Room, Oakland, CA 9/18/21 | photo by Rob Coons

Rob: It depends on so many variables: where I’m positioned, how active the band is, how active the crowd is. I get a number of decent shots. Of course, a lot also hit the cutting room floor, but I get a lot of decent shots. My big advantage, I think, is that I use a really wide-angle lens. I use a 14 millimeter to 24 millimeter. I’m almost always shooting with 14 millimeter. I don’t know if everyone will know camera speak, but I could literally be standing just a few feet away from an entire band, lean back, and shoot the whole band. It’s crazy the field that gives me with that wide-angle lens. That’s important to note because if I’m shoving the camera in the direction of somebody and they’re doing something cool—because I have such a large plane field—it gives me the advantage. I can take two or three shots and there’s a very good chance that whatever they’re doing will be somewhere in the frame that I’m shooting.

Before I got that wide-angle lens, and when I first got into photography, I was shooting with a much smaller range, without getting way too technical. Because of the lens I was using, I’d get half the body or something. The wide-angle lens is essential for me capturing a lot of things. It’s almost too adventitious sometimes because I end up with so much material. People seem to enjoy my photography, which is very flattering and great; I truly appreciate it. But I don’t want to inundate. It’s this weird balance of, “Am I over posting on social media?” “Am I driving people crazy?” “Are they annoyed?” But my point is that a lot of times I may have too much material to even to share.

Daniel: You have too much material because you’re shooting a lot of photos at each show or because your success rate with quality images is high?

Rob: I haven’t really gone through them, but I saw five shows in the last five days. I went to this big metal show. I may take a number of photos, but I talk to other photographers who tell me they took one thousand photos. What? I don’t have time to edit one hundred photos. But I went to a metal show on Sunday: Exodus, Exhumed, and Boneless Ones. That was maybe one of my records, since I took like seven or eight hundred photos. There was so much happening. The lighting was really bad because the sun was shining directly on us. I love shooting bands, but I’m sure if you’ve seen my social media, you know I like to shoot the crowd. Oftentimes that’s more exciting than the band. And this is not a diss on the bands that are playing.

But I was watching Exhumed and Exodus, both were fantastic, and I got a bunch of photos of both bands and then it’s like, “I’m going into the pit.” And it was really cool because the pit was huge. There were hundreds of people and I just posted up on the side of the pit and I was firing off photos. I felt like a football player protecting the football [models a running back tucking the ball into his torso]. I had my camera kind of tucked into my chest, and my body slightly turned from the pit. When I saw something exciting, I’d just rotate and shoot. [laughs] I feel like most of the people running by, they wanted to be photographed. And they don’t want to kill the photographer. They know I’m there doing something different, and having fun, but occasionally there will be that one guy who maybe had a few too many and doesn’t even notice that I’m photographing.

Daniel: You’re just unnoticed—as other people are unnoticed—by the punks or metalheads who are drunk.

Rob: Sure. It’s really worth mentioning at this juncture that I expect zero special treatment. I know before I started taking photos that I’d post up on the side of the stage and then some photo guy or gal would show up two seconds before the band went on and try to edge their way in on me. That’s not happening. They’re like, “Why? I want to take some photos.” I’ve been standing here for three hours. You’re not going to stand in front of me. On the flip side of that I expect no one to show me any courtesy as a photographer. Some people are very nice. I’ll show up and they’ll be like, “Oh, would you like to stand here?” And I’m like, “Well that’s very nice of you. Sure, Thank you.” I’ve been clobbered many times. In the last few months, I’ve had two flashes ripped off my camera, which is very expensive. The fact that I’m in the pit with my camera I realize anything can happen. I could get taken out, my camera could get torn out of my hand. It’s just part of the risk and part of the fun.

Fentanyl at LVL Up, San Jose, CA 6/27/21 | photo by Rob Coons

Daniel: You started photographing not that long ago in the context of your rich history with punk. Although six years is a decent chunk of time, many photographers will say that it took a long time to move from making garbage photographs to something that inspired pride. You talked about Murray being influential, but how did you develop your sense of what you wanted to do? And I know this puts you on the spot in an awkward way, but why do you think people have responded so positively to your work?

Rob: I want to say before I make this statement that I’m an open book. I have no show secrets or camera secrets or editing secrets. Whenever someone messages me: What are your settings? What kind of camera gear do you use? How do you use Lightroom? I’ll tell them anything. If you want to take rad photos and use me as an influence, I’m honored you would want to do that. But you should go for it. And show me your photos. I want to see your stuff. That excites me, to share my knowledge. With that said, one of the most common questions I get from people, and especially beginning photographers is: “How do you get so many jump shots?” They always say, “I try to get jumps up and I always miss it.” I think a small part of it is I have a good camera with a good autofocus, a good flash—and, again—the wide-angle lens. The gear I’m using allows me to fortunately get a clear, crisp photo of somebody as long as I can get them in the frame.

Mark Murrmann has been one of my go-tos and influences. His punk stuff is incredible. His colorization, his black and white, and the overall aesthetic that he uses has been super influential. Frankly, I’ve gone to him with very direct questions: “Tell me more about this.” I’m always kind of shy when I ask people questions, but he’s always been so gracious. He’s like, “I’ll answer any questions, anything you want to know.” As I was saying earlier, I like reciprocating with my knowledge. If people are an open book with you, how can you not just flip that around and be like, “I’ll tell you anything you want to know” when someone else asks a question?

In addition to the camera gear, and more importantly, I’ve been going to shows and listening to punk for so long that I’ve seen thousands of bands. I’m a fanatic. I’ve been going to shows since, like we discussed earlier, the ’80s. If there was a show, I was at it. I’m still that way. Actually, I tried in 2020 but then of course the pandemic, but for the first time ever this year, I’m actually writing down every band that I see because I have never really done anything like that. I have seen fifty-three bands this year so far (early March). [laughs] There’s a local guy, we’re friends, he’s a punker too. There’s some crossover in our musical tastes, but he likes a lot more pop punk or indie rock type stuff, whereas I go to the much heavier side of things. We have this secret little competition. I messaged him the other day: I have seen like thirty-four bands. He wrote me back and he was like, “Oh, I’ve seen thirty-five.” Here we go: 2022 and the race is on. We’re having fun with it, though.

Anyway, hearing so many different types of music, I really honestly feel like I have an intuitive feeling. I can almost predict when something is about to happen. Oftentimes I’ll have my camera waiting for something to happen. I’ll be rocking out to a band, but this weird little wheel in the back of my brain goes, “Put your camera right here.” I’ll hold it there while I’m rocking. I’m super focused on whatever’s happening, but my finger is on the trigger, if you will, and it’s waiting. It’s like my brain is split in half: this hand is almost tracking [shows camera being held in his right hand], while this hand is rocking [pumps left arm and fist in the air]. Then something will happen, and I’ll fire three or four continuous shots off. I’ll probably catch something happening. It’s just a sixth sense at this stage. Of course, I also miss a million things, so I’m not bragging. But I can anticipate because I can hear a time change coming, I can watch a person almost spring load their legs like they’re going to jump. These are all these little things that I’m hyper aware of, and I just capture a lot of that stuff.

To reflect on your original question—there’s no better way to put this than, especially once I started using flash, I don’t like even talking this way because I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting my own horn—I started to capture some pretty quality photos. And people started noticing. It’s just kind of spun in my favorable direction. People started using my images for record releases. People wanted to feature them in magazines. I got in Maximum Rocknroll a couple of times before they ended up closing down the print issues. It was a very quick ramp-up of accolades from people.

And it’s really interesting, even in a short few years, my editing style has changed. The way I capture pictures has changed. I feel like I catch even more good shots now than I did two or three years ago. And I feel like the quality of the shots I’m catching is continually improving. It was a very quick escalation of people suddenly taking notice of my photos. I don’t really know how to explain that, and I’ve been very fortunate. I feel like any time someone approaches me, even today, and wants to buy a print or use my photo for something, it’s like starting all over, like the first time somebody asked me that. I’m really involved in the local scene, so I think that helps as well. There’s a lot of face recognition.

Daniel: You’ve talked about capturing the energy of punk shows, especially through action photos and jump shots. The intuition that comes from attending shows, as you just noted, helps you time those shots. Is there a technique that works for you as well that helps you capture the photos you want?

Rob: If you scrolled all the way back through my social media, there would be a very similar aesthetic of people jumping, action photos, people screaming, people in the pit. That dynamic has been consistent. I think I’m just more hyperaware of certain angles that work. Maybe I didn’t have that knowledge three or four years ago. One of my shooting techniques, which I found to be extremely effective for good photos of bands that jump a lot, is holding my camera at an angle down by the floor of the stage. I get these crazy perspectives where people look like they’re elevating above me and oftentimes it’s so compact that I might be holding the camera underneath them. Sometimes it’s even risky because they might be jumping up and down and they’re less than a foot away from landing on my camera. I feel like figuring out high-up shots has been a fun challenge and I’ve really broadened how I construct the photo mentally beyond where I was a few years ago. I think it’s really opened up and it’s created—I look at a lot of photos, I always have, and I’m definitely not one of a kind. I certainly would never claim that. But I feel like it’s offering a somewhat fresh perspective on maybe something that people will have already seen. They may see a cool picture of somebody jumping from another photographer, but now they’re getting this weird underneath perspective, maybe they haven’t seen so often or never before.

Daniel: Let’s talk about some of the outlets for your work. You post regularly on social media and you mentioned publishing with MRR when the zine was still in print. What else are you doing, and do you have plans for a photozine or book?

Rob: I started doing a web photo column for Razorcake. They used one of my photos of Limp Wrist for an article about Martín and then one for Seized Up. Those were in print and then I realized that they were doing this photo column in the magazine, like a one-page layout. So, I reached out to Todd, and I asked about publishing my photos. My first web photo just debuted. I’m super excited about that.

At this stage a book is not very important to me. I have thought more about a zine. I’d actually like to do a zine of my jump photos, but I don’t know if it will ever happen. I’m always looking forward. During the pandemic shutdown, my friends and I were like, “Oh, we’re gonna do all these projects” and not one of them happened for me. I just needed to get through the day and make sure I didn’t have a mental breakdown. I was not in the condition to make shit. [laughs]

My dream is to do a tour with a band. Preferably somewhere really cool. Not that any tour would be uncool. But if I could pick and choose my dream, the band would be going to Africa or we’re going to tour Japan and play with all these incredible bands. One band. And I could document the whole tour through photography. Not just the band playing, but shots in the van and very intimate personal things. Then I could put that project together as a book; that’s my dream. I always keep that in the back of my head. I came into that idea a little before the pandemic started, so it’s really lurking. I keep my ear to the ground. I’ve even mentioned it to a couple friends in bands: “Hey, if you guys ever go on tour, if I can tag along and photograph.”

Daniel: Finally, let’s talk a little bit about things opening up after the COVID shutdown. You already mentioned that you’ve attended a lot of shows in 2022. How are things opening in the Bay Area and how has this process of shows happening again impacted your photography?

Rob: When shows started happening again, maybe June or July (2021), people were still trying to figure it out. Well, even now there’s still a ton of people I know who aren’t going to shows. But the scene here exploded beyond my wildest imagination. The first show back was this big show with a bunch of popular hardcore bands. It was down in San Jose; it was an illegal show. They didn’t announce the spot ’til the day of the show. They built a stage in a parking lot the morning of the show. There were probably about two thousand people who came out for this show. I think there were a bunch of different youth cultures just outside of hardcore punk. People just had nothing to do for a year and a half and suddenly they were like, “Wait, there’s something happening? We gotta go.” It was mind blowing. That show was this crazy launching pad. And not just hardcore. The scene here is bigger than I have ever seen it; the youth culture here is just amazing.

I went to a show recently at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown here in San Francisco. The same night, there was a show at a bookstore and a show in an art gallery. So, there were three punk shows all in San Francisco proper. I only made it to one in San Francisco, at the restaurant, since I went to a show in Oakland. All three shows had a youthful audience: anywhere from fourteen to nineteen, that age bracket. And we have a scene that is big enough that we could support all of these underground shows. That’s really impressive and exciting; it’s so vibrant. There are shows almost every other night here right now and they’re all in off-the-wall places. Everything is secret, ask a punk.

I feed off that. If I go to a show and I see one hundred kids of that young age bracket who are pumped and excited, that just amplifies all the excitement I already have on my own to be there. All that energy impacts the photography.

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