The Girl with the Camera Eye: An Interview with Photographer Jenny Lens By Kat

Apr 07, 2005

Growing up in Connecticut was tough. It was, and still is, a slow-moving, little guy state surrounded by a lot of cooler and faster-paced ones. Music, in the form of Edgar Winter or some shitty local ska band, was your best bet for live rock. And art... What was that? Let's put it this way: if you longed to accidentally bump into Michael Bolton, claim to be from the Constitution State, or have a house decorated just like Martha Stewart's, Connecticut was the place for you. But if you were like me and wished to see quality live music or even just talk to someone (anyone) about your fascination with late '70s/early '80s LA punk, you'd be screwed.

I often found myself driving long distances to seek out records by bands such as X, the Go-Go's and the Germs. My obsession grew rapidly and before I knew it I wasn't just buying and listening to the music, I was tape trading with kids in LA, poring over every detail in liner notes and noticing more and more... the photos.

Someone captured these bands - live and in action. Yeah, there were those we-hired-an-art-director shots, but those really didn't do anything for me. It was the thrill of knowing the person that took each of these photos had only one chance to capture that exact moment. It was these totally alive and not-at-all-posed shots that thrilled me the most and made me feel like I was there. And "being there" was what I wanted more than anything else. The person responsible for my live photo fascination, and further on down the line, inspiration, was a photographer named Jenny Lens.

Jenny Lens gave the world a camera-eye view of punk as it was happening in LA from 1976 to 1980, and captured a ridiculous amount of memorable moments from bands such as Blondie, the Clash, the Ramones, X, the Screamers, the Alley Cats... Lucky us.

For so long all I wanted to do was talk to this woman and tell her that she was the reason I bought my first camera, the reason I sometimes spent my last cent on film and developing, and the reason I love live-action rock photography. And so now she knows...

Interview by Kat Jetson
All photos by Jenny Lens

Kat: Did you have just one camera that you used, and do you still have that camera?
Jenny: I earned my BA in Art from CSUN and needed a camera to photograph my art. I purchased a Minolta SR 101 from a Fedco discount store. It was a graduation gift from my parents. I never used a flash until I started taking rock pics, and that camera washed out too many images. It was a piece of shit. It breaks my heart every time I look at so many slides and negatives that were ruined by it and/or I have to struggle to correct. I got rid of it and then got two Canons, which were great because I could shoot black and white and color at the same time. But that wasn't until 1978 or so, and I took the majority of my shots - the really important ones - from August 1976 to beginning of 1978. I have one of them (don't know if it works) and only a really heavy telephoto lens.
Kat: What was the first photo you remember taking of a band or musician?
Jenny: I lusted for Dee Dee Ramone's cheekbones. He was too beautiful to live, and so sweet. Such a face! I saw the Ramones their first night in LA, August 11, 1976, at the Roxy and brought my camera the next night. I had to shoot that face!
Kat: What made you want to keep going to shows with your camera? Did you ever wish you could've enjoyed a show without shooting it?
Jenny: Patti Smith, while performing at the Roxy, called me "the girl with the camera eye." All my life people have commented about the details I see and the way I describe things. I want to remember every exciting moment, so I want to take photos. But I won't anymore because I have too many shots sitting in my files that need to be shared. It's actually hard and sad to go to a show and not take pictures. I am very participatory in life. I can't just go to a show; I have to be involved. I could never be a groupie or ask to be on a guest list without doing something for someone. It's just me. I have to give to get. I can't be an onlooker. I have to make a difference.
Kat: How did you archive the photos you shot then? And now?
Jenny: I didn't write much on my negative holders, proof sheets, or slides. I spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out who, what, where and when. I compare what people wear, what the stage looks like, and ask archivist David Jones. David compiled timelines to which I added notes from date books and my files. I constantly refer to these and update. But in the end, it comes together in the strangest ways. I have a photographic memory. When I'm looking at a negative or slide, I will realize someone is wearing something from another roll or slide that I looked at and I put the pieces together. But it's a struggle and takes so much time! There's a lot more to figure out. The drag is when I send JPEGs to people that are in that shot and they are as baffled as I am. Now I'm putting my negatives into archival negative holders, scanning them and then renumbering them. When I have the time, I add a few notes here and there of who is in what negative, then print out a proof sheet that I slide into the holder with the negatives.

Kat: Tell me more about "Punk Turns 30." You are collaborating with others in organizing events celebrating punk music... Do you have any exhibits planned right now? When will you start selling your personal prints?
Jenny: I'm all about telling the truth and sharing the glory with those whocreated it - not those who lie and say they were there or others who weren'tthere and think they can tell our story without interviewing the people whowere there and are still alive. I'm actively involved in documentaries,books, merchandise, and photo exhibits and am in negotiations for funding myautobiographical documentary, as well as being involved with both input andphotos for other documentaries and books. I 'm in the process of uploadingphotos to sell to individuals, as well as for various collaborationsregarding merchandise. The hardest part is making the time to work on thepictures to post them. Everyone needs to see what I have in my files beforethey can order prints or design merchandise. David Jones, others and I wantto create scholarly and accurate projects so LA, NY and British punk will berealistically portrayed, and proving LA interacted with NY and British bandson participatory and contributory levels. LA was equally important andinfluential. We keep hearing about people who are working on documentaries,films, exhibits, books, and magazine articles and they don't know enoughabout it, which only perpetuates myths and fallacies. Someone who was therehas to do it! So many people involved in seminars and exhibits refuse tointerview or listen to the people who made it happen. Drives me nuts. AsGang of Four sings, "This heaven gives me a migraine." How dare people tellthose who made this happen that our input is wrong or unwanted? In additionto art galleries and museums, we have plans to produce events. Musicians areresponding very well and we are still in the talking stages. That's a greatreflection of who we are and the role we played in the early days. We wantto get our photos, stories and invaluable resources (i.e., incredibleflyers, fanzines, posters, footage, music, etc.) made public so peopleworking on a variety of projects can find us. We are the go-to place tostart. We can direct people to others who were there and can contribute. Thepioneers are being ignored and the same five people are interviewed over andover again. There are tons of untold stories and unheard music. I've wantedto document the early punk scene in major ways for years. I created atreatment for a series of punk documentaries because people are inquiringabout a book and documentaries. I have been approached by a few people withserious money and connections. There's tons of work ahead, not the least isdeciding the right people to work with and getting enough money to keepgoing until these things come to fruition. I am eager to sell my photos because people want them and it's my only income. I've wanted to use the netas a virtual gallery, but it takes a long time to post photos and I have somany. I'm working on selling archival prints for collectors
Kat: What part did drugs have on punk in the late '70s? Was there a point when you thought it got too out of hand and affected the music?
Jenny: The biggest myth is that drugs and booze destroyed punk. I've said this many times and it bears repeating. The media mistakenly wrote that punk was a bunch of angry, destructive kids. That's not true. We were bright, creative, energetic, and passionate and turned our anger into art and music. The record companies refused to believe LA had a viable music scene. How long can one survive without decent press? It was so hard to get photos published (I sent out hundreds). When my photos were published it was often without credit (or credited incorrectly) and 99% of the time I was never paid. So why not turn to drugs? Look, most everyone did and does drugs whether they had a straight job or were into disco or heavy metal. Our society pushes people into taking antidepressants, mood elevators, and to drink. Punks were no different, no better nor worse. It's just so easy to say it fell apart due to substance abuse, when a huge factor was being ignored and misunderstood when we were creating incredible music, art, graphics, and fashions. The media attracted the stupid drunken surfer redneck punks - the very people who gave us such a hard time in school, jobs, or the streets. They brought the violence and got bands banned from Hollywood. Prescriptions and alcohol are out of hand then and now in every walk of life.
Kat: What factors do you think attributed to the demise of the LA punk scene that you knew and loved?
Jenny: Lack of media coverage. Too often what was covered was inaccurate and sensationalized to marginalize an alternative community. And lack of record company attention. The people who I interacted with in the publicity departments didn't understand punk. It scared them, and no one wanted to take a risk and really try to understand it. Or if they tried, they fucked up. Punk was too scary, so bands were "new wave" or "power pop." The record companies wouldn't hire people who took chances or who understood what was going on. You can't sign, nurture, and publicize a band if you don't get it. They were too busy putting coke up their noses and kissing Queen's butts to get behind X at Elektra, for example. Record companies didn't get behind punk because they didn't "get" what the fans wanted.
Kat: What band never got its due?
Jenny: The Screamers certainly got tons of press attention but I am not at liberty to share what I know, which is mostly speculation, about their demise. The Bags were terrific and their stature has increased through the years. I am blown away and understand their growing reputation whenever I hear them. I'm listening to Gang of Four as I type this (along with Screamers, Joan Jett and more) and Entertainment! is as relevant and exciting now as when it came out.
Kat: What do you think most people get wrong when looking back at LA's punk explosion?
Jenny: Everything. Everything from where punk started to who was important. LA punk did not start at the Masque, yet the Masque gets so much focus. LA punk started with the Ramones, August 1976, at the Roxy. Also, an inordinate attention and focus is given to Darby and the Germs. People don't understand why a city of perfect weather, tanned bodies, and all that crap gave rise to what became hardcore, which propelled punk further than the Ramones. The Ramones started it. I cringe every time I hear Steve Jones saying the Sex Pistols started it, when it was the Ramones that inspired them and the Clash and LA. But LA kept it going. We all played a part. I am so tired of LA being left out. That's my mission in life - to share some facts, stories, photos... And not just mine. I love it when people email their memories. I want to post more stories from people who were there.
Kat: What was the hardest lesson you learned, photography-wise?
Jenny: Getting paid and getting credit. It's still something I struggle with. Everyone thinks I made money. Au contraire, I have yet to make what I put into it.
Kat: When you would see your photo un-credited or credited incorrectly what would you do then? And now?
Jenny: It happened more often than not, and still does today. I couldn't do anything then. If I see something online, printed or in a film, I contact the person. It's easier to get paid these days.
Kat: What's your most sought after photo by fans or magazines? What's the most you've ever been paid for a photo?
Jenny: I always get asked for something different. It's not consistent. I'm not a good business woman, but things are changing!

Kat: What photo are you most proud of?
Jenny: Too many to pick one. The Screamers on the bus bench is so great because it looks like something an art director would set up, but it was so spontaneous and I had one chance to take it. That's true with all my best photos - one chance because people moved around so quickly and if I missed that chance, it was gone, gone, gone. Patti Smith, glowing on her knees and her Strat. That was a total mistake. My all-time fave party photo is of Exene and Pleasant in the shower, fully clothed, at a Slash party. I love the mischievous look on Exene's face as she turned on the water and Pleasant's surprised expression as she raised her arm up to protect her face. We had so much fun then. I took tons of offstage fun photos, like Pleasant dancing with Joan Jett, and my pal Mark Martinez being hit by Joan, because he's such a tease. I was earning my MFA in Design from Cal Arts when Plez, Mark, Joan and others were teens in the last nights of glitter out at the Sugar Shack. We had a blast and I'm so glad to prove punk was not just a bunch of loaded, stupid, angry people.
Kat: What's your favorite photo from the punk era taken by someone else?
Jenny: I love Melanie Nissen's photos. She shot for Slash, and although people talk about Claude "Kick Boy" Bessy (whom I totally admired) and others for its success, I cherished Melanie's photos. I don't have a "favorite" shot. I love Pennie Smith, who shot in England, and like Melanie, I've only seen their black and white shots. I only wish I had the confidence those two women had. I was so shy and rarely shot off-stage. I rented lights from a camera store, had no idea how to set them up, never used a light meter, and took phenomenal shot after shot of the Screamers in their home and then on the street. I shot the Dickies, Nerves and 20/20 and again, great shots. But I was too darned shy to set that up with other bands. Not only does that hurt on an artistic level, but I could have licensed those shots time and time again. Rhino Records prefers a lineup backstage or posed somewhere rather than a great live shot, so I lost a lot of money and publishing opportunities. I just thought of myself as a photojournalist and never wanted to pose people or set up a photo session.
Kat: Were you ever injured in the line of duty?
Jenny: I was really blessed. I ran around in either Birkenstock sandals or plastic jellies and most everyone else wore stilettos or biker boots. I was never stepped on. I used to stand on chairs, stairs or camera boxes... whatever. The worse thing that happened was camera equipment was stolen or broken. I walked home alone, on the Sunset Strip, higher than a kite, wearing practically nothing and carrying very expensive camera equipment and had no problems. But that's also why I stopped. When the scene moved to more dangerous neighborhoods and crowds got nastier.
Kat: What was the last punk rock gig you attended that made you tingle? Do you still take your camera to shows?
Jenny: X, February 4, 2004 at the Key Club was tremendous fun because they were having fun and the sound was great. While John Doe was on stage he thanked me for being there. That was a thrill. I don't have a decent camera, so that diminishes my joy at shows. I also don't have the time or money. I saw Anti-Flag when they headlined Rock Against Bush last August 22 at the Music Box and thought they had the energy and stance of the Clash, but not the musical chops. But that's a tough comparison. Their music was cool, but the Clash, well, no one will ever sound like them. How can I compare seeing the Ramones, Clash, Patti, Iggy, X, or the Screamers with anyone today? I only wish I could tingle. But when I listen to them and look at my photos, ah, shakin' all over.
Kat: How did you come in contact with Roxy Epoxy?
Jenny: I was so pleased to see the first Rock Against Bush CD at the cash register at the Santa Monica Barnes and Noble. Due to all money going into my archive, I never buy anything. But for $10 and to fight Bush, sure. I fell in love with one cut. Thanks to the net, I looked up [the Epoxies] and wrote them an email fan letter - my first and only! Roxy wrote back and put me on the guest list for the August Rock Against Bush show and they were blazing. I really like them a lot, on and off stage. I wish they were in LA! I'd just love to hang with Roxy and introduce her to my many rock pals because I know they'd become great friends and go to shows. Another reason I stopped taking photos is that the venue messed up the guest list and I had to wait outside and almost missed them playing. I literally was curled up, crying on the ground. It got the guard's attention and they sprung into action, but if I just stood there I'd still be waiting to get in. I felt so badly because they had to contact her and she was just about to go on. What a thing to have to deal with, but the band was so kind to me. I feel like I'm in Nazi Germany these days at clubs with body searches and... most places won't even let you take photos. It's awful and I feel so badly for all the people who wanna have fun. Rock is supposed to be revolutionary, you know.
Kat: Any photographing punk bands advice?
Jenny: Be persistent, prepared, passionate, and work really hard at setting up photo passes and getting pictures to the performers and press in a timely manner. And get paid!
Kat: What do you think of Hollywood attempting to make a Germs movie?
Jenny: Fuck that shit! I read the scripts and they suck! The director, Roger, thinks I support his movie whereas he has no regard nor respect for those of us who were there. If he listened to us he'd have a great script and something we'd all be proud of! Why make up something when the reality is so amazing? I wish I could get hold of the producers and say, "Hey, take a look at Lexicon Devil." Write a script based on that. Write a script based on reality. There are enough stories out there. And the punk scene was not centered on Darby, but if you wanna go that way, keep it real!

Kat: What's the importance of punk rock for you now?
Jenny: It's my life. I constantly listen to CDs and various shows on Indie 103.1 when they play old punk. I am sure there are some great punk bands out there but not on the radio, which was true then. I work on my photos every day and am only passionate about getting our photos, stories, and archives established. All my friends are either from those days or fans that have found me and turned into friends. Many are helping me with my archive because they, like me, want these photos and stories to be seen and enjoyed.
Kat: At what point did you have an idea that something special was going on?
Jenny: November or December, 1975 when I put Patti Smith's Horses on my turntable and heard "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine, they belong to me." That was it. No turning back.
Kat: What was your favorite show lineup?
Jenny: Too many great shows and performers to pick one night. The Clash was consistently the best live. Tingles just thinking of them. I gotta include the Ramones, too. Screamers, X and Patti could be inconsistent, but when they were good, they were transcendent.
Kat: How would you explain those times to someone who wasn't there?
Jenny: Impossible. You had to be there because times have changed. Imagine living in a big city without much traffic, cheap gas, and cheap digs. Driving from Hollywood to West LA didn't take an hour and half in bumper-to-bumper traffic and driving to or from the South Bay was a breeze. You went to school or worked a temp or part-time job, stayed up all night partying at shows, wore thrift shop clothes you bought in good condition for pennies, and hung out with performers who were accessible and glad for the attention. The person you were standing next to in the audience was on stage the next night. You created your own fanzines, knew most everyone by name or face, and if you were a woman you got to do everything the guys did, and often better. And plenty of sex (as often as you wanted it) without condoms, cheap, strong drugs, and the fucking best shows for $3 (if you paid to get in). Sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll. On your terms, because you made it happen.