Part of the Seeing the Scene Series
David Ensminger has a rich history with punk: He plays in bands, makes photographs, helps document flyer culture and historical releases, and he has published multiple books and articles about the music and culture. His consideration of punk’s complicated and diverse histories emerges from a combination of growing up on a steady diet of punk and applying his training as a folklorist and oral historian to punk rock writing and archive projects. One of the many aims for this Seeing the Scene series is to revisit important books and zines from the past. David is a perfect point of contact to consider one of the most important and wide-reaching photozines: the first Maximum Rocknroll photozine by Murray Bowles, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries… What Am I Doing in the Pit?
This zine came out in 1987 and was edited Martin Sprouse, Cynthia Connolly, and Tim Yohannan. Bowles claimed that the zine was Yohannan’s idea and MRR was inspired by Glen E Friedman’s My Rules. The photos featured in the zine document local Bay Area bands, national bands, and international touring bands. Bowles was able to capture raw and exciting images because he often shot from the pit and also preferred to move around a lot rather than shooting from one spot in a venue. His first photos were nature photographs that he took while backpacking and later started photographing punk shows. Bowles stated that 10,000 copies of the zine were printed. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2019.
Daniel: Can you talk a bit about the photographs you encountered when you discovered punk and what those photos taught you about punk?
David: Photos are the entrance way; they are the Pandora’s Box that you open up and everything else becomes unleashed. When I think about my favorite albums, they usually come with a visual iconography based on photos. For me, it’s The Ramones. I talk about Roberta Bayley in my new book about punk women. I include her in that because she helped define the visual mystique and mythologies of punk.
The Ramones with their Levi’s 501 jeans that have holes in them and then they’re wearing their tennis shoes, have scraggly hair and leather jackets. This is a gang; these are the boys from Queens. And Pennie Smith did that with The Clash. London Calling shows that great reference to Elvis and you see Paul Simonon about to smash his bass. You realize just the complete combustibility, destruction, and spontaneity. You gotta be there when it’s live. All of these things get unlocked from that Pandora’s Box. And when you open up London Calling, it’s got all these extra photos right there with the liner notes and lyrics and everything. It establishes this legacy of the band, at that time in particular to its relationship to America and its relationship to New York City, since so many of those photos were taken in that area. You immediately begin to see New York as the epicenter: you see the Dead Boys record; they’re on the front cover. And with The Ramones, I don’t think it was until Pleasant Dreams when they weren’t on the front cover. If I remember correctly, it was the first three or four records that have them on the front in their poses.
When you’re flipping through a record bin, that’s one of the key things you’re looking for: you may not know the band, you may not be familiar with the name or the songs, but you could look at their visual repertoire, visual presence, and iconography and take guesses. “Is this a ska band? Is this a rockabilly band? Is this a punk band? Is this a hardcore band?” You can kind of tell.
I would not have had nearly the understanding of punk without photography; it’s pivotal.
The visual cues sort of allow you to understand. You know, with the Big Boys, you would see photos and Biscuit’s wearing an entire outfit that seems to be made of Christmas lights or he’s wearing a wedding gown or he’s wearing a pink tutu. These photos signal to you about outsider culture, queer culture, non-normative and marginal. And The Cramps: in the photos you begin to see the genderbending of Lux and you get to see the presence of Poison Ivy. Pretty women can be ugly in the way they do things with their guitar; they’re not dainty and are actually quite powerful. Whether it’s gender, whether it’s sexual norms, politics, or fashion as a punk iconography, all those things begin to be established through photography. I think that was such a key element that I would not have had nearly the understanding of punk without photography; it’s pivotal.
Daniel: I think the other thing is learning other scenes. Once those early records are joined by Flipside and Maximum Rocknroll plus local fanzines, you start to see what people look like in different scenes. What you’re describing about this New York aesthetic is so different than what we saw in Southern California.
David: I think about the Masque photos—Dawn Wirth and some from Ruby Ray—they have their own visual repertoire that shows their own clothing and style; ways of being menacing, different, and outlandish. I think about The Screamers, who look like they are wearing trash. It’s performance art on stage. That’s different than Television, who look very cool and demure. They look like guys who read poetry and hung out in a bookstore. Entirely different things.
I’m doing a roots rock project, where you get the introduction of cowboy boots, cowboy button down shirts, and cowboy hats, big chunky jewelry. That was a reaction, I think, to hardcore because that was such a teenage phenomenon and such a suburban, sort of macho phenomenon. Around ’80, ’81, or ’82 whether it was Gun Club or later on Tex And The Horseheads, Rank And File took it in this other direction to distinguish they weren’t coming from that adolescent scene: Circle Jerks, The Vandals. You’re right, the photos delineated difference in genre, style, and also region and attitude.
Daniel: At what point do you move from viewing punk photography to making your own photographs? And do you start with photographs of other things or are you straight into making photos of bands?
David: I got a camera at fifteen or sixteen and remember taking photos of my aunt’s property in Ohio. She had 150 acres and I was taking a lot of shots and then went out to Rhode Island took a lot of shots of the shoreline. I didn’t really take it very seriously, but when I started taking photos at punk shows, I wasn’t very good. That’s the problem: learning how to operate a camera in real time.
I remember when Soulside, Swiz, and American Standard came through, I must have done an entire roll of twenty-four shots or whatever it was and only one was in focus. You know, everybody’s moving really fast. The lighting is not good, and you’re only beginning to understand what to do with the camera. All of that combined is not necessarily germane to the best photographs.
And this other guy in my community, one way that he dealt with all of the commotion was to tape the camera to his hand. He would duct tape his camera to his hand so when he was around the slam pit or people were jumping off stage or being aggressive and making a lot of commotion, he could still steady the camera. Whereas I am kind of bouncing around and not taking anything in focus. Exact same shows I was at, but I’d look at his photos: “Wait a minute. Yours are not stellar but they are very, very good. Mine are terrible.” One of the differentiations was that he knew a little bit more about photography than I did, but he also used a different style of camera that was faster, and he learned these DIY techniques for dealing with the situation.
I had this conversation with Edward Colver, and this made total sense: the more you know a band’s music, the more you can predict things. If you’re using a slow camera, you’re having to reload the flash or something like that, you can guess ahead: “Here comes the chorus in a couple seconds.” You know people are going to jump up and join them or the singer is going to put the mic into the crowd. You see that in the Murray Bowles book; there are all these shots of guys hovered over a crowd of five people screaming. You learn to guess ahead, so you sort of wait, wait, wait. Boom. And then it’s going to take another minute for the flash to be ready to go again. You have to do this intelligent guesswork based on the rhythm and the structure of the song. But at that time, I didn’t know. I was just sort of shooting randomly. A few years on, I understood the rhythm to it, there was a relationship, and you sort of establish those ways of communicating with a band through your camera.
Daniel: Were you self-taught?
David: Totally. I took one industrial arts class, where we learned how to develop film. But we also learned how to make T-shirts and to do typesetting. It was one term and then one portion of one term dedicated to it. I have actual shots from my high school, taking shots of random things [laughs] like a dandelion, gym equipment, and something hanging from the ceiling. All these test shots were me getting to know the camera. Then I have shots of bands that are okay, but not great, from my teenage years. I’ve used them in magazines and on websites and things because they’re very special to me.
But then I also started taking pictures of my town, Rockford. This is an industrial town with high rates of crime at the time, high rates of unemployment. There was a huge case against the school system because of the segregation. There was an in-between point where there was a lot of graffiti, demolished buildings. I was using my camera plus my friend had a Super 8mm camera. We started making these homemade videos and we’d use Sonic Youth as a soundtrack. And we would show them, in particular, at a downtown arts theater. We got a little basement space, a real small black room. We were able to project and I have photos from wandering around the city: industrial buildings and street scenes. I feel like we were able to document our scene in an artistic way and in a slightly different way than just snapping photos at shows.
These photos remind us about the path less taken, the path of marginality (drug abuse and falling out), being the underdog.
So, it was documenting the community and then in 1992, documenting my co-workers, people in bands, people I knew from the scene. I’m really happy I did that because some of them are gone and lost, so the photos are kind of eulogies and memorials. That moment in ’92 wasn’t the punkest time: noise music, Amphetamine Reptile, and things like that. It was a transition period. I have a lot of those photos that I’m happy that I made. I think about how many people we’ve lost. I see the Big Boys photo in Bowles’s book and I mourn Biscuit all the time, not just because I was his drummer. And I see the Offenders photo. The two guys in the Offenders photo are both dead. J.J., the singer, died homeless on the streets of Austin. I wrote his eulogy for Maximum Rocknroll. These photos remind us about the path less taken, the path of marginality (drug abuse and falling out), being the underdog.
Daniel: I think your comment about the Big Boys photo in If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries provides us with a good transition. Let’s jump into the zine and talk about some of the images that really resonate for your and why.
David: I was just talking to Peter Case about the difference between punk and hardcore. He said that it was hardcore bands that chased out the women because the guys would go up front and mostly guys would be in the slam pit. Now, that’s not entirely true but we do know that men made up a large presence. This photo is a great example. The photograph can suggest that this is a predominately male, suburban subculture within punk. It’s the hardcore for the hard core template. And it’s also the straight edge template and we know that the straight edge template geared toward mostly male, mostly suburban, and mostly middle class. Again, not entirely but we know it skews in that direction. The photos kind of help cement that or solidify that, which helps us grasp the reality versus saying it on paper.
David: And if you look at the 7 Seconds, what I love, is that transition with Kevin Seconds. You’ve got Kevin with his head shaved and he’s got a handkerchief on, establishing that he’s hardcore. And then right below you’ve got a different photo. He’s beginning to let his hair grow out. This is a band in transition and by the end of the ’80s would begin to sound like U2 or something.
I don’t know when he dropped this, but he would put the black mark under his eyes, like the baseball players wear to keep the glare off in the stadiums. Eventually he drops that, and he loses the bandanna. But later that got picked up by Operation Ivy. All those guys would wear it some other way and that’s what I did. When I’m sixteen and I’m in high school, that’s the dude I want to look like. I started wearing a bandana over my head like he did. And because I couldn’t find super straight pants, I would take a bandana and tie it around the ankles to create this slender profile right above your Converse. Looking back now, it’s because I looked at these photos. You begin to emulate the style. How do you pick up on the cues of punk and a visual style? This is where it comes from.
David: Let’s talk about the Asexauls photo. I think this one is amazing. You get the sense of verticality and the leap. This is what hardcore singers do. Punk rock singers did not do this. If you look back to The Clash, Buzzcocks, all those early bands in ’77, ’78, they’re not really doing this stuff. They may be moving around a lot, may be aggressive, and singing along with the crowd, but the hardcore, skatecore, the crossover, and thrash metal bands that established the pure physicality. They established that you had to do the leap. [Laughs]
I remember Chi Pig from SNFU at a show in Rockford leaping so high and when he came down, he went through the stage. They built the stage out of plywood and 2”x4”s, or whatever it was, and he put his foot through it because that’s how high he had gone, exerting so much pressure downward on that stage. So, these photos side by side with the Asexuals and Criminal Mischief you realize that was par for the course.
David: And then look at the Raw Power photo. Guitars are not gonna get in your way. You’re still catching air. To me, that’s the crossover between skateboard culture, athleticism, physicality, and taking it to the air. You gotta think that in the 1960s there were musicians jumping and maybe jumping off PAs, but I’m not sure if it was the norm like this. I would think that these guys were aware of skate culture, watching them do tricks, watching them fly around on quarter pipes or half pipes, and street stuff on various stairwells and things like that. There is this intersection between the two.
The other thing is that Raw Power is an Italian band and there’s the B.G.K. (from the Netherlands) photo and it’s the first time that everybody is on the same wavelength. There’s a great sense of participatory culture. It doesn’t matter where you live; you get this sense of translocality. I assume this shot was from America but I’ve seen shots from Italy that look the same. This suggests that you are closer to people in your subculture than you are to your neighbor in terms of the way you live, the way you thrive, the way you perform, and your being in the world—your identity play. The world can feel borderless. These convergences and these concerts made me believe in that: youth subcultures went beyond borders, including behind the Iron Curtain.
Daniel: Your description makes me think back to Chris Chacon’s tape series.
Daniel: I guess there were two names for the series, but one was Borderless Countries Tapes. He was doing the music equivalent of your reading of these images, which is great. Those tapes featured international hardcore bands that many people in the U.S. could discover for the first time, crossing borders.
David: Yeah, and he put those out in an affordable way, otherwise you had to buy imports.
It’s also interesting that Bowles captures the bands that are so small and so obscure and so forgotten, but he also captures bands that are still touring. Here are The Detonators, Subhumans, and Circle Jerks. I don’t know how often Circle Jerks are touring, but Keith is in OFF! Subhumans still tour every once in a while. I interviewed Bruce from The Detonators; those guys are still around although they’re not really playing much. Some of these bands, it’s like: “Who?” They’re so obscure.
David: And then you see bands that are so confusing, like Drunk Injuns. I could never get my head around Drunk Injuns because they didn’t fit anywhere. They wear the masks, so they’re kind of a rough rehearsal for bands like GWAR. The singer had that gnarly voice and they were on all these skate compilations even though I never really associated them with skateboarding. They weren’t like JFA. These guys were like weird San Francisco performance rock. They were more like The Mentors to me than anything else: kind of politically incorrect, kind of raunchy, in your face rock’n’roll. I never knew what to make out of them.
Daniel: Yeah, and Alternative Tentacles reissued a CD that was part of their Skate Punk series. [Laughs]
David: And this shot with G.B.H, somebody’s coming off the balcony. That was happening at venues that had a second-floor balcony. People could get injured, suing the bands and suing the venues and stuff like that. By the time I got into punk rock, it calmed down—not considerably—but I don’t think they were going to jump off a balcony. In ’80, ’81, ’82 there seemed to be this death thrill, anything goes, and taking it to the max. It was X sports before X sports. [Laughs] Dropping down a mountain. At these shows, that’s a neck injury.
David: We forget about the danger that was inherent in the shows. We see on the left how the guy is maybe leaping off a PA stack or the stage.
Look to the right. I’m not even sure what’s going on there. It looks like some ritual, rites of passage. There’s a mystique to this photo because it lacks context. The crowd, it looks like they’re waiting, watching, and I’m not sure what the hell’s going on.
Daniel: My only guess would be that he was doing the worm, but he’s upside down.
David: [Laughs] You know what I like about this book is that I realized that I could not take all of these shots, but I could take some of these shots. I didn’t think I was good enough to take that Septic Death shot, but I thought I could take that Wipers shot. This lowered the bar for participation for me because you didn’t have to take the perfect photo every time. Just documenting a band was important.
David: Like these shots with Scream, where Pete is just sitting on a stage. It’s not an interesting shot but it’s interesting because Bowles felt low-key enough that he could actually do that. Not every shot has to be perfect like it’s going to be on the front cover of the album. It just felt like I could do some of this. That was really important to me and made me want to take my camera to shows. I realized that I don’t have to have a perfect product. All I have to do is attempt to document a band and that may be enough.
Yeah, that Scream shot to the left, that’s not the most interesting shot, right? But when you start panning right, well that’s Skeeter there. There were not that many Black people in punk, in hardcore, so that’s an awesome photo. And then you go further right and that’s a great guitar shot. You go from mediocre or low-key to higher levels of intensity.
By the way, I didn’t grow up with many African Americans, so it was photobooks like this that proved to me that punk rock was multi-cultural and that it was inclusive. I’ve gone on to meet Skeeter and hung out with him. Scream did a show in Tulsa and I interviewed members of the band at the Woody Guthrie Center with some other people from Fire Party and Soulside. But I didn’t know many black people and there were only three Hispanics in my high school out of three-hundred. It was through the music, Escovedo, Rank And File that I began to connect with people outside my ethnicity and race.
Daniel: I think you narrate a really important feature of this photozine and other photos from that time. Of course, punk was still very male and white, as you mentioned earlier about the Youth Of Today image. However, many of the photos emerged from urban scenes and cities are multicultural. As you say, then people in more homogenous towns can learn about punk’s diversity through the photos, which is really important.
David: Let’s look at the Frightwig photo because there are so few women in the book. I have interviewed them twice. Frightwig are this interesting post-hardcore band: noisy, psychedelic, and kind of weird. I like that she doesn’t look like any woman that I would have seen on MTV, doesn’t look like a cheerleader, bleach blonde, or like someone we’d see on Miami Vice. This is a very different view of women that allowed me to reconsider what girls could be like.
I had a sister, so I knew better; she’d wear her sweatshirts inside out and wear a Bowie pin with raggedy jeans and things like that. But most of the girls around me went to the mall and had pastel colored clothing; they had really long, perfect hair. But when I saw bands like this, I began to associate this as the new norm. This is the normalization of what it means to be a woman on your own terms, in your own way; they don’t have to congeal with or cohere to that “pretty girl” concept. I am thankful that I got exposed to Siouxsie Sioux or smaller bands like Frightwig because it gave me a more realistic view of women containing multitudes.
Daniel: A more complicated view, for sure. Also, an active quest to construct a public self instead of following the trends that you mentioned earlier: by copying a look on MTV or buying the clothes that are featured in the windows of chain clothing stores in the mall.
David: Frightwig presents themselves as subjects of their own narrative instead of objects of somebody else’s delight. That transition was very powerful for me to witness. I needed to witness that.
Daniel: I’m also thinking about your comment earlier about the Youth Of Today image. This photo also serves as a reminder to punks about punk. Hardcore had become the dominant subgenre within punk, but there were other styles of music that were being made and this image helps show that sonic spectrum.
David: I love Youth Of Today. I went vegetarian because of Ray, but that photo looks like a football huddle. “All together now, let’s do this! Are you ready, man, we’re gonna make this shit happen!” You don’t get that from the Frightwig photo. That Youth Of Today photo also looks like Minor Threat or Faith. Again, I get it and I was into it, but now I can see if I was a woman at that gig I might say, “Maybe, this is not for me. Maybe I want to go to the roots punk gig or the noise punk gig. Or maybe I want to try something like rockabilly because this doesn’t reflect me, doesn’t involve me, doesn’t welcome me, doesn’t signal me.” Of course, there were other women who jumped right in. My ex-wife loved Agnostic Front; she loved this kind of thing. A lot of women didn’t, and I didn’t appreciate that at the time. At the time, I was in the middle of it; you’re emic, you’re in it. I think it took me a while, through flipping through books like this, that maybe it is off-putting and can be exclusive.
David: Al Larson from SUNY wrote a paper about logos (“Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” in Punk & Post-Punk). You’ve got Hüsker Dü, Dicks, The Offenders, and Necros. It’s the omnipresence of the easily replicated logo. It’s gonna be your pin, your patch, on your record cover. There’s Gary with his communist D, which he still uses. Hüsker Dü with the spray paint style.
David: And DRI with their skanker. I love that this establishes two different types of visual iconography. One is the live show, what it’s like to be a singer or guitarist. But also, the product, which is the easily replicated logo that is going to spread more so than the photo. To me, it predicts meme culture, which is something that is borderless, mass replicated—and in the generation we’re in now—inverted, plagiarized, morphed, and hijacked because of the way they screw with things.
Daniel: David, I have really enjoyed this conversation. You share a lot of great insights about the ways that this photozine helped people develop a visual awareness of the bands. And I really appreciate your desire to zoom out a bit to consider what each photo might teach us about the opportunities that featured in punk culture at that time, but also the limitations.
David: Edward Colver caught the police convene on a Black Flag show and he was also shooting the old neon in L.A. Edward Colver’s live shots remind me of Murray’s but Edward Colver was also doing these other things, so I often wondered was Murray doing other things? You know, after show shots, community shots that we don’t see in this book. The book becomes this super distillation, which is great, but as a folklorist I’m wondering about the context. What was the club like? What was the marquee saying? Was there a line outside? Were there police?
I didn’t care about that when I was sixteen, but now when I look back, I wonder why they didn’t include some of this in there. One other thing that I realized much later when I was taking photos at shows, people would always yell at me: “Dude, put down your camera and be in the moment!” I’m having to shoot over people’s heads, around people, whatever, to get something interesting. Now I feel like I was more in the moment with the camera. Again, I’m having to think about the song, where the song is going, when I can take a shot because of the movements on the stage. I’m paying attention to the crowd. Now I do a lot of crowd shots; it’s all about the performance of the crowd. That’s what punk rock is, or half of it. You don’t want to get hit in the back by somebody so you’re always cognizant. With the camera, you can become more granular with the experience instead of less granular.