Faith at the 9:30 Club, photo by Jim Saah

The Tones of Punk’s Energy: Jim Saah’s Zone V by Daniel Makagon

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Jim Saah created one of the first photozines with Zone V in 1982. He was interested in documenting the bourgeoning hardcore scene in Washington, D.C. through his photography and zines and then sharing information about this scene with punks around the globe. Jim used the skills he developed as a teenager to expand into other forms of documentary production and print publication. His photos both provide an important historical record of punk in the USA and help chart changes in alternative forms of music since those early days in D.C. I was excited to talk with Jim about Zone V specifically but also to learn about other ways he seeks to share his documentary work.

Jim Saah self-portrait

Daniel: Let’s start with some nuts and bolts information about your fanzine. What year did you do the zine, how many issues did you release, and what was the inspiration for the name?

Jim: Zone V is analogous to the zoning system of photography. All of your shades of gray. There were two issues. One might have been late ’82 and then one was ’83.

Daniel: One has Ian MacKaye on the cover, kneeling down.

Jim: Yeah, that’s the first one. That was probably late ’82.

Daniel: I found a re-seller who is selling the first issue for one hundred dollars.

Jim: I was gonna ask you what it was going for, but…

Daniel: I don’t know how long it’s been up. Sometimes you see crazy prices but that’s what people want, not what they’re going to get. You listed the zine as a photozine but there is other content.

Zone V, vol. 1 by Jim Saah

Jim: It was a majority photos and there were two interviews in that first issue, plus some scene reports from New York and then some other places.

Daniel: And Thurston Moore was involved?

Jim: He wrote the New York scene report.

Daniel: How’d you meet him?

Jim: Just going to shows. He really liked D.C. punk rock and he’d always come to D.C. to see bands. He loved the Faith a lot. He’s just always been a friend with all the D.C. punks, so he was always around.

Daniel: Was Sonic Youth going yet?

Jim: They were barely going. They had… but then shortly thereafter they’d come to town twice a year and we’d always go and hang out.

Daniel: When they sign to SST, things change in terms of people’s awareness of them.

Jim: Yeah.

Daniel: Given the years that you’re describing, had you seen My Rules, which came out in 1982?

Jim: I had seen it. He (Glen E. Friedman) accused me of stealing the word “photozine.”

Daniel: That’s funny. There are U.K.-based punk photozines that used the term dating back to the late 1970s. Had you seen other photozines besides My Rules when you made your first issue?

Jim: No, there weren’t many fanzines dedicated to photography, so that sort of gave me the inspiration.

Daniel: Why did you only do two issues?

Jim: The scene sort of changed. Minor Threat broke up in ’83 and some other bands I really liked broke up. Some bands became bigger or changed. I was still really into music. Later on I started another magazine, maybe a few years later, and I did thirteen issues. It was called Uno Mas. It wasn’t a photozine; it was a culture magazine that had interviews with writers and bands, poetry, fiction, and I’d usually have a photo essay in it that was mine or made by someone else. So, I did that one for a longer time, but the punk rock hardcore photozine just ran its course.

Daniel: Photozines don’t seem to have a temporal run akin to text-based zines. But photozines seem to garner a bit of buzz among punks.

Jim: Yeah, and people keep the zines, too. Maybe more so than others. I also subscribed to some other indie photo magazines that weren’t about music. There was one called Snap; they would run other people’s work and there’d be article about photo stuff. The magazine was really indie; it really looked homemade, but it was printed pretty well. I enjoyed that a lot.

Daniel: The general spirit mirrored a fanzine, but it just wasn’t attached to the punk world?

Jim: Exactly; it very much felt like a fanzine.

Daniel: What was the print run for Zone V?

Jim: It couldn’t have been more than 1,500.

Daniel: How were you distributing the zines and how did people find out about it?

Jim: Well, Tower Records sold so many magazines that they had their own magazine distributor and I got in with them. However, I basically did a lot of it by going into a place. There used to be a place in New York called See Hear. He always bought some from me. I can’t remember if he did it on consignment, but I’m pretty sure he’d just buy some. There were several record stores around me in D.C. where I would go sell them. If I happened to be going to Chicago or somewhere then I’d take them to the local record stores. I also had distribution through Dutch East India; they were an indie and distributed to indie record stores around the country. They would never pay you. [Laughs]

Zone V, vol. 2 by Jim Saah

Daniel: Did you get a sense of the response?

Jim: I did get letters and kept some of them. And locally there was a good response to it. I felt like people were getting it and liking it. I don’t remember a whole bunch of letters, but…

Daniel: Well, you figure the percentage of readers who will respond is small. But I guess the question is mostly inspired by trying to understand how people responded to something that was different: a photozine.

Jim: Yeah, I think that there was a response because people like photos. I got more of a response than my friends did who were doing regular punk fanzines: articles with bands and stuff.

Daniel: In terms of the photos themselves and photobooks more generally, there’s a lot of attention given to the types of paper used and the layout of the images in relation to text. A standard fanzine doesn’t reproduce the images in the same way. Were you thinking about aesthetic issues of the zine in general—beyond the fact that you were making a photozine?

Of course, there were no computers at that time. The design was very rudimentary. It was basically picture puzzled in on the pages. And when there were interviews, it was just two columns of type. I’d just wax it all down.

Jim: Yeah, I worked on the high school newspaper and I knew layout with waxing stuff and putting it down. I just did it that way. Of course, there were no computers at that time. The design was very rudimentary. It was basically picture puzzled in on the pages. And when there were interviews, it was just two columns of type. I’d just wax it all down.

Daniel: How old were you when you did these issues?

Jim: I was doing it while I was in high school; I graduated in ’83.

Daniel: That’s another interesting dimension: a small print-run fanzine is not a business but obviously a kid in high school doesn’t have a lot of money in general and then to use what little money you did have to make a zine.

My sister was a repair person for photocopy company and she had to run a lot of copies to test machines, so she’d run off all the pages and then I’d have collation parties.

Jim: I had summer jobs and stuff. My later fanzines—my sister was a repair person for photocopy company and she had to run a lot of copies to test machines, so she’d run off all the pages and then I’d have collation parties. I’d staple them and put a piece of black fabric/tape on the end to make it look more finished instead of just having three staples in it. But Zone V I had offset printed. There was a little printer near me that printed a local community newspaper. And they took on jobs. It was poorly printed for offset. The photos were pretty washed out. But the price must have been right or something.

Daniel: Another thing that interests me is the marketplace, for lack of a better term, for punk photography. A lot of early documentary photography appeared in books because photographers were shut out of museum and gallery spaces. Punks were shut out of those spaces as well, and punk photography was not chased down by publishing houses. Had you tried to share your punk photos through other outlets at that time or was the zine the only option?

You start going to shows and then you see people making music and making records themselves. I was taking photographs and thought that I’d like people to see these photographs.

Jim: It was just the whole DIY thing. You start going to shows and then you see people making music and making records themselves. I was taking photographs and thought that I’d like people to see these photographs. The big rock magazines at the time weren’t interested in punk rock. Punk in New York was a bigger zine, but they were gone by then; that was more like late ’70s. So, I decided to do it myself. There weren’t any other avenues and I just wanted to get the photos out.

Daniel: Did you mostly shoot live shows or did you also shoot documentary photos of punks hanging out/portraits of bands?

Jim: All of the above, but the main focus was live music. I kind of regret not shooting more photos that would document the scene, people hanging out outside and stuff. I’ve thought about this a lot but sometimes I will see a shot that I took like that—people hanging out the 9:30 Club—and I’ll be like, “Fuck, this is so awesome; why didn’t I do more of that?” The only thing that I can think of is that film was expensive, and I just wanted to save it for the show.

Daniel: I assume also that you were just hanging out between the sets, gabbing with your friends, so it’s easy to forget to photograph.

Jim: Yeah, exactly. But I could have been snapping shots of my friends and other people and I think I’d really love those now. Most of my rolls are the whole live show and then at the middle or at the end there might be one or two shots of people hanging out or a friend of mine or something. Or a cat, if I saw a cat walk by. But I shot Rock Against Reagan and with that I did shoot a lot more than just the live stuff, because there was just a lot going on. I have these great photos of cops, all these cops and this hippie that has this hat. I love those photos.

Daniel: I assume that felt more like an event, something was happening versus seeing a show once or twice each week.

Jim: Yeah.

Daniel: Where did you stand when you shot the stuff that became part of the two issues of Zone V?

Jim: I usually picked a spot, like right off the side of the stage or on the stage or on the steps leading up to the stage. And then I’d usually stay there just because the slam dancing was so crazy. I tried to get to an angle where I could see the band and the audience, get them slamming and diving and stuff. I think I only had one lens at the time, which was probably a 50mm, so I couldn’t zoom in. If I wanted to get closer, I had to get closer.

Daniel: This is probably a tough question, but when thinking back versus talking about your photography now, did you have a distinct style or a style you were trying to achieve?

I just knew what I liked: the expressions, the intensity, and the sweat. And I was trying to capture that stuff.

Jim: I was taking photography in high school, which is why I had a camera. I was borrowing the school’s camera. But I’d say that there was a natural progression. I didn’t go in with designs: “I want to try to achieve this.” I just knew what I liked: the expressions, the intensity, and the sweat. And I was trying to capture that stuff. It’s funny though, because for some reason so many of those photos are—I’ve been looking at them a lot lately because I’m doing a book—and a lot of them were vertical, which now I think is very odd that I did it that way. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the singer was vertical, and he was singing.

I still shoot bands. I’ve never stopped shooting bands in the last thirty years and I rarely ever turn the camera sideways. Sometimes the guitar, the face and the guitar. But now it’s different because the lighting… Back then the lighting at punk shows, because they weren’t even at clubs, so there were no lights. So, when you take a vertical shot with flash, it sends this big shadow behind the person. Sometimes that shadow worked out to make it look cool, but I was surprised by… it was a little inexplicable, given how I shoot now, that I shot so much vertical.

Daniel: As you said, you’re looking at these images for this book you’re working on, and you can reconsider the past, but, thinking back, did you change your style because you became aware that you shouldn’t do this, shoot vertically?

Jim: It was just natural. I never even thought about it until I went back. I scanned all my stuff in maybe ten years ago and then I rediscovered a lot of it because I made a contact sheet and I’d circle a couple, think, “These are good so I’ll print those,” but then I put it away. But when I scanned them all and saw every frame on my computer, I had a ton more stuff that I didn’t realize that I had. A lot of it was vertical. I mean, it’s still good vertical but I can’t tell you what I was thinking at the time.

Daniel: At the time you put out these zines, hardcore was still relatively new and there was this sense that different scenes were unique: what was happening in D.C. might be a little different than what was happening in Boston, which was different than Chicago or L.A. Whereas now with YouTube it’s pretty easy to see how everyone’s dancing, how everyone’s dressing. Bandcamp allows us to hear bands from all over the world the day a record is finished. Were you looking at photos from other scenes? And did you get the sense that your zine helped document the D.C. scene for punks who lived in other cities?

Jim: Yeah, I think so. Everything was really regional. You always knew where a band was from. You’d be like: “This new band from Austin are really good.” Now, I’ll hear a band on Spotify and I have no idea where they’re from. I could go looking for it, Google them and stuff if I was that interested, but I don’t really care as much as we did then because everything was so regional. You know, Boston had a sound and it was more violent. People said D.C. was violent, but it was more so, early on, people picking on punks, like jocks and stuff. But punks weren’t starting fights like in Boston. And in New York the music was different. So, yeah, it was very regional, and I think we all did that. I looked at photos from different places and noticed how they looked different, how people dressed and danced.

Daniel: What were the main resources for you to see photos from those other scenes?

Jim: Other fanzines. Maximum Rocknroll was out of San Francisco but they covered the whole country. And Flipside was the other big one. There were a few others, including Touch and Go. I always looked at those. And then sometimes kids would send me their punk rock zines, which was cool. I got one from Italy that was on really heavy paper that was cool.

Daniel: They found you through your zine?

Jim: Yeah, they just sent it to me.

Daniel: Can you talk a little bit about the timeframe for the book you’re working on now?

Jim: I wanted it to be a retrospective, but it was too much. And then there is a black and white/color thing. It’s gonna be the punk rock years, like ’82 to ’95 or something like that. It will all be black and white and punk, hardcore punk, and alternative rock—whatever it started being called in the ’90s. But it’s pretty eclectic: everyone from the early D.C. hardcore bands, there’s some New York bands—even bands like the Talking Heads were big by then since it was later—and the Beastie Boys. The book has been delayed because of COVID, but the new date is April 2021. It’s going great: two hundred pages, hard cover, chock full of photos.

Daniel: Do you have a publisher lined up already?

Jim: Yeah. I always thought about doing a book but then I got busy, had kids, had a job. Then I thought I’d self-publish but then I didn’t want to hire designers and stuff like that. Then this Argentine guy—who is actually from this area in Maryland—he lives in Argentina now and wanted to bring Salad Days over, since he grew up with the music. There was a film festival so we brought it over and an associate of his said, “Maybe we should do a little fanzine and we could sell it.” He’s a publisher. It was a little chapbook kind of book and I just really liked this kid; I call him a kid, but he must be in his late twenties. But he reminds me of me when I was young; he’s a real go-getter and just loves the music. He’s got a wealth of knowledge about music: we talked about Pere Ubu and New York no wave. He suggested we do a book, and I thought: “I like this guy, things are cheaper to print in Argentina” and he already has a publishing company so he could get an ISBN and do all that shit, so I decided to do it with him.

Daniel: That’s cool. It sounds like the production of the zine fit in with some of the moves that happen in different parts of the world. For example, in Japan the people running labels also bring bands over and those labels will do small print runs of CDs to accompany a tour. The zine in Argentina mirrored that move. But back to the book, that’s great. Really, it’s about working with people who share a similar vision.

Jim: Yeah, it really is. This kid is just so full of energy and up for what he’s doing that he just inspired me.