Part of the Seeing the Scene series
Mark Murrmann discovered punk as a young kid. The implicit and explicit “you make this culture” messages that are central to punk’s DIY ethos inspired him in many ways. But one of Mark’s recurring contributions to punk culture and community has come via photography. He was an early adopter of photozines and a forerunner when it comes to street photography zines. He took the lead on Maximum Rocknroll’s February 2010 photo issue, which helped punks around the globe learn about the people making the photographs featured in that zine and others. Mark blends a rich history of making photographs for DIY projects and studying how documentary photography works in different media to reach multiple audiences and to impact readers in various ways. I’m sure this will be the first of many times he features in this Seeing the Scene series.
Daniel: Let’s start by talking about how you discovered punk.
Mark: Getting into punk was kind of like a lot of people—a weird path. In fourth grade, which was 1984 or so, I used to go to this shop by my mom’s called Car Fax that this punk guy ran. I didn’t know what punk was. I was into Van Halen and they sold bandanas and studded bracelets. So I’d go to Car Fax, hang out and whatever, ignore the guy. Fast forward four years later and I’m in eighth grade and I’m working the polls on election day so I can get out of school. The guy who ran Car Fax walks up: “Mark Murmann. Here’s some tickets to this concert I’m putting on.” And it turned out to be tickets to a GWAR show. I had no idea about punk shows or any of it. And I didn’t know if it was pronounced GWAR or “G-War.”
So I went with a friend. We didn’t get to see GWAR, but the opening bands were enough. “Oh my god, this world exists.” It was just like an awakening. That was really how I got into punk. You know, slowly realizing there was a bigger network. At the time I skateboarded a lot and there was a lot of overlap with skateboarding. I started doing a zine around 1991 or ’92, so that kind of opened more doors: bands and realizing that I could travel to Kentucky or Tennessee to see shows when bands weren’t coming to Indiana, which is where I grew up. This is all Indianapolis. And then punk got me into photography. Later, bands were playing in my basement when I went to college in Bloomington, so I started taking pictures and it was all downhill from there.
Daniel: When you say, punk got you into photography, does that mean you were seeing photographs in zines and thinkin,: “I’d like to do this too”?
Mark: Yeah, basically. And I would see people at shows taking pictures. They can get close and that looks like fun. And then I would get zines and see pictures: cool photos in Maximum Rocknroll. Tidbit always ran great photos. Since I was having bands play my basement and I was interested in photography, I was like, “Well, I’ll take pictures. Try my hand at it.” I didn’t know what I was doing. Trial and error.
Daniel: At what point did you discover photozines? And given this trajectory you described, did you first discover punk photozines before finding out about other types of photozines?
Mark: Sort of. I might have heard of photozines: the Murray Bowles zine, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries. I never saw it until years later. And the Glenn E. Friedman photozine (My Rules). I had heard about them. I probably just saw them through zines, like zines that I was trading with people and people would do an all photo issue. With my zine, I wound up doing that, too. It wasn’t even necessarily just music; it was whatever I was taking pictures of. It was called Sty Zine and I started doing a photozine out of that called ACTION! I was taking pictures for the zine and decided I want to do this other thing.
Daniel: What year did you start that zine?
Mark: It started around ’95 or ’96 in Bloomington.
Daniel: What types of punk photos resonated with you most?
The photos at the time that resonated with me and I wanted to make were the ones where you felt like you were pressed up against the stage and you could feel it. You could feel the sweat and the energy.
Mark: The photos at the time, and there’s been an interesting shift, that resonated with me and I wanted to make were the ones where you felt like you were pressed up against the stage and you could feel it. You could feel the sweat and the energy. They tended to be direct flash and really captured stuff. Charles Peterson did a great job with that approach, Edward Colver. Now, the photos I wish I had taken and that I respond to more are the behind the scenes photos: the audiences, capturing the atmosphere. Looking at my contact sheets, I hardly have any of those. I really wish I had a lot more.
Daniel: I interviewed Chris Boarts Larson for a round-table piece about photographing punk. Chris talked about not wanting cars in the background or advertisements, so the photos would seem more timeless, but then she changed her mind over time. Photos can serve as documentary evidence about what was happening in a particular time and in specific places.
Mark: It’s interesting that it took me so long to realize that because I got really into documentary photography and I wanted to do a documentary project about bands on tour, playing basements and garages. But when I was on tour, I was taking so many pictures of the live shows and not just people hanging out. And looking at those now, those photos could’ve been taken anywhere: Florida or Washington; it’s not a documentation.
Daniel: Yeah, all basements more or less look the same, shitty houses look the same. In another published interview, you talked about graduate school and your first long-form projects?
Mark: I did an MJ—Masters of Journalism. I went through the photo program of UC Berkeley’s graduate school of Journalism.
Daniel: Obviously while you were there, you were getting immersed in documentary and street photography. But prior to that, were you aware of street photography zines?
Mark: No, street photography, like with a lot of people, just kind of happened. I didn’t know there was a thing called street photography. I was living in Washington, D.C. interning for the Washington City Paper and had my camera with me on my way to and from work, and I just started taking pictures. And looking at my contact sheet, there was one picture of a guy looking in the window. I thought, “Oh my god, he doesn’t notice that I’m taking his picture and this photo is interesting. I’m going to try to do more of that.” And then I realized that it was happening. So I wasn’t super aware of street photography per se until I went to grad school more or less, early 2000s.
Daniel: What, for you, are the boundaries for street photography versus documentary photography more generally?
Mark: I definitely think that they blur a lot; they overlap a ton. It’s something I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about. I don’t have a hard and fast definition. But for my own work, if I’m calling something street photography, it’s something made out in a public space. There are certain photos I have that were included in street photography books but were taken in hotel rooms or in my house or at parties. I don’t consider those street photography. To that end, I think you could take something in a BART station and that would be street; it’s not like there needs to be a street and sidewalk. Basically in a public space is my definition.
Daniel: And then for documentary: documenting people as they do the things they do public or private—the party, for example?
Daniel: As you were learning about photography more generally, were there certain books and magazines that stood out to you? And which photographers inspired you at that time?
Mark: Yeah, the books were huge. When you’re getting into a photographer, it’s like, “Oh my god, I can gorge myself on this person’s work.” Robert Frank was obviously an early one, but I have to say that I bought a copy of The Americans because you’re supposed to, but it took a really long time for it to click. It’s kind of like when I bought Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed when I was seventeen, or an MC5 record, and I was like, “This is hippie bullshit.” And now I go to it once a week, you know. So, it was kind of like that. But the one who really kicked my ass was Garry Winogrand. When I saw his work, there was a real looseness to it, but also this intensity. When his 1964 book of color work came out, that really jazzed me, even though I’m mostly a black and white photographer myself. It still—knowing his work in black and white and also listening to interviews with him and his philosophy about photography—really resonated.
Daniel: Did his work influence your approach and how you shoot, or you just dig the style?
Mark: It has had an impact on how I see and shoot, but I think it clicked because it was how I was already starting to shoot. So I could see my own work. Like, “Oh, this is a better version. This is what I want to be doing.”
Daniel: Let’s talk a bit about making zines versus publishing a book. Why are you focused on zines?
Mark: Basically, zines are what I know when it comes to putting things out there; it’s second nature. But the recent series of zines that I’ve been working on, which is the City Slang zines—I initially realized that I was sitting on 3,000 scanned images of street photography. I gotta do something with this. I started editing into a book: eighty-eight pictures, got a sequence together, printed a blurb dummy. And then it felt kind of like a period on the project, the end.
But I was still shooting it; I was still out there shooting every day. And also, there are a lot of books out there. I don’t have anything to say and recognized that it was pure vanity. The other side of that is that I feel like—and getting back to your question about the difference between street photography and documentary—I felt like a lot of my work was this flow. I have pieces of a puzzle that can be put together in a lot of different ways—when I’m at a party or when I’m taking pictures of someone throwing up on the street randomly, those pictures can go together.
There’s a photographer, Morten Andersen, from Norway, who was influenced by Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama. The idea is that a book or a zine can be an object to itself rather than a great picture, which is a more Western idea: this picture and this picture and these great pictures all go together to make a book rather than this flow of images and how they go together. Playing with that editing.
I eschewed the book in favor of the zines because that’s what I knew and it’s not precious. I can make one hundred of them and if people hate it, fine, move on. If I hate it, fine, move on. I can play around with it more.
That’s why I was like, “Fuck the book. It’s expensive. Who cares? I’m going to do these as a series of zines to see how these pictures work together.” I’ve done eleven of them now—they’re all named after songs and the edits are all based around a loose idea. The first one was called Rat Crawl and were all loose candid portraits of people in downtown San Francisco. The latest one is Human Car and it’s loose, graffiti and the shittiness of the city, which I’m drawn to. So, I eschewed the book in favor of the zines because that’s what I knew and it’s not precious. I can make one hundred of them and if people hate it, fine, move on. If I hate it, fine, move on. I can play around with it more.
Daniel: From an artistic standpoint, you have freedom from zine to zine?
Mark: Exactly. There are images that appear in multiple zines because those images fit with that sequence and that idea multiple times.
Daniel: I guess the other thing is that there are less zines produced. I’m sure there are more zines produced now than in the past, although probably not more than in the ’90s when there was a zine boom. But it seems like there are more zines now than at any point in the past. Would you agree with that?
Mark: Absolutely. I think it’s partially a product of more people having cameras. It’s just easier to do it.
Daniel: And I guess the other thing about a book—and you’re both an artist and an audience member when it comes to photography—is that a book is a lot more commitment for the person who purchases it, whereas a zine really only requires someone to immerse themselves in twenty or thirty pages.
Mark: There are a couple factors. One is the cost. Books cost a lot of money and I even get a lot of books sent to me at work. I feel an obligation to spend more time with a photo book. But my shelves are full of books that I’ve flipped through, maybe. Whereas a zine, I will always look through it at least once and I only paid $5 or $10, $15, whatever and I’ve gotten my money out of it. The other really big factor for me is size. I have a lot of photobooks that I would love to read. I really want to read the text, but the book is fucking difficult. I can’t carry it anywhere and it’s uncomfortable to even put it on my lap. So that was part of my decision also.
These zines that I make, I can put them in my back pocket or in my jean jacket pocket. And I can have them to hand out. The size is great. It’s digestible.
These zines that I make, I can put them in my back pocket or in my jean jacket pocket. And I can have them to hand out. The size is great. It’s digestible. With books, one thing I’ve discovered when publicists reach out to me to see if I want to review a book, lately they’ve been sending me PDFs. And it’s like, “Oh my god, I can actually read the text.” There are a lot of books, especially Robert Frank’s The Americans, that I wished I saved the PDF because that book is huge, and I really want to read it.
Daniel: You’re using Instagram already and if you made digital zines, you could get the zines to way more people, so why are you doing print zines given these alternatives?
I like how images work in relation to each other in a zine format. It’s not about any one particular image.
Mark: The tactility and it’s literally how images relate to each other when you turn the page. The reveal. Which is different than a digital experience. And being able to jump around. Look at it from the back or as a reader you can drop in at any point in the sequence and go either way. You can kind of do that digitally, but with Instagram… I actually took the last week off from Instagram partially to reevaluate how I’m digesting images and using that platform for my own work. If something doesn’t get a certain number of likes, then I think, “Maybe this isn’t a good photo.” But it gets back to that thing: I like how images work in relation to each other in a zine format. It’s not about any one particular image.
Daniel: Obviously sequencing will differ from zine to zine, but do you have some broader overarching philosophy that guides how you try to sequence?
Mark: Not really. For the zines in particular, the process is basically putting a bunch of files in a collection in Lightroom that fit around the theme and then usually printing those out (small little printouts), cutting them out, and playing with them. Then I lay it out in InDesign. Once I get the number down, or close enough, I just start putting the images into the layout. Sometimes I run out of pages and I’m like, “That looks good.” If I have images left, that’s fine. I make a dummy and flip through it to see how it reads. I don’t want to say that I don’t put thought into it, but I don’t spend a lot of time struggling with it.
Daniel: Do you print yourself?
Mark: I found one of the cheaper digital copy places in San Francisco. I lay it all out. I can get two pages per 8½” x 11”, I lay it all out, and send them a digital file. They ship it back, I cut it, fold it, and staple it.
Daniel: Most photobooks have larger pages, as we’ve discussed already, but one advantage of that is that the photos can fill a page and the photographer can avoid dealing with the crease. Do you see the size of a zine as a disadvantage because of the crease?
Mark: It doesn’t matter to me. But laying out, it was tough to figure out how to do it within the pagination. But once I figured it out, that was it. I shoot a lot of grainy black and white photos and if it’s a little bit off kilter or the printing isn’t awesome, it fits the work, I think. During printing, the images do get trimmed a little bit, but I’m not precious about it.
Daniel: And when you see other zines, are you thinking about their design and how the choices made by other zinemakers might influence what you do? Or is it that you have your style and you’re rolling with it?
Mark: For this series in particular, I’m locked in. I’m working on a new zine (Flatlands) and it’s totally different work: it’s color, garbage on the street, and graffiti. So I think it needs to be laid out differently. I’ve been looking at books and I’m trying to figure out ways that I can incorporate book ideas into a zine format. The other thing is that I’ve thought about doing something bigger with the City Slang series. What I’d like to do is a big fuckin’ newsprint version of it, where people could take the images out and put them on the wall if they want or wrap a Christmas present in it or whatever.
Daniel: Do you play with your print runs at all or do you go with the same print run?
Mark: I tinker with them a little bit. Basically, I was printing 250 copies. There was one issue that sold out pretty quick and I did another two hundred or so. And I was sitting on a bunch of those for a while. This last one that I did, Human Car, I numbered them all and just did a hundred. The thing is that I list them for sale and I sell them, but I’m a terrible salesperson. If I see somebody that I like, I’m like, “Here, take it.” I’d rather them have the work and enjoy it.
Daniel: I guess the cost of a single zine isn’t going to bankrupt you. Trading zines is obviously a regular feature in the punk photozine world. Does that same type of exchange happen in the street photography zine world?
Mark: Every once in a while. And about the same amount of people. In the ’90s it was different, of course, because there were a lot more. Some people will ask to buy mine and mention that they also have a zine and, “Let’s just fuckin’ trade.” One thing that puts people off a little bit, and it’s particular to the street photography scene, is that a lot of those zines are more expensive: $15, $20 sometimes. I sell mine for $5, $7 shipped. So, they sometimes think that (1) I’m an idiot for selling them so cheap or (2) that it’s not an equal trade, even though mine has more images in it or whatever.
Daniel: I assume you’re interacting with various street photography zinemakers. Are there other similarities or differences compared to punk photozine makers?
Mark: There’s a lot of overlap if you want to do a Venn diagram with street photography, skateboarding, and punk. There are a lot of people who come from the skateboarding world who are into punk and now kind of interested in street photography. Do you know Hamburger Eyes? Once I got involved with Hamburger Eyes early on, that opened up the street photography zine world to me. And I’m in a street photo club here in San Francisco. Those guys are a lot more plugged into the street photozine world than I am.
Daniel: Obviously, with punk photozines the DIY ethos infuses the zinemaking. Do you sense that in street photography zines, as well, beyond zinemakers being aware of cost and all the other things we’ve discussed already?
People ask me all the time where I get my zines printed and I step back and tell them that I actually do all the production myself. And they’re just confused.
Mark: There’s definitely an element of it, but it’s less there. I think you’re getting more people who come from an art school background. Those people have a certain—there’s sort of a DIY aspect. But there are other people who have no idea. People ask me all the time where I get my zines printed and I step back and tell them that I actually do all the production myself. And they’re just confused. They think I send a batch of photos to the place and it spits it out. I don’t know how often you go to art book fairs, but that’s a whole other scene that kind of overlaps with it all. I go to the San Francisco Book Fair every once in a while. It’s overwhelming: there are people with street photos, punk photos, art books, art zines. That’s where I feel like, “What’s the fuckin’ point?” It’s like pissing in the ocean.
Daniel: Do you have a schedule for releases of your zines or do you just release when you’re feeling it?
Mark: It’s pretty much whenever I feel like it. Originally, I wanted to make four a year, but I’ve never done that. I think I’ve gone three a year is the most. It’s just kind of when inspiration hits. I have a list of titles that I work from but some of it’s just revisiting that list, looking at the pictures, and seeing if I can see a batch of pictures that fit the title. And that’s enough inspiration for me. From that point, when I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to do this” to finish is usually just two or three weeks. It usually doesn’t take very long.
Daniel: You have a full-time job. Would you say that’s the main impediment to working at a faster peace or is that just the pace you want to work at?
Mark: Yeah, it’s just that I don’t feel it. Why push it if I don’t feel it? There’s no reason to be putting these out other than to feel the need to get my work out there.
Daniel: You shoot digital or analog?
Mark: You know, the past month or so I’ve been shooting a lot more and I’ve been shooting digital. I got a new digital camera that I really like, so I’m using it. Before that, it took me like four months to finish a roll of film. It just took forever. So, one, it’s just kind of what to shoot. I’ve been going on walks and just taking pictures of shit around the neighborhood, which before always sounded boring and I wasn’t seeing pictures. But I’m seeing pictures now. I’m shooting more and I’ve worked into my workflow… I’m still kind of a reserved shooter from shooting film a lot. I’m not hammering away.
Every week I empty my flash card and make an edit of photos. These are the photos from this batch or this week that are going in Lightroom. Everything else I’ll archive and not fuckin’ worry about. And even from that initial batch, I’ll go through those again and I’ll print rough prints: little 4” x 6”. So it’s kind of like a double editing process. Those rough prints I’ll put on my wall and sit with. I’ll take some of them down, so it’s a constant editing built into the workflow. It’s a similar process to film where I’m scanning my negs, but I’m not scanning every picture. I’m going through and scanning the ones I like and then of those I realize that some aren’t very good, so I exclude them. It’s a similar process. Anything that I’ve scanned, I’ll backup. I’ve spent the time scanning it so I might as well save it.
Daniel: How much time do you spend now photographing stuff that you would consider putting in a punk rock photozine?
Mark: Not very much. Whenever I go to a show, I bring my camera. It’s gotten to a point where it’s hard for me to enjoy a show if I’m not making pictures at the show. But I’m going to a lot less shows. You know you’re older and it’s like, “This band is trying to sound like this other band who I saw and was doing it way better.” So, go to the bar. And going to a show becomes a bit more of a social thing—that’s where I see my friends. That’s how it was in my twenties also, but now I’ll be in the back of the room if I’m not taking pictures. But I just don’t go to as many shows. And the punk scene here is just not what it used to be. There are basically no punk bands in San Francisco itself, because it’s too expensive to live there. There are warehouses here, but a lot of them got shut down after the Ghost Ship fire. That scene still exists, but it’s a lot smaller.
www.markmurrmann.com and @Ickibod