7 May 2018

Documenting LA’s Hardcore Punk Scene

In the late seventies/early eighties, renowned music photographer Edward Colver went to an average of five gigs a week. In that time, he documented LA’s visceral punk rock scene, contributing to some of it’s most recognisable visuals having worked on over 500 album covers including (his first cover) the Circle Jerks’ Group Sex and Black Flag’s controversial Damaged cover. This month, Rough Trade NYC and the Sonos store present Colver’s second solo exhibition after hosting his debut last September. Featuring works from his early gigging days and his later works, including photographs of Andy Warhol, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nick Cave, the exhibition throws a light on one of punk’s most defining lensers.

how did you get into photographing punk rock bands?
It happened by accident really. I saw something in the news about a show and I went and checked it out the scene around 1978. It was something that immediately struck a chord with me. The socio-political aspect spoke to me. I was a little art monster – that’s all I ever cared about when I was in grade school, high school, up to junior college. Art was what I studied and cared about. These shows seemed interesting to me.

how did you find out about bands playing at the time?
Word of mouth initially. Then I started meeting people and collecting flyers. I have always been a music nut and liked underground music, I liked hard psychedelic stuff when I was a teenager and then I liked punk stuff, the hardcore stuff that happened in LA. For me, everything else just failed. This is punk rock folks right here, that’s what I thought. It was such a creative time and there was so much energy, all kinds of bands popped up, not just in the punk scene.

which gigs stood out the most for you?
The ones that stood out? There was quite a few of those. Like the Dead Kennedys at the Whiskey in the late seventies. The Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat and MDC at The Barn was quite a memorable show, quite non-stop!

Black Flag 'Damaged' cover shoot (1981) by Edward Colver

did you always shoot from a certain angle?
I’d want to be able to get the drummer in the photograph. That was always really important to me. What’s the point of having a photograph with three band members if there’s actually four. That’s not the band.

how did these photos find their way to fanzines?
I’d give these photos to my friends at fanzines in the Midwest, they knew my work and would hit me up. It was good for the scene and good for me to get them published and get my work out there. It was a great thing for me to see them published. With social media, now that has become a very different thing. Everybody now knows about it instantaneously, it’s not hidden or secret. That kind of stuff is gone. The underground aspect is gone. Back then you had to know about it and be there. It was cool to be part of that. Now there’s almost an app for everything: make your own zine. Everything is much more formatted now.

around 1984 you stopped shooting, did that mark the end of punk rock for you?
The scene changed and I also changed around the same time. Thrash bands started up and I had absolutely no interest in that music. Like, a lot of the early punk bands could not really play but at least they had something else. Thrash bands were just loud. I also got a photography studio looking out on downtown LA and I started shooting studio photography and started working for record labels that were actually paying me. By 1983 I had already worked on 80 punk rock record covers. I never advertised, never asked for work. My phone number was unpublished. The first album cover I did was Circle Jerks’ Group Sex and it kind of worked from there and never stopped.

can you tell me a little bit more about the Black Flag cover shoot you shot with Henry Rollins?
They missed out on the cover really. There was one amazing image where the mirror reflected the blood in Rollins eyes. That’s the one we should have chosen. It was not my concept, but we made it work. I put it up, smashed the mirror, made the fake blood. They were, “Like let him smash the mirror and shoot that.” But I knew that there wouldn’t be blood immediately, so I had to make it happen and I figured out how to do that.

talk me through your selection of work at both locations: Rough Trade and Sonos?
I wanted to show my punk work at Rough Trade and that’s what most people know me for. Then at Sonos I wanted to show the work I did after the punk days. People don’t even know that I shot a lot of these people, like Ice Cube, for example, and there are photos of Warhol (taken at a gallery opening), and an early portrait of Nick Cave (1985). The stage dive image is on show at both locations and Sonos have a big wall with the Henri Rollins Damaged image.

how has music photography changed from when you began?
Nowadays people are dying to do live photography. If you watch the Black Flag reunion 1983 video at the Olympic Auditorium, you can see me and there was no-one else taking photos. That would be a different story right now. It’s surreal when you look at it now. I was the only one. I watched all these gigs through my keyhole, through my lens and I would lose my periphery and I would sometimes look up to get the scope of what was going on. But it’s weird as I saw all this chaos through a keyhole. I was watching and waiting and I had the shutter halfway down most of the time. I was ready to go. Now you can shoot ten thousands photos with a digital camera but for me it was about the moment. 

Henry Rollins of Black Flag (1982-3) by Edward Colver