Cynthia Connolly reflects on a life in punk
The lauded photographer and curator talks Dischord Records, the '80s, and revisiting 'Banned In D.C.'
From iconic band photos to artwork she created for Minor Threat's 1983 LP, Out of Step, photographer and curator Cynthia Connolly played a vital role in shaping how the world perceives Washington, D.C.'s original punk and hardcore scene.Originally released in 1988, Connolly's book, Banned In D.C. Photos and Anecdotes From the D.C. Punk Underground '79-'85, chronicles the musical community that formed at the heart of D.C.'s punk scene, while providing first-hand insight into a moment of cultural epiphany. It was flashpoint when a new youth culture defied the status quo by trying to make the world a better place. Now, touring the Southeast, supporting the seventh pressing of Banned in D.C., Connolly stops by Criminal Records Friday, Nov. 17, with a slideshow and Q&A that delves into how her involvement with the punk scene enriched every aspect of her personal and professional lives.
Courtesy Dischord Records
How did the artwork you created for Minor Threat's Out of Step album come about?
I moved from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 1981 because my mom got a job here. I went to the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design now the College of the Arts & Design. My mother, my sister, and I visited D.C. a couple times before we moved. I met Alec MacKaye, his mom, Ginger MacKaye, Amanda MacKaye, and eventually I met Ian MacKaye. We became friends and started writing to each other while I finished high school in L.A. Eventually we ended up going out. I helped Dischord Records in the summer of '81, with the Minor Threat number three 7-inch, doing this and that.
Going back further, I saw a show in L.A. of the Russian avant-garde movement, which instilled something in me about how I wanted to be a part of a community of artists and people thinking outside of the box. I gravitated toward punk music in Los Angeles because the other prominent culture of the time was a surf scene, which was dudes and surfer chicks women hung out on the beach while dudes surfed. That was the culture. I wasn't attracted to that. But the punk scene was political, music oriented, there were different waves of art forms within it.
When I moved to D.C., the scene was small probably 10-20 kids. At first I met like eight of them. Ian MacKaye was one of them. So I was close to the Dischord scene and wanted to contribute to the record label and help with zines while I was in art school from '81-'85.
During that time they put out the first 7-inch, and then they did "In My Eyes." Then they wanted to put out the Flex Your Head 12-inch LP. Dischord was essentially funded by Ian and Jeff Nelson. I actually lent some money so they could put out Flex Your Head. But it was mostly money that Ian had saved he did a newspaper delivery route, lived in a group house, the Dischord house, and everybody saved money so they could put out records or be in a band. Dischord would put out a record and have to sell out all the records to get the money back to put out the next record. When Out of Step came around they had a couple releases under their belt. At that time, there was a trend of illustrations that were gory, brain-coming-out-of-the-skull type of drawings. Pretty much any band putting out anything from 83'-84' a lot of them had this artwork on their covers. Minor Threat didn't want that on their cover. Ian asked me to do a drawing. He said, "What about a black sheep leaping away from some white sheep?" I sat down and did this drawing: The white sheep are based on a photograph from a National Geographic book on New Zealand. I drew them in watercolor-style, elegant, like they're blas̩ adults. The black sheep was done with crayon. He's super rambunctious leaping away from the blah, sophisticated white sheep. The black sheep's eyes are open. In other people's renditions I've seen the eyes aren't open. But the eyes were specifically drawn to be open, which was hard to do with a crayon. The size on the album cover is the size I drew it originally. The eyes are open because this guy is intentionally walking away from norm and expectations of that sheep in society. He's not confused. He knows exactly where he is going he or she.
It's an iconic image.
It's everywhere, and I guess that's a compliment. There is a coffee shop in San Diego that uses that black sheep on their building. I don't have time to call them, but one day I want to ask if they realize they're using someone's art, just for fun, without permission. Some people probably think it's just cool and don't know what it connects to it all. Obviously, there are some people know what it connects to. It gets taken out context.
I was told that people have office parties where you can get real tattoos. In Portland, someone told me they were at one of these office parties and one of the pieces of flash art was the black sheep. Totally out of context.
One would hope that anybody who's putting a tattoo on their skin knows where the image comes from.
The black sheep alone could mean something for them that is completely different.
A lot for artists talk with me about how once you've created something and put it out into the world, you don't have control over what people do with it.
You're right. But sometimes, it pisses me off when people make money off of it. Making money off of it pulls it out of context. I think of the sheep as a sacred symbol, something that means a lot to a lot of people in context. I just wish it could remain with the original meaning. It's what happens in life. Maybe I'll die and that sheep will live on way longer than me. I guess it will because it's a tattoo now on younger bodies than mine.
The dilemma you're talking about encapsulates what happened with punk in general. It is far removed from it's original context now.
It's not an actual movement, it's just a lifestyle. So it's completely different now. I was at Whole Foods recently and saw the cover of a full color, glossy magazine called, Vegan Health and Fitness. One of the Misfits was on the cover. At first I thought it was just somebody posing. I took a photo and saw that it's actually one of the guys from the Misfits. ... The things that I was evolving into as a teenager are all a part of what's now mainstream culture. In 1981, we were thinking the Rolling Stones are so old, it should be over by now. It's still not. I shot photos of the Misfits in 1981, but this is 2017. They still exist and people love it. But the Misfits are now a lifestyle. Veganism, in a lot of ways, became popular through the punk movement. It was me and my friends trying to explain to everybody what vegan means when you go to a restaurant. Now you don't have to explain it. So what is it that 16-year-old kids are trying to explain now? What's their movement?
Gender equality, ethnic and racial identity and sensitivity, awareness that's where I see that battlefront now.
I made a post about this and no one responded, but that's totally what it is, and that's cool. That's what this young generation is trying to create space for in our culture. We tried to create space for what it means to not eat meat, and about consumption. That's what my slideshow talks about. A lot of people say they wish they were around back in the day, but you're here now, you can do something now. The message of the slideshow is "this is what I did, and this is what happened." I got involved in a punk scene, and I got involved in fine art photography. Now I have a job working special projects curator for Arlington County Virginia, because of the punk scene. The reason I do these things is because I followed what I was interested in, and now I have a job that pays me to do what I am interested in. I'm not bragging about it, but this is what happened to me, and this is what you can do.
One thing people don't have a grasp on now is that punk was an exotic thing. It was a folk art thing at the time, you had to dig to find it.
The Banned in D.C. book shows this through the stories it tells. It's fascinating to think there was a radio station that played music from England punk music and different kids throughout D.C. listened to it and found each other. They tracked down the Bad Brains, who lived in a whole other section of Washington D.C. Everybody tracked each other down and combined forces. In the '70s, downtown D.C. was totally in shambles. In Los Angeles, there had been an earthquake in the '70s, and a lot of buildings were being torn down or were vacant. At that point, instead of Reagan being a part of that, he talked about the '50s. There was a reference to the times and the economies in the '50s. Even when I moved to D.C., Ian's mother talked about, "I remember in the '50s when we would get dressed up and go downtown to go shopping," which didn't happen anymore. Downtown was a dump. There were empty buildings; rotting, wet wood; roofs were falling in. There were still some department stores, but there was crime. I almost got beat up on the corner of 13th and G because I had blue hair in 1981. Now, kids now grow up and it's normal to have blue hair. But why have blue hair? It was a challenge to the status quo the black sheep running away from the white sheep. Why do we have to be this way in this shitty city that's in total shambles? Why can't we make a new part of it that's better than this old part, which is a dump? That's what it was about. It was thinking about how do we change society? We wanted to change the way we lived so that society would be a better place.
You're touring with the seventh printing of your book now, so it continues to find relevance.
I thought the sixth would be the last one. It was off-set printed, there were no digital files. They shot photos, spliced them to boards, and had negatives that were burned. They made plates and used the plates to print the book. Now, the negatives are completely corroded, and the printer said we couldn't do it again. So I wasn't going to do anymore. People kept asking, though. I thought, "If I was going to create a book, it was going to be digitally created, which meant I had to do it all over again." A friend of mine, Erik Dunno, said he would do it. We scanned the photos and scanned pages from the book. Then he typeset everything, typed in all the words everything. I proofread it over and over again. It's basically a bootleg of itself, but it looks almost the same. Because so much has changed since the book originally came out, I wanted to put it into context: distribution, moving from L.A. to D.C., and every time the book ran out I wondered how I could do it next time.
I sold most of them to a distributor in England, who put them on a boat so they got there cheaply and were the same price in Europe as they are here. Southern handled the Crass records, which were really cheap I bought them for cheap in Los Angeles so I wanted to do the same thing with the book.
This one is different because I'm doing these talks with a slideshow. It's fun to look through all of that stuff and see the aesthetics of the fliers. Nothing digital about it. There were maps on fliers, but nobody needs those now because we have maps on our phones. A lot has changed, but what has the change really provided us? There's a lot of convenience, but there's a lot of clutter that distracts us all from the point of living.
The slideshow is a lot of fun. I use it to tell a story, but also to provide inspiration, hopefully, for other people to do things. It's to show how they can reflect on their lives and continue to share that with other people so they can be inspired to make the world a better place.