Go to the music section in any bookstore, and you’ll stumble upon a plethora of punk history books.
Then there's Cynthia Connolly’s seminal Banned In DC: Photos And Anecdotes From The DC Punk Underground (79-85). The book, published in 1988, is a fascinating snapshot of Washington D.C.'s vibrant punk scene. Compiled by Connolly, Leslie Clague, and Sharon Cheslow, it's full of stirring concert photography and day-in-the-life vignettes.
Since the publication of the book, Connolly has established herself as a photographer with serious fine arts bona fides that include two National Endowment for the Arts grants. Her work is exhibited in museums across the country, but she hasn’t lost touch with her punk roots. She tours a slideshow based on Banned In DC across the country and sells copies of the book out of her car trunk.
To celebrate the book’s seventh printing, Connolly is on the road again (with a stop at FilmBar on Friday, November 8). We talked with the photographer about the challenges of reprinting the book, D.C.’s connection with AZ punk, and what she thinks about Instagram photography.
Phoenix New Times: I wanted to start off by asking you about how the seventh edition of the book came together. How long did it take you to recreate the book since the negatives were in such poor shape?
Cynthia Connolly: It was the book negatives - the printer’s negatives. In the old days, when you did artwork and photographs and certain types for books, they would make these huge negatives and then burn them into plates to print the book. But the process to make those negatives isn’t like photographic negatives. Photographic negatives - you process them in a way that’s nearly archival. They’ll degrade over time, but it might be a hundred years if you do it right.
When they do printer’s negatives, they usually don’t have the expectation that they’re going to need those negatives in 20, 25 years. So the negatives became corroded, and I wasn’t able to print the book again. I decided that it would be out of print, but then people kept on asking for the book. People wanted the book, and I was like, okay, I’ll try and make the book again.
A really good friend helped - Erik Denno. I basically scanned all the photographic prints I had, which is about a hundred. And then I’d literally scan pages out of the book and touch up those photos, and then I’d retype everything out. It’s almost like a bootleg of itself. That all took about two or three years.
Going back and recreating the book, were you tempted to alter it in any way or add something new to it?
I did add an eight-page afterward. It lets people know that this is actually a different book now because there’s more context to it. Much like the slideshow - there would be no way you’d do that 30 years ago, because 30 years ago people were living in the moment and making music and being there. You wouldn’t really reflect back on something you’re in. So in a way, the book was kind of awkward and unusual because we were reflecting back on something that only happened seven years before. It didn’t provide the length of time needed for context. But now we have a greater depth of understanding of the influence of the D.C. punk scene that we didn’t have in 1988.
When you’re doing these slideshows and talking to people, have you noticed any common misconceptions about the D.C. scene that keep popping up?
I don’t know because I think everybody has a different perception of what it is. People will come to me afterward when we’re signing books and talk about how the music scene in the '80s influenced the way they changed their own lifestyle. When we were in Frederick, Maryland, this couple came down from Pennsylvania, and told me how inspiring it was to see punk kids just doing shows themselves, making their own records and selling them, figuring out a way to make it happen. I can’t remember what they said they did, but they both did things that they were really interested in doing in their life but didn’t think they could make a living at it. But they found a way to make a living doing those things. And they said it was because they witnessed these punk kids doing it and figured they could too.
I was curious if there were any connections between the D.C. scene and what was going on in the Arizona music scene around the same time.
Back when I was going out with Ian MacKaye, we used to listen to bands from Tucson on tape and go, “Wow, there’s this whole thing happening in Tucson.” And we knew about Phoenix cause of the Meat Puppets and Stinkweeds. There’s been a connection between D.C. and Stinkweeds forever. I sold my postcards at Stinkweeds in the '90s. Kimber was part of that whole scene. She understood what a record store does—that it’s about generating a community and having dialogues and being a place where people can go to talk about their ideas and be inspired and make them happen.
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With the rise of cell phone cameras and Instagram, it seems we live in an age where everybody fancies themselves a photographer. As a photographer, how do you feel about this trend? Do cell phone cameras level the playing field, making the medium more accessible, or do you feel that it devalues the form on some level?
It’s definitely making it more accessible. People who probably never would’ve been a photographer become one because they have a tool that’s easy to use. I think that’s great. It’s interesting to see what the long term effect it’s going to have on us as human beings—the way we’re constantly reflecting ourselves through social media. That’s the big difference. With film, everything is a lot slower. Now it’s so fast—instantaneous. There’s a lot to see and read and not a lot of time to process it and discern what’s important and what’s not. Everything is sort of on an even scale.
The talk I’m going to do touches on this a bit. It’s about the importance of actually being there and not just taking photos and saying you were there. Sometimes people will ask me why I’m not taking photographs when I’m at an event. And I’ll say, “If I take photographs at an event, I’m not really here experiencing it. I’m observing it, I’m a spectator, but I’m not involved.” And it’s really important to experience things, to support your friend’s band and hand out flyers and be in the moment. All those things are small acts that help make up a scene.
Banned In DC with Cynthia Connolly is scheduled on Friday, November 8, at FilmBar. Tickets are $10 via their website.