Washington in 1979 was a scarred metropolis just ten years removed from riots that had hollowed out the city. It was a grim time, with hundreds of buildings boarded up just blocks from the White House.
1979 was a tough year for the county too, as the Carter presidency ended in economic malaise and the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis.
In these dark times, however, some people saw opportunity. Artists and musicians saw empty houses that they could turn into art galleries and practice spaces. Rents were cheap because few people wanted to live in neighborhoods filled with junkies and prostitutes.
HARD ART DC 1979 by Lucian Perkins documents some of this fascinating story. It chronicles the nascent punk rock scene in Washington, featuring seminal bands such as Bad Brains.
Perkins, a Washington Post photographer a decade older than most of the participants, didn’t think much of the music. These thrashing young people were very different than the mellow hippiedom of his San Francisco home. His photos reflect more of an interest in the scene, which is what makes the photos so interesting. They take in the audience, as well as the musicians, which fits in perfectly with the democratic spirit of the punk movement, which didn’t distinguish between artists and audience. We’re all part of this thing…
With a focus on the mosh pit as well as the men on stage, these aren’t conventional concert photos. They aren’t perfectly-lit band photos composed in some studio. Instead, his pictures are gritty black and white, with every drop of sweat and torn t-shirt visible. They capture fascinating period details of the era – old beer cans, military-style clothing, spiked hairstyles, chains and leather jackets.
A friend of mine said that the show was, “all about nostalgia.” Which is true. The photos Perkins took got a brief flurry of publicity at the time (though Bob Woodward didn’t believe that they were from Washington). Then the negatives were stored away, as the photojournalist went on to cover wars in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq.
The photos were then rediscovered in 1995 by Lely Constantinople, who had been hired by Perkins to organize his archives. She recognized her boyfriend (now husband) Alec MacKaye in the photos. As Perkins explained, your view of images changes over the years. His photos of DC’s punk scene in 1979 look different today, as we know how much the city would change.
Was 1979 a historically unique time, the brief moment when the combination of young people and cheap rents made the arts possible in DC? At the packed gallery talk, veterans of the era seemed to think so. Perkins, slightly older, had a different opinion. Every generation looks down on those who come along after them, he explained. They were looking back with rose-colored glasses, dismissing the gentrified city of today which features amazing events like Artomatic, the Pink Line Project and the DC Shorts Film Festival. None of these happenings could’ve occurred in the half-abandoned Washington of the 1970s.
But what I like most about these photos, and the punk movement, it its “do it yourself” ethos. HARD ART DC 1979 captures the wild energy of people performing for the sheer joy of it, with no expectation of reward other than putting on a great show.
We could use more of this. The artists and musicians of 1979 recognized opportunity in places where everyone else only saw tragedy. Out of abandoned houses and forgotten neighborhoods, they created a musical scene that still resonates today.
They got on with it. They created art in spite of the times.
HARD ART DC 1979 runs until the end of the year at Civilian Arts Projects, 1019 7th Street NW. See the large prints in person and then go have a drink next door at Passenger.