Lost & Found: Minutemen 1985

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE THESE PHOTOS AGAIN. I’ve been searching for this shoot with The Minutemen since I started my old blog, but by the time I brought Some Old Pictures to an end almost a year ago I’d pretty much given up on finding these negatives. They turned up the other day when my wife was trying to clean out our basement, tucked into the back of an old tax file box in the cantina along with a bunch of other old shoots. How they got there, I haven’t a clue.

(My friend Chris thinks I should change the title of this blog to Some Old Pictures I Lost and My Wife Found.)

I had just started working for Nerve magazine when I flew down to NYC to stay with a girl I barely knew. (Long story – not very interesting in the end.) My visit happened to coincide with San Pedro’s Minutemen playing Irving Plaza (opening act: Live Skull pre-Thalia Zedek) so Dave and Nancy put in a call to SST, their record label, and I was on the list and booked to meet the band before the show.

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

They’re not great photos. I’d barely owned a camera for a few months so my skills were basic, to say the least; I’d be taking better pictures in about a year. I loaded my camera with 100 ASA Ilford FP4 for some inexplicable reason – I must have been optimistic about the amount of available light backstage at a venue. In the end I had to take the band into the bathroom off their dressing room for the shoot – the only spot with usable light. (It was also where the band had the food for their tour rider. Rock and roll is glamorous, kids.)

The Minutemen live, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

At least they’re better than the live shots I took that night, of which this is the only remotely printable frame. I was pretty timid about getting up close at a gig, especially when confronted with a New York City mosh pit. I’m not going to apologize too much about these photos – I was learning on the job, and while I’d bought a new Vivitar flash for my Spotmatic at B&H on that trip, I was definitely too timid to use it.

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

When you’ve been shooting as long as I have you learn that your photos gain value not because of quality or style, but because you happened to capture a bit of history. The Minutemen were an incredibly important band in the evolution of punk through hardcore, and as exemplars of the DIY ethic and aesthetic. Stripped-down, humble and idiosyncratic, they bucked trends in and outside of hardcore punk and have become hugely influential in hindsight. (Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerad’s essential history of the American indie rock scene in the ’80s, takes its title from a Minuteman lyric.)

They were an actual working class band from a town known mostly for its naval base. I couldn’t help but identify with their baffled ignorance at the way things were done in the by-then very middle class world of rock music, muscling past being intimidated by “the rules” and making a virtue of their own outsider status. For The Minutemen, drummer George Hurley’s mane of peroxided curls twirling as he played was their sole stage effect. “We were fucking corndogs,” recalled singer and guitarist D. Boon when he sang about driving to see punk rock gigs in L.A. with his best friend, bassist Mike Watt. For a great history of the band, watch the documentary We Jam Econo.

The band were exceeding expectations when I took these photos. They were about to go on tour with R.E.M., and were confounding the hidebound rules of the hardcore scene with records like Project: Mersh and 3-Way Tie (For Last). The unexpected end came less than two months later, when D. Boon died in a car crash just before Christmas. Watt and Hurley would end up forming fIREHOSE with guitarist Ed Crawford, and Watt would become a sort of indie punk legend, playing bass in the reformed Stooges. But that would all come later, and I wouldn’t have imagined any of it when I took these photos, at the very edge of my limited competence, so long ago.

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Talking about myself

Hamilton, Ontario (photo by Cordelia McGinnis)

I DON’T MIND TALKING ABOUT MYSELF. I didn’t do much of it until recently, and I’m still not sure why I’m suddenly worth listening to, but I’ll take it while it lasts. I have my theories about vlogs and podcasts and YouTubers and why everyone is all about listening to other people they like on the internet – it has something to do with erosion of trust in traditional news media and a generational shift – but let’s save that for another day.

A few weeks ago I did an interview with Tim and Tammy on the Creative Chaos podcast. I’ve known Tim for years so it was a very comfortable hour plus chat. If you’ve heard my B&H podcast you’ll know that I repeat myself a few times – I’ve got to get some new talking points if I want to do more of these podcasts – but I think I got my message across that this is a great time to be a photographer, even if the whole medium is in the middle of a massive transition.

A while before that my friend travel writer and photographer Stuart Forster contacted me about an interview for his MannedUp.com website. The target audience was other photographers, so the interview was a little inside baseball, but I did get to explain a bit about how and why I work nowadays, like here:

Do you have a favourite destination for photography?

Honestly, I don’t care. I love taking photos literally anywhere. I like to start a day by saying “Let’s see what we see today.”

I started doing travel photography to get myself to as many new places as possible, but even when I was grounded here, so to speak, I’d do still life work at the kitchen table, or go out to parts of the city (Toronto) that I know well, like the old working class neighbourhoods I grew up in, or the abandoned industrial port lands, or the hydro electrical corridors that run through the city.

If I have any mission right now – besides getting my name out in the world again after years of obscurity – it’s as an evangelizer for the simple joy of taking pictures, no matter what they are. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, photography saved me at a time when I was perilously close to the sort of despair that can ruin lives. As a creative enterprise or a meditative exercise I’d recommend it to anyone. And I’m happy to talk about it with anyone who’ll listen.

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Annuals and Awards

I PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS A LONG TIME AGO. Back when I took three of the five photos that ended up in the latest Communication Arts Photography Annual, I never thought of entering a juried competition. It was something someone else did, in another place. I was, in essence, policing my own obscurity.

What changed between then and now, I really can’t tell you. Perhaps it was a sense of accomplishment after publishing my trio of photozines, after completing my old blog. Maybe I was feeling a bit cocky. My friend Chris – who’s entered and won spots in these annual competitions and even sat on juries – gave me advice to enter in the “books” category, which is generally less crowded. It was obviously good advice.

Months before the CA photo annual hit the stands this arrived in the mail – an Award of Excellence. This is the first trophy I’ve had since my little league softball team won the league championship in Mount Dennis, over forty years ago. (And that was mostly because John Svab, a great all-rounder, was on our team.)

I also won a spot in the juried competition organized by American Photography. I didn’t place as well – it was a runner’s-up prize that earned my portrait of Bjork from the MUSIC photozine a spot on the annual’s website but not the published magazine. Slightly disappointing, to be sure, but better than not placing at all, which is pretty much how I always imagined a shot at these competitions ending, back when I took my photo of Bjork.

So I’m not going to complain. Everything I do at this point is about fighting obscurity and putting myself and my photos back out in the world. So far, so good, especially considering that I was always the principal author of that obscurity.

As for the photozines, they’re on sale for just two more months before I withdraw them from publication and publish three more books. So if you want to pick up copies of STARS, MUSIC or SQUARE, the time is now. More news on the next three ‘zines soon.

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