Oi! The Skinhead Photo Booth and a Return to Portraiture

Chris.Kirkwood
Chris, March 2016

THE OLD BLOG WAS TWO YEARS OLD WHEN I FOUND MYSELF WITH THE URGE TO SHOOT FORMAL PORTRAITS AGAIN. I wasn’t working for anyone and no one was hiring me so I knew that if I wanted to do portraits, I had to go to my subjects – as many as possible at one time, I hoped. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself at just the right time.

My old friend and onetime assistant Rod Orchard was trying to revive Full Contact, his old magazine, and sponsored a show of mostly skinhead bands at a local club. There are few subcultures as abiding or fascinating – or as problematic, as we say these days – as skinheads, which made the idea of photographing a whole bunch of them at once even more appealing.

And as Rod said when he agreed to my proposition – “Hey, who doesn’t love skinheads? Skinheads are hilarious!”

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I took the set-up I’d used to photograph Kinky Friedman the previous fall and added a pair of lights – my old travel light stands and umbrellas, with some cheap light socket/clamp assemblies I bought off Amazon and a couple of 14w household LED bulbs. The point of this little portable studio was to be as light and cheap as possible – to keep my overhead low on what felt like a tentative experiment, and to keep me from crying if the whole thing got busted up by skinheads.

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At work with the portable photo booth, March 2016. Photo by Rod Orchard.

I set up between the bar and the ATM in the club with a clipboard full of release forms. With Rod’s help, I approached bands as they finished soundcheck and customers as they entered the club. By the end of the night I’d shot twenty-nine subjects, all of whom happily signed my release form, including one very drunk gentleman who just left an “X.” (Still legally binding – “His mark,” as they used to note on old census forms and contracts when illiteracy was more common.)

Erik.Mercier
Erik, March 2016
Victor.Lapprend
Victor, March 2016
Daick.DHerrouville
Daick, March 2016
K.Wakely
K. Wakely, March 2016

It might have been an experiment, but it was an important one for me. It had been a long time since I’d done a blitz of portrait shooting, and I wanted to throw myself headlong back into the process – sink or swim, so to speak. I also wanted to work with non-celebrities as subjects; it was even more of a challenge to work with people who didn’t have a fixed sense of their identity or what they wanted to look like, or present me with anything to work with before they stepped in front of my lights. Anything, of course, beyond “People you meet at a skinhead show.”

James.Swann
James, March 2016
Kat.OReilly
Kat, March 2016
Pat.Laso
Pat, March 2016
Pete
Pete, March 2016

I shot tight and close to the backdrop to make sure it would easily bleach to white in Photoshop. I wanted to work with as many limitations as possible; I was still dubious about re-entering the world of formal portrait work, and didn’t want to give myself too many opportunities to get ambitious.

I’d end up taking nearly the same set-up to the film festival later that year, so I must have been pleased with the results. Two years later, I want to try something like this again. Anybody know where I can find a whole bunch of Teddy Boys in one spot?

And as ever, I have some books for sale:

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TOHC: Toronto’s hardcore scene, where it all started

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The crowd in the pit at a Negative Gain show, Ildiko’s, 1986

SOME FRIENDS DID THE CRAZIEST THING THE OTHER DAY and published a whole big fat book about Toronto’s hardcore punk scene in the ’80s. I was asked early on to submit some photos and recollections to the book, and a few of them made it into the finished product, which turned out to be quite the epic.

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I cut my teeth taking photos of bands like Negative Gain, Bunchofuckingoofs, MDC, NoMeansNo, Corrosion of Conformity, El Paso’s Rhythm Pigs and many more in shitty little clubs like the Siboney, DMZ, the Apocalypse, the basement of the Silver Dollar and Ildiko’s/The Bridge/the Starwood. I’d owned a camera for less than a year by this point, so my learning curve started here, and Tomorrow Is Too Late was a great opportunity to try to share some of these very early shots, like these ones of MDC (aka Millions of Dead Cops) at Ildiko’s in 1986:

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I’ve always been amazed that friend and photographer Rod Orchard – later my assistant in the ’90s and the guy who shot my wedding – made it into one of my shots from COC’s Ildiko’s show, a long-haired kid at the back of the pit holding his camera. So it was a thrill when I saw one of Rita Laberto’s shots from the MDC show and, presto, there I am, sleeves rolled up, with my camera, on the stage, 22 years old and skinny as fuck:

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MDC at Ildiko’s, 1986, photo by Rita Laberto

I was nominally Nerve magazine’s hardcore correspondent for my first year at the paper, which was hardly a bustling beat, though it got me in front of the stage for gigs like NoMeansNo playing the Rivoli or the El Mocambo, I’m not sure which:

Local hardcore bands were also my earliest portrait subjects. I had a lot to learn, to be sure, but I was pleasantly surprised that these shots of John Grove and Animal Stags and the Bunchofuckingoofs turned out sharp and half-decently composed. It’s worth pointing out that I’d end up taking another portrait of Steve Goof twenty five years later in almost exactly the same spot, by what was once Fort Goof in Kensington Market.

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Animal Stags, Toronto, 1986
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Bunchofuckingoofs, Kensington Market, 1986
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“Crazy” Steve Goof, Kensington Market, 1986
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“Crazy” Steve Goof, Kensington Market, 2011

Revisiting my shots of a Negative Gain show at Ildiko’s gave me a startling sense of time passing, but not as much as the book launch party held for Tomorrow Is Too Late last week, which featured a re-formed Negative Gain at the top of a bill with Sudden Impact, Chronic Submission, Microedge and Creative Zero. Many of the same people I captured in the pit over thirty years ago were there again, a bit sweatier and very out of breath.

I was never really a mainstay on the scene – more of an interloper with a camera. But three decades later I’m still friends with Rod, and not only the contractor who recently renovated my bathroom but the guy who I buy my beer from are all onetime members of that same TOHC scene. Thirty years later, ties that I would have called fragile at the time have persisted, amazingly.

Another group of friends I made on the scene were Ed Ivey and the Rhythm Pigs, who were from El Paso via San Francisco but had a big fan base here. I was a bit disappointed that none of my shots of the band, either from their first gig here in 1986 or their final, reunion show, in 1990, made it into the book, but with everything they had, I guess some things had to go. The portrait was shot on the balcony of Don LaBeuf’s place in Oakville, I believe, the morning after the show:

There might not be a lot of skill in these shots, but there are plenty of memories. I like to think I took a lot away from punk rock and hardcore. Self-reliance, to start, and the DIY aesthetic that’s become even more important today. But also the sense that, even in a marginal scene full of constraints, there’s freedom and potential. I have never lost a sense of that scene, no matter where I am.

So buy Derek and Shawn’s book and try to stay in touch with the people who knew you when you were thinner and angrier. It’s actually worth it.

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