by Pat Graham
Thematically, Silent Pictures is like a “ten years later” (give or take a year) visual history of the Washington DC hardcore scene chronicled in Dance of Days. Which is not to say there aren’t worthies of that same stature in these pages. Bikini Kill, Lungfish, Fugazi, the Make-up, Beat Happening? Fuck yes! Legends. O.K.
The glossy finish on the pages and the oversized magazine style dimensions of the book are dandy for the presentations of the photos within. I wish it were hardcover. And I should say that I want to rip out a bunch of the photos – definitely suitable for framing. There are some famous shots in here, but most of it is new choiceness that I’ve never laid eyes on before. You do know that my favorite part of music magazines is always the pictures?
Aww, god, of course you want to hear about my favorite shots, right? I’m thinking of Calvin Johnson with mussed hair and a thousand yard stare, holding the mic limply, making Beat Happening’s candy coated rockabilly seem like the hidden soundtrack to the Manson murders. Unrest looking dapper through a car window. The singer from Circus Lupus, screaming his guts out while supporting himself with a walker. Rick Sims from the fucking DIDJITS with a fur coat and no shirt hitting a pose Marc Bolan would be jealous of. Daniel Higgs of Lungfish looking like a cross between a shitkicking dockworker and a pagan mystic, all big beard, tattoos and flannel, ensnared in the trancelike musical magick his bandmates are creating. A grainy polaroid of Jennifer Herrema in full Anita Pallenberg flight during Royal Trux’s heyday. Slant 6 – coming on like a band composed only of Poison Ivy Rorschach’s long-lost daughters, impossibly cool and dressed like socialites gone to seed. I just now realize how much I miss them. Shots of all of Ian Svenonius’s various outfits – the Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, Make-up – each one more ferocious than the last – you get to see the visual evolution of the Spiv from fresh-faced modboy to flamboyant, stunningly-coiffed socialist in a matter of years – yet still proudly losing every bit of poise and pose in concert.
There a few fascinating studies of guitars – including a jaw-dropping close-up of Ian MacKaye’s guitar in repose, as it were. Wait, wait, I’m not done yet. Bikini Kill – fuck me, man, I’d forgotten how cool they looked, too – Graham has an amazing detail of the shot from the back cover of one of their old albums – you know the one where Tobi and Kathleen are sitting onstage, legs splayed out, with Tobi mockingly singing into the mic? Ace! Tobi Vail is one of the coolest girs/boys/whatevers in rock and roll, immaculately decked out in tight-black beatnik dress, stylish bob, and Jackie-O gigantic glasses. Too much!
And lots of late ’90s shots of Fugazi in concert. Check the dates, they were already firmly ensconced as alternative rock royalty – they didn’t HAVE to act like this, they didn’t have to give it their all and explode onto every single stage like 56 Molotov cocktails of aggression all at once, they didn’t have to splinter into inhuman angles and impossible sounds. Look at the pictures of Guy Picciotto in this manic seance trance, soaked in sweat, caught in mid-flail, look at fucking Ian going for it, like it’s his first time picking up a guitar. Just look.
Man, I didn’t even touch on half of the goodness you’ll find in here. Somehow Graham makes every concert look like the coolest, craziest, Stooges-tastic spectacle ever. Every one of his portraits captures this kinetic vulnerability that brings across the “I was there!” closeness in spades. Even if you weren’t. He employs a spare, straightforward style of shooting his subjects – it’s definitely total immersion, he’s in the trenches, errr the pits, like all the best photojournalists, probably getting elbowed and pushed around just so he can get the best shots. He favors black and white film (yay) and his portfolio is very slanted toward live shots. At his best, his work is reminiscent of other titans of gritty verite photography in the ’90s alternative music scene, like Steve Gullick and Charles Peterson (there is one L7 shot in particular…), who plunge you right into the heart of a Saturday night in a dingy club – you really get a feel both for what the performers are giving and what the audience is experiencing.
My beef? A little too much Modest Mouse. It’s cool to see them younger and seemingly more carefree than the rather more grizzled, road-weary figure they cut nowadays, (and I’m sure it was a selling point to get this book published as they are the most viable commercial enterprise), but damn, take half of those pages and give me more of the flash-paper explosiveness of Fugazi or the vampiric mod cool of Slant 6. And there are some newer acts shoehorned in here and there that sort of upset the canonical flow too. However, if too many photos is all I can muster…..