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Damned to be Free - The Photographs of Edward Colver
Home Arts & Entertainment Books & Music
By: Jocko Weyland Email Article
Word Count: 1939 Digg it | Del.icio.us it | Google it | StumbleUpon it

That photographs can have a tremendous impact is a modern shibboleth. They "touch" and "affect" human beings and there is certainly some truth in this assertion. Emotions are triggered by the photographic image, and their influence can go beyond that. Photographs of war and famine have influenced public opinion and spurred charity. Two regularly cited examples are Malcolm Browne's 1963 photo of the self-immolating monk Thich Quang Duc and Eddie Adams' 1968 shot of Colonel Loan's execution of a Vietcong prisoner, both of which are credited with changing American attitudes toward the war in Vietnam. These are explicit, immediate cases, ones in the mainstream of mass imagery and history.

On a subtler and less exposed level, photographs can affect people in a much more personal way, and also later come to define social movements that have become known but at the height of their existence defined esoterica. These photos can have an intimate secret meaning and influence on people who don't have physical proximity to the subject matter represented. They can impart vital encouragement and affirmation, prototypes to a removed population in the dark. They can teach them how others like them are living and vividly illustrate that life.

Punk rock started in either America or England, depending on who you believe and which progenitors you credit. In the late 1970s the Sex Pistols and other bands gained worldwide media coverage and when the Sex Pistols came to America in 1979 there was condescending and sensationalistic reporting, titillated and amused. Then the magazines and television shows forgot about it. By 1980 the novelty had worn off and the attention to this subcultural rebellion died out. If you didn't live in London, New York or California, you could easily believe the whole movement had become extinct.

In Los Angeles, the impetus of punk rock spawned a style of music modeled on the original British outbreak but transformed into something quite different. Punk had splintered into various forms-death rock, power pop, surf punk and other mixtures and combinations. By 1979 an offshoot later termed hardcore was developing-faster, harder, and less implicitly political, with a unique Southern Californian aspect amidst the sprawl of the city of angels.

The audience was mostly young, bored and restless, subversive in an unselfconscious way. Outcasts against what they perceived as the existing order, whether that was the political of entertainment establishment. The scene was small, big shows might have a crowd of 1,500 and records sold 500 copies at most. If you lived in LA you could go to shows and hear the music and experience these creative and social experiments. If you didn't, it might as well have been happening on another planet. It wasn't on the radar of accepted and promoted cultural production, which was one of the things that made it so alluring. It was seriously and authentically underground, a long way from the situation fifteen years later wherein punk rock is just another type of popular music, neutered and redundant, lacking in any originality.

For someone interested in this fomentation who didn't live in one of the main cities information could be extremely hard to come by. In small towns across the country, the dedicated few longed to be involved and were passionate about something they couldn't get any news about. If punk rock had entered their lives, it could have turned curiosity to obsession, a reason for hope and a huge influence on their ideas and politics and their relationship to the world. It probably led to an outsider existence which literally put them in danger of physical attack for their beliefs, tastes and the way they dressed. Their only connection to the excitement and vibrancy thousands of miles away were self-published fanzines and records that had to be ordered through the mail. And through one of these mediums is probably, perhaps unknowingly, how Edward Colver's photographs started to touch them in a profound sense as a lifeline to a world outside that they fervently wanted to join.

Slightly removed from the happenings in Los Angeles in the far suburbs of Covina, Edward Colver had a passion for art and was especially inspired by Surrealism and Dada. A chance encounter with photography led to the theft of a camera from a warehouse he worked in. Around 1978 he saw the LA club Madame Wong's on a local TV news segment and started driving up to shows. Early on he made a crucial distinction between the safer new wave bands that played Madame Wong's and the hard-edged punk bands that were starting to flourish. Preferring the rougher and more dangerous punk bands, he began to photograph them, getting the film processed at Thrifty's drugstore. Shortly thereafter his interest in collecting Stickley furniture brought him into contact with two editors from BAM magazine, a meeting that resulted in his first published pictures of the performance/noise artist Johanna Went appearing in BAM.

Soon he was processing and printing himself and getting published in Flipside and NO magazine, and later in Re/Search Book's Industrial Culture Handbook and the seminal survey Hardcore California. From 1978 to 1983 he attended 1000 shows and his photographs appeared on at least eighty album covers, including Black Flag's Damaged LP and the Circle Jerks Group Sex album. His documentation pervaded the scene. Stickley furniture remained important and its oaken, simple, honest style provided an exotic balance and analogy to punk. Both forms also shared the fate of eventually being co-opted and spawning countless pale imitations. Nevertheless, the chairs and tables are simple and straightforward, and so was punk. The magnetism of dichotomy and dissonance.

Coming across an issue of NO magazine in the middle of the middle American nowhere in 1981 could be a lost soul's first encounter with Edward Colver's photographs. The cover was a picture of a woman's hands, a molested baby doll and a faux tribal mask extending a rigid tongue. Underneath, the words "Sex-Music-Death-Garbage." Inside was an alternative reality-morbid, sexy, unsettling and genuinely strange. There were graphic spreads of spiders and syphilitic lips, purloined mug shots coupled with their owner's fictive sexual proclivities that ranged from body shaving to intercourse with extraterrestrials, bondage photos, an interview with antagonistic machine maker Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories, and lots of photos of LA bands. It also had a sometimes wicked, sometimes corny sense of humor. The main article was a long history of LA punk by Black Flag's bassist Charles Dukowski and the accompanying full-page photographs were all by Edward Colver.

The pictures made the thriving scene in Los Angeles come alive; they were reports from the epicenter of al secret world and they showed it in all its chaotic glory, right there on stage and in the pit. Experiences that could only be hoped for and were happening far away could be seen and felt through these documents. Boschian to the uninitiated but to the neophyte a comforting array of freaks who represented instant friendship and shared vision of life and how to cope with it. They inspired a yearning-to be there, to be one of the participants, revolting against everything-to say fork you to the establishment in a youthful, natural, instinctual way. To be there at ground zero with the exceedingly hard and fast music, the shouted lyrics, a scream against injustice, placidity, and conformity. The phantasmagoric blur of movement, the band and the audience almost interchangeable, the sweaty pit with people running, slamming and flying off the stage, getting kicked and knocked and exalting in it.

In his photographs Paul Cutler from 45 Grave shrieks into the camera with a bloody stigmata on his hand, alarming in his intensity. Lee Ving of Fear lights a dollar bill on fire in a crowded club while the bass player stares out from behind him, zombie-like. Roger Rogerson of the Circle Jerks leaps into the air, his face hidden, the coded talismans evident-jeans tucked into boots, a bandana around his wrist, duct tape on his guitar. A shirtless Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys crawls from the audience with an authentic expression of fear at his imperilment. In the longer shots of whole bands, T.S.O.L (The True Sounds of Liberty) who singer Jack looks like an evil puppet, theatrically pointing as his hair defies gravity, the bass and guitar players hunched over, hair obscuring their faces. Social Distortion dramatically lit as if they were on a film set, the lead singer Mike Ness with heavy mascara around his eye and blood on his shirt, the incongruous pretty blond woman with dark glasses to the right of the stage. And the archetypal Hollywood punk rock run amok situation, the premiere of The Decline of Western Civilization, the 1981 documentary the featured X, Fear, Black Flag, Alice Bag and others. The hated cops meeting the punks on Hollywood Boulevard. The clash, fun and excitement of something really happening, of lives being really lived. All together, these photographs were stills from an unmade underground film, a movie that has come and gone but one that at the time some lonely secluded people would have given anything to be in.

The spirit of Edward Colver's photographs of this time reaches an iconic apotheosis in the full bleed image on the back of Wasted Youth's 1981 LP Reagan's In. With song titles like "Fuck Authority," "Born Deprived," and "Problem Child," the album typifies Southern California thrash, not the best of it but exceptionally fast, angry and energized. Gazing into the photo, one could (and can, with bittersweet nostalgia) imagine oneself in it, lost in its world. Immersing oneself, becoming part of the crowd. The headless raised fist, the girl with the cropped hair and misty eyes, the central teenager looking scared and excited, the bleached blond kid in the plaid shirt appearing serene and intent on something unknown, the boy in front of him with his head down, unawares. To the far right, a kid with bared teeth and lit up expectant eyes, behind him a girl, askance and seemingly disgusted. Almost all of them are looking up at the airborne youth flying upside down ten feet above, centered in the photograph and inverted in perfect gymnastic form with an inadvertent, strategically placed Wasted Youth sticker on his pants. A direct violation of boundaries-physical, societal, and commonsensical. Nonconformity via an ironic parody of outmoded normalcy, plain jeans and white T-shirt, crew cut and lack of adornment. Only the Vans skateboard shoes and the sticker contradicting the façade. Simple and direct with grace of movement, arms and fingers stretched out elegantly. Like an Olympic high diver except above concrete and bodies. An alter ego, a sought-for brother in flight over the Promised Land.

Photographs that served as a lifeline and blueprint, a consolation and as important in a way as the basic necessities of life. Now they are important documents of something extraordinary that no longer exists. The pictures prove that it did and at the time were life affirming, a powerful salve against isolation and boredom.

Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1967 Jocko Weyland is a writer, curator, editor, and artist. The author of The Answer is Never (Grove 2002) and various articles and stories published in Thrasher, The New York Times, Cabinet, Vice and Apartamento, amongst others, he is the founder of Elk Gallery and Elk Magazine. Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His article on Edward Colver is featured in the book "Blight at the End of the Funnel" http://edwardcolver.com

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Article Comments
Edward is the BOMB. Anyone who's into rock photography at all knows he's one of the very best and most important photographers definitely.
January 27, 2012 09:53:17
Morgan Says

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