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A Portrait of Punk

Tom Winchester

Bobby Grossman, Debbie Harry, Pepsi, 1977. Chromogenic print on plexiglass, 60” x 40”, ed. 50.

Low Fidelity: Still Photographs by Bobby Grossman 1975-1983
Underground Forces: Target Video 1977-1984
Ringling College’s Selby Gallery:
August 13th – September 20th, 2014

Photographs and videos of the people who shaped Punk were recently on view at Ringling College’s Selby Gallery. Presented as joint exhibitions, Low Fidelity: Still Photographs by Bobby Grossman 1975-1983 recalled the style of a previous generation, and Underground Forces: Target Video 1977-1984 offered a time capsule of musicians and artists trying to establish themselves. Together, the exhibitions revealed how the movement continues to be affected by the way it’s represented.

Bobby Grossman’s black-and-white photographs depict those who hung out at The Chelsea Hotel, CBGB, and The Factory in a darkroom-and-chemicals way. The use of such a traditional photographic process, by today’s digital standards, harkens to the truth of yesteryear’s media, and, in the case of Punk, signals that Debbie Harry, Joey Ramone, and Sid Vicious have more to offer than what’s disseminated by the mainstream.

Grossman’s lo-fi approach peels back a layer of Punk’s image, that of color, and allows us to see what’s underneath. What we find is a comparison to a previous generation, specifically to Billy Name, who, in his signature high-contrast monochromatic style, photographed Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgwick, and others hanging around The Factory during its heyday. In doing so, Grossman effectively swaps Punk’s commercial image for one that’s more in tune with the American avant-garde.

Target Video’s compilation of live performances and politically charged montages is at parts an unadulterated documentary—something that seems like it should be narrated by David Attenborough—and at others heavy-handed Punk propaganda. Displayed as projections on a large screen in front of seated viewers, the video sequences provide evidence as to who was and wasn’t capable of negotiating the movement’s integrity with the MTV era.

The documentary segments amount to a visual mixtape of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Bauhaus, and, the most awkward of the bunch, Jim Carroll, who seems oblivious to the commercial importance of his image. Despite its overtly socio-political subject, which is possibly the most important aspect of a counterculture’s integrity, Carrol’s performance of “People Who’ve Died” may isolate him among today’s viewers because the long shots from a stationary camera capture every unwanted moment. Conversely, Bush Tetras’s “Too Many Creeps,” which is filmed using handheld cameras in a harshly lit club with bad sound quality, and is a commentary on how the female lead singer can’t go outside without being harassed, is perfectly fitting for today’s audience.

Sporadically spliced in between are Joe Rees’s montages showing fighter jets dropping bombs while songs like D.F.A.’s “Dance with Mussolini” play in the background. They confront the world the Punks were responding to by equating conservative America with fascist Europe, but they also bring to light the name “Target,” which is a symbol the Mods appropriated from the Royal Air Force after the youth culture became fashionable. Juxtaposed against the documentary sequences, Rees’s montages appear to illustrate the countercultural themes of the movement’s music while addressing its contradictions.

Ultimately, the exhibitions offer a perspective of how a countercultural movement deals with mainstream co-option. Bobby Grossman continues to influence how the people he knew who became famous are portrayed, and Target Video preserves Punk as it was thirty years ago. The combination provides objectivity, and it’s up to us to determine who sold out and who didn’t.