Here’s the complete interview with photographer Justine DeMetrick. The edited version ran in the recent photo issue (MRR #350). If you haven’t picked it up yet, I suggest you do.
The first time I had ever knowingly seen Justine DeMetrick’s work was in Inward Monitor #3. I’m the type of person who does read the photo credits in magazines, and if their work is good, their name sticks with me. Justine’s work really captures the excitement and energy of hardcore punk. I remember looking at the first issue of her zine, Intermission, a year or two later, and being blown away. All the bands that mattered and some that may have never left their home town scene were featured in the pages of that publication, not to mention giving one the sense that the East Coast really had it going on in terms of hardcore shows and scene. If you ever get the opportunity to obtain any of the three issues of Intermission, I highly urge you to get them. Her photos have appeared in a lot of records, from Rorschach, Born Against, Mouthpiece, Better Than A Thousand, and more. Then there’s the countless zines her photos appeared in. If you are truly into hardcore punk you have definitely seen her work. A little background; Justine had spent time working in the darkroom since age 4, but started taking photos at shows around 1987/88. Some of the early photos were of Verbal Assault, Agnostic Front, SNFU, Underdog, Scream, Youth Of Today. Slap Shot, Wrecking Crew, Murphy’s Law, and more. She went to the School of Visual Arts, International Center of Photography, and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and majored in photography. All this experience comes through in her work. This interview was conducted somewhere in the middle of a four hour conversation.
Interview by Matt Average. Photos by Justine DeMetrick.
Citizen’s Arrest final show at ABC No Rio. (photo by Justine DeMetrick)
MRR: So why did you pick up the camera instead of starting a fanzine, or something more glamorous like a band?
I’m completely tone deaf. I have a terrible voice. I’ve been told I’m the whitest person that my friends have ever met because I can’t keep a beat to save my life. Also, I don’t like being the center of attention. I have no confidence. So to be up in front of people, I would never have enough guts to do that. By that point the camera was an extension of my being anyway
MRR: When you were photographing bands, were you just documenting, or was it like, “I like these bands, so I shoot these bands only”?
No. I wonder about that. I guess what we were involved in was a movement. The same way the whole ’60s Hippie thing, or the Beat thing was a movement. But you don’t realize you’re in a defined “movement” until you’re a lot of older. So it never occurred to me to document what was around me. It just was. I wish I took more pictures of things going on. I never thought of it being any more important because this is what I did. This is what I ate, slept, this is my friends. Everything I did had something to do with the community of punk and hardcore. My camera was there, and I just photographed whatever band was on stage. A lot of times, if I really really really like a band… I saw Bad Brains many times, when they were good, I never photographed them. So many bands out there that I loved… I could have shot the Circle Jerks a bunch of times, but I didn’t. Like TSOL. All these bands; they were like my favorite bands. I’m not going to stand behind the camera, I want to be in the pit, I want to be wherever and hanging out with my friends. Since you have the camera in your hand you’re on stage. You can’t hear music, you can’t hear the vocals. You don’t really hear the music. It’s a totally different experience.
MRR: My experience with photographing bands is I’m not really paying attention to the music anymore. I’m just watching the movement.
Totally. I kept doing it. It became a habit, I didn’t know what else to do. Other than now, here I am at 42 years old, if I go see the Subhumans play, I have no interest in photographing them. I can finally be in the crowd and be okay being on the side of the crowd. Back then, to not have a camera in my hand I might as well be amputated. I didn’t know what to do with my hands.
When you’re shooting, you’re paying attention to the composition, what people are doing, and you’re trying to get the best shot you can. So that is where your interest and emphasis lies. Not necessarily in the sound. When I would photograph bands I always had two eyes open while I photographed. I would compose the shot, of say the bass player is in the forefront, drummer in the background, at some point the music when the change in the music occurs he’s going to jump – I want the shot of him over the drummer. While waiting for this to happen, I’d keep an eye on the vocalist and the others knowing “Okay during this part of the song, the guitar player always goes nuts during this mosh part”. So what I would do is compose my shot on the right, and I would watch the guy across the stage, I would wait for the change, when it was about to happen, I’d twist to snap that image then snap back into position for my bass player over the drummer shot. I was always listening to changes in the music, and seeing how each musician would act during different songs. So it’s hard listening to music, but that’s what I would end up listening to without actually listening to it for a point of enjoyment.
MRR: I would watch the crowd too.
All the time. When I ended up with a bigger camera system Nikon F4 I had to be careful because the chord that connected to the flash was $50, and in 1991 that was pretty expensive. So if a kid hit my camera I’m out a lot of money. So where the flash arm attached to the camera had a spike would come off, and I could hit somebody with the spike. I had really weak arms, but I had strong legs. So I spent a lot of time kicking people off as I’m shooting. Actually, Pat West has sent me more than my desired share of photos of me kicking some kid in the head with an angry face! Pretty embarrassing! [laughter] That’s Pat’s specialty. He goes out of his way to take pictures of you when you look your worst. When shows were in the later part of the 90s, I could care less about most of the bands. A lot of people, all they wanted to do was be on stage. So there was certain bands, like when Ray Cappo did Better Than A Thousand. They had me shoot their first show at the Safari Club. I actually had to say, “I will shoot this, but you need somebody to keep people off of me”. Because there was just no way. It was getting so crazy and so hectic. I was getting older and I couldn’t physically keep people off me at that point. I was shooting with a Nikon F4 system, and that was a couple thousand dollars. I couldn’t loose the camera. That camera cost me a fortune that I didn’t have. So I would have to have people for a number of years, like Geoff D’Agostino and Dan Hornecker, they were fantastic. They knew enough how to stay out of my way and out of the shots, and they were great. If people started crowding me they could clear people off with just one stroke. That made it easier.
MRR: Were there any photographers around that you consider an influence?
I didn’t know any other photographers. In Rhode Island there was one girl, I never heard her speak, but she sat there in front of every single band. She always had a plaid shirt on, and I remember her all through the ’80s. She just had a simple point-and-shoot, and she photographed everybody. I have no idea who she was. I don’t know if her stuff ever got published. But she just sat there and photographed everything. She has to be in her 50s at this point. I have no idea who she was, and I never saw her work.
Other photographers… Murray Bowles shot everything, but his work didn’t inspire me. The stuff that inspired me were people like Cornell Capa, and Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark. There’s a lot of real photographers that inspired me. I think that one of the most influential photos that made me think of bands, and that inspired me, and one was a picture (photographed Stanley J. Forman), that Infest used on their seven inch, of the Boston Riots, where the guy picks up the American flag and is about the stab the black guy in the suit. It captured that moment. I saw the footage on PBS a number of years ago, and the live footage does not nearly have the impact as that photograph. The other one was Cornell Capa. During the Spanish-American War, there’s a photograph of this soldier on top of the hill the moment he was killed. He’s wearing a white shirt, the khakis, and he’s sort of flailing backwards, and the rifle’s falling out of his hand, and you can see part of his skull popping off. It’s a really gruff brutal image. The negative is a mess. It’s slightly blurry… The ability to just capture that moment and say it all in that moment, that to me was a bigger influence than a band photographer.
Do you feel like you captured that moment in your shots?
I can’t think of any at the moment, off hand. I’m sure if I think of it, I’ll get it. There was two images. One was that band Full Speed Ahead, from New Jersey. Their last show in New Brunswick, was one of my favorite shows to shoot. It was amazing! They started destroying their instruments, there was some kid wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, and the energy… They were a band that just kicked ass. They were just amazing. They were a bunch of old school guys that got together and started doing this band. It was amazing, and the energy and everything. I got it. There are certain photos over the years, definitely. But the other one that I really liked that I shot was of Rollins. It was at Maxwell’s. It was actually when I finally realized there were certain techniques that I picked up alone, over the years, that it didn’t seem like anybody else ever did. There was a show at Maxwell’s, and Rollins, when he sings he sings with what I think is his left hand, and he turns his entire body to the right, so if you’re on the left side of him, if you’re facing the stage, and you’re on the right, so you’re looking at his left side, you’re not going to get any other photos but the side of his head and his biceps. So every picture looks the same, it sucks. So that’s when I learned to find out if the singer is left handed or right handed [laughter]. So anyway, the only good shot I got that night, was at some point in the show the lights were low and he’s just lying on the ground just completely drained. That was actually the back cover on one of my zines (Intermission). That totally summed up what early Rollins shows were like.
MRR: I’m looking at the photo right now, and it’s Intermission #1, he’s near the drum kit, and the mic is out of his hand.
After seeing him a few times that (photo) totally captured what he looked like when he was on it. The way he was in spoken word and live were two different things. He definitely looked like, whether it was for effect, what was real, or bullshit, I don’t know. But he definitely put in an enormous amount of mental energy into whatever he was doing.There were shots of (Nation of) Ulysses that I really liked. They were a great band to shoot because they were so physically active, and each member had their own persona. There were a lot of bands from the 90s that I liked shooting. Not all of them I liked musically, but were fun to shoot.
Who was your favorite to shoot?
Well, I don’t know. Off hand, I do not know. It depends. The second half of the 90s I could give two shits about ninety percent of the music coming out. At that point it was just a game; let me see how many combinations of shots can I get, how many good ones can I get on one roll of film. For me, it was just a pure challenge of what I can get compositionally, what I can I do, what can I push my self to do? At some point I had my own issues with severe depression, so I didn’t really give a shit what anybody said or thought. Which gave me a little more confidence to be where the hell I want, to get what I want out of it, and to get the shot that I want. Then at that point it wasn’t a particular band, but there were certain types of bands that were fun to shoot. Especially when the revival of these people trying to do earlier style hardcore, like 97A, or one of those bands. They had an enormous amount of energy. Resurrection, 108; Rob Fish’s bands were really fun to shoot.
What was it about the late 90s band that you didn’t care about? Was it the time period, or the style of music?
A lot of the music seemed a little more forced. None of these bands sang about anything that really mean anything to me. It didn’t have the same rawness. A lot of it seemed a little more manufactured. It started getting really cliquey again. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like all the ass kissing; “Oh you talk to this person. You don’t wear the right sneakers”. All this sort of horse shit. It was also being a lot older than a lot of the people. I think if you live in a immediate city like New York, or San Francisco, there’s a lot of people within your age range. But once you get into the suburbs there’s not a lot of people in your age range anymore. But yeah, I don’t think the music was good. People weren’t taking chances, it lost its rawness, it spread out. It was just weak! [laughter]
What was the first published photo of yours?
It was either in an issue of Constant Change fanzine, a fanzine that Jon Reed did, Inward Monitor, maybe. But I think it was Constant Change, or it would be the Underdog or Upper Cut record. That happened because Brian Simmons, who was my roommate at the time in Newport (RI), he was sending people pictures and not telling me. [laughter] I was absolutely furious! In the long run it was the nicest thing anybody could do.
MRR: When you saw your photo in the Underdog record, were you actually stoked to see your work published?
I think I was really scared and embarrassed [laughter]. That Underdog demo and that seven inch was amazing! It was one of my favorite seven inches. They were awesome live. I loved seeing them. So part me thought it was so awesome, but then part of me felt really weird because now my name is in print. Not that anybody ever reads it, because who gives a shit. It was just my own depression and fear coming out. My own self-confidence issues.
Cro-Mags (photo by Justine DeMetrick)
MRR: If you weren’t depressed would you have even gravitated towards punk rock? I feel like people who are not depressed or angry, punk rock should have no appeal to them whatsoever.
Well, the depression I’ve had since I was a child. If anything, punk and hardcore saved my life. For the first time in my life I met people who were similar to me. What was wonderful, especially in Rhode Island, is so many people that were involved in the scene were involved in some form of the arts. I met a lot of people that were musicians, and writers, and artists, and intellectuals, and that sort of stuff. I remember going to a show early on and looking around, it was a Circle Jerks show, and where most people would be kind of freaked out, I felt like I was at home. I was ecstatic, like, “Oh my god, I’m not the only one!” [laughter]. It was awesome! So in a lot of ways it allowed me to actually have friends, people didn’t think I was weird. People, for the first time, actually liked me. They thought it was cool that I was artistic. I dressed weird on my own, I didn’t need punk to do that! [laughter] Like, “Hey mom, can you make me a plastic skirt?” Most kids don’t say that. [laughter]
MRR: What was your first exposure to punk?
I would hear it on the radio, but I didn’t know what I was listening to. I loved, like, Missing Persons, and Devo, and Joy Divsion, New Order… New Wave stuff, Kraftwerk. I loved all that sort of stuff, late elementary school, junior high. But there were two radio stations, Uconn in Connecticut, and one that, I think, was Dartmouth out of Massachusetts. They would have these shows, and I didn’t know what I was listening to, all I know is that on Sundays and another day, this music would come on and I liked it. I would hold up a cassette recorder and I would tape the songs. If I liked the song I kept it going. If I didn’t like it I would rewind it and wait for the next song and hit record. I had no idea exactly what I was listening to until I got older and met other people who knew what it was. Actually, when I was at Rocky Hill there were these two kids, one that always had a New Model Army shirt on, and we became friends, and that’s how I ended up finding about other bands. Then I had a neighbor I hadn’t seen in years. I had part of my head shaved, and he had a mohawk and he had an older sister, and was allowed to go to shows. So my mom said, “Yeah, whatever band is coming up you can go to a show with Dan and Daphne.” That allowed me greater access. I was transferred to a private school from a public school, and meeting other kids who were skaters and punk helped.
MRR: Going back to photography, what was the best venue to shoot at, in your opinion?
That’s a hard one. I did always like shooting at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. That was really good. I can tell you what sucks. That would be the Wetlands in New York City, and CBGB’s can totally suck, because of the layout. Lupos in Providence was really good. The Rat in Boston, that was a good one to shoot at. The smaller the club was, it was usually easier to shoot because everybody was sort of on top of one another, and packed with energy. I would shoot with a 24mm, as opposed to a fish eye, or a 28mm. It keeps the proportions, it’s pretty close to what a normal eye sees, and it’s just wide enough to get full bodies of people in without distortion. You increase your ability to get a wider range of shots with it. The bigger the stage the worst the images would look. I started shooting more, and would shoot at places like the Roseland in New York I really started to hate band photography and I didn’t want to go to the next level. I began to realize why all those pictures in Creem magazine, or Rolling Stone sucked. All the band members are twenty-five feet apart, and you have to use a telephoto lens. So every shot is a portrait style with a limited depth of field, and you get the waist on up, and that’s it.
MRR: What are the elements required for a great photo?
MRR: What about lighting? I was always told lighting is everything. Read the rest of this entry »