Rebels was selected for the Vermont Center for Photography's 2nd Juried PhotoBook Exhibition in Brattleboro, Vermont.
This interview appeared in Staf Magazine, an independent magazine and publishing house based in independent magazine and publishing house based in Málaga, Spain.
YESTERDAY IS TODAY: PUNKS AND SKINHEADS OF NEW YORK’S EAST VILLAGE
1 August 2017. Photographer: Lilian Caruana
Photography has the ability to make us evoke the past or allow us to glimpse other lives. This is what we find in Rebels, a book that gathers the life of a group of young punks in the early 80’s from NY’s East Village. With an amazing naturalness Lilian introduces us into their lives and circumstances, giving them a space to be themselves.
In the foreword of your book you say that you identified yourself very quickly with the punk scene. Given your status as an immigrant, do you think that knowing that you were on the sidelines could be the trigger that motivated you to start taking pictures?
As an immigrant from Italy, growing up in New York, I was drawn to observing people and fascinated by differences in cultural behavior. I saw myself always faced with the dilemmas of interpreting and reconciling home country with adopted country norms and behavior. Things that were perfectly normal in one culture could be foreign, even problematic, in the other. I developed “antennas” having to constantly “read” cultural cues or nuances in interactions with people. One of the results of this—feeling like an outsider—was the sense of wanting connection to other people and finding out what was going on beneath the surface of their lives. This is what gave rise to motivating me to start taking pictures. Photography served as a passport for me that allowed entry to, and participation in, worlds that normally would be closed to me.
You are an anthropologist. Was it anthropology that led you to photography or vice versa?
It was anthropology that led me to photography because of my experiences with other cultures at an early age. In Italy, I lived in the South Tyrol, a bi-cultural area of Italian and Austrian cultures. When I came to New York at the age of eight, I was exposed to and learned about the city’s many diverse cultures. This eventually led me to an anthropological way of thinking that helped me make sense of the different ways and reasons why people lived as they did.
Photography came later, when walking in Manhattan one day, I saw black and white photographs of Vermont farmers in a travel agency window. The images reminded me of the farmers and villages in the high Alpine pastures of the South Tyrol. It struck me at that moment that I wanted to document the Tyrolean farmers and their customs, traditions and way of life. I could use photography to hold on to moments from the past and it was this longing for home that was translated into a desire to document what I had lost.
When you moved to the East Village in the early 80’s and found that vital explosion of creativity, how do you think it affected the way you look at photography?
Moving to the East Village didn’t change my approach to photography but it deepened my opportunities to apply it. I immersed myself in the hardcore scene, hung out, observed and photographed it. Photography was a way for me to connect with the punks and skinheads on the street, in the bars and clubs, and, especially, in the squats–the abandoned buildings they made their homes. It was exciting to see, in what appeared to be squalor and dissolution, something being born. These folks took vacant lots filled with rubble and turned them into urban gardens, abandoned buildings into housing, and anger into music and community. Despite the drugs, poverty, and violence, that battered the East Village, the creative response was there, raw and beautiful, and that is what interested me.
What was your photography training? Have you always been interested in documentary photography?
I was very lucky that my first teacher was W. Eugene Smith, the photo essayist for Life magazine in the 1940s and 1950s who revolutionized the photo-essay. He spent months on a story, gaining a close and intimate familiarity with his subjects and their environment. He taught me that to understand the truth of people’s lives we had to build relationships, and immerse ourselves in their day-to-day world. He was passionate in his belief in the power of photography to give voice to those who were invisible. He imbued me with the deep sense that photography could be a tool for social justice. I also studied photography at Columbia College in Chicago and at the International Center of Photography in New York. In both schools, I had great teachers like Gail Buckland, Susan Kleckner, John Loenguard, Frank Fournier, and Harvey Stein. While I love many different types of photography, I view myself as a documentary photographer.
When you think of N.Y. you can’t help but think of the great street photographers it has given. Which of them were your inspiration and what did you learn from them? Returning to Rebels, these photos that were taken between 84/87. After so many years how was it to edit this book and come back to face these photographs?
Diane Arbus had a strong impact on me because she photographed marginalized people, people who would be considered freaks, but she showed them looking directly at us, not hiding, but showing themselves completely. The photograph of the giant comes to mind, you don’t so much see a freak posing with his normal sized parents, but a person who must struggle with his “otherness” and aloneness. Arbus also saw the strangeness in ordinary people. She took normal looking people and photographed them in a moment when they looked strange, like the boy holding the toy grenade, or the identical twins who had odd expressions. From Arbus’ work, I learned to look at people without making judgments, recognizing that there is a little strangeness in all of us.
Returning to the photographs, the first thing that struck me was how much the East Village has changed since the 1980s. The culture that gave the Village its grit and innovative energy is gone, replaced by new residents who are mostly young, single people with higher incomes. The mom and pop stores have been replaced by chain stores like Starbucks, Target, and artisanal shops. CBGB, the legendary New York City music club that so much defined the East Village hardcore scene, has been replaced by a high-end clothing store, and so on. Facing these photographs, again, after so many years, was jolting. They took me back to the squats, the abandoned buildings – the insides gutted with rotting beams, half missing walls, and dangling electrical wiring. So much decay. But it was in buildings like these that these young people created new lives in the seediest stretches of the East Village and a rebel culture that still enthralls us.
Your work speaks of freedom, how to build your own identity, in a time of crisis. Why did you take an interest in punks to build this story?
The punks and skinheads and their rebel culture appealed to me profoundly. Discovering them almost by chance and photographing them was a hugely fortunate experience for me as a photographer and personally as well. It was a period of great tumult in my own life in which I felt trapped by, and came to question, many of the conventional expectations that had, until then, guided my decisions. Not quite willing to reject conventions as much as the punks, I was still drawn to their rebel culture. So, it was that hanging out with them, I realized that I, too, was confronting many of the same questions as they—finding one’s place and one’s identity, questions about marriage, family, holding down jobs, finding a career, commitment, compromise and selling out.
You use snippets of conversations to underpin your speech when editing. To what extent are these texts necessary to reinforce the discourse?
The photographs, I think, reveal an innocence and vulnerability under the hard exterior of studs, chains, zippers, safety pins and other tough trappings. However, to understand these young people whole it was necessary not just to see their faces but also to hear their words and hear their voices. The quotes from the recorded interviews helped me to capture their complexity as individuals, their defiant mocking bravado as well as their alienation and despair about ever fitting in and having a worthwhile future.
If now in 2017 you became interested in photographing a human group that tries to live in an alternative way how would you do it? What did you learn from this book?
After I finished this project, I returned to school to get a Master’s degree in Anthropology. I decided to do this partly because I felt that while I had visually captured the hardcore scene in the East Village of the mid 1980s I still needed to learn a lot more about structuring my work and approaching projects like these more methodically. If I were to photograph a project like this again I would certainly take better notes and document my contacts, encounters and reflections more systematically. The need for this became very apparent when I began writing the introduction to my book and I realized how much I had forgotten over the intervening 28 years and how inadequate my notes were.
Are you currently developing some new photographic project?
The project that interests me is photographing immigrants in Queens, New York, a borough of so many immigrants that it is considered the most ethnically diverse area in the United States. I am particularly interested in the idea of family and what it means in different cultures and how each deal with culture clashes produced by the forces of assimilation.
In your book, we see a topography of transformation: photos from the 80’s, published in a book in the 21st century. Every picture has something of nostalgia and loss. Nowadays photographers are constantly embarked on projects without any time for reflection or rest. In what way do you think your photos and your vision about them have changed over the years?
At first, I thought the punks and skinheads were just interesting people to photograph, an avant-garde youth culture, like those of my generation, railing against mainstream society. However, my vision about them, with the passage of time, has taken on a more bitter-sweet perspective. I came to view the hardcore movement as a kind of case study on the fate of cultural rebellions generally. First, cultural rebellions shock and repulse us with their anti-social stance. Then, as “the shock of the new” wears off, they become accepted by mainstream culture, co-opted by it, commercialized by it so that they no longer pose any threat to the establishment. This process brings to mind an exhibit in 2013 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Punks: Chaos to Couture.” This exhibit examined the impact of punk style on high fashion. Punk and skinhead fashion, once the province of angry rebels and dirty streets, is found everywhere today—the black leather, studded jackets, torn tee shirts, etc. can be purchased at Walmart or designer stores. Spiked hairdos are fashionable as are mohawks. Irony of ironies was that the opening night black tie gala for this exhibit at Metropolitan Museum featured models parading down a red carpet wearing punk-inspired fashion by high-end fashion designers. I wondered what the young people in my photographs would have thought about this.
Images are not only images: they also have a political representation. In Rebels this political representation is obvious. Are you interested as an author in this type of reading of your images?
There are so many ways to “read” these pictures. Seeing them through the lens of political representation would certainly be a valuable perspective and it should be. After all, it was the conservative ascent of Ronald Reagan’s America in the 1980s with its reverence for the wealthy and free market economics and consumerism that fueled the ire and the appeal of the hardcore scene. This was only made worse by the growing income inequality that increased steadily during Reagan’s administration. Repeatedly, the people I interviewed voiced fears of an imminent nuclear holocaust and hopelessness about the future.
What current photographers would you highlight?
I greatly admire the work of Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian documentary photographer who has documented the lives of people who are marginalized by poverty, war, natural disasters. In his “Migrations” project, he also documented the displacement of people who were forced to migrate in hopes of a better life. His powerful black-and-white images show the human condition both its strength and suffering. I also love Sally Mann’s work. Her photographs of adolescent girls capture their vulnerability and strength as their identities develop.
A few years ago, you were organizing an exhibition and a symposium on women photographers in Nebraska. Photography made by women has been one of the great forgotten. How was the experience?
It was an amazing experience. I began the project when I moved to Nebraska after graduating from Columbia College in Chicago, where I had taken a class with the photo historian Gail Buckland who inspired me to be curious about the history of photography. I was in a new place, Omaha, Nebraska, and I was curious to learn what kind of photography was being done there, specifically by women photographers. I created an exhibition and symposium at the Western Heritage Museum that tried to answer the question “Is there a woman’s eye?” It was a multi-media effort which included lectures, a play by Virginia Wolff about her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, films on women photographers and photographs from the Sheldon Museum’s historic collection of women photographers. It was a leap for me since I had no training or experience curating exhibitions, or multi-media symposiums. It was uniquely challenging working on this project and learning through trial and error and I was very proud that it was a success.
A MUSIC AND CULTURE BLOG
Lilian Caruana Captures the Vulnerable Side of the Punk Esthetic
What is most stunning about Lilian Caruana’s photographs of punk rock kids in New York from 1984 to 1987, now on display through January 7, 2011 at the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, is how much space they have. As anyone who lived in New York, or who came here at the time can attest, it was a vastly more spacious place, offering freedom to pretty much anyone who sought it. Caruana, an Italian immigrant, draws on the populism of legendary Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith in an engaging series of black-and-white portraits offering a compassionate view of life as an outsider.
Caruana’s intent was to capture her subjects’ individuality, and it was fortuitous that she took these pictures when she did, when individuality of expression among young New York immigrants was not only not forbidden but actually pretty much de rigeur. Even then, the punk scene was not necessarily a nonconformists’s club: there were Nazi and racist elements, especially among the hardcore kids. But many of the people who came here did so not necessarily because they wanted to, but because there was nowhere else to go, and because they had the option of being pretty much by themselves if they felt like it. And because they could afford it. How times have changed. These East Village shots could be from another universe. There’s not a single $500 bedhead haircut, posse of overdressed, tiara-wearing suburban girls or their Humvee stretch limo, or for that matter, anyone, anywhere, except the subjects of the photos themselves.
Several capture squatters in their lowlit afternoon hovels: a scruffy but seemingly cheerful couple reclining by the window on a mattress; a young guy with a Simply Red haircut enjoying a smoke while playing with a trio of kittens who seemingly could have run off into the adjacent hole in the apartment wall if they felt like it; a girl on her bed, leaning on a Bellevue Hospital pillow and watching a war movie on an old portable tv at 4:35 in the morning, her wall decor limited to the label off a Budweiser torpedo bottle (those were the days before the forty-ounce) and what might be a bloody handprint. The multi-racialism and inclusiveness of the era is evident in the diversity of Caruana’s subjects, especially in her portraits of mixed-race couples. One of them playfully does the bump in front of a gated storefront, the guy holding one of those big Bud bottles – young people drinking on the street in broad daylight were not typically subjected to police persecution in those days. Another pose on their rooftop, the street below them empty save for a battered Chevy Monte Carlo and a shiny new Mazda coupe passing by. As is the case with an Iron Cross-wearing, heavily tattooed guy – his face out of the frame – down the block from an independently owned diner long since vanished from the neighborhood. The shot most likely to be destined for iconic mall-store t-shirt status depicts a father and toddler son with identical mohawks – again, this was from an era fifteen years before the hairstyle became popular with members of the military and the police force. The tattoos are homemade; expressions of peace, freedom and nonviolence predominate among the t-shirts and graffiti; and perhaps most obviously, none of these people seem the least bit threatening.
The John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute is located at 25 W 43rd St. (5th/6th Ave.), on the 17th floor. Gallery hours aren’t listed at their site: you may wish to call before visiting, (212) 642-2094.
My book, Rebels: Punks and Skinheads of New York's East Village, 1984-1987 was selected for exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography
October 28, 2010 - at 4:54 pm Posted by theamyb
“Photobook 2014” hands-on exhibit in the Hall Gallery at the Griffin Museum of Photography (photo courtesy of Silke Hase) PHOTOBOOK 2014, an annual competition open to photographers in the United States and abroad who have self-published a photobook, was offered by Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson NY for the fifth year. The competition results were exhibited at Davis Orton Gallery and forty-two books are now on exhibit in the Hall Gallery at the Griffin Museum of Photography through March 1st, 2015. Karen Davis, co-director of the Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY and Paula Tognarelli, executive director and curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography were the jurors for this hands-on exhibit. Not only can you peruse these creative volumes, but copies can be purchased by clicking on the link to Davis Orton Gallery, above. The Griffin Museum’s current three-gallery literary salute is a book lovers dream, long overdue.“Photobook 2014” hands-on exhibit in the Hall Gallery at the Griffin Museum of Photography (photo courtesy of Silke Hase)To learn more about the Bryan David Griffith exhibit, go to:
To learn more about PHOTOBOOK 2014, go to: http://www.griffinmuseum.org/blog/hall-gallery/
Photography Blog by Elin Spring